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I Read the Green Party’s Foreign Policy Platform

By Taylor Marvin

At Salon, Matt Stoller has a deliberately provocative piece outlining what he calls “the progressive case against Obama”. Stoller lists the left’s arguments with the Obama presidency, and concludes that voters who don’t live in swing states and have little influence on the presidential election should support a third party protest vote. In Stoller’s eyes this act of liberal protest is important, because “saying no to evil in 2012 will help us understand who is willing to say no to evil when it really matters.” I won’t get into the practical arguments against encouraging progressives to support alternative candidates, even with Stoller’s unconvincing cavet that only those outside of swing states throw away their vote. But third parties’ policies beyond a few pet issues are generally myopically idealistic, at best. While this doesn’t dismiss the very real problems with the common Democratic and Republican policy consensus, it makes them difficult to take seriously.

Stoller’s criticism of the Obama presidency’s “evil” focuses on domestic policy; the only foreign policy issue Stoller mentions is the counter-terrorism drone campaign. But Stoller’s lucky to not highlight foreign policy, because the foreign policy platform of the left’s leading alternative to the Democratic Party is an incoherent confusion. I’m talking, of course, about the Green Party.

The Green Party’s platform is problematic for numerous reasons, but perhaps worse is the insistence on reducing complex problems down to idealized solutions with a clear delineation between good and evil. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t allow for such idealism or moral clarity. Notably, the Green Party foreign policy platform endorses the UN’s right to “intervene in a nation-state engaged in genocidal acts or in its persistent violation and denial of the human rights of an ethnic or religious group within its boundaries, and the right to protect the victims of such acts.” But five items down, the platform rejects the US’ right to “pre-emptive invasion of another country on the grounds that the other country harbors, trains, equips and funds a terrorist cell.” See the problem here? Foreign military intervention motivated by the desire to remove or coerce a terrorist-supporting regime is no different from military intervention to prevent genocide. For all the ideological space between the typically liberal defenders of the Responsibility to Protect and conservatives in favor of a hawkish anti-terrorism agenda, military interventions are risky and costly strategies whatever the motivation. Genocides and human rights violations are often popular with non-targeted social groups and regime supporters; these groups are likely to violently resist a outsider’s attempt to remove their privileges. As Erica Chenoweth noted today, contrary to common knowledge genocides most often take place within civil wars. Halting the genocide means taking a side in an ongoing civil war and terminating the conflict by winning it, likely not what the Green Party’s supporters have in mind. When outsiders have successfully halted genocide it typically requires an extensive ground invasion, like in World War II or the 1978 Cambodian-Vietnamese War. Interestingly  in spite of its insistance that the US has a right, through the UN, to invade human rights abusing states, the document does not mention the word “Syria”. (Or course, the Republican platform’s mild call for a “transition” to a post-Assad government is just as bad.)

How to “intervene in a nation-state engaged in genocidal acts”. Cambodian-Vietnamese war, via Wikimedia.

The Green Party’s inability to recognize that the ideals of a “just war” to prevent genocide do not magic away the intractable problems of escalation and post-conflict governance is a major blind spot, and one that severely damages their purported non-interventionist credibility. As analyst Andrew Exum noted when discussing liberal interventionist calls for intervention in Syria, “when it comes to post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction, most liberal interventionists are no better than most neoconservatives.” It’s possible to argue that the horrors of genocide and massive human rights violation warrant risky and violent military actions to stop them. But insisting on the meaningless distinction that military intervention is right when targeting human rights violators and wrong when tackling terrorism sponsors is no attempt to engage this difficult argument.

Like the youthfully naive supporters of the Kony 2012 movement, Green’s idealism appears to blind them to the violent realities of the foreign interventions they do support. The Green Party platform calls for phasing out the majority of US military bases abroad, without recognizing that it is the US’ extensive network of overseas bases that allow it to quickly project military power — without these bases, you can’t fight wars to halt genocide.

Similarly, the platform’s nuclear policy is misinformed at best. Aside from calling for abolishing all US nuclear weapons, the Green Party calls for a US declaration of a no-first-use policy without recognizing that countries that do have a stated no-first-use policy — China, India, and North Korea — all lack robust second strike capability: no-first-use isn’t a statement of morality, but rather a purely diplomatic first-strike deterrence. The Greens also call for the US to “dismantle all nuclear warheads from their missiles”. This presumably requires phasing out ballistic missile submarines, which are by far the most stabilizing leg of the nuclear triad. Arms control advocates should instead be calling for greater reliance on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and phasing out land-based ones: the Green Party has it precisely opposite.

