How Ben Rhodes turned from fiction to foreign policy

David Samuels writes: Unnoticed by the reporters, Ben Rhodes walks through the room, a half-beat behind a woman in leopard-print heels. He is holding a phone to his ear, repeating his mantra: “I’m not important. You’re important.”

The Boy Wonder of the Obama White House is now 38. He heads downstairs to his windowless basement office, which is divided into two parts. In the front office, his assistant, Rumana Ahmed, and his deputy, Ned Price, are squeezed behind desks, which face a large television screen, from which CNN blares nonstop. Large pictures of Obama adorn the walls. Here is the president adjusting Rhodes’s tie; presenting his darling baby daughter, Ella, with a flower; and smiling wide while playing with Ella on a giant rug that says “E Pluribus Unum.”

For much of the past five weeks, Rhodes has been channeling the president’s consciousness into what was imagined as an optimistic, forward-looking final State of the Union. Now, from the flat screens, a challenge to that narrative arises: Iran has seized two small boats containing 10 American sailors. Rhodes found out about the Iranian action earlier that morning but was trying to keep it out of the news until after the president’s speech. “They can’t keep a secret for two hours,” Rhodes says, with a tone of mild exasperation at the break in message discipline.

As the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Rhodes writes the president’s speeches, plans his trips abroad and runs communications strategy across the White House, tasks that, taken individually, give little sense of the importance of his role. He is, according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders I talked to, the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself. The president and Rhodes communicate “regularly, several times a day,” according to Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, who is known for captaining a tight ship. “I see it throughout the day in person,” he says, adding that he is sure that in addition to the two to three hours that Rhodes might spend with Obama daily, the two men communicate remotely throughout the day via email and phone calls. Rhodes strategized and ran the successful Iran-deal messaging campaign, helped negotiate the opening of American relations with Cuba after a hiatus of more than 50 years and has been a co-writer of all of Obama’s major foreign-policy speeches. “Every day he does 12 jobs, and he does them better than the other people who have those jobs,” Terry Szuplat, the longest-tenured member of the National Security Council speechwriting corps, told me. On the largest and smallest questions alike, the voice in which America speaks to the world is that of Ben Rhodes.

Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies. His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling.

Part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his “mind meld” with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase “mind meld” verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights. He doesn’t think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.” [Continue reading…]

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The Obama doctrine: The Middle East doesn’t matter but even if it did, there’s nothing the U.S. can do to fix it

Jeffrey Goldberg writes: Inside the West Wing, officials say that Obama, as a president who inherited a financial crisis and two active wars from his predecessor, is keen to leave “a clean barn” to whoever succeeds him. This is why the fight against isis, a group he considers to be a direct, though not existential, threat to the U.S., is his most urgent priority for the remainder of his presidency; killing the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is one of the top goals of the American national-security apparatus in Obama’s last year.

Of course, isis was midwifed into existence, in part, by the Assad regime. Yet by Obama’s stringent standards, Assad’s continued rule for the moment still doesn’t rise to the level of direct challenge to America’s national security.

This is what is so controversial about the president’s approach, and what will be controversial for years to come—the standard he has used to define what, exactly, constitutes a direct threat.

Obama has come to a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it. The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests. The second is that even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place. The third is that the innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power. The fourth is that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power. Just as the leaders of several American allies have found Obama’s leadership inadequate to the tasks before him, he himself has found world leadership wanting: global partners who often lack the vision and the will to spend political capital in pursuit of broad, progressive goals, and adversaries who are not, in his mind, as rational as he is. Obama believes that history has sides, and that America’s adversaries — and some of its putative allies — have situated themselves on the wrong one, a place where tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and militarism still flourish. What they don’t understand is that history is bending in his direction.

“The central argument is that by keeping America from immersing itself in the crises of the Middle East, the foreign-policy establishment believes that the president is precipitating our decline,” Ben Rhodes told me. “But the president himself takes the opposite view, which is that overextension in the Middle East will ultimately harm our economy, harm our ability to look for other opportunities and to deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons that are not in the direct American national-security interest.”

If you are a supporter of the president, his strategy makes eminent sense: Double down in those parts of the world where success is plausible, and limit America’s exposure to the rest. His critics believe, however, that problems like those presented by the Middle East don’t solve themselves — that, without American intervention, they metastasize.

