How does any of this indicate that the geopolitical position of the U.S. has been weakened? The U.S.'s antagonists are quite literally fighting for their lives....regional democratization is underway -- albeit not in the way they had expected -- and the broader transformation of the region is proceeding in a direction that is amenable to the U.S.'s long-term interests. The Middle East is less engaged in proliferation than it was a decade ago, Tehran's intransigence notwithstanding. There are fewer security dilemmas in operation than at any point in decades...the frictions that many believed had developed between the U.S. and its NATO allies over Iraq appear to have been transitory rather than permanent.
Dan is also correct that, contrary to recent analysis, the Russians, Chinese, Brazilians, and other external powers also still sit on the periphery of Middle East power relations. This structural realist line of analyis doesn't address the societal changes Mishra describes, but his argument is unconvincing on that level as well. The postcolonial wave has been a consistent challenge globally for US foreign policy since the 1950s, but it never posed a overwhelming threat to American power in the Middle East. Why? Its effects are not uniform across states, and always remain vulnerable to national, regional, and extra-regional dynamics. This isn't to say that people do not share strong political commonalities or even necessarily weak civilizational ones. But in the case of the Middle East, the regional challenge to American influence never really emerged. In fact, as the Cold War deepened and post-colonial fervor hit its height the United States actually increased its power and alliances in the Middle East.
If Nasser and the forces he unleashed could not drive the US out, it's highly unlikely that the Arab Spring will. Had the idea of Arab unity been able to seriously mobilize a preponderence of power, it would have succeeded in its recurring series of projects aimed at regional unity. Yet whether in the confused strategy of the Arab states that lost the 1948 Israeli war of independence or the failure of the United Arab Republic, we've never seen a cohesive force able to really dispel external influence. One can take a constructivist explanation, as Michael Barnett does, or a standard neorealist explanation oriented around anarchy and the balance of power to figure out why. Either way, Mishra does not convince as to why today's upheaval is different.
This sort of talk unfortunately obscures the real issue: the variable shape of American involvement in the Middle East and how highly contingent that involvement really is on American perception of value. The US is not going to "withdraw" from the Middle East--we're yoked to it for cultural and economic reasons that cannot simply by wished away. But so are a host of other powers that nonetheless have different postures in the region than we do. In the absence of a Soviet strategic threat to the Persian Gulf and Iran's declining strategic position, how long the United States chooses to maintain its current network of alliances, political relationships, and force deployments will likely depend, as Dan has said, on both domestic opinion and policymakers' conception of costs and benefits.
Plainly put, the US intervenes in the Middle East to sustain and sometimes modernize US alliances structures and political relationships. It also sporadically intervenes to try to change the Middle East's domestic and cultural spheres, with varying degrees of success and failure. Though American intervention is mainly political and economic there is also a heavy military dimension. The former is unduly ignored and the latter is often unfairly blamed for America's problems in the region. The larger point: political and strategic relationships do not sustain themeselves. They have be constantly refreshed and defended, The US can skimp on that cost in the hope that clients and partners will, on their own, pick it up at the expense of competing domestic priorities. But it will find that those costs---like a rent bill--do not pay themselves. The Arab Spring, Iran, and emerging 2nd wave jihadist challenges pose political and diplomatic costs. The political-military "landlord" (to continue an awkward metaphor) also must be paid in Asia too, if the post-Vietnam American policy there is to be sustained.
Sometimes the bill can be paid by other actors, but not necessarily in the way the US desires. We are seeing a dramatic example of this in the South China Sea. Japan and China are engaging in a kind of conflict that was prevented in the past by the US' postwar policy of keeping Japan from becoming a threat to China and providing stability for Japanese economic and political development. American policies of dual containment in the 1990s against Iran and Iraq came as a consequence of the failure of attempting to play both against each other in the 1980s--a failure that prompted direct American military intervention to protect economic interests.
Right now, the US is willing to pay the costs of the current policy. But external shocks in other regions and further economic disruptions may shift this calculus. We should not also rule out nationalism as a possible factor in American policy shifts. In the past, as Dan notes, isolationism was originally expressed as an American feeling of superiority over a morally corrupted world dominated by European power politics. The popularity of the recurring "Muslim rage" concept plays on an traditional American idea that the blame for American failures to transform the societies of others should be laid at those societies themselves. So while we shouldn't bet on anything more than near-term US retrenchment (a different thing than decline) in response to current economic realities, retrenchment that leads to a different conception of achieving American interests shouldn't be conclusively ruled out in the early 21st century. But contra Mishra, that would have more to do with factors external to the Middle East than Frantz Fanon 2.0.