There are parts of the domestic policy platform that have real appeal: the US should reduce its defense expenditures, and should end the Cuban embargo. But the Green Party, like other third parties, demolishes its appeal with a confused mix of ill-researched foreign policy prescriptions. Worst of all is the platform’s flirtation with 9/11 trutherism: the domestic security section begins with a call for a “complete, thorough, impartial, and independent investigation of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, including the role of the administration of George W, Bush, various US based corporations and interests, and other nations and third parties.” Shame aside, pandering to conspiracy theorist dilutes the credibility of the Greens’ good ideas.

Even if there’s so much wrong with the Green Party’s foreign policy, are they worth a protest vote? The problem is that a protest vote is a single signal. It’s difficult for protest voters to only endorse only part of a third party’s platform, because this nuance is often lost when the signal reaches policymakers. Conor Friedersdorf may see his vote for Gary Johnson as a protest against the drone war and intervention in Libya, but it’s also a signal that his vote supports disastrous economic policy and mass unemployment. Friedersdorf may argue that Johnson’s economic libertarianism doesn’t matter, because, unlike foreign policy, domestic policy is largely dictated by Congress, not the president. But these two arenas aren’t so easily separable: if the protest of a protest vote means anything at all, it’s the signal that matters. Friedersdorf’s recognition of this signal is explicit in a followup post: “Causes are best advanced by signalling to politicians and their partisans that specific behavior will end up costing them winnable votes.” Daniel Larison, who also leans towards Johnson, makes a similar point: “The purpose of voting third party on foreign policy grounds is to register a protest against at least some aspects of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy”. But this attitude misunderstands signaling, and overestimates the receptiveness of its audience. For ever politician that reads Friedersdorf’s vote for Johnson as an incentive to oppose the drone war, another will see an electoral reward for gutting social services. Protest vote signals don’t allow for nuance, particularly if they aren’t cast by major columnists who can spend thousands of words explaining just what issue their third party vote is, in fact, protesting. If a protest vote for the Green Party is a signal towards politicians to move towards the left on vital but neglected issues like climate change, it’s also in favor of idealistic military interventions and bad nuclear policy.

Shortchanging a Good Argument, Homeland Edition

By Taylor Marvin

This piece does NOT contain Homeland spoilers.

Columbia professor Joseph Massad has a long critique of Islamophobia and racism in the popular terrorism drama Homeland. Massad’s critique is blistering [Warning: Massad’s piece contains major unmarked Homeland spoilers. Seriously: if you want to watch the show don’t read it.]:

“If in the 1970s, American children were taught on the American children’s TV program ‘Sesame Street’ that the word ‘danger’ connotes ‘Arabs’ by showing a drawing of an Arab with a headdress next to the word, a more recent and very popular American program titled ‘Homeland’ hardly deviates from this formula.”

President Obama’s stated he enjoys the show. Massad also condemns this support, remarking “that American shows are now equal-opportunity offenders in their racism against internal and external others is hardly news, but that the first black American president is a fan of them should be.”

I haven’t seen Homeland, and won’t get into Massad’s critique of the show (though remarks highlighting Homeland’s ignorance of Arab culture seem to be widespread, as are attacks on the show’s understanding of counter-terrorism and foreign and military policy). But his general critique of America’s systematic Islamophobia and pop culture’s pervasive othering of characters of Middle Eastern descent is correct. “American media racism,” Massad writes, “is… just a branch of a larger American racism and racialism on which much of American culture, history, and national identity is based.” This is certainly true. Throughout American media characters of Middle Eastern descent are depicted as both fundamentally separate from the constructed American identity, and as a threat to it (though some shows, notably the comedy Community, challenge this perception).

This practice of media othering extends to other ethnicities. While the othering of ethically East Asian characters is typically presented as less threatening as those of Middle Eastern descent, it is pervasive.  As I argued last year, ethically East Asian characters are rarely presented as existing beyond their ethnicity: “Unlike African American or Hispanic characters, when TV shows feature Asian American actors their ethnicity usually plays an integral part in the way their character is presented.”

