Foreign policy

Yesterday I said I’d be surprised if the US agreed to let the number 2 job at the IMF go to a non-US candidate, as recommended by Mohamed El-Erian. Today I ran into Stephan Richter at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and he drew my attention to an interesting possibility, which he wrote up earlier for The Globalist: a co-directorate, with Agustin Carstens as deputy director.

I don’t know whether Carstens would want the job, but the idea does have big advantages both for the US (which would have to agree to it) and for the world order. The US gets a top-class Chicago-trained economist in a key role–a de facto American economist, is how Richter puts it–while retaining a veto over Fund policies through its executive director on the Fund’s board. The rest of the world gets an end to the traditional US-Europe stitch-up, and an excellent official at the top of the IMF.

In backing this notion the US could look selfless while shrewdly advancing its interests.

It’s a good thing that Americans are war weary, says George Will: John McCain’s never-ending war.

What kind of people would they be if they were not? U.S. involvement in the Second World War lasted 1,346 days. U.S. fighting in Afghanistan reached that milestone six years ago (June 14, 2005). America is fighting there, in Iraq, in western Pakistan, in Yemen and in Libya. Where next? Under the McCain Doctrine, wherever U.S. “values” are affronted — and those who demur from this global crusade are isolationists, akin to those who, 70 years ago, thought broad oceans and placid neighbors guaranteed America’s security from Hitler and Japan.

Obama’s address on Afghanistan was a notable political success. The tone was terse and confident. The plan calls for faster force reductions than the military wants, but slower than much of the country would like–a position that is easy to cast as a responsible middle way. And the president is keeping the promise he made when announcing the surge at the end of 2009, with the withdrawal of the 33,000 extra troops starting now, and complete not just by the end of 2012 but in time for the election.

The underlying philosophy outline in the address also strikes me as right.

[T]onight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding. Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way. We’ve ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country. And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end.

As they do, we must learn their lessons. Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world. Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extended, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.

We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force –- but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action, which we’re doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their own destiny.

“…as pragmatic as we are passionate.” A difficult balance to strike, obviously, but right nonetheless. The characteristic emphasis on pragmatism–on balancing ends and means–is surely correct.

Politics and underlying approach aside, however, I question the wisdom of the details on Afghanistan.

Philip Stephens is right.

Junking the myths and emotional baggage wrapped up in the idea of a uniquely special bond between London and Washington is long overdue.

The US and Britain have a natural alliance based on a close alignment of interests and values. But that is all it is. Neither side should expect any more or any less. The British preoccupation with the “special relationship” is embarrassing–and it is worse than merely embarrassing, when decisions not in Britain’s interests flow from a desire to prop up the conceit.

Jeff Goldberg says he is amazed at the amount of insta-commentary on Obama’s speech on the Middle East that sees something radical and new in what the president said about 1967 borders. This is what Obama said:

We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.

What’s new? Not much, says Jeff.

I’m feeling a certain Groundhog Day effect here. This has been the basic idea for at least 12 years. This is what Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat were talking about at Camp David, and later, at Taba. This is what George W. Bush was talking about with Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. So what’s the huge deal here? Is there any non-delusional Israeli who doesn’t think that the 1967 border won’t serve as the rough outline of the new Palestinian state?…

Here is what Hillary Clinton said in 2009: “We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”

I too was mystified by the instant reaction claiming to see a bold new departure. I haven’t been paying close enough attention, I thought. But now I’m reassured. If Jeff finds it puzzling, I feel entitled to be puzzled as well.

In a later post Jeff links to this note by Charles Johnson, which is also worth reading. I think the three-paragraph AP story Johnson complains about was where this all started: it was immediately picked up by a hundred other sites and set the “Obama shocker” story moving.

Gideon Rachman agrees with Peter Beinart that the “war on terror” should come to an end.

This is not the same as saying that the US and Europe can now stop worrying about terrorism. The west will need a serious counter-terrorism policy for many years to come. But the Bush-inspired drive to make terrorism the centrepiece of US foreign policy was a mistake. The declaration of a “Global War on Terror” distorted American foreign policy and led directly to two wars – in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war on terror has guzzled billions of dollars in wasteful spending and spawned a huge and secretive bureaucracy in Washington. The death of bin Laden gives President Barack Obama the cover he needs to start quietly unwinding some of these mistakes.

Gideon is always interesting and persuasive, and I agree with much of what he says, but again I want to distinguish between “war on terror” as terminology and “war on terror” as substance. My view on terminology is, what’s in a name? War on terror. War on drugs. War on want. War on poverty. Politicians are constantly declaring war on things. It doesn’t commit you to anything. It just sounds urgent and grave. Sometimes, it is right to sound urgent and grave. Sometimes, a politician has no choice but to.

A great day. I was in West Virginia on Sunday night when we heard the news. Had I been in DC I would have joined the celebration outside the White House–not as a journalist, you understand, but as somebody who felt like cheering.

In the flood of articles about the raid, this piece by Marc Ambinder–The Secret Team That Killed Bin Laden–is something of a coup. It has far more on the unit that undertook the mission than anything else I’ve seen so far.

But what, in the end, does the killing of Bin Laden change? Less, I suspect, than some analysts are arguing.