At the moment, Syria, where history appears to be bending toward greater chaos, poses the most direct challenge to the president’s worldview. [Continue reading…]

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For Bernie Sanders, foreign policy is an afterthought

David Ignatius writes: Sanders’s statements on Syria suggest that he would take a position embraced by many self-described realists. His first priority, he has said, would be a “broad coalition, including Russia,” to defeat the Islamic State. “Our second priority must be getting rid of [President Bashar al-Assad], through some political settlement, working with Iran, working with Russia.”

Some critics would argue that it’s immoral to make replacing a leader who used chemical weapons a secondary concern. But Sanders’s defenders could argue that foreign policy is about making clear choices, especially when they aren’t easy.

Foreign policy just hasn’t been on Sanders’s radar: His campaign website lists 22 important issues. “Income and wealth inequality” is at the top, and 19 are about domestic policy. Just three involve foreign concerns, and one of these is climate change, which Sanders has described as the biggest threat to national security.

Unease about Sanders partly reflects the fact that he seems to have no real foreign policy mentors. The Sanders campaign made comical missteps in the past few weeks when it tried to name his key foreign policy advisers. Several of them said they had briefed the candidate just once or twice; one was a full-time White House staffer. [Continue reading…]

In place of foreign policy advisers, Sanders is most likely relying on foreign policy advice: the less said, the better.

Politically, that might be sound advice during an election campaign, but it has a corrosive effect because it does nothing to challenge the affliction that always distorts the way America deals with the world: the prevailing sense that the rest of the world doesn’t matter.

Isolationists can’t effectively tackle global issues — including climate change.

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The limits of American realism

Roger Cohen writes: Is realism really, really what America wants as the cornerstone of its foreign policy?

Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University, has an eloquent ode to realism in Foreign Policy magazine. He argues that, with realism as the bedrock of its approach to the world over the past quarter century, the United States would have fared far better. Realists, he reminds us, “have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint.”

Pessimism is a useful source of prudence in both international and personal affairs. Walt’s piece makes several reasonable points. But he omits the major European conflict of the period under consideration — the wars of Yugoslavia’s destruction, in which some 140,000 people were killed and millions displaced.

Realists had a field day with that carnage, beginning with former Secretary of State James Baker’s early assessment that, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” This view was echoed by various self-serving assessments from the Clinton White House that justified inaction through the portrayal of the Balkans as the locus of millennial feuds neither comprehensible nor resolvable.

True, discerning a vital American national interest in places with names like Omarska was not obvious, even if the wars upset the European peace America had committed to maintaining since 1945. The realpolitik case for intervention was flimsy. Sarajevo was not going to break America, less even than Raqqa today.

The moral case was, however, overwhelming, beginning with the Serbian use in 1992 of concentration camps to kill Bosnian Muslim men deemed threatening, and expel Muslim women and children. These methods culminated at Srebrenica in 1995 with the Serbian slaughter of about 8,000 male inhabitants. In the three-year interim, while realists rationalized restraint, Serbian shelling of Sarajevo blew up European women and children on a whim. Only when President Clinton changed his mind and NATO began concerted bombing was a path opened to ending the war.

I covered that conflict and its resolution. For my baby-boomer generation, spared Europe’s repetitive bloodshed by American military and strategic resolve, it was a pivotal experience. After that, no hymn to realism pure and simple could ever be persuasive. Walt calls me “a liberal internationalist;” I’ll take that as an honorable badge. [Continue reading…]

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The Kissingerian view of the Middle East

Responding to a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Henry Kissinger, Rami G Khoury describes the following problems: The first is the tendency to see Middle Easterners largely in terms of religious or ethnic groups, like Sunnis, Shiites, Maronites, Alawites, and Kurds, who wage existential battles for control of territory, resources, or power. The Middle East, in the Kissingerian worldview, is an urban wasteland defined by armed gangs.

Non-state actors and ethno-sectarian nationalisms have emerged as important actors of political contestation in the Middle East in the past 15 years, to be sure, but our region is defined by much more than feuding Houthis, Alawites, Shiites, Kurds, Sunnis, Hizbollah, Hamas, the Mahdi Army, and other such groups. Even sovereign and powerful states like Saudi Arabia and Iran are defined in this mindset as Sunni or Shiite powers, rather than the sovereign and powerful states of Saudi Arabia and Iran with their varied populations that they are.