While I cannot judge his critique of Homeland, Massad is right to note that Islamophobia and racial othering of Middle Eastern characters remains pervasive in American media. But Massad’s piece does little to advance this argument, as it’s filled with exaggerated claims that significantly damage his credibility. Notably, Massad writes:

“While [Homeland’s] plot resembles that of the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, and the anxiety about the enemy within, the drone attacks that kill hundreds of innocent children have been a real Obama specialty for years, extending from Pakistan to Afghanistan and Yemen. In that, perhaps Obama does see the show as something he can identify with personally.”

So, because the Obama administration utilizes drone strikes as a counterterrorism strategy he identifies with a 21st century retelling of The Manchurian Candidate? Laying aside Massad’s claim to know Obama’s mind, this hardly makes sense.

Worse is Massad’s discussion of Homeland actor Morena Baccarin:

“[Lead character Brody’s] wife is played by the Brazilian actress Morena Baccarin who looks suspiciously brown, but nonetheless is presented as white! Baccarin’s roles on previous TV shows have mostly been in science fiction, presumably due to her ‘alien’ looks.”

This is… silly, even leaving aside Massad’s bizarre assertion that Baccarin looks “suspiciously brown” in Homeland. Baccarin’s first big role was Firefly, the infamously cancelled sci fi Western created by Joss Whedon. Massad’s critique shows that he certainly hasn’t watched Firefly. First, Massad assumes that Baccarin was cast in Firefly because of her “alien” ethnicity, but fails to mention that Baccarin doesn’t play an alien character. Presuming that she was cast because of her Brazilian heritage is simply an invented argument. Arguing that Baccarin’s casting indicates she is viewed as an alien other by mainstream American society makes no sense. Secondly, if Massad wants to argue that non-whites are cast in science fiction because of their “alienness” Firefly is a uniquely bad show to highlight.With it strong Western themes and visual tropes Firefly is an almost jingoistic celebration of a quintessentially American identity  even five centuries in the future; notably, Whedon has remarked that the show was inspired by the experience of ex-Confederates in the post-Civil War American West. Casting Baccarin in such a narrative suggests the opposite of Massad’s argument.

America, in space. “Alien looks” on the left.

As the the love interest of the shows faux-Confederate lead, Baccarin’s character is deeply tied to Firefly’s implicit celebration of American libertarian and expansionistic mythology; despite her character’s othered profession (a socially respected prostitute), “alien” she’s certainly not. There are numerous reasons to criticize Firefly’s racial politics — I personally find the show racist, for describing a future society amicably dominated by American and Chinese descendants yet failing to cast a single ethnically East Asian character — but othering Baccarin as an alien isn’t one of them.

Similarly, in Baccarin’s other major pre-Homeland starring role, the science fiction remake V, she plays the role of an alien villain. However, the show gives Baccarin’s character a very short haircut uncommon among American women — clearly, the producers are not relying on Baccarin’s Brazilian heritage to other her character! Also: alien eyes.

Again, I do not have a problem with Massad’s overall argument, and am not in a position to remark on Homeland. But finding “‘alien’ looks” in Morena Baccarin is inventing a bias that just isn’t there, and is a lazy argument.

Birth Defects in Iraq

By Taylor Marvin

Via @pourmecoffeeThe Independent reports a huge rise in Iraqi birth defects, caused by lead and depleted uranium rounds used during the war:

“The latest study found that in Fallujah, more than half of all babies surveyed were born with a birth defect between 2007 and 2010. Before the siege, this figure was more like one in 10. Prior to the turn of the millennium, fewer than 2 per cent of babies were born with a defect. More than 45 per cent of all pregnancies surveyed ended in miscarriage in the two years after 2004, up from only 10 per cent before the bombing. Between 2007 and 2010, one in six of all pregnancies ended in miscarriage.”

This is awful, and as @pourmecoffee notes, underreported in the US media — no one likes to read about the long term damage caused by their country’s wars, especially when the harm causes is something as vicerally awful as  birth defects.

