Tuesday, March 15, 2016

backing diplomacy with force

In the revealing article by Jeffrey Goldberg, based on several interviews with President Obama, it's clear that the U.S. commander-in-chief is very careful about decisions to use force.
“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”
I think Obama is right to point to an "establishment" view that willingness to use force enhances a leader's perceived power and that reluctance leads to a perceived weakness. And he's right that when calculations of national interest are low, "credibility" becomes the default argument.

That is the establishment that argued for a direct attack on Soviet forces in Cuba in 1962 and for the prolongation of the war in Vietnam. That was bad advice. On the other hand, Iran needs to believe that the President would use force to prevent deployment of a nuclear weapon in its arsenal. Maybe the threat to use force by someone who has used it successfully --as I think Obama has -- is enough.

There is a surprising passage in the Goldberg article discussing Secretary Kerry's repeated requests to "send a message" to Assad by bombing some regime targets in Syria. [Kerry even seems to think it could be done covertly.]
Obama has steadfastly resisted Kerry’s requests, and seems to have grown impatient with his lobbying. Recently, when Kerry handed Obama a written outline of new steps to bring more pressure to bear on Assad, Obama said, “Oh, another proposal?” Administration officials have told me that Vice President Biden, too, has become frustrated with Kerry’s demands for action. He has said privately to the secretary of state, “John, remember Vietnam? Remember how that started?” At a National Security Council meeting held at the Pentagon in December, Obama announced that no one except the secretary of defense should bring him proposals for military action. Pentagon officials understood Obama’s announcement to be a brushback pitch directed at Kerry.
Good. Diplomats shouldn't be choosing targets.

"declare victory, then pull out"

That was the advice, at the height of the Vietnam war, that Vermont Republican Senator George Aiken suggested. It looks as if Russian leader Putin has just done that in Syria. His client, President Assad, hasn't won, but is now in a better military position. Nor has the Islamic State been defeated. But Putin succeeded in gaining diplomatic leverage for Russia and actually may have helped improve the situation for negotiations.

Since the armchair analysts didn't predict Russian intervention, or Monday's announcement, I don't think anyone has a monopoly on Syria advice right now. But I think Evelyn Farkas makes some good points here.

Monday, March 14, 2016

the Obama doctrine

I wish that President Obama had waited until next January before saying some of the things he told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, especially negative comments about certain foreign countries and leaders. The better practice is what Defense Secretary Bob Gates did, withholding deep contempt of Congress until he wrote his memoir.While in office, he was still able to work well with the Hill because he masked his feelings.

Obama's reflections on his foreign policy have received stunning criticisms from conservative quarters. Niall Ferguson calls him arrogant. A more reasoned critique comes from Martin Indyk,  who complains that Obama's "pivot to Asia" shows that he really doesn't care how things turn out in the Middle East. That point does raise the question of whether that grand strategy necessarily conflicted with the more immediate problems of Syria and its neighbors.

Many commentators were angry over Obama's satisfaction after deciding not to attack Syria for tis use of chemical weapons, despite the president's own "red line" threats. I thought that was a very appropriate decision -- seeking congressional approval of the plan. The blame should go on Congress for abdicating its responsibility, which was to vote either for or against the proposed war.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

how you think depends on how you vote

Like most political scientists, I have long believed that people decide how to vote depending on their views on different issues. Maybe we have that backwards. Maybe how people regularly vote strongly conditions how they view public policy.

Dana Milbank has some evidence pointing that way. He notes that huge majorities in both parties switched from feeling the country was "on the wrong track" depending on who was in the White House. In 2008, Democrats  felt that way and Republicans didn't. Today, Republicans overwhelmingly say "wrong track" while few Democrats do.  I guess the party preference shapes how people view the facts.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

a more aggressive China?

This collection is entitled "giddy minds and foreign quarrels" because of the insight Shakespeare gave the dying Henry IV, who told his son,  "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." The line suggests that the public could be distracted from domestic problems by overseas adventures.

That notion seems to underpin a new Council on Foreign Relations report on China. From the CFR press release:

This Council Special Report, written by Robert D. Blackwill, Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Kurt M. Campbell, chairman and chief executive officer of the Asia Group, argues that Chinese President Xi Jinping has amassed an unprecedented amount of power, ended Beijing’s tradition of consensus-driven policymaking, and conducted an assertive foreign policy designed to displace the United States as the region’s dominant power.
The report asserts that as China’s economy continues to falter and Xi is increasingly exposed to domestic criticism, he is likely to use internal repression to strengthen his hand domestically and growing assertiveness abroad to challenge U.S. interests in Asia and bolster his image at home. The authors propose that, in the face of China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, the United States should preserve the current balance of power in the region by revitalizing the American economy, passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, increasing high-level diplomacy with Beijing, and continuing the U.S. rebalance to Asia.
 Take a look.

black mark on Harvard

As a Harvard alumnus, I take pride in the institution that admitted a public school kid from Colorado, exposed him to mind-shattering ideas, and gave him degrees that look noteworthy. [I'm also grateful that Harvard gave me money for my first car. But that's another story.]

I appreciate the fact that Harvard owned up to its discrimination against Jews especially in the interwar years, and is wrestling with its admissions policy for Asian-Americans.

This month the alumni publication, Harvard Magazine, has a shocking but true story of Harvard's connections with, indeed leadership of, the disgraceful eugenics movement in the early 20th century.

Two of Harvard's presidents were leading figures advocating eugenics policies, including forced sterilization of the "feeble-minded" and severe restrictions on immigration.

[Former president Charles William Eliot] was an outspoken supporter of another major eugenic cause of his time: forced sterilization of people declared to be “feebleminded,” physically disabled, “criminalistic,” or otherwise flawed. In 1907, Indiana had enacted the nation’s first eugenic sterilization law. Four years later, in a paper on “The Suppression of Moral Defectives,” Eliot declared that Indiana’s law “blazed the trail which all free states must follow, if they would protect themselves from moral degeneracy.”

He also lent his considerable prestige to the campaign to build a global eugenics movement. He was a vice president of the First International Eugenics Congress, which met in London in 1912 to hear papers on “racial suicide” among Northern Europeans and similar topics. Two years later, Eliot helped organize the First National Conference on Race Betterment in Battle Creek, Michigan.

None of these actions created problems for Eliot at Harvard, for a simple reason: they were well within the intellectual mainstream at the University. Harvard administrators, faculty members, and alumni were at the forefront of American eugenics—founding eugenics organizations, writing academic and popular eugenics articles, and lobbying government to enact eugenics laws. And for many years, scarcely any significant Harvard voices, if any at all, were raised against it.
Other leading academics also embraced eugenics.
Eugenics attracted considerable support from progressives, reformers, and educated elites as a way of using science to make a better world. Harvard was hardly the only university that was home to prominent eugenicists. Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, and Yale’s most acclaimed economist, Irving Fisher, were leaders in the movement. The University of Virginia was a center of scientific racism, with professors like Robert Bennett Bean, author of such works of pseudo-science as the 1906 American Journal of Anatomy article, “Some Racial Peculiarities of the Negro Brain.”
It's better to expose these dangerous errors of the past than to ignore them. Thanks to Harvard Magazine!