Sunday, November 14, 2010


Will America overreach and fall by the wayside as ambitious newcomers overtake it, the way the Barbarians overcame a declining Rome, Bismarck’s Germany pulled up alongside Britain and France in the late 19th century, and a bumptious America in the early 20th century elbowed its way to the top table, dramatized with the world tour of the Great White Fleet? An American president leaving a G-20 summit empty-handed in late 2010 will confirm to many that the United States is losing its post-World War II position of global influence and leadership.

Yale historian Paul Kennedy, writing a couple of decades ago about the rise and fall of great powers, advanced the thesis of “imperial overstretch,” where one power after another fell under the weight of costly military adventures alongside mounting deficits at home. Twenty years later he is still what jargon-lovers call a declinist. The quarrel Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has with Kennedy is not his implication of American decline, but whether it would take place all of a sudden or in a leisurely fashion.

Historians are not the only ones with this gloomy perspective. According to a 2010 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, two-thirds of Americans polled see the US in decline, with a worse future for their children. What a contrast with the classic American view, summed up by anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, that “America’s Golden Age has always been in the future.”

There are no agreed metrics for deciding whether or not our nation is in decline. Those who boast that "we’re number one" have in mind our military power; the US is the only nation capable of conducting worldwide military operations, with a defense budget twice the size of the next ten largest national defense budgets combined. Or they may be comforted by the fact that the US remains the greatest economic power in terms of GDP, while also consuming a quarter of the world's petroleum (and outpolluting all other polluters).

The celebratory self-image lies deep in the American psyche. From its inception the US was defined by its leaders, poets, and clerics as morally singular, using phrases such as “God’s American Israel,” “the new Jerusalem,” “a city on a hill,” “the glorious renovator of the world,” and “the last solemn experiment of humanity.” Unsurprisingly, some other nations felt culturally and morally superior: Consider France with its mission civilizatrice, Iran with its 2,500 year-old Persian conquests, Britain’s songs about ruling the waves, and China’s mandate from heaven.

What is declining, aside from the self-confidence of Americans? Some data points help sketch the picture. The starting premise is that in a world increasingly interdependent, technology-based, and wired (or, more accurately, wirelessed), the nation with the best educated population is the nation best prepared for the complex challenges ahead. There should always be a place for the humanities and classics. But when it comes to competition for leadership and influence, science and math win the day. As the humorist Ring Lardner noted, the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong – but that's the way to place your bets.

Where does the US stand on the educational scoreboard? A study by the National Academy of Sciences produced some devastating statistics that would startle the “we’re number one” trumpeters. Here are the US rankings:

· Global innovation-based competitiveness: 6
· Rate of change over the last decade: 40
· Percent of 25- to 30-year-olds who have graduated from high school: 11
· College completion rate: 16
· Broadband Internet access: 22
· Life expectancy at birth: 24
· Quality of K-12 science and math education: 48

In 2010, Newsweek magazine undertook an ambitious study in collaboration with research and academic institutions, aimed at identifying the “best” countries. Among populous nations, the US was ranked number 2 on quality of life and number 1 on economic dynamism. But it did not make the top ten in either education or overall ranking of high-income countries. The final US ranking was number 11.

The end of the recession may change our pessimistic mood, but it won’t change the fact of flagging competitiveness. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering declinist Paul Kennedy’s list of America’s tremendous advantages compared to other great powers, such as demographics, land-to-people ratio, raw materials, research universities, laboratories, and a flexible work force. I might add a steady though inadequate inflow of foreign brainpower. If our slump is temporary, the policy question is how to mobilize our assets to make America successful again.

In the late 1950's the Cold War was unfolding in a threatening fashion, and the atmosphere was darkened by Soviet successes in the race to outer space. Sputnik I had successfully achieved a low earth orbit, while early American attempts were producing humiliating misfires, U-turns, and flaming plunges back to earth. The malaise would be reversed only when President John F. Kennedy reinvigorated the national spirit with soaring rhetoric announcing the goal of a moon landing by the end of the decade, and its actual achievement in 1969.