I think an interesting avenue for research would be how war affect fetal health outcomes through the maternal stress channel, rather than environmental toxicity. In a recent thesis project I looked at whether earthquakes in Chile raise the incidence of low birth weight pregnancies through maternal stress. I found a small but significant positive correlation between earthquake intensity and the incidence of low birth weight pregnancies in the third trimester, as well as increased diagnosis of mental health issue in women who experience earthquakes during their first trimester. It is reasonable to suspect a similar relationship for war-related stress, and a quick literature search turns up few previous studies.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Georges de La Tour, “The Fortune Teller”, between 1633 and 1639. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Fred Kaplan, Spencer Ackerman and Mark Bowden talk the foreign policy debate. See Erica Chenoweth and Oliver Kaplan as well.

US-Russian nuclear cooperation is not dead. Relatedly, the possibility of eliminating Russia’s nuclear-armed Moscow ABM defense.

Hyping AirSea Battle (via Jonathan Rue).

Why Romney is the war candidate. Daniel Larison has more. While it’s important to take anything a candidate says debating with a grain of salt, I think Romney’s absolute refusal to even consider the possibility of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran is worrying on a signaling basis.

With 60,000 dead, Mexicans wonder why drug war doesn’t rate in presidential debate.

Broken BRICs: “the notion of wide-ranging convergence between the developing and the developed worlds is a myth.”

The risks of ignoring strategic insolvency (via Matthew Hill).

Psychology and security: Enduring questions, different answers.

The Civil Wars – C’est La Mort.

Weighing a Dedicated Ballistic Missile Defense Class

By Taylor Marvin

I’ve previously discussed what I see as the deficiencies of Mitt Romney’s naval policy: Romney hasn’t made a compelling argument why the fleet should grow to 350 ships beyond vague notions of national strength, and hasn’t explained why he thinks even a marginally larger fleet will be an effective power projection force able to penetrate dangerous anti-access no-go zones. However, in a recent interview with Defense News Romney advisor John Lehman and his conflicts of interest made an interesting suggestion: building two new classes of ships, a frigate and a dedicated missile defense ship. The new frigate proposal is arguably a good one, as the impending retirement of the antiquated Oliver Hazard Perry class and small size and restricted range of the upcoming Littoral Combat Ship make it unsuitable for the routine sea policing and showing the flag missions frigates excel at.

San Antonio class, via Wikimedia.

More controversial is the proposal for a dedicated ballistic missile defense (BMD) ship. To reduce development costs, Lehman explains, the ship would be built on either the existing DDG-1000 (guided missile destroyer) or LPD 17 (San Antonio class amphibious transport dock) hull. Calling the proposal a missile defense “ship” rather than destroyer is important, Lehman explained, “because to have the kind of power aperture needed for the new radar, there is always a conflict between a deployable battle group ship and a missile defense ship. The latter is in elevated [readiness condition], tied to a specific area. It can’t deploy with the battle group.”

This is an interesting proposal. Offshore ballistic missile defense is a growing mission for the Navy, and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) like China’s formidable DF-21D system are a major threat to surface ships. A dedicated anti-ballistic missile (ABM) ship capable of targeting and destroying ballistic missiles would certainly increase the survivability of carrier strike groups, as well as serve in the region BMD role.

However, there are also numerous problems with this proposal, and it merits careful consideration. The greatest asset of the current fleet composition is its versatility. Destroyers contribute to carrier strike groups as well as perform solo sea policing, and are capable of anti-submarine, anti-air, and surface warfare roles. For all the talk about the demise of carriers, their power projection capability will remain reliable and unrivaled in anything but a major war, which is unlikely to occur in the future. As the United States is unable to predict what type of future conflicts it will involve itself in, versatility is paramount to cost effectiveness, especially as the cost of individual platforms grows.

This is a problem for a dedicated ABM ship. Whiled we can’t say much about what the capabilities of such a ship would be until an actual proposal is ironed out, it would certainly be tied to a single mission to a greater extent than other classes. But of course, this lack of versatility is the cost of excelling at a single mission. A dedicated ABM ship would have significant advantages over the Navy’s current ABM strategy, which relies on Aegis-equipped Ticonderoga class cruisers (four of which have been kept in service for their ABM capability after previously being slated for retirement) and Arleigh Burke class destroyers, as well as allies’ like Japan’s Aegis ABM-equipped destroyers. Starting in 2016 the Navy is scheduled to procure Flight III Burke class destroyers, which will mount the larger and more powerful Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) system to better perform the BMD mission. However, fitting these ships with the bulky mechanical equipment required for such a large sensor system means compromising their designs, and Flight III’s cost per unit has already risen to between $3 and $4 billion.

