Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The Premise
The US is anything but isolated in the new world of globalized economies, finance, markets, communications, and ideas. It obviously can’t lock the front door as it did in the 1920’s when foreign trade was a small fraction of total GDP, compared with today’s 12 percent for exports and 17 percent for imports. It would be a 21st century isolationism. But my answer is nevertheless a qualified yes.

Two-thirds of Americans are fed up with the drawn-out and ambiguous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The defense and foreign aid budgets face cuts. A recent poll of returnees shows strong preferences for less foreign military involvement. In the overheated electoral season, foreign policy is a footnote, but in one recent debate among Republican candidates, Libertarian Ron Paul said that the US had no business intervening around the world and should concentrate on rebuilding this country. The audience broke into a cheer that topped all other noises of the evening. The evidence is still fragmentary. But it suggests a turning away from optional military interventions that become costly and fail to attain their purpose, leaving people frustrated and disillusioned.

The History
In the early days of the Republic when the US was dependent on foreign trade, George Washington’s farewell address suggested that it was possible to be militarily isolationist without being isolated. The US stayed aloof from World War I until German U-boats attacked US shipping. It entered the war in 1917 in a euphoric and reformist mood, but the carnage was horrendous. Idealistic hopes were dimmed by the Allies’ cynicism at the 1919 Paris peace conference, and extinguished by the Senate’s rejection of President Wilson’s transformed world order. For a generation the US turned its back on the crumbling peace and its own blueprints for international cooperation like an international court. Until the mid-1930’s, threats from Hitler were not obvious. Isolation and
isolationism happily coexisted.

Disputed military interventions have been the “wars of choice” Richard Haass distinguished from “wars of necessity.” World War II was a “war of necessity”, as the threat became existential, and the Pearl Harbor attack a loud wake-up call. Thanks to the nationalist fervor unleashed in Indochina by Japan’s ejection of European colonialism, intervention in the Vietnam War by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson became complex and eventually unmanageable. “Victory” proved elusive, US goals became murky, costs soared, and American society fractured as popular support disappeared. For the next generation, public sentiment opposed any American effort to intervene in distant aggressions, police civil wars, suppress murderous tyrannies, export democracy, or forcibly “nation-build.”

In the 1990’s a new generation belatedly and reluctantly launched military operations in strife-torn Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo under an evolving UN doctrine of humanitarian “responsibility to protect.” But the Somali operation turned toxic, and the others remained problematic.

9/11 was a game-changer. America’s 2001 attack on al-Qaeda’s springboard, Afghanistan, was widely supported until President Bush diverted attention to Iraq. The bitter reality of tribal and religious conflict ended the US dream of quick, cheap success in both places. The Afghan war follows the pattern that led to past US drop-out periods.

The Forecast
Predictions are hazardous. We Americans are noted for historical amnesia, and American history is cyclical. A new isolationist mood would vanish with a direct attack like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Tough choices would still arise from an assaul on Israel, Iran production of a deliverable nuclear weapon, or an al-Qaeda attack on the US that is again mounted in a country with a return address. But operations against terrorists will rely on low-visibility Special Forces and technology such as drone aircraft. Targeted small-scale operations such as the dispatch of 100 Special Forces to Central Africa in the fall of 2011 will take the place of boots on the ground. US intervention in critical but not vital places will increasingly depend on coalitions of the willing (as has already happened in Libya) and, it can be hoped, upgraded use of “smart power” other that military.

Some Americans will be inconsolable about refraining from military crusades. But they should consider the words of Germany’s ”Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck who, when asked if he wanted war, is said to have replied, “Certainly not, what I want is victory.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Elders of the World, Unite!

When I joined the ranks of not-as-young-as-I-used-to-be, I experienced a series of shocks. It must have been the same, only worse, for newly disabled people who found an unintentionally but jarringly hostile physical world out there. It might be worth unpacking some of the hazards confronting the Republic of the Elderly to explain what I’m talking about.