The second problem in that the Kissingerian view of the Middle East seems to have no place for — or it simply is blind to — the nearly half a billion individual men and women, mostly Muslims, who live here and shape these societies and states. They have done so for millennia, in fact, and these people all seek the same thing that Kissinger presumably seeks for Americans: a stable, decent society where citizens can live in peace and enjoy opportunities to develop their full human talents. In the eye of those who only see the Middle East defined by warring gangs, sects and ethnicities, no real human beings enter the picture. The Kissingerian Middle East lacks humans and their rights, because the Middle East he sees is somewhere between a professorial strategic analysis exercise for graduate students and a war game played on a board with dice.

My third problem is with the consistent American official view of Iran as a dangerous and untrustworthy brute that has, “jihadist and imperialist designs” across the region. Even after the United States negotiated with Iran an important agreement on nuclear capabilities and sanctions, this view still sees Iran using its allies Syria, Hizbollah, Iraq and the Houthis of Yemen to one day encircle the Sunni bloc of states comprising Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the smaller Gulf states. Kissinger sees these as two “rigid and apocalyptic blocs” that face off and threaten each other. This exaggerated and dramatized view cannot be taken seriously by anyone, other than those hundreds of policy-makers and policy-influencers in Washington who believe this intellectual wildness.

My fourth and biggest criticism of this way of seeing U.S. policy challenges in the Middle East is that it ascribes to the United States only noble and peace-loving motives, while totally — I mean totally — ignoring any of the consequences of U.S. military and political policies in the region in the past six decades, or since the U.S. CIA helped to overthrow the Mossadegh regime in Iran. It serves nobody any good to ignore how American and other foreign powers’ policies in our region contributed to the underlying problems that shattered the superficial calm — other than occasional Arab-Israeli wars — that had defined our region from World War Two to the Arab uprisings of 2010-11. [Continue reading…]

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The case for an unprincipled foreign policy

Musa al-Gharbi writes: With pomp and polish and platitudes, the 2016 presidential campaign is underway. It began in December, as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced he was “actively exploring” a run for the White House. Bush is more moderate than much of the Republican base on many issues — perhaps too moderate to win his party’s nomination, according to Nate Silver’s statistical analysis. On foreign policy issues, however, Bush tows a hawkish line, pushing for a more aggressive U.S. posture against Syria, Russia, Iran, China, and Cuba in order to better promote and defend American ideals and interests throughout the globe.

On the whole, the Republican hopefuls are “racing to the right” on foreign policy, arguing for a more muscular approach to international affairs. A narrative is taking hold that many of the problems facing the world today are the result of the Obama administration’s “failed leadership.” More specifically, they were not brought about by America’s ill-conceived actions, but instead, because of U.S. inaction: a failure to intervene as often or aggressively as “needed” around the world, which (to many conservatives’ minds) projected American weakness and undermined U.S. credibility. The solution? Clear principled American leadership. This line of reasoning permeates the recently-announced campaigns of noted surgeon Ben Carson, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and increasingly reflects the political strategy of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as well.

The presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is perhaps more aggressive still: unwavering in her advocacy of Israel, comparing Putin to Hitler over Ukraine, pushing for a more confrontational approach to China, championing intervention in Libya and Syria (just as she previously did for Iraq), supporting the troop surge in Afghanistan as well as the likely ill-fated campaign against ISIL, defending the counterproductive drone program, and arguing for increased sanctions and the threat of force against Iran (although she now tentatively supports the nuclear negotiation effort).

During her pre-announcement book tour, Clinton lambasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy, particularly the administration’s aspirational credo: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Her complaint was not that the Obama administration has failed to live up to such a modest goal, but instead, that “don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle, and America instead needs doctrines to guide its foreign policy.