These ABM platforms suffer from various deficiencies due to their multirole design. But despite the limitations of BMD based on the Aegis system, these ships’ versatility is an enormous advantage. As Ronald O’Rourke notes:

“In conventional warfighting operations, Aegis ships could be called upon to perform a variety of non-BMD functions, including anti-air warfare, anti-surface warfare, strike warfare and naval surface fire support, and antisubmarine warfare. Locations that are good for performing BMD operations might not be good for performing non-BMD operations, and vice versa.”

Though important, the actual need for BMD is rare. Building a entire ship class dedicated to a rarely needed mission is problematic.

So the question is: do the advantages of a dedicated ABM class outweigh the limitations imposed on more versatile, multirole Aegis BMD ships? Possibly. A dedicated ABM ship would be able to better mount the AMDR system and would likely involve less design compromises. Additionally, utilizing the existing LPD 17 hull as Lehman suggests would likely free up a large amount of space for the Vertical Launch System (VLS) used to house missiles on modern warships, allowing for a dedicated ABM ship to carry more missiles. Most Burke class destroyers are fitted with 96 individual VLS cells; cruisers hold 122. As VLS cannot be reloaded at sea, during a major conflict ships could be forced to return to port to rearm, decreasing the amount of ships the US could keep in theater. Delegating the ballistic missile defense role to from surface combatants to a dedicated ABM ship would free up these ships’ VLS for other weapons. Depending on the flexibility of the design a dedicated ABM ship could also be loaded with non-ABM weaponry while not performing the BMD role.

Even if a Romney election victory leads to a larger, 350 ship fleet, there still is a zero-sum aspect to budgetary decisions — money that goes to a dedicated ABM class doesn’t go elsewhere. These costs are substantial; a dedicated ABM class would be expensive. For all Lehman’s talk of affordability, adapting an existing hull design for a new mission is not trivial, and the rising cost of the Flight III Burke class — in itself a simpler conversion than adapting a DDG 1000 or LDP 17 hull to the ABM role — are not a good omen. Lehman’s remark that the optimum power plant for a LDP 17-derived ABM ship “is not the one that’s in it” is also worrying, from an affordability standpoint. This affordability problem is confounded by a dedicated ABM class’ lack of flexibility, as there’s only so much the Navy can spend on a single mission. While the old arsenal ship idea calls for a large ship able to carry a large number of individual VLS cells is superficially similar to a dedicated ABM ship, the extensive sensors required for an ABM ship would negate the benefits of this “moderate cost, high benefit” proposal.

Worse, it’s not clear what benefit this class would provide. While ASBM are the by far the most dangerous threat facing surface ships, but they are not alone. US and allied forces in anti-access/area-denial environments face many threats beyond ballistic missiles, including cruise missiles, enemy aircraft, and for naval forces, submarines and mines; building a dedicated ABM ship is investing in an expensive class that cannot contribute to combating these threats. More troubling, as opponents of ballistic missile defense have noted for decades, ballistic missile defense is hard. BMD systems has performed poorly in combat — though admittedly modern systems have not had the dubious opportunity to prove their worth in wartime — and when successful in tests do so under carefully controlled conditions. If China really did want to sink a US supercarrier, they throw every anti-access weapons system they have against it: an attack by multiple ASBM warheads using decoys and jamming to degrade US countermeasures, combined with simultaneous cruise missile launches to overwhelm and distract defenders. This gets at the core problem with BMD: it will always be easier for an attacker to simply launch more missiles than the system can deal with. ASBM systems are difficult to build — it is not clear when China’s DF-21D will be an operational system — but are not particularly expensive by unit cost, and will certainly become both more common and proliferated in the future. It’s not clear if investing limited resources in a dedicated ship class is a good idea if an ABM ship would not actually be able to perform it’s mission, especially since fleet ballistic missile defense is not the “limited, unsophisticated strike” modern BMD advocates typically argue their systems are capable of defeating.

Of course if successful a dedicated ABM class would have real benefits. Notably, the ability to reliably to defeat intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase would allow the Navy to defend itself in a Western Pacific war without targeting missile launch sites in China. This is a core problem with the AirSea Battle concept: hitting missile launchers in China carries a dramatic potential to escalate a previously maritime conflict. Just as the British refrained from striking the Argentine mainland during the Falklands conflict, so should the US avoid potentially escalatory mainland strikes in a future war. Effective and reliable navla ABM ability could allow this. But this is a huge if, and it is very unclear if this uncertainty justifies an expensive new ship class.