Here are a few examples of the difficulties with which folks with impaired vision and/or mobility contend every day:

1. Let’s start with an easy one. The best foodie sources for elders sell fairly good precooked meals. They are refrigerated and can be tonight’s dinner or stuck in a freezer for later. They all have cooking or heating instructions. But the specialty stores I know print cooking instructions in exactly the same tiny typeface as the list of ingredients, which are usually minuscule. There is normally label room allowing a slightly larger typeface for a couple of lines of heating tips. I have complained, but corporate management seems indifferent to the problems of its older clientele.

2. Those of us who spend time online must contend with the fact that Internet presentations are often conducted in a light pastel color, with links brought up in another light pastel shade, making the text so dim that it is close to unreadable for people with low vision. The site designers and coders may well include bright young people I taught at MIT. But how come they haven’t made their cool websites more readable for those of us with less-than-perfect vision?

3. TV dramas also present a problem. Some of my favorite sources of mindless violence -- like “NCIS,” “MI-5,” and “Masterpiece Mystery” – seem to shoot many of their scenes in the dark. Whether shot at night, or in cellars, or in other unlighted venues, many scenes are close to invisible to people like me.

4. Steps leading up into stores and restaurants often lack railings. I find that oldsters’ greatest concern is the danger of a fall, and they need something to hang onto. Here again, management seems unaware of the risks to people like their own parents or grandparents, not to mention lawsuits.

5. In my supermarket many desirable items are on the bottom shelf, requiring somehow bending in half or lying on the floor to check it out. Also, some older folks are on a low-sodium regime. It is a monumental pain to search through hundreds of cans, bottles, etc. to pick out the low-sodium versions. Has no one thought of providing a special section or at least shelf?

6. And have you ever wrestled with the little plastic triangles that have to be brought into mathematically precise conjunction in order to open a pill bottle, and which in my case often requires a chisel and hammer, leaving the floor strewn with pills?

The vendors concerned will, of course, be unmoved by the whining of an ordinary senior citizen. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, commerce is not missionary work. My impression is that the current marketing style of commercial America was set a couple of decades ago with a marketing strategy based on the fact that the demographic to target was the 15 to 24 crowd. That may be true for a while longer, but corporate America had better wake up to the fact that US demographics are changing. The 2010 Census projected that by 2025 – 14 years away – there will be 80% more elderly citizens, while the percentages of workers and kids will be up by only 16%. These trends are not completely new. In the last decade, the percentage of Americans 65 and older grew 15.1%, while the percentage of under-18’s grew only 2%.

The marketing manager today should tell her team that the changing demographics call for another look at business models and profit centers. With a few well-advertised improvements to make life easier for elders, businesses will make more money, and their bonus will be a special corner in Commerce Heaven reserved for people who do well by doing good for the elders of the world.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


As with Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, we can’t predict the outcome of current Syrian turmoil. The Syrian uprising has many of the characteristics of the region-wide Arab Spring. Censorship is keeping out the independent press, but some Syrian human rights activists believe they can overthrow the brutal rule of the Assad family, and many are martyring themselves in the cause. People everywhere want personal freedom, and Syrians are no exception. Half the population is under the age of 19.

Having said that, what set Syria apart from its often dictatorial but incompetent and corrupt Arab neighbors was its evolution as a genuine police state regime that repressed and murdered its own people en masse with unparalleled ferocity. Yes, Egypt had a brutal internal security apparatus that tortured and disappeared hundreds of protestors over the Mubarak decades of authoritarian rule. The same was true of other autocratic Arab rulers, whether kings or presidents, all of whom were committed to hanging onto power that was acquired by either force or crooked elections. But none came close to the regime of Hafez-al-Assad.

Before the Iraq war, there were not one but two tough guys on the Arab block. The first was Iraq under Saddam Hussein, whose tyrannical regime not only committed genocide on Iraq’s marsh Shi’ites and on independence-seeking Kurds, but also launched wars of aggression again Iran and Kuwait. The other was Syria which, besides brutal internal repression, became the transmission belt for Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which were designated terrorist groups by Washington, committed to the elimination of Israel.