On its face, that criticism is absurd. Clearly, “avoid doing harm” is, in fact, a maxim designed to guide action (just ask any medical professional). It’s a principle guiding what not to do, rather than what to do, but for that very reason, it is the basis of (and more important than) any offensive strategy: it constrains what sorts of affirmative policies are desirable or even permissible. But notwithstanding this apparent lack of understanding about what “organizing principle” means, there is a more profound error that Secretary Clinton holds in common with the Republican frontrunners: the assumption that grand strategies are necessary or useful in guiding foreign policy. They aren’t. [Continue reading…]

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How the CIA has been pulling the strings of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11

Yochi Dreazen and Seán D. Naylor report: Since its creation in 1947, the CIA has steadily evolved from an agency devoted to its mission of spying on foreign governments to one whose current priority is tracking and killing individual militants in an increasing number of countries. It has been well documented that the agency’s growing scope and depth of influence in the counterterrorism fight reflects its growing skill at hunting America’s enemies from Pakistan to Yemen. What is more surprising, however, is the CIA’s adept navigation of public scandals and its outmaneuvering of the DNI and opponents from the White House, Congress, the Defense Department, and the rest of the intelligence community. Through such machinations, the spy agency has managed to weaken or eliminate crucial counterweights to its own power.

To be sure, an empowered and largely autonomous CIA has global repercussions. Much of what the world associates with U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks—from drone strikes in the Middle East to the network of secret prisons around the world and the torture that occurred within their walls—originated at Langley. And given the agency’s dominance, the CIA seems bound to retain its outsize role in how the United States acts and is perceived abroad. With the agency at the forefront of another looming U.S. war in the Middle East, its primacy will again be put to the test.

Today, the CIA is the tip of the spear of the administration’s growing effort to beat back the Islamic State, which controls broad stretches of Iraq and Syria. CIA officers in small bases along the Turkish and Jordanian borders have helped to find, vet, and train members of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition so they can fight to dislodge the Islamic State and, ultimately, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. In addition, the agency is responsible for helping to funnel weapons and other supplies to rebels. Meanwhile, the Pentagon, which dwarfs the CIA in size, resources, and congressional backing, is dispatching Special Forces personnel to the region to carry out basically the same training mission. But if the two pillars of the national security establishment were to collide over Iraq and Syria, it would be a mistake to assume that the CIA would lose out. For better—and sometimes for worse—the CIA has been winning just these types of fights since the war on terror began 14 long years ago. [Continue reading…]

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Noam Chomsky: America’s real foreign policy

It goes without saying that the honchos of the national security state weren’t exactly happy with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations.  Still, over the last year, the comments of such figures, politicians associated with them, and retirees from their world clearly channeling their feelings have had a striking quality: over-the-top vituperation.  About the nicest thing anyone in that crew has had to say about Snowden is that he’s a “traitor” or — shades of the Cold War era (and of absurdity, since the State Department trapped him in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport by taking his passport away) — a “Russian spy.”  And that’s the mild stuff.  Such figures have also regularly called for his execution, for quite literally stringing him up from the old oak tree and letting him dangle in the breeze.  Theirs has been a bloodcurdling collective performance that gives the word “visceral” new meaning.

Such a response to the way Snowden released batches of NSA documents to Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman calls for explanation.  Here’s mine: the NSA’s goal in creating a global surveillance state was either utopian or dystopian (depending on your point of view), but in either case, breathtakingly totalistic.  Its top officials meant to sweep up every electronic or online way one human being can communicate with others, and to develop the capability to surveil and track every inhabitant of the planet.  From German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to peasants with cell phones in the backlands of Afghanistan (not to speak of American citizens anywhere), no one was to be off the hook.  Conceptually, there would be no exceptions.  And the remarkable thing is how close the agency came to achieving this.

Whether consciously or not, however, the officials of the U.S. Intelligence Community did imagine one giant exception: themselves.  No one outside the loop was supposed to know what they were doing.  They alone on the planet were supposed to be unheard, unspied upon, and unsurveilled.  The shock of Snowden’s revelations, I suspect, and the visceral reactions came, in part, from the discovery that such a system really did have no exceptions, not even them.  In releasing the blueprint of their world, Snowden endangered nothing in the normal sense of the term, but that made him no less of a traitor to their exceptional world as they imagined it.  What he ensured was that, as they surveil us, we can now in some sense track them.  His act, in other words, dumped them in with the hoi polloi — with us — which, under the circumstances, was the ultimate insult and they responded accordingly.