(Non)Costly Signaling

By Taylor Marvin

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has issued a law restricting genetically modified foods in the interest of public health, the AFP reports. Most observers seem to be greeting the news with puzzlement, or at least irony: why does Assad care about GM food when killing tens of thousands of his own people?

The law is less puzzling than it appears, and can’t be separated from the Syrian Civil War. Assad’s path to victory rests on his ability to retain support among unaligned members of the populace and erode support for the rebels. His best way to do this is by projecting an illusion of strength; few opponents will lend tangible support to the rebels if they see a government victory as inevitable. If government forces can’t win major victories or reliably punish even minor transgressions, the best way for them to project strength is through an illusion of normalcy. Passing mundane laws is a way to convince fence-sitters that the civil war is not an existential threat, the government retains the ability to protect those that support it, and that supporting anti-government forces is misguided and suicidal. Of course, if Assad really is relying on passing inconsequential legislation — which the rebels have no means or interest in disrupting anyway — as a signal of the government’s resiliency, stronger ways of convincingly exhibiting the regime’s strength and commitment are likely not available.

Dreams of a Comforting Future

By Taylor Marvin

At Ordinary Gentlemen, Nob Akimoto admirably strives to create a theoretical case for Mitt Romney’s proposed foreign policy, one that rests on the belief that the US must continue to exert hegemony over as much of the world as possible:

“The United States and its interests are most secure when it has a preponderance of military power. In short: a unipolar world is the safest world. US foreign policy in turn should be about the maintenance of unipolarity as much as possible.”

This argument is nearly identical to one offered in the foreign policy section of the Romney campaign website:

“When America is strong, the world is safer. It is only American power—conceived in the broadest terms—that can provide the foundation for an international system that ensures the security and prosperity of the United States and our friends and allies.”

The United States was able to enjoy a unipolar world for the last two decades primarily because it was the only existing great power left standing, rather than particularly adept statesmanship. The first wave of nations to industrialize and consequently create militaries capable of creating true regional hegemonies and projecting limited power on a global scale destroyed these capabilities in the two European world wars of the early 20th century. Of the second wave of industrializing powers, only the US and USSR’s industrial bases and consequently military might survived the Second World War. By 1990 the US was left the sole global power as the USSR’s inability to grow its non-defense domestic economy and manage political dissent ended its great power status. What’s important to realize is that while the US attained global hegemonic power partially through “exceptional” traits — an ocean’s worth of distance separating it from any rival, for instance — the unipolar world of the era between 1990 and maybe 2020 was mostly due to external factors the US had little influence over: European powers’ propensity for destructive wars and imperial overreach, Japan’s self-defeating aggressiveness, and the Soviets’ inability to manage their domestic economy.

Romney and his fellow neo-conservative travelers appear to have misinterpreted the United States’ asent to mastery of a unipolar world to mean that the only thing standing between America and perpetual unipolarity is will: only a “strong” America — and the Romney campaign reads strength only as hegemony — can preserve the postwar international system.

It may be true that a multipolar world will not be as amenable to the open and globalized system of the post-war era. But it is not clear that America has any real power to preserve the current unipolar world order at all. Today a third wave of industrialized countries with rapidly increasing military capabilities are emerging and, in a world where industrial and information technology is rapidly disseminated, the basis for great power status is increasingly population, not technological and social infrastructure. China and India both have much larger populations than the United States; while the United States will retain global military superiority over these countries for decades to come, it is silly to think that a country with both a population and economy many times larger than America’s will not be able to exert control over its own region. Unless these rising powers are hampered by insurmountable internal weaknesses like the USSR there is no reason to think it is possible — or desirable, if you admit that economic growth and associated rising standards of living abroad are good for humanity in general — for the United States to preserve a unipolar system.

Basing foreign policy around the idea that maintaining the unipolar world is essential is magical thinking, and is a recipe for a more dangerous future. The United States should not chart impossible courses. Barring an unforeseen upset, China will become the dominant power in East Asia in the foreseeable future. Attempting to prevent or delay this shift is unlikely to succeed at acceptable cost, and will only convince future generations of Chinese leaders that the current international system is hostile and worth combating.