Syria’s earlier history was not all that different from that of its neighbors, except perhaps for a historic memory of long-disappeared empire, still simulated by deep interference in Lebanon until Syrian troops were withdrawn under UN pressure in 2006. Syria had been a French mandate under the League of Nations and in 1946 became, at least in name, a “parliamentary republic” that was thrown into turmoil with a succession of military coups. In 1958 Syria joined with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic – a point of relevance to my story. In 1961 they split, and in 1971 power was seized by an officer named Hafaz al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect and of the socialist Ba’ath party. Like some other dictators, Assad brought a measure of stability that later morphed into Soviet-like repression. Initially an organizer and reformer of a quarrelsome and disorganized state, he had made Syria the only Arab country except Iraq that could accurately be called a police state.. His later style of rule included famously slaughtering between 20,000 and 40,000 Sunni citizens in the city of Hama in 1982 to break an uprising

In 2000 Hafez al-Assad died and was succeeded by his son Bashar, who had been a practicing ophthalmologist in London. There was some hope that Bashar would loosen some of the restraints strangling the people of Syria. But in the current uprising he has evidently followed his father’s footsteps. He has made some seemingly conciliatory gestures, but his forces have also killed at least 1,400 civilian demonstrators and wounding or seizing thousands of others. The fact that he was elected president in a referendum confirms that elections alone do not a democracy make.

I do not claim much first-hand knowledge other than a bizarre episode that took place in the 1970’s and remains etched in my mind as an indelible picture of one more police state capable of inhuman behavior, one which even to an official guest had the same stink as Cold War Moscow. It went like this. I was on a State-Department-sponsored speaking tour of the Gulf states and about to depart Kuwait for Bahrain when I was suddenly rerouted to Damascus. US-Syrian relations, always tense, had been on a roller coaster: Relations had been broken in both 1957 and 1967, and restored in 1974. There been no cultural exchange, no American ballet companies or cans of Orson Welles films (always a huge hit abroad), and certainly no MIT professor pontificating about international relations -- in short, none of the usual US cultural hustle.

I'm still not clear why the American embassy and the Syrian government decided that my availability provided a useful renewed effort to communicate informally. The US side seemed to be confident that an independent scholar would at least not say things requiring closing the embassy again. From the Syrian point of view, my guess is that there was a mixture of curiosity and a region-wide belief that I was probably a CIA agent, always more interesting to the spymasters than a long-winded scholar..

As it happens, I arrived in Damascus at an extraordinary moment in contemporary Syrian history. Hafez had launched his army in a war against the PLO forces in Lebanon, both sides using military equipment provided by Moscow. A reception on my arrival was well attended but, no surprise, I found no one prepared to discuss their war on their Palestinian partners. I was staying at the residence of public affairs officer (later Ambassador) Kenton Keith. The next morning, after a brisk tennis game, I took a rest prior to giving my speech to the invited elites at the major downtown hotel. In the meantime, the Egyptian and Saudi foreign ministers had arrived to offer their services as mediators. Soviet President Kosygin had also flown in, and I learned later that he was not allowed to leave the airport the entire time he was in Damascus. Just to complete the cast of characters on this day of war, I almost bumped into Ugandan mass murderer Idi Amin in the Umayyad Mosque later that day.

While resting on my bed and going over my lecture notes, I suddenly heard mounting screams outside the window. At least 1,000 young Syrians ran by, shouting denunciations of Syria’s recent partner Egypt and stopping to firebomb the Egyptian embassy next door, which almost blew me off the bed. Obviously Damascus had no need for Central Casting when it came to hiring extras for a domestic drama. Censorship was total, and word of both the state of war and the fire-bombing of an ally failed to make any of the international press (of which there were – and are today --few allowed in the country).

The ambassador and I set forth for the luncheon meeting, convinced that no one would actually show up in light of the events that must be overwhelming Damascus. On the contrary the whole guest list showed up – deputy ministers, department heads, University rectors, generals, newspaper editors. They acknowledged that their country was at war by launching a massive assault on the bar. I gave my speech, but as I got deeper into US Middle East policy I asked Ambassador Dick Murphy to join me. The two of us tried our best to explain the United States of America to a group of semi-inebriated brass of a country that had just attacked an ally. I repeat, tough guy on the block.