In the end Barack Obama’s speech on Libya will not matter very much. If things go well, Gaddafi leaves or is made to leave, and the aftermath isn’t too bloody, the operation will be deemed a success, and Obama will get much of the credit. Most of the issues now exercising Washington–lack of consultation with Congress, the initial hesitation, the subsequent lack of clarity about goals, the cost, the question of consistency (if Libya, why not Syria?)–all of this will evaporate. If it goes wrong, Obama will get much of the blame, and the complaints will suddenly be potent. The speech was just all right. It wasn’t commanding or inspiring enough to move public opinion and have any bearing on the outcome.

Understanding better than anyone that results are all that count, Obama audaciously tried to say that the US part of the intervention is already mostly over and should be deemed a success.

[T]onight, I can report that we have stopped Qaddafi’s deadly advance…

In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners…

[W]e’ve accomplished these objectives consistent with the pledge that I made to the American people at the outset of our military operations…

So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: The United States of America has done what we said we would do.

The threatened humanitarian crisis has been averted, America’s work is largely done, and the allies can probably handle the rest. Massacre prevented. Mission accomplished (though one must never use that phrase).

Worth a try, but nobody is buying it yet.

On Obama, multilateralism and dithering, a (European) reader writes:

You argue that Europeans were very critical of George Bush and his unreflective but decisive foreign policy and now they seem equally critical of a president who is more reflective and thinks through issues carefully and regard him as a “ditherer”, implying that Europeans are never satisfied and the President is doomed whatever way he decides on an issue.

I think the issue is not so much that Bush was an instinctive President and that Obama is an intellectual, weighing up all sides of the argument, but that Obama is just indecisive. Yes, it is quite right that he should take his time on such an important issue as imposing a no fly zone on Libya with all its potential consequences but having weighed them up he has to make a choice and that seems to be what he is unprepared to do.  Following the disastrous consequences of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American public’s lack of appetite for any more war in the Middle East it is understandable, and to my mind right, that Obama would not want America to get involved but to the outside world it looks as if other countries, namely France and the UK, have made the decision and that America has reluctantly joined in. It looks as if the tail is wagging the dog.

Gordon Brown had the same problem as Obama.  He is an intellectual who studied issues very carefully but he shared the same indecisiveness.  A leader has to make very difficult choices but after much reflection he has to appear to be confident and decisive in his choice.  Obama is not giving that impression and leaving the country at such a critical time looks as if he is running away from scrutiny when the country needs his leadership.

Actually, I agree with this. Multilateralism and especially international legalism, I argued, are institutionally inclined to dithering, but it’s true that Obama has added another layer of indecision all his own, and this goes beyond what was implied by careful weighing of the options. Having made up his mind that a forceful UN-backed intervention was correct, he should have made the case for it to the US public and the world, and pressed hard to get it done right. He hasn’t made the case at home or abroad–his absence when the intervention began only underlines this. What little he has said is muddled. And he has indeed given the impression of being reluctantly dragged along.

I don’t think it is possible for Obama to be as decisive a multilateralist as Europe wants him to be, or as strong a leader while remaining an equal partner, which Europe also wants (sometimes). So I do think that Obama’s European critics are trying to have it both ways. That said, Obama could certainly have done better on both counts than he has.

My first reaction to the UNSC resolution on Libya was surprise. I hadn’t expected that a vote to authorise action would succeed, still less one that authorised action (”all necessary measures”) far beyond merely enforcing a no-fly zone. That extra step seemed to come out of nowhere. It was vital. It may be what persuaded Libya to declare a ceasefire, and it gives Gaddafi reason to think about actually honouring it. The resolution, by the way, also allows troops on the ground, if it should come to that. It forbids an occupation force, a different thing.

To put it mildly, this is quite a moment for the UN, and for US relations with that institution. America has not led this drive to protect Libyan civilians. Britain and France can fairly claim to have done that. Read David Cameron’s statement after the resolution passed. Impressive, I thought. There were three conditions for intervention, he explains: demonstrable need, regional support, and a clear legal basis–all now met.

So far, the US is just one partner. Could it remain as that–perhaps, as the Pentagon might prefer, even a junior partner–if the allies have to start shooting? That would be a very strange posture for the US: engaged in a military intervention that Washington is not directing. I wonder what the US public would make of it. Perhaps it is a sign of things to come: the difference that Obama makes; a US that goes along to get along; the kind of America the world thinks it wants, sometimes. Alternatively, it might be a formula for disaster. In any event, it’s new.

For now, there’s another problem. The resolution does not quite marry with the tone of British, French, and US officials talking as though they have taken sides with the rebels in their struggle against Gaddafi–a just cause, needless to say, if there ever was one. The resolution did not put the international community on the rebels’ side in Libya’s civil war. Emphasising the protection of civilians, it called for a ceasefire, and the Libyan government has announced its compliance. Suppose this is genuine. Do we now police a partition that leaves Gaddafi in charge of most of the country? Or suppose it is a feint, the allies strike against the regime, and the struggle turns the rebels’ way. What does protecting civilians require then? A rebel in a tank advancing on Tripoli is not a civilian.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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