In the same period I left the State Department to join the MIT Center for International Studies. One of my new colleagues at MIT was a lively and charismatic Russian √©migr√© named Alexander Karol who was working on a study of Soviet education in science and technology. Alex Karol’s scholarly book on Soviet science and engineering education was headed for academic reviews, but suddenly appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times book review section. Schools everywhere took a fresh look at their teaching of science and math, as some are doing now, and the educational system was at least temporarily transformed.

It is certain that other powers – China, India, Brazil – will inevitably rise, generating a fierce competition. (As International Herald Tribune editor Fareed Zakaria wrote, the rise of the rest does not mean the US is necessarily through.) Yes, the US could remain stuck in political gridlock and declining growth, and essential federal support for research and innovation could fatally dry up. The squabbling political class is failing in its responsibilities, and some mass media only make things worse. For me, the bottom line is that, whatever its defects and problems, America has enormous latent assets, including its peoples’ unparalleled spirit of enterprise and independence, noted as long ago as 1831 by Alexis deToqueville. That spirit built a great nation that came from elsewhere to conquer a wilderness and make it thrive. It became a place where initiative, innovation, and education were synonymous with the word America; today, whatever our doldrums, foreigners of all stripes still compete for acceptance at American universities.

As in the 1950’s, it may again take a crisis or worse to shake us up sufficiently to strengthen American commercial, technological, and political innovation and drive. In the new Great Game of the 21st century, the US will need a fresh brand of imaginative and persuasive leadership to become a prime player. One possible scenario is a country that, in the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks, experiences national humiliation and diminished power. But another scenario is imaginable for a nation that once again mobilizes to remain a paramount power, and once again is uniquely placed to share the lead in the management of a safer and more cooperative world.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Musings on the Afghanistan Dilemma

What follows is one observer’s attempt to get his arms around this worrisome dilemma for the United States (as well as for Afghans). I’ll recap briefly the relevant history, look at our current policy conundrum, and ask how this war fits into the larger American narrative.

Afghanistan is a mountainous country slightly smaller than Texas, with six potentially interfering abutters, a population of about 25 million (70 percent of them illiterate), and a deeply traditional tribal culture. Around half are ethnic Pashtuns who dominate the governing councils and spill across the Pakistan border to their fellow tribesmen, who constitute Pakistan’s second largest ethnic group. The chief minorities of Hazeras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks formed the Northern Alliance that helped defeat the Taliban in Round One 2001, and live in provinces headed by independent tribal chiefs and warlords. Eighty-four percent of Afghans are Sunni Muslims. They have been at war for over 30 years. There is evidence that Pakistan’s military intelligence service has secretly aided the Taliban as part of Pakistan’s broader strategic interest in curbing India’s Afghan ambitions.

It is common knowledge that Afghanistan has chewed up and spit out one invader after another, starting with Alexander the Great and the Greeks 2,300 years ago. The dismal fate of foreign occupiers runs through 19th century with British attempts to clear a pathway to India, and Tsarist Russian efforts to reach warm water ports. In modern times, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to keep their friends in power, but were finally driven out by fierce Afghan resistance, fueled by US dollars and ground-to-air Stinger missiles delivered to the mujahedin guerillas through Saudi Arabian channels. The irony is the transformation of many US-supported mujahedin into today’s Taliban enemy. The forbidding terrain has influenced Afghan history, but so has the fact that Afghans have traditionally made their own military hardware in a home-based cottage industry. If some are not good soldiers under US guidance, it’s not because they don't have a reputation as fierce fighters.

Splintered by a civil war when the Soviets left in 1991, by 2001 the country was under the unforgiving rule of the Taliban. Fanatical Muslim extremists like Al Qaeda, and less apocalyptically the Taliban fight to rid the country of infidels and install Islamic law (Sharia) in its most merciless form involving punishment for civil crimes by beheadings and stoning to death, and denial of education and work to women. “Taliban” means student. Indeed, some Taliban have been students in madrassas -- religious schools in Pakistan that teach the Koran and are financed by religiously extreme Wahabi followers in Saudi Arabia.