It’s fair to ask why, if the Syrian government is exterminating civilian protestors big time, the Libyan treatment should not be applied – no-fly zone, suppression of attacks on civilian-killing Syrian vehicles, and demands for President Assad to return to practice ophthalmology. Isn’t that hypocrisy? Washington has imposed some sanctions, which are rarely game-changers. Actually, US policy can’t claim even partial purity over the years, given the support it provided to many an Arab dictatorship in the name of stability and reliable oil supply. Today there is a better understanding of the costs of propping up dictatorial regimes. But the fact is no one is prepared to take on Syria, whatever its crimes against humanity and whatever the avowed UN doctrine of “responsibility to protect.” There is already fatigue with the Libyan intervention and its failure so far to eliminate Quadaffi. So the answer is yes, picking and choosing where to apply the activist pro-democracy doctrine and where to turn a blind eye may be called hypocrisy.

It may also be called cold realism, taking on only that which will have popular support and the cooperation of allies and the UN, as in Libya. In a perfect world there might be a stand-by police force ready to punish violations. That isn’t our world and is not likely to be in the foreseeable future. So I suggest that we live with this reality and be glad America can occasionally do the right thing morally as well as strategically.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Harvard Class of 1941 in 3 centuries

The Class of 1941 has an amazing resume. Our class lived through three totally different worlds, and in a sense at least touched three centuries. I will be discussing the larger global scene, but keep in mind the revolutionary changes in science and technology, high-energy physics, communications, bioengineering, medicine, warfare – changes our grandparents never even considered and our parents’ science fiction only speculated about.

How do we bridge three centuries? Well, we were born into a world full of remnants of the 19th century --including our parents. The existing international system had lasted over 1,000 years, and the culture was only beginning to change away from the Victorian past.

The 19th century featured rising and falling states, some of which were assertive in the traditional ancient model, such as Germany, Japan, and of course the United States, which pushed its way into the top tier with the Great White Fleet – the first assertion of America’s growing power and new global ambitions. War was a zero-sum game in which winners would dominate and crush losers. Germany's new assertiveness under Bismarck and eventually Hitler was in fact described by Thucydides when he wrote of the Athenians that they came into the world to take no rest and give no rest to others. All the players in the great international game had return addresses. The Class of 1941 was witness to and part of the explosive ending of an age and beginning of a new one. Many of us in uniform lived and died in the battle. We were both witnesses and eventually participants when the old geopolitics brought ruin to millions and hope to the world for a better way of doing things.

Out of that World War II wreckage came the second great storyline of our time in which our class lived – the Cold War. Communism was an ideology, but it took a giant step toward Hell with a bang. The North Korean communist government invaded South Korea with the blessing of both the Soviet Union and Communist China, and again the world changed for a half-century. For me, working in the State Department to help establish the United Nations and help manage the leftover conflicts, June 24, 1950 was a blazing red signal that we were in a dangerous new world order. Yes, the Soviet takeovers in Eastern Europe had been an earlier signal, but the weapons so far had been diplomatic. With a major war in Korea, our world overnight transformed its geometry of great powers into bi-polar, with only two that could be called superpowers.

It was a scary time. The Class of 1941 will remember when our children practiced meaningless nuclear protection by getting under the school desks, and when we followed JFK’s advice to build fallout shelters. It's not generally known that the first possible nuclear confrontation, however small-scale, involved possible hot pursuit of Soviet military aircraft across the border into Soviet airspace, with unforeseen consequences.

During the next 39 years, when the Class of 1941 was ascending the ladders of life and work, the new map would show two dominant powers and a whole bunch of bit players leaning on (or blackmailing) one or the other of the two nuclear giants for support. In return, the US government found itself backing some rather unsavory leaders because they were useful in the larger conflict. (Remember that FDR once said that he realized some of our allies were SOBs "but they're our SOBs.”) An eventually outsized nuclear arms race began between the US and the Soviet Union to the point where deliverable warheads in the thousands would be capable of pretty much ending life on earth. Fortunately, arms control began to be negotiated. Some of the stimulation came from a joint Harvard-MIT arms control seminar, co-chaired by future Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling and myself, that met throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. Virtually everyone involved in this issue in Washington and Cambridge eventually took part. Although the theorizing about nuclear war began to sound like a lunatic version of Thomas Aquinas, some of the key ideas made their way into policy.