With many missteps the United States managed the transition from a bipolar world to today’s unipolar one. If it cannot admit that a multipolar world is coming, it will be unable to peacefully manage this future transition.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

John William Godward, “In the Days of Sappho”, 1904. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

What effect do timetables for withdrawal have on insurgencies?

“Rational but dangerous”: Would a nuclear Iran make the Middle East More secure?

China’s new 052D destroyer — game changer?

The politics of the Hunger Games.

Russia’s next generation bomber takes shape. In related news, India has cut its PAK-FA order by a third, which will certainly have implications for the unit price of the program.

11 leaders of Syria’s creative blogosphere.

“The Shah may not like it, but he is manageable. He’s nothing like the Israelis.” Kissinger, 1975 (via Micah Zenko).

Caitlin Fitz Gerald has an excellent review of the politics of Argo. Alyssa Rosenberg offers a more mixed review of the film itself. Also see Dan Drezner’s take.

The Benghazi embarrassment.

Why RedBull’s Stratos stunt was overstated.

Slum Village – Conant Gardens.

Note: Painter John William Godward’s neo-Classicist style became dated as the popularity of newer abstract artists grew in the early 20th century. He killed himself in 1922, writing in his suicide note that “the world was not big enough” for both him and Picasso.

For the Uniform

By Taylor Marvin

Is there any clothing choice that announced ‘I’m a West Coast liberal!’ more than a fleece vest and a button-down collar? Congressman Sam Farr understands the signaling power of clothing, and — he’s easily won reelection in my hometown’s congressional district since 1993 — understands his audience.

Khrushchev, Iran, and Bad Historical Analogies

By Taylor Marvin

Confrontation at sea. US Navy photo via Wikimedia.

On a recent episode of NPR’s Weekend Edition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis host Rachel Martin spoke with Graham Allison of the Kennedy School of Government about the foreign policy lessons of the crisis. Matin raised the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, noting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested the comparison during his recent speech before the UN General Assembly where he argued President Kennedy prevailed by setting a red line that “prevented war and helped preserve the peace for decades.” Allison agreed with Netanyahu’s analogy, and ended the discussion by noting that the current dispute with Iran leaves no good options on the table:

“So I think we’re now into a season where I would hope that after the election, whomever is elected will become intensely focused and inventive about options that are not very good — I call them ugly options, very ugly options — but that would nonetheless be better than attack or acquiesce.”

Of course Allison is right — there are no good options here, despite neoconservative protestations to the contrary. However, I’m not convinced that the comparison between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the current dispute with Iran holds up in any meaningful way to scrutiny.

President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev were able to avert war because each preferred a negotiated compromise to fighting. The Soviets had initially put nuclear weapons in Cuba — contrary to their previous assurances to Kennedy that they would not — out of a desire to remedy their strategic missile imbalance with the US, credibly detere a US invasion of the island on behalf of Castro, and possibly as a future bargaining chip. The Soviets eventually withdrew the missiles from Cuba in exchange for rather meaningless concessions from the US: a tacit pledge not to invade Cuba and a secret pledge by Kennedy to remove obsolete Jupiter IRBMs from Turkey, whose secret nature did not allow the Soviets to present the concession as a victory. Ultimately the Soviets backed down because they knew, unlike the Americans, that there were already armed nuclear missiles in Cuba that would certainly be unilaterally launched by local commanders in the event of a US invasion or airstrikes. While the end of the crisis was a disaster for the Soviets, even the final settlement’s weak US pledge not to invade and the secret removal of the Jupiters was preferable to escalation towards an American invasion, which the Soviets alone knew would certainly lead to nuclear war.

This logic does not extend to the US and Israel’s confrontation with Iran, because it is unclear if Iran holds war with the US or Israel as the worst possible outcome. A nuclear strike or ground invasion by the US against Iran is clearly off the table — at worst, a war between the US and Iran would mean an ongoing air campaign against military targets, naval warfare in the Gulf, and an Iranian terror campaign against American targets abroad and, through its Hezbollah proxy, Israel. Barring an exceedingly unlikely mass uprising by the Iranian populace against the government, this is a survivable outcome for the regime.