The US wouldn't be anywhere near Afghanistan if it were not for 9/11. President Bush correctly ruled that we would not only go after terrorists such as Al Qaeda, but would also go after states that harbor them. We invaded Afghanistan and within months made short work of the Taliban, which went into hiding at least temporarily. It's possible that if the US had stayed to complete the peaceful transformation of the country history might have been different. But for four years the US neglected Afghanistan in favor of a mammoth detour into Iraq. It was apparent by 2009 that a war that had lasted eight years was not being won. The Taliban challenge was back and the current situation is as daunting for the US as any since Vietnam. The new US president’s meticulous policy review (accompanied by ferocious arguments between military and civilians, according to Bob Woodward’s new book) produced a new surge, and something like 100,000 US and 30,000 NATO troops will soon be in place, a number more than adequate to defeat any army Afghanistan could field.

The fact, which is becoming generic around the world, is that there is no such army. Instead, there is a bunch of Western-hating bad guys covered with beards and religious fervor, operating not on battlefields but out of family homes and other populated places where a US strike, however justified, inevitably produces collateral damage and civilian casualties. The coalition attacks then become a national issue, further reducing tolerance for the American presence. General David Petraeus selflessly stepped down from command of US operations in the entire region to take on the Afghan command when General McChrystal lost his professional inhibitions.

General Petraeus is operating a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy for which he literally wrote the book back in the Army’s Fort Leavenworth think tank. In an extraordinary guidance document to all US and NATO forces issued August 1, he set forth a brilliant litany of do’s and don’ts that in tolerable circumstances could succeed in helping and wooing Afghans. The trouble is that COIN needs to partner with a government in which the people have trust, and there doesn’t appear to be much of that in Kabul.

Deals can be made with tribal elders and regional chieftains, and even with some Taliban mid-level mercenaries. But creating local centers of successful governance and development is problematic in a country where there is little confidence in or even contact with the central government. A particularly damaging obstacle is that President Karzai, despite reassuring rhetoric, is widely believed to tolerate corruption. He reportedly stole the presidential election, and the recent parliamentary election appears to reflect the worst of the pervasive culture of corruption. Karzai’s top aide was removed for corruption but restored on Karzai’s command (and also revealed to be on the CIA payroll), and his brother reputedly partners with drug lords in a country responsible for the world's number one supply of heroin from opium poppies. All in all, I can’t help recalling the legend that, just before World War I, the Kaiser sent Count von Ludendorff to Vienna to check out Germany’s great Austro-Hungarian ally, Emperor Franz Josef. Ludendorff reported back: “Your majesty, we are wedded to a corpse.”

A hearts and minds strategy might still help win a war, but not without a partner who wants reform at least as much as we do. Al Qaeda seems to have been forced to decentralize, with a core of some 400 holed up in Pakistan’s northwest border fastness. At the same time, the security situation on the ground has been getting worse. The Taliban is killing aid workers, whose organizations report that security is worse than any time since 2001. The war is increasingly unpopular at home, with over 62 percent turning thumbs down in recent polls. But the agonizing dilemma for the US is the potential danger in abandoning the country to a possible replay of 9/11 after the US leaves. Not surprisingly, in light of all the uncertainties, US goals keep shrinking (as they did in Vietnam). They began with the fanciful dream of creating an American-style democracy, but are now reduced to leaving behind a relatively stable government and better-trained army. The US is committed to start withdrawing combat forces next July, although that date is wiggling at the military's insistence that the rate be "condition-based." It is not surprising that Afghan leaders are reported to be seeking deals with the Taliban.

It is worth pondering the quandary that the US creates for itself when it takes on a war of choice rather than necessity, as defined in a recent book by Richard Haass. US wars of choice have often gone badly as Americans have lost interest and turned negative. Colin Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, formulated three essential conditions for successful US military interventions: overwhelming force, an exit strategy, and the support of the American people. None of these seems to apply in Afghanistan. On the other hand, General Petraeus is cautiously optimistic about the outcome if we hang in there until the local forces are fully capable of national defense and effective policing. The outcome obviously hangs in the balance, and if I had to give the odds of success, I would put them at 50-50.

Time was that the United States was a model for others. But one wonders when we will learn the repeated lesson about trying to impose democracy at the point of a gun on feudal, tribal societies, and failed states. The US needs to remain able to deter aggression and defend itself and its allies. But the time has come to rebalance resource allocations that fund a military establishment many times greater than the next twelve powers while starving diplomatic and other effective tools of influence and soft power. One can only hope that our luck will hold up, perhaps boosted by the old 19th-century maxim that God looks after drunks, little children, and the United States of America.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Another Tea Party candidate (Ken Buck in Colorado) recently joined Nevada’s Sharron Angle in beating out the Republican establishment candidate in a primary election. Is this a trend? A potential game-changer? No one knows. But it’s a reason for busy outsiders to look a little more closely at this extraordinary -- yet curiously familiar – movement..