In the final years of the Cold War, during the 1980’s, there was still the danger of mutual misperception that could lead to catastrophe for everyone. In early 1980 I found the Soviets depressed at Reagan's victory and privately fearful about their own security. Meanwhile, some Washington hawks were warning against a Soviet nuclear attack. Then, in turn, a US buildup was assessed In Moscow to be part of possible US preparations for an attack on the USSR – precisely the scenario of mutual misperceptions that the whole arms-control effort had sought to avert. By the late 1980’s it was clear that the Soviet Union was crumbling: no food in the shops, disaffected bureaucrats, senior officials saying "the young don't trust us, we lied to them." But there were still some in Washington warning against a. Soviet attack. (Although I was there in various capacities eight times during that final 20 years, I was unaware of the secret crisis planning on both sides.)

In 1989, the Class of 1941 was beginning to enjoy, or at least contemplate, retirement. But once again, as the Berlin wall came down and the Soviet Union was dismantled, the global picture suddenly changed dramatically. Our century number three actually began in 2001 with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Or perhaps it really began a decade later in Cairo’s Tahir Square. Long suppressed forces were released, most recently in the Middle East with the so-called Arab Awakening/Arab Spring. The outcomes are still uncertain, but the Middle East will never be the same again for Americans. Once more the world is multi-polar and in flux. China has surpassed Japan as economic giant number two, and India is close behind, along with other rising powers such as Brazil. In a system dominated by globalization, the competition is intensely economic rather than military. Many of the key actors, both legitimate and terrorist, are not states and, in some cases, have no return addresses. The US is engaged in the painful process of reassessing long-held policy premises. Yes, the Class of 1941 has a long and fascinating resume.

Two relevant footnotes. First, one of the new techniques – social networking – was an unexpected game-changer in the Middle East uprisings. The newly dominant role of networks such as Facebook and Twitter turn out to be crucial mobilizers for a popular revolution. Second, the chattering classes are concerned that the US is in decline, an assertion that can be argued both ways. Like much else, the answer depends as much on attitude and belief as it does on statistical metrics, as I argued in an earlier blog post. In the meantime I recommend keeping in mind that old 19th century maxim that "God looks after drunks, little children, and the United States of America."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Some Quick Reactions to a Mission Actually Accomplished

Perhaps surprisingly, the strongest impression on me was the gathering that night of young Americans outside the White House, complete with American flags, national anthem, and a sense of shared celebration at a demon finally conquered. It may not be unfair to imagine this happening in Western Europe, considering the ritual street mobs, often violent, of young anarchists, disaffected students, complainers about cuts in funding for education, pensions etc, all in the very heart of the welfare state with the cushiest set of paid vacations, working hours, and other perks.

How explain this? The words from our national seal -- e pluribus unum (one out of many) -- ran through my head and I suddenly had an uptick of optimism about this country despite its deep problems. Some of our newly-minted political fanatics consider compromise with political infidels a dirty word – American Taliban in my private vocabulary. I don’t want them to teach anyone in my family the workings of democracy whose give and take produced that splendid scene on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Is this the end of jihad? Of course not. Al Quaeda has decentralized and outsourced to local franchises in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, and elsewhere, and the snake can do evil despite being headless. The point is that Bin Laden’s lunatic dream of restoring the Islamic Caliphates and getting society back to the 7th century is completely out of synch with the Arab Awakening whose demands feature not the 7th but the 21st century. Their drive toward power already shows signs of the pervasive anti-Americanism that wants an American education and communications technology, but conflates the paramount (and pro-Israeli) US with the roster of Western powers who ruled over them and then supported their greedy and often merciless tyrants.

Anyway, three cheers for an effective national security apparatus and this extraordinary triumph.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Liberal Intervention" vs "National Interest"?