Of course, survivable does not necessarily equal preferable. But there are reasons to think the Iranian regime would hold a limited US attack as preferable to publicly walking back from its nuclear program. The nuclear program remains popular within Iran, though support for the program has fallen. If the Iranian regime was popularly perceived to have been forced to abandon nuclear development the program’s popularity would undoubtably rise through a “lost cause” mentality. Backing down in response to foreign pressure would likely be extremely politically risky for policymakers, and would be perceived national embarrassment that would generate push back both from conservative sectors of Iranian society and hardliners within the Iranian government whose opposition to the United States is an integral part of their political DNA. Even if decisionmakers in Iran wanted to abandon the nuclear program, these domestic audience costs within and outside of the regime would make it difficult to do so. Entirely justified US concern over Iran’s history of misleading the international community would make it difficult for IRI leaders to use private negotiations to sidestep these audience costs.

A war would certainly be painful for Iran: the broad US air campaign against Iranian nuclear and air defense targets required to delay the Iranian nuclear program by up to a decade would certainly kill numerous civilians, and would destroy difficult to replace military infrastructure. A wider conflict sparked by Iranian retaliation would be more costly. However, an American strike would not be a disaster for hardliners within the Iranian government. As the Saddam Hussein painfully learned in 1980, the Iranian people are quick to rally against a perceived aggressor — despite American protestations, a strike targeting the nuclear would be viewed as an unprovoked attack on their homeland by the vast majority of the Iranian population. A strike woud solidify the position of hardliners, and give them a political blank check to resume terrorist violence abroad, as well as instantly discredit potential liberal reformers both within the regime and in Iranian civil society.

From the perspective of IRI hardliners an Israeli strike would bring greater political benefits — antisemiticly-charged domestic anger and the marginalization of their political opponents — with significantly less damage to both the nuclear program and military infrastructure than a more capable American strike. A much higher priority drive towards nuclear capability would soon follow, with great popular support.

In the NPR interview Allison remarks that Netanyahu’s reference is basically correct “with respect to red lines and the ways they can constrain the competition, and therefore contribute to preventing war.” The problem is that, depending ideologies of key Iranian decisionmakers, the relevant red line Tehran will respond to may lie beyond limited war. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended peacefully because both actors viewed their ultimate settlement preferable to war, and the Soviets accepted a lopsided agreement because they recognized that the cost of war would be higher than the Americans did (as only they knew, with nuclear weapons armed in Cuba, a US invasion would initiate nuclear war). This peaceful outcome would not have been possible if both sides were willing to “escalate through” war before they reached their minimum acceptable outcome. If Iranian policymakers’ domestic audience costs and ideology influence them to hold a limited war preferable to backing down on the nuclear issue, the Cuban Missile Crisis is a bad historical analog. In fact the Iranian conflict’s long duration — “like a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion” — substantially raised Tehran’s domestic audience costs by making their commitment to the right to develop domestic nuclear energy more firmly anchored in the minds of Iranians.

In 1962 Khrushchev was able to make disproportionate concessions — withdrawing nuclear weapons from Cuba without being able to publicly reveal the US’ less strategically valuable parallel Jupiter concession — because he enjoyed a position to dictate Soviet policy. It is not clear if Iranian policymakers today have this same flexibility, as hardliners and their conservative constituents still enjoy considerable power in the IRI government; certainly more than their reformist opponents. The importance of hardliner political support means that allowing Iran to be coerced out of the nuclear program would likely be more politically costly for current policymakers than the Cuban Missile Crisis’ lopsided diplomacy was for Khrushchev. However, Iran’s dual government of the elected presidency and parliament and unelected Supreme Leadership offers an interesting “escape valve” to the avoid domestic audience costs associated with acquiescing to foreign pressure. If Khamenei reaches the decision that the nuclear program is not worth the costs — there is evidence that the drive for nuclear capability is not set in stone — he could place responsibility for the nuclear program, and the costs of abandoning it, on the increasingly marginalized President. As Kenneth M. Pollack relates in his excellent if dated history of US-Iranian relations, both Supreme Leaders have frequently used this tactic to walk back from policies they came to regret.

Note: Immediately after wrapping up this post I noticed that Michael Dobbs has a piece on the same topic up at Foreign Policy, though he examines the question from a different angle. Check it out. Daniel Larison also has a post up today about the increased chances of war with Iran under a Romney presidency.


On the subject of the Cuban Missile Crisis, check out The Atlantic’s excellent photo collection commemorating the crisis.