Honest discussions about our military, as distinct from our foreign policy, are difficult because they are so emotionally laden, but when those conversations do not occur, or are deliberately repressed by the government as Ms. Sanders has sought to do, our country is weakened. Democracy requires not just civilian control of the military, something already under stress during the Trump presidency, but a civilian culture that is never intimidated or silenced by military brass. Accordingly, frank discussions about who serves in our military and why, or what the purpose of all of these wars, conflicts and military bases make our country, and our democracy, stronger.
Did the Obama administration make a grievous mistake in swapping prisoners for the release of US solider Bowe Bergdahl? Yes, no, maybe, I don't know, who really cares? All of these answers are, in one respect or another true. The Bergdahl controversy is almost a caricature of American political discourse in the Obama era with both sides taking strong and outspoken positions based simply on whether or not they like the President, fighting in the media over something that is not very important, and making sure that the public bickering obscures more significant government decisions and policies.
It should not be axiomatic that if the American people, by a margin of greater than two to one disapprove of a war, than the U.S. should end that war. However, if public opinion runs that strongly against a war, or any foreign policy, the U.S. government should have a clear, compelling and realistic rationale for pursuing that policy. Unfortunately, no such rationale exists for the war in Afghanistan. After more than a decade of war, and despite some significant accomplishments, most notably the killing of Osama Bin Laden, victory in Afghanistan remains poorly defined and elusive.
The latest round of violence in Afghanistan demonstrates the need to continue to withdraw from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. The immediate cause of this upsurge in violence has been the burning of Korans by American troops. President Obama, in a fit of decency, apologized for American actions that could be generously described as insensitive. Obama’s apology was met by attacks from, among others, Newt Gingrich, arguing essentially that the U.S. should never have to apologize for anything. This argument is axiomatically wrong, but it is also very disturbing. Being truly patriotic means loving and caring about your country enough that when those ideals are violated you want your country to act accordingly. Believing you never need to apologize is territory best left to megalomaniacs and bullies, qualities we do not need in an American president.
Now that the Rick Santorum boomlet seems to be ending, Republicans can return to the real work of bemoaning the state of the presidential primary. Republican dissatisfaction with the primary, which is coming from party stalwarts such as Haley Barbour and John McCain, is presented as concern that the drawn out primary will weaken the Republican chances against Obama, but it is also, implicitly, a recognition both that Mitt Romney, despite his potential appeal to those outside of the Republican base, is a weak candidate, and that no strong conservative candidate emerged during the primary season.
It is not clear that the U.S. is able to influence the degree of election fairness in entrenched semi-democratic or semi-authoritarian regimes, but it is clear that the current approaches are no longer sufficient. The tools which are necessary to push countries to better elections are no longer simply help with election lists and other straightforwardly technical tactics, but include things like concrete political pressure linked to consequences, a willingness to publicly urge foreign leaders to conduct fair elections, and intervene more frequently when government abuses occur in the pre-election period. The politics of doing these things in countries that are allies is very complicated. It is unlikely, for example, that the U.S. government in Washington or Tbilisi is going to link assistance to Georgia, a country that has more than 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, to fair elections, or that leaders of American allies will be publicly chastised for things like arresting opposition activists or threatening opposition supporters, but unless the U.S. is willing to do these things, its ability to push countries to better elections will be severely limited.
The problem the Obama administration faces, both politically and substantively, is that while it has numerous foreign policy accomplishments to which it can point, the whole to which they add up remains less than the sum of its parts. For example, while the killing of Bin Laden is something about which Americans are rightfully happy, and the conclusion of the military effort in Iraq, while almost a decade late and a few trillion dollars short, is also a good thing for the U.S., the overall impact these things have on American security, stability in South Asia or the Middle East or other related issues is less clear.
The election of Almaz Atanbaev as president of Kyrgyzstan in what has been recognized by western observer groups and governments as a relatively free election has been generally viewed as a sign that democracy may have a future in Kyrygzstan. Atanbaev’s election also provides another example of how the spread of democracy and the short term goals of the U.S. are often in conflict.
In the ten years since the war started, a lot has happened to the U.S. The threat of terrorism which was on everybody’s minds when the war started, while still real, is no longer something which ordinary Americans think about every day. However, the added security we confront in our daily lives has become a permanent part of life in the U.S. The U.S. is moving towards surrendering its role as the global hegemon as the world seems more strongly than ever to be moving towards multi-polarity. The U.S. has also experienced the most severe economic downturn since the great depression with widespread unemployment threatening to change life in America for years to come. Not surprisingly, the political polarization and vitriol, which was already a source of great consternation in 2001, has gotten worse in the last decade.