“I don’t think the US should use its military force except when we are attacked or directly threatened.”
“The US has a moral responsibility to help when a crazy dictator is machine-gunning his own people”

The issues being debated in the Libyan conflict are the “what?” and the “how?” – mission, means, tactics,is it a civil war, is al Quada burrowing among the rebels? But behind the headlines lies a longer-running American debate about the “why?” In shorthand, a policy of ”realism” has battled a policy based on “idealism” for almost as long as the life of this republic. "Realists" argue that the US should commit its military forces abroad only when the nation is directly attacked or threatened. "Idealists" claim a moral imperative to act against official inhumanity, preferably without using force, but if necessary using it even when the US is not attacked or directly threatened, and has no concrete stake in the outcome.

On March 28 President Obama explained the US action, asserting that “acting on behalf of what’s right” is where US interests and values converge. The following analysis tries to unpack the strategic debate that hangs over the battlefield. In one form or another it has been a basis for defining the national interest through much of American history.

As early as 1808, John Quincy Adams warned against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Early 20th century isolationism was an exaggerated and ultimately discredited expression of realism’s assessment of the national interest. In the mid-twentieth century the foundational realist approach to national interest was expounded by three brilliant men – George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Reinhold Niebuhr – who were enormously influential theorists of the position that, however much the heart may be touched by inhumanity, the head tells us to stay our hand unless attacked. An extreme version was supplied by an Englishman, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Gray, who famously said that Britain had neither friends nor enemies, only interests. All were doubtless influenced by a 15th century Florentine palace adviser named Niccolo Machiavelli.

The opposing school of thought took modern shape when President Woodrow Wilson’s justification for war was defense of democracy. Human rights as a policy driver in the Carter administration marked a changing equation, and by the 1990’s the US intervened to stem official outrages in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo – but looked away from the far greater carnage in Rwanda (for which President Clinton later publicly apologized). Belated US intervention produced mixed results in the genocidal Balkan wars, and a humiliating failure in Somalia. Realists deplored Clinton’s use of force for humanitarian purposes as well as doing so through the irrelevant UN. (In 2000 Condeleeza Rice, forecasting President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, blew off the “international community” as a phantom. Later, as Secretary of State, she never failed to invoke the international community in her speeches.) Iraq neither attacked nor, it turned out, threatened the US when Washington launched the 2003 war (official lies led me to initially support the use of force). The concept of “responsibility to protect” in case of genocide and war crimes within national borders, hitherto sacrosanct, was formally adopted by the UN in 2005. On occasion itt was supported by President George W. Bush as well as President Obama.

In fact, all conservatives are not necessarily realists, nor all liberals unadulterated idealists. One columnist dubbed the Libyan action “liberal intervention,” yet it was supported by former Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain as well as by neoconservatives, who have their own Middle East agenda. Defense Secretary Gates seemed to support his president’s policy while still saying that Libya was not a “vital interest”. Republican Senator Lugar agreed, but went further to conclude that it was thus not justified. A pure realist position would reject US involvement in wars of choice rather than wars of necessity.

But having established humanitarian intervention as policy, what about Bahrain and Yemen, not to mention Syria, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, and Congo, all places where governments are murdering their citizens? Are we being hypocritical? The answer is that we can’t be everywhere, given limits on both resources and public patience. There are places like Bahrain, with a major US naval base, where vital US interests will trump responbility to protect. The multilateral urge can be left, it is argued, to the African Union.

Vital national interests must first mean defending and responding to attacks on the United States. But US major interests arguably include two fundamental values that define America as a nation and keep it exceptional. The first is our core ideology, neither realist nor idealist but universal, captured in Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of Independence proclaiming that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. The second is protection of the helpless when they are being slaughtered by tyrants. The US pioneered the concept of collective security under the UN Security Council and though it has as many failures as successes, it is particularly applicable ro egregious governmental brutality in a time of evolving regional leadership under the banner of human rights and humanitarian protection. We should look at it as another small step toward a more effective multilateral community, of which America remains an indispensable contributor.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


There is something wrong with the debate about whether the United States should intervene in Libya. Reported Pentagon opposition to a no-flight zone made it sound as if they see any US involvement as a World War II operation, requiring new air bases, facilities for multiple refueling tanker aircraft, massive suppressive fire on all Libyan air bases, etc.