An allied explanation lurks in Noam Chomsky’s latest TomDispatch post.  If the “security” in national security means not the security of the American people but, as he suggests, of those who run the national security state, and if secrecy is the attribute of power, then Edward Snowden broke their code of secrecy and exposed power itself to the light in a devastating and deflating way.  No wonder the reaction to him was so bloodthirsty and vitriolic.  Chomsky himself has an unsettling way of exposing various worlds of power, especially American power, to the light with similarly deflating results.  He’s been doing it for half a century and only gets better. Tom Engelhardt

Whose security?
How Washington protects itself and the corporate sector
By Noam Chomsky

The question of how foreign policy is determined is a crucial one in world affairs.  In these comments, I can only provide a few hints as to how I think the subject can be productively explored, keeping to the United States for several reasons.  First, the U.S. is unmatched in its global significance and impact.  Second, it is an unusually open society, possibly uniquely so, which means we know more about it.  Finally, it is plainly the most important case for Americans, who are able to influence policy choices in the U.S. — and indeed for others, insofar as their actions can influence such choices.  The general principles, however, extend to the other major powers, and well beyond.

There is a “received standard version,” common to academic scholarship, government pronouncements, and public discourse.  It holds that the prime commitment of governments is to ensure security, and that the primary concern of the U.S. and its allies since 1945 was the Russian threat.

There are a number of ways to evaluate the doctrine.  One obvious question to ask is: What happened when the Russian threat disappeared in 1989?  Answer: everything continued much as before.

[Read more…]

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Obama’s real failure: His reluctance to talk to the Taliban

Peter Beinart writes: There are three kinds of critiques of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. The first comes from the left, from commentators like Glenn Greenwald who claim Obama has embraced the architecture of George W. Bush’s war on terror: unlawful spying, unlawful detention, unlawful drone attacks, cozy relations with dictators. The second comes from the right, from hawks who believe Obama has appeased anti-American tyrants in Syria, Russia, and Iran, while retreating from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and thus weakening American credibility. The third, and least discussed, comes from foreign-policy professionals, including those within Obama’s administration. Ideologically, it’s harder to classify. These professionals argue that in his zeal to focus on domestic policy, and to avoid risky foreign-policy fights, the president simply hasn’t invested the time and political will to effectively wield American power.

One purveyor of this third critique is Obama’s former envoy to Syria, Robert Ford. When Republicans attack the administration’s Syria policy, they mostly focus on Obama’s decision to declare Syrian chemical weapons a “red line,” and then fail to act militarily when Bashar al-Assad crossed it, allegedly making America look weak. Ford’s critique is different. This week — in a public break with his former boss — he argued that by not aiding Syria’s rebels when they initially took up arms, before jihadists became a dominant force in the armed opposition, Obama squandered an opportunity to pressure Assad into a diplomatic deal. Unlike Republican politicians, who want to paint Obama as a wimp for not launching missile strikes in the country, Ford’s critique is that the president — in his desire to avoid getting sucked into a messy and risky civil war—proved too passive not only militarily, but diplomatically as well.

Ford’s criticism echoes one leveled by another former Obama State Department official, Vali Nasr, in his book The Dispensable Nation. In recent days, Republicans have flayed the White House for “negotiating with terrorists” in order to secure the Taliban’s release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. But Nasr, who worked under special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, maintains that Obama’s failure was to not negotiate with the Taliban enough. Like Ford, he thinks Obama’s main problem was not his refusal to stand up to America’s enemies, but his refusal to engage them the right way. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s foreign puzzle, not a real foreign policy

Carne Ross writes: Even before President Obama spoke to the US military academy at West Point on Wednesday, the White House trumpeted his commencement address as offering a unifying vision of US foreign policy – one that is “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral“.

With an introduction like that, it came as a welcome surprise that the speech was merely intelligible. I liked the anti-thoughtless-intervention line – “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail” – but much of the nearly hour-long speech was a dull checklist of world problems (and the UN Law of the Sea Convention!), most addressed by the routine oversimplifications required on such occasions.

Obama’s “vision” was peppered with confusing vocabulary about “realists” and “interventionists”, both depicted as straw men, and too many predictable bromides about international cooperation, democracy and “human dignity”. And I say this as a former speechwriter who also used to lean on such filler.