King's College London professor John Mackinlay, one of my favorite European security analysts, has an interesting new essay at Prism. The gist? Britain's operational design is moving from projecting power abroad to a more insular of idea of security:
Is it unimaginable that Britain may soon find itself in need of armed forces that are much more versatile and have greater capabilities for dealing with other kinds of worst-case scenarios? In 2011, the short-term success of rioters and demonstrators associated with the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Iran, Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Djibouti, Kuwait, and Morocco seemed to push the techniques of political violence over the threshold of a new chapter. Across the region, the images and techniques of mass deployment by the population of one state seemed to incite violence in another. The crowds that surged into the streets were impulsive, leaderless, and without a deliberated manifesto. Their guidance through the streets relied on the widespread possession of cell phones and access to the Internet. In the UK, similarly leaderless crowds using similarly impulsive networking methods surged onto the streets of London, Manchester, and Birmingham.
Mackinaly argues that a number of environmental, economic, and migratory pressures on European security are coalescing, and this geopolitical event horizon may force Britain to choose between its traditional support of US operations abroad and ensuring domestic stability at home through an integrated mixture of security services. Moreover, public support for expeditionary operations has eroded over the last ten years and there is no longer an immediately compelling rationale for European "out-of-area" operations. He goes on to recommend a new kind of operational design rooted in gendarme capabilities.
Of course, anyone broadly familiar with 19th century history and the conservative reaction against revolutionary ideas after the Napoleonic wars might find this sort of idea vaguely familiar. These too were conceived of as broadly paradigm-breaking national security (although that term had not yet been invented) challenges, enabled by new ideologies and evolved technologies. French political theorist Paul Virilio has written extensively in Speed and Politics on how states have traditionally feared urban threats that use the urban commons as a medium for channeling revolutionary fervor to create a sped-up and terrifying new crowd power. Virilio's analysis begins with the French Revolution and the street fights of the late 1800s and reviews evolved responses to crowd power such as Baron Haussman's military-oriented renovation of Paris. The Concert of Vienna was not just a mechanism for great power peace but a means of freeing up European states to focus on preservation of their own internal orders in the face of threats viewed just as apocalyptically as Islamic jihadism is seen today. The phrase "terrorist," after all, has its roots in the state terror of Maximilian Robespierre and his mobs. And just as Islamophobia is sometimes substituted for solid analysis of the domestic terrorist threat, the horrors of the French Revolution fueled bizarre conspiracy theories that still have resonsance among the tinfoil hat crowd today.
The difference, primarily, is that counterinsurgency and counterterrorism thinking have powerfully shaped the way security policymakers look at domestic complex operations challenges. Such a shift goes beyond the simplistic idea of police militarization, as European public security has traditionally featured the expansive use of domestic intelligence and expansive police powers for maintaining order. Though European counterinsurgency and counterterrorism thought has conceptual roots in colonial experiences, the guiding logic behind it can be seen as a liberal response to the same kind of threats that motivated the conservative reaction of the 19th century.
Aaron Ellis of the Tory blog Egremont has written about the concept of the "internationalization of the national interest" as conceived during the Tony Blair government. Broadly speaking, British policymakers argued that in a world shrunk by globalization far-off security threats required urgent attention lest they trigger domestic catastrophe. There is, however, little unique to Blair about such an idea. It became broadly accepted in the West after September 11. While Patrick Porter and others have focused on the degree to which this idea ties Western strategy to far-flung zones of action with little connection to core interests, the internationalization of the national interest is not really a cosmopolitan idea. It is actually quite a parochial one tied to the postwar European state's dilemmas of domestic order.
By proposing the idea that domestic and international security threats were inescapably linked, Blair and others did not internationalize the national interest. Rather, Blair domesticated the international. Unruly, failed, or failing states became seen as extensions of existing domestic security problems. Foreign grey zones were areas that had to be pacified to fully realize the state's domestic monopoly of force, because those areas exerted influence that compromised domestic government authority. There was, in a sense, an equation of pacifying Helmand with solving the problem of a "no-go" neighborhood in London. But unlike the 19th century European states, which conceived of domestic security problems as a problem to be dealt with Napoleon's "whiff of grapeshot," the domestication of the international reflected the liberal norms and concerns of 21st century welfare states shaped by a desire to transcend a century of ideological turmoil. The management of order, especially in the context of publics vulnerable to extremist ideologies, was conceived from a frame of simultaneously extending security, policing malcontents, and gaining legitimacy through state largesse.