These doubtlessly reflect an understandable mood of "no more Iraq's or Afghanistan's". As a one-time naval officer and lifetime student and practitioner of national security issues, I applaud Defense Secretary Gates’ doctrine urging just that. Libyan oil is certainly in the picture. But no one except perhaps the ruling Libyan sociopath is interpreting help to defenseless civilians as a new armed, democracy-exporting, nation-building war by the West.

The policy quandaries have resulted in a month-long paralysis and hand-wringing by the United States, as well as the UN and NATO, both of which require US leadership.The President’s month in the Situation Room that so far has produced a completely rhetorical defense of civilians being bombed and machine-gunned by their own government is unworthy of him, The late Harlan Cleveland described what he called "hardening of the categories'. So if a Libyan coastal no-flight zone and covert help to the embattled rebels does not fit the vast and ominous model advanced by the bureaucracy, what category that is temporary, offshore, largely symbolic but potentially game-changing, does fit?

The Libyan scene bears no resemblance to the great wars of history. It is more like a massive mugging by a freakish but iron-clawed ruler who got super-rich thanks to everyone's addiction to oil. Libya is as large as Alaska. but it is 90 percent desert, and is concentrated along a coast convenient to a naval flotilla and other assets of our half-trillion dollar a year (not counting Iraq and Afghanistan) military establishment and $80 billion intelligence apparatus.

US national security has, for better or worse, always had a moral component. A pair of moral elements belong in thinking about US intervention. Both grew out of failures to act in the face of criminal governmental assaults on helpless civilian populations. One was a belated public apology by President Bill Clinton in 1998 for the disgraceful way the United States and others averted their gaze as hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were slaughtered. The other theoretically transformed international relations when a United Nations summit in 2005 approved a doctrine of "responsibility to protect" that legalized hitherto forbidden interference in the internal affairs of a state in conditions of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity.

There are times when the most powerful and influential nation in the world needs to act on the basis of both national interest and national values, which converge in the Libyan case. The advice of counselors is carefully considered, but under the Constitution the president makes the decisions. Ideally, the international community -- the UN and NATO -- on our insistence authorize an immediate operation that demoralizes the pilots and mercenaries doing the slaughtering, and sends an unmistakable message of overwhelming over-the-horizon strength. If they fail to act, form a coalition of the willing, and just do it.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


In Rwanda in 1994, when an estimated 800,000 men women and children were being viciously slaughtered by the Hutu, United Nations, the international community, and "the leader of the free world." all wrung their hands, issued impassioned statements, and passed resolutions -- and did nothing to stem the genocide. In 1998 President Clinton apologized profusely for inaction. Some thought it could never happen again. It's happening again in Libya, where the mad dog egomaniac, who has run the country for 40 years of tyranny has launched his Air Force to bomb and strafe peaceful protesters against his tyrannical rule. His planes and helicopters are again in the air.

In the face of governmental mass murder on the streets of Tripoli the UN Security Council has unanimously passed a condemnatory resolution, and President Obama has denounced the murderous behavior of Mr. Qaddafi. But once again, both did – exactly nothing. Yes, the fairy with several hundred US citizens had not yet left Libya because of bad weather, and there was a case for waiting until they were safely beyond Libyan territorial waters before actually doing something other than rhetorically. But this time, it should not be a replay of Rwanda. The president should call for an immediate emergency UN Security Council session and demand an immediate authorization of a no-fly zone above Tripoli along the lines of the US-UK-French no-fly enforcement over Iraq following the 1991 removal of Saddam Hussein’ invasion forces from Kuwait