There was no over-arching theme to this rhetoric, save Obama’s recommitment to American exceptionalism (“with every fiber of my being”) and his rejection of mindless invasions. Not much to disagree with there, but not much new either. One couldn’t avoid the impression that this speech marked the end of a war-laden chapter for the US – with little clear idea of what the next chapter should really mean, save the repetitious evocation of “American leadership”.

The leitmotif of Obama’s foreign policy – and the first item of his West Point talk – is withdrawal, as Tuesday’s announcement about drawdown in Afghanistan reconfirmed. So what about the rest of Obama’s foreign policy?

Facts, not rhetoric, paint a picture of this administration’s troubling and often counterproductive inconsistency abroad. There is some good, but there is plenty that’s really bad.

From drones and emissions, to the South China Sea to Somalia to the Crimea and back again, it’s not easy connect the many dots of America’s foreign policies. Because aside from tortured rhetoric, unified they are not. [Continue reading…]

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Is honesty the best foreign policy?

We live — as politicians frequently repeat — under the rule of law and there is nothing the legal system frowns on more earnestly than perjury. Hence during trials the solemn ritual that witnesses must swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And then there is government, where the conduct of the people’s business apparently requires the economical expression of truth, the guarding of secrecy and a subtle contempt for honesty — as though only those who are ignorant about the way the world works would attach great value to truthfulness.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, asked HRW staff to canvass sources in Tunisia to gauge the impact of the revelations from WikiLeaks and how they influenced the revolution.

The candid appraisal of Ben Ali by U.S. diplomats showed Tunisians that the rottenness of the regime was obvious not just to them but to the whole world — and that it was a source of shame for Tunisia on an international stage. The cables also contradicted the prevailing view among Tunisians that Washington would back Ben Ali to the bloody end, giving them added impetus to take to the streets. They further delegitimized the Tunisian leader and boosted the morale of his opponents at a pivotal moment in the drama that unfolded over the last few weeks.

This point might not be worth dwelling on, except that it suggests something interesting about how the United States, and the State Department in particular, approaches the challenge of promoting human rights and democracy in countries like Tunisia. Consider the following proposition: None of the decent, principled, conscientious, but behind the scenes efforts the State Department made in recent years to persuade the Tunisian government to relax its authoritarian grip — mostly through diplomatic démarches and meetings with top Tunisian officials — had any significant impact on the Ben Ali regime’s behavior or increased the likelihood of democratic change. Nor did the many quiet U.S. programs of outreach to Tunisian society, cultural exchanges and the like, even if Tunisians appreciated them and they will bear fruit as the country democratizes.

Instead, the one thing that did seem to have some impact was a public statement exposing what the United States really thought about the Ben Ali regime: a statement that was vivid, honest, raw, undiplomatic, extremely well-timed — and completely inadvertent.

Had anyone at the State Department proposed deliberately making a statement along the lines of what appears in the cables, they would have been booted out of Foggy Bottom as quickly as you can say “we value our multifaceted relationship with the GOT.” [Continue reading…]

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Why think tanks attract sycophantic opportunists

Benjamin H. Friedman lists the reasons think tank analysts lack intellectual independence. Think tanks are shaped by five forces creating political bias:

The first is institutional funding. If you take government or industry money, you will hesitate to undertake research that offends your sponsors. Many people see foundations as somehow cleaner money, but they too have agendas. Even those of us that rely on donations from many individuals of an ideological persuasion get selected to advance that ideology and thus cannot much violate it.

Second, personal profit biases ideas. Many defense and homeland security experts, especially the most prominent ones, work for defense contractors or investment companies in that industry.

Third is ambition. Those concerned with defense analysts’ independence tend to focus on money, but as Hans Morgenthau tells us, power matters more. Analysts tend to reflect the views of one party because they hope to serve it or because their employer does. Those pining for jobs in the Obama or Thune administration are not going to tell you exactly what they think about Afghanistan without considering how their would-be bosses would react.

A fourth bias in defense analysis is what academics call a selection bias. Just as people that go into the international development business are likely to support increased foreign aid, defense analysts are more likely than most to be hawkish people.

Fifth is social convention. When these pressures point in a particular direction, it seems impolite and for many people uncomfortable to swim against the tide. And we unconsciously adjust our political views to fit in with those around us.

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