Even before mid-term electoral politics began to heat up, the Tea Party movement was becoming more openly partisan. The head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee Jon Cornyn welcomed as “our nominees” six Tea Party-backed candidates, Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann got twenty three fellow Republicans to join the new Tea Party Caucus, and the “Tea Party Express” was reportedly created by Republican fund-raisers. A CBS poll reported Tea Party members as more middle class, better educated, and wealthier than the average American, while another poll showed them nine tenths white and considerably older and more conservative. The unifying theme is small and preferably impotent government – a sort of sketchy “Libertarianism Light”. Members who show up at rallies appear to be normal disaffected Americans.

Mainstream media have tended to portray a darker side. Rarely specific on policy, Tea Party sound bites like “take America back,” can have a racist undertone. Tea Party leaders have asked the Oklahoma legislature to create a new volunteer militia that would counter “federal infringement on state sovereignty”. Nevada Tea Partier Senate Republican candidate Sharron Angle has called for changing Security in unspecified ways, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, getting out of the United Nations, and exposing the international conspiracy behind fluoridation of public water. More disturbing in the climate of populist rage, Angle called for applying “Second Amendment remedies” if Congress doesn’t shape up, with the first step to “take Harry Reid out”. In the same vein, Tea Party darling Sarah Palin called on her followers to “reload.” Both later tried to wiggle away from their incendiary remarks. But if stupidity is not an indictable offense, isn’t incitement to assassination?

These are all only glimpses. The movement’s structure is murky and its leadership fluid, so outsiders are like Plato’s cave dwellers, seeing only shadows of external events.

But history supplies some perspective. The Tea Party is hardly the first American anti-government movement. In the 1786 Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, debt-ridden armed farmers tried to shut down the courts. In the 1790 Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, farmers burdened by taxes attacked federal agents. The Know-Nothing Party of the 1850’s was a middle class populist attack on immigration. A hundred years later, anti-government protesters, calling income taxes illegitimate, engaged in tax evasion and scattered violence. By the 1970’s, a new Posse Comitatus, reviving the 1878 Act, urged vigilante justice to protest unlawful, tyrannical government. Its successor Liberty Amendment Committee got nine state legislatures to ask Congress to send their tax-repeal Amend0ment to the states for ratification.

Opening a wider lens, if the (unwritten) British constitution was designed to enable government to function in good times and bad, the U.S. Constitution was designed to keep King George III from coming back. Accordingly, the Constitution explicitly limited the power of the federal government, leaving the rest to the states. Historian Joseph Ellis painted a vivid picture of the popular mood of that day: “The dominant intellectual legacy of the Revolution . . . depicted any energetic expression of governmental authority as an alien force that all responsible citizens sought to repudiate and, if possible, overthrow".”

Sadly for the political fundamentalists, the reality is that now, two hundred and twenty one years later, the nation can function only if the Constitution is regarded as living rather than literally and figuratively frozen. Tea Partiers are right that the federal government has gone far beyond its original parameters to create a limited welfare state never contemplated in 1789. But the Constitution is not a mutual suicide pact, and whoever gets elected cannot long sustain a policy of little or no central government. The worlds of innovation, technology, communication, weaponry, commerce, and finance have changed beyond recognition -- changes underlying much of the populist unease (“I’m all for progress, what I can’t stand is change”). The Constitution’s commerce clause (in dispute again today) confirmed even in 1789 that only a central government can supply services required across state lines (now 50) not to mention an outside world of around 200 nations.

The Tea Party may further tilt the mid-term election to the right, although conservative splits could breathe new life into Democratic death row inmates. But when prosperity finally returns, much of its energy will be drained. Meanwhile Tea Partiers might ponder the words of Brazilian revolutionary Francisco Juliao: “To agitate is beautiful, to organize is difficult.” It’s hard to see the Tea Party movement having longer legs than earlier populist outbreaks.