If Mackinlay is right, the consequence of a decline in public and elite acceptance of an internationalized interest and expeditionary operations means that complex operations are merely returning to their domestic origins. This would not mean literally carrying out military operations akin to Iraq and Afghanistan. But just as some US police forces have adopted counterinsurgency methods to domestic legal, normative, and political contexts it would mean--as Mackinlay suggests--an European operational design for a predominately civil security context.
I have been away from the blog this week because I am in Finland at the invitation of our embassy here and will next be traveling to Norway. Over the past few days, I have been speaking with local think tanks in Helsinki as well as leading roundtable discussions on everything from Afghanistan to the Arab Spring with Finnish parliamentarians, local diplomats from other allies countries, and representatives from Finland's Ministry of Defense. I will do more of the same in Oslo. When the embassies here in Scandinavia asked me to visit in exchange for a plane ticket and small per diem to cover my expenses, I jumped at the chance. I have worked with Finns and Norwegians in Afghanistan but have have never visited either country. It's important for Americans, I believe, to show our appreciation for our friends and allies in the international community, because we rely on those allies to get things done, and many of our allies have fought and bled alongside U.S. soldiers and Marines from Normandy to Basra.
On the way here, though, I read a transcript of Gov. Rick Perry's recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I respect the fact that Gov. Perry has little foreign policy experience on account of his long political career in Texas, and I do not expect him to yet be as savvy or as wise an observer of international affairs as his fellow Aggies Ryan Crocker or Bob Gates. My head dropped in anguish, though, when I read this:
We respect our allies, and must always seek to engage them in military missions. At the same time, we must be willing to act when it is time to act. We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multi-lateral debating societies. And when our interests are threatened, American soldiers should be led by American commanders.
To the best of my knowledge, U.S. soldiers and Marines have served under the command of Dutch, Italian, Canadian, German and British commanders in Afghanistan. (I'm sure I could add more countries to the list.) Several countries have sacrificed mightily in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and I myself fought under a Canadian battalion commander in 2002 in Afghanistan and under a British special operations commander in 2003 in Iraq. Most of our allies -- and especially our friends in the ANZUS Pact, the 60th anniversary of which we just celebrated -- are as blunt-speaking as any Texan and would have rather preferred Gov. Perry come right out and insult them to their faces rather than obliquely insult them while professing to respect them.
I'm actually shocked that Gov. Perry's foreign policy advisors allowed this text to make it into his speech, but I can see how this jingoistic populism might prove politically effective in the battle for the Republican nomination. What might make for short-term political gains, though, also amounts to bad long-term foreign policy.
Gov. Perry's defenders will argue most Americans do not care about foreign affairs, and I somehow doubt Gov. Perry cares whether or not members of the Council on Foreign Relations will vote for him anyway. But this isn't about politics: as important as getting elected president is displaying the temperament and intelligence to be a good president once elected. And Gov. Perry may dismiss the United Nations, but our allies do not. (Don't believe me? Go ask any Israeli what "September" means to them and why their prime minister has been asking our president to scurry around asking for votes from our European allies of late.)
If any foreign policy advisor to Gov. Perry is reading this, I would recommend them schedule a trip for the governor to Japan, Australia and South Korea -- just three of the allies on which the United States will depend over the next eight years. He should take the time to hear their concerns and listen to the way in which they have each served alongside and supported the United States. He should then take a trip to Afghanistan, where U.S. soldiers serve with and under troops from over 40 foreign countries (including the Marine Corps!).
Because some of us egg-head multilateralists are also lifetime members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and understand both the skill and sacrifice with which our allies have helped us meet the challenges of the past ten years. Gov. Perry should too, because, again, as important as populist rhetoric is to winning president elections, so too is temperament and experience to being a good president once elected.
I have joked before, quoting a certain retired Marine colonel, that the only strategic lesson we have learned from our experiences in Vietnam and Iraq is not to elect Texans president. But the best Americans I know are Texan. I have a friend from San Antonio, for example, who I admire above nearly all other non-Tennesseans on Earth: he is smart, humble, God-fearing, knows frightful amounts about guns and hunting, and is the kind of guy who will grab a bottle of Buffalo Trace, pour you a glass, and sit around the campfire talking about everything from Jesus Christ to Cormac McCarthy to Townes Van Zandt. He is the best kind of Texan -- and American. The worst Americans, though, are also Texans: they are loud, prone to bragging at length and volume, ignorant and intolerant of others, and indulge in a kind of Little America-ism that makes our country less welcoming and more provincial. (They also get Tennessee into wars with Mexico, but that is another matter.) I can vote for the former, of course, but not for the latter. I'll reserve judgment, for now, about which one Gov. Perry is.
