Electoral Angst and Nationalist Troubles

post to UNC Press Blog, 6 December 2010

The recent election has puzzled me. It’s not the Republican victory but the hand wringing across the political spectrum that accompanied it. In the leadup, Tea party proponents proclaimed that the country had “lost its way” and that it was time for real Americans to “take it back.” Democratic partisans, tongue tied before the voting, complained afterward that if anyone had lost their way it was their own spineless, rudderless leaders or unscrupulous, wild-eyed Republicans. Both sides imagined the republic going to hell in a hand basket. Read More »

Election 2010: Making the Wars Go Away

post to UNC Press Blog, 29 October 2010

You’d think the problems created by recent military interventions would have figured at least a little bit in this election. We have an occupation in Iraq limping to a conclusion, with the political system devised by American proconsuls in paralysis and Wikileaks providing a jarring reminder that pacification is not clean and neat. It leads to civilian deaths, it opens a field to sectarian hatred, and it brutalizes all concerned.

The war in Afghanistan is a witches’ brew bubbling harder despite more troops and a new strategy. U.S.-led forces suffer steady losses against a determined Taliban. These forces are not only proving unpopular in Afghanistan; their mission is not popular with their own publics. The Karzai regime is playing elaborate but unhelpful survival games, while regional powers push their own–often divergent–agendas. U.S. objectives are fuzzy to the point of incoherence. A lot to worry about here.

Such a budget of bad news should get at least someone in this election campaign sounding off. What we have gotten instead is a silence, which is all the more striking when considered in long-term historical perspective. The public and political leaders have until recent decades responded energetically to American forces in overseas messes. The pacification of the Philippines proved highly controversial and figured in the 1900 presidential election. The stalemate in Korea stirred up a groundswell of anger that helped defeat the Democrats in 1952. Vietnam roiled the wars of American politics, with Nixon’s secret plan to end that war helping in his 1968 presidential victory. Read More »

American Democracy and the Challenge of Globalization

post to UNC Press Blog, 14 October 2010

The midterm election campaign now approaching the home stretch has brought with it striking but fairly empty calls to action–from the Tea Party frenzy over fiscal virtue to a president exhorting his base with the banal promise of “moving America forward.” But this and all the other lamentable features of our democracy, it is worth stressing, are nothing new. … Read More »

A Middle East Policy in Deep Denial

post to UNC Press Blog, 10 September 2010

Denial is a well known defense mechanism that keeps unpleasant realities at bay. U.S. policymakers seem well practiced in this common coping device. Heaven knows they have good reason, no matter which direction of the Middle East they turn.

Afghanistan seems right now to occasion the deepest denials because the realities are the grimmest. Two reports by the London-based International Council on Security and Development (from March and July of this year) were so gloomy that most U.S. media simply averted their gaze. The reports painted an unambiguously awful picture of the effects of recent military operations inspired by the new U.S. counter-insurgency doctrine. These operations appear to have not just failed but been counterproductive. Read More »

General McChrystal, General Petraeus, and General Confusion

post to UNC Press Blog, 19 August 2010

Barack Obama’s Afghanistan commanders are something else. First, they promoted a highly debatable counter-insurgency strategy. Then, despite the numerous and cogent contemporary critiques, they got the president to buy into their particular brand of wishful thinking, and they got from him the additional troops supposedly needed for success. They have since failed to deliver. There are no convincing signs of progress toward their promise of pacification. Read More »

Vietnam War Lessons: Never Too Late to Learn

post to UNC Press Blog, 5 August 2010

Developments over the last month or so have put the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan under a dark cloud. The McChrystal affair and the WikiLeaks revelations are symptomatic of deeper troubles: the rapid bankruptcy of counterinsurgency, a surge in U.S. casualties, the persistently problematic role of Pakistan, the continued immobility of the Karzai regime, the sluggish progress in training Afghan forces, and declining domestic support. Vietnam lessons would seem never more pertinent. Read More »

The McChrystal Affair: Pity the Poor Historian

post to UNC Press Blog, 9 July 2010

There is good reason to pity the poor historian, who has been tested especially severely during the recent McChrystal-Obama imbroglio as the eruption of historical parallels and lessons have ranged from the wrong-headed to the off-kilter. Read More »

The Obama National Security Strategy: “Mush” Ado about Nothing?

post to UNC Press Blog, 9 June 2010

In the world of U.S. foreign policy, the release of a new National Security Strategy is a big deal. This congressionally mandated exercise offers an opportunity for the executive to grapple with basic issues, and it may even herald the birth of a “doctrine” (as it did for George W. Bush in 2002). The Obama administration rolled out its NSS in late May in grand style. The president previewed it at West Point, and then following its release on the 27th, senior administration figures stepped forward to make sure the study’s significance was perfectly clear.

Alas, it is not so clear, as anyone who wishes to inflict a reading of this NSS on themselves will discover. (It’s lying in wait at the White House website [pdf].) The statement’s prose is leaden and cliché ridden, its organization mechanical and repetitive. It offers no easy-to-grasp Obama doctrine, indeed no coherent point of view. Those who fear that U.S. policy suffers from conceptual mush will find ample confirmation here. Read More »

The bankruptcy of counterinsurgency: Stanley McChrystal on Afghanistan

posted 16 May 2010 with minor revisions 24 May

I can’t get General McChrystal’s recent appearance on the the PBS NewsHour out of my head. What the U.S. commander in Afghanistan had to say on the application of the currently fashionable doctrine of counter-insurgency (or COIN) was unnerving. Its platitudes and vacuity revealed more forcefully than anything I have seen to date the conceptual bankruptcy of the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan.

Read More »

Responding to the China Challenge

essay in American Diplomacy, 10 May 2010

The media provides almost daily reminders of how complex and tangled the U.S.-China relationship has become. The range of issues in play is extraordinary, even unprecedented. At the forefront right now are a mix of hardy perennials (such as arms sales to Taiwan, the future of Tibet, and human rights) and newly emergent concerns (such as internet censorship and cyber warfare, sanctions against Iran and North Korea, holdings of U.S. debt, the trade gap, currency devaluation, competition over oil and other natural resources, and the response to climate change). Taken together, these issues generate considerable contention and have the potential over time to spawn a dangerous level of ill will.

Viewed in historical perspective, the U.S.-China relationship may now be at a major inflection point. On the one side, an increasingly strong and self-confident China poses a profound challenge to a U.S.-defined and dominated global regime. On the other side, American elites continue to have a hard time coming to terms with this unfolding challenge. While U.S. presidents have grudgingly accepted China’s legitimacy as a major power, rumblings of discontent with China’s Communist Party dating back some six decades have echoed powerfully in Washington and the media. The result has been a divided U.S. response to China’s rise, part accommodation, part confrontation, and each arising from distinct, even contradictory premises. Read More »