Defining and assessing the mission in Libya has never been easy because the underlying notion that the role of NATO was to prevent a genocide from occurring cannot easily be determined to have been successful or not. Although genocide has not happened in Libya, there is no way of knowing with any certainty whether one would have happened had there not been an intervention. It is the military equivalent of proving a negative.
The spy case and the bombing case, individually and together, raise a number of important, if largely unstated, questions for the Georgian relationship with the U.S. The first question is what if these accusations are wrong? In this scenario, the photographers have been essentially framed and the bomb near the U.S. embassy was the result of one man’s actions with no connection to the Russian embassy. This is a hypothetical scenario, as it certainly cannot be assumed that these accusations are wrong or unfounded. Nonetheless, if these accusations are false, than Georgia has again demonstrated a willingness to overstate Russian involvement in Georgian domestic affairs and to risk undermining relations between Russia and the US.
In foreign policy, however, Obama has been far less able to manage expectations. Obama has done little to dampen expectations that he needs to to make progress in bringing peace to the Middle East, peacefully remove autocrats from power in Syria, Libya and Belarus, even quicken the pace of democratization in Egypt since the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak. Obama is also expected to resolve problems he inherited, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are still going on with, at best, mixed signs of progress. These expectations are obviously stressed more by critics of the President, but it remains true that Obama is expected to achieve very broad array of foreign policy outcomes.
The celebrations of Bin Laden’s death have been described by some as potentially contributing to greater anti-American sentiment, or even further acts of terrorism against. While this is a possibility the U.S. It seems unlikely that Bin Laden’s death, or the American reaction to it, will inspire a rash of anti-American feeling. Those who find American celebration of the death Bin Laden unseemly or who are driven into paroxysms of anti-American hatred because the U.S. succeeded in tracking down and killing a sworn enemy are probably already pretty far down the Jihadist road anyway.
Keeping America safe from Jihadist terror remains a complex task, which may be slightly easier, particularly in the short term, without Osama bin Laden. It still requires a delicate combination of domestic security, some use of force, sincere efforts to win hearts and minds, good intelligence work and an awareness of how US actions are perceived by many outside of our country. The killing of bin Laden, while a positive development to be sure, addresses none of these things, but more significantly provides a moment for our leaders to pause, recognize this important victory and determine what direction to take the fight against terrorism.
American politics in the post-Bush era have again entered a period where there is, for the most part, a foreign policy consensus between the two major parties. This consensus, however, is not held throughout the electorate creating an opening for a clever White House aspirant who is willing not just to take on President Obama, but the leadership of the Republican Party as well. If this candidate does not emerge, it is likely that foreign policy will remain in the background throughout the 2012 campaign.
The first few months of 2011 have been a good reminder of the role of uncertainty in international politics and foreign policy. The overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, possible ouster of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya as well as widespread demonstrations in Bahrain, Tunisia, where this all started, Moroccoand elsewhere in the Middle East will likely be among the biggest issues and challenges facing American policy makers for quite a while, and will almost certainly dominate foreign policy questions for the duration of Barack Obama’s time as president.
Freedom House’s finding should not come as a surprise to anybody who even casually consumes international news. Fraudulent election in Belarus, Iraq and Afghanistan being, at best, stuck in some kind of post-conflict semi-democratic morass, and the stubborn persistency of authoritarian regimes from Pyongyang to Havana all support these findings. Democracy is frequently spoken about in waves, with the third wave beginning in southern Europe in the 1970s. For the last few years, however, democracy has been in something of a trough with few advances or breakthroughs and a paucity of hope.
In an alternate universe in which Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the new Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee were a rational person with his country's best interests at heart, the news that he was going toaggressively pursue investigations would be welcome. Issa is interested in investigating a range of issues including corruption in the war in Afghanistan, WikiLeaks, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Food and Drug Administration. The American people deserve to know whether or to what extent corruption has become a problem in the war in Afghanistan, how a security lapse allowed WikiLeaks to get the documents it recently leaked and just how government agencies contributed to the mortgage and economic crises. This kind of accountability in essential to the functioning of a democracy; and investigations of this kind can be an important means of ensuring that accountability.
It is likely that by the time 2011 winds down, the major international affairs questions dominating the news will include issues that seem distant in the first week of the year. Every year brings surprises, unforeseen wars, natural disasters and the like, but it is also possible to look with some confidence towards the New Year and identify some foreign policy issues, or questions, that are likely to become more important during the year.
Richard Holbrooke’s death this week at the age of 69 brings to a close one of the most extraordinary diplomatic careers in American history. Holbrooke’s career began in 1962 and continued until his death. During these years, not only did Holbrooke work for every Democratic president from Kennedy to Obama, but he was involved in one way or another with many of the most important foreign policy issues facing the U.S. including the war in Vietnam, the reunification of Germany, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the war in Afghanistan, during a career of nearly fifty years.