A few things need to be said about Michael Doran's essay in Foreign Affairs:
1. The idea that the Bush Administration was entirely populated with people who knew nothing about the Arabic-speaking world is false and ugly. Doran was teaching at Princeton and had published widely on the Arabic-speaking world before joining the administration. He is a first-rate scholar of the peoples and history of the Middle East.
2. I was emailing with Parag Khanna this morning and told him I think it's too early for him or anyone else to be making broad claims about what these events mean for the Arabic-speaking world as a whole. As Doran correctly notes here (and Lisa Anderson notes elsewhere in the same issue of Foreign Affairs), this is hardly the first time the Arabic-speaking world has been swept up in revolutionary fervor in the past century. And as Anderson notes, the challenges of a state like Libya and a state like Egypt going forward are completely different.
3. Doran is correct, in my estimation, to be worried about current and future violent non-state actors in the Arabic-speaking world and the ways in which Iran might support them. This is something that would have worried a responsible policy maker as much in December 2010 as today -- and I don't just say that as a guy who wrote his dissertation on Hizballah.
4. Let us not be so blinded by what Iran may or may not do that we fail to take the opinions and preferences of Arabs seriously. Doran writes:
Faced with the accountability of the democratic process, Egypt's new rulers will not feel nearly as free as Mubarak did to side with Washington and Jerusalem when the next round of conflicts involving Israel erupts. In the post-Mubarak era, the resistance bloc has a new weapon: the Egyptian crowd, which is now freer than before to organize on its own. Renewed violence will undoubtedly spark massive street demonstrations, not only in Egypt but also in Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. But it is in Egypt where the bloc will concentrate its energies, providing the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups with a pretext for organizing the mob and casting themselves as the conscience of the Egyptian people. They will demand that the military sever all ties with Israel and the United States -- and it is far from certain whether Egypt's insecure army officers will have the mettle to withstand the campaign.
I have no big problem with much of what Doran writes here. I do have a problem, though, with his emphasis on what he calls "the resistance bloc" -- Iran and Syria together with violent non-state actors like Hamas and Hizballah. Iran and its allies aside, Egyptians do not very much like Israeli policy toward the Palestinian people. Iran, Syria, and Hizballah could disappear off the face of the Earth tomorrow and that would still be the case. So when Egyptian leaders do not respond with the same timidity to the next Israeli incursion into Gaza as Hosni Mubarak did, those leaders will likely be reflecting the genuine policy preferences of the Egyptian electorate -- not creeping Iranian influence.
5. Issandr, in an epic rant on Arabist, wrote the following:
If things do come to a head between Saudi Arabia and Iran, I know which one I'll be rooting for: Iran, while its current regime is awful, is at least a sophisticated civilisation. Its current regime will hopefully one day fall. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, represents one corrupt family and its alliance with the most fanatical, retrograde interpretation of Islam in the world. Their downfall cannot come soon enough.
I'm not sure I would go that far (in fact, I know I would not), but the focus on Iran and Iranian influence in the Middle East is indeed a little curious considering the fact that Saudi-sponsored radical Sunni extremism has killed a lot more American citizens than Iran ever thought about. Saudi Arabia, with its oil reserves and spare refining capacity, is an exceptional case in terms of U.S. policy, I realize. But it's puzzling to me how Doran can take such a "black" view of Iran and Iranian influence and such a "white" view of Saudi Arabia and Saudi influence. To paraphrase one of my favorite works by the noted orientalist Robert Earl Keen, in the Middle East, we surely live and die by shades of gray.
No wonder we have no peace in the Middle East. George Mitchell spends all his time with Hillary Clinton discussing the plotlines of Dan Brown novels while Jeff Feltman stares off into the distance, bored and wishing he were back in Lebanon. Shouldn't they instead be reading books like this one? Or this one? Or this one? If you want to read a novel, read this one. Or this one.
Recommend others in the comments section, please. (h/t Laura.)
In his treatise on the lessons from the beef between Jay-Z and The Game for American foreign policy, Marc Lynch has just uncorked what has to be one of the most ridiculously awesome blog posts in memory. Despite my West Coast roots, I'm rooting for the "superpower" Jay-Z over the "insurgent" The Game. In counterinsurgency terms, I guess that's kind of like a Sunni insurgent joining the Sons of Iraq.