Some of us have, over the years, fruitlessly advocated more life- and cost-saving preventive action rather than retroactively cleaning up the messes and internationally forbidden crimes that have already taken place. Granted, this runs against the conservative culture of the decision-making community and diplomacy in general, as well as straying from well-established juridical principles that do not recognize crimes until they have actually taken place (sensibly modified in the case of hatching terrorist plots). Preventive action has had a recent rebirth, at least in theory. It is past time for a coalition or if necessary the United States alone to actually prevent more mass killings from the air in Libya. This is likely to be among the contingency plans under discussion in Washington. If the president decides to act now and do the right thing, he may be blocked by arguments from Navy and Air Force that not enough time, forces him to look not available etc. I hope he agrees that he has every right to expect immediate compliance from our multi-trillion dollar defense establishment.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


With the electrifying news of President Hosni Mubarak’s departure, the pin has been put back in the Egyptian grenade. Change is now possible and should be welcomed. But it’s worth remembering that in a worrying sense, the Mubarak regime continues even without Mubarak. Maybe that will change in an Act Two, as imagined in President Obama’s inspiring statement of February 11. One thing that must change is the state of emergency that has allowed the Egyptian people to be abused without redress. It must change for both American and Egyptian reasons. There is no escaping the fact that new Egyptian leader Suleiman was Mubarak’s intelligence chief, earlier accused of torture, and recently quoted as blaming the demonstrations on foreigners. The other new leader, the army, played the role of wizard of OZ, exercising power behind the curtain, but tends to be politically neutral, owns major industries, is committed to order, and doubtless oversaw Mubarak’s ouster. Can it tolerate a liberal populist government?.

Before the transformative denouement, US policy confused others with uncertainties and flip-flops. We can sympathize with the struggle to combine US strategic interests with efforts to teleguide the upheaval in constructive directions – constitutional reform, unrigged elections, and eventually a rule of law. But US policy can be brought into much sharper focus by expanding the campaign to end Egypt’s 30-year state of emergency law that made possible arbitrary seizure, brutal incarceration, torture, and sometimes disappearance and official murder.

Why prioritize that issue?As both a political scientist and former government official, I have dealt for years with large abstractions like democracy, elections, conflict management, and the rest of the policy apparatus. But in the Egyptian drama, even from afar a familiar smell issued from police stations and detention centers.-- the stink of human fear felt by people with an idea, a complaint, a dream for the future, or a journalist's notebook, people who felt naked and vulnerable in the face of arbitrary abuses. The Egyptian climate, according to the few reports by victims,has been no different from the pervasive smell of fear one saw in Chiang Kai-shek's China, during eight visits to the Soviet Union, and lecturing in Ceausescu's Romania, pre-democratic Korea and Indonesia, and other police states -- all tyrannies that sickeningly abused their citizens for thinking, speaking, writing, assembling.

A traditional American aversion to such abuse (including abuse by US agents) takes specific shape in a core US policy that is not only right but popular. Vice President Joe Biden’s February 8 call on the Cairo leadership to end the 30 year state of emergency that made Egypt an oppressive police state was the most unequivocal American message yet. It called for lifting the law that legitimized arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. President Obama was wise to pick up that theme and share it with an Egypt-wide audience.

US Middle East policies are delicately balanced, for good and bad reasons., and quiet diplomacy often goes unappreciated on the Egyptian or any other public. Until the Obama February 11 statement, it left the impression of an unsympathetic America. The Middle East future will belong to a younger generation that is fed up with an oppressive status quo, Internet-savvy, and unemployed thanks to grossly mismanaged economies. Human rights policy is one way to address that weakness. The US handles human rights concerns as a subtext to the big-ticket political, economic, and security issues. American politicians like to proclaim “American values” but these are often unspecified. There is in fact one clear value that directly affects the human person. It is the only value with unequivocal moral content. It is the right to civilized treatment by those in charge. It belongs at the top rather than at the fringe of American priorities when a tyranny is confronted by a fed-up citizenry.

As a practical matter, Washington would be doing well by doing good if it continually insists on an end to official abuses. For an American president to proclaim this as the litmus test for a civilized country is admittedly interference in internal affairs. But it would be supported by 305 million Americans, and would help clear up our ambivalent image in a new era of popular rejection of tyranny.