Tag: Iran (page 1 of 5)

Are the liberal internationalists wrong? On “being nice” and US foreign policy

I got an alert from the Foreign Policy app on my phone the other day: Tunisia had fired its UN ambassador after he opposed Trump’s Israel-Palestine “peace plan.” Tunisian foreign policy doesn’t usually make waves, but this caught my attention. It’s a sign that, while Arab states aren’t enthused about this plan, they are unlikely to push back strongly. It got me thinking about a bigger question: whether Trump will face any costs as the result of his unilateral and aggressive foreign policy, as liberal internationalists might expect. The answer seems to be no, and that has big implications for US foreign policy.

Anyone who was around during the Bush-Obama transition remembers the debate. Liberal internationalists argue the United States has an interest in compromising with other states and working through multilateral institutions like the UN. It’s not just “being nice,” it actually advances US interests better than unilateral actions. We increase our influence with other states, making it more likely they’ll cooperate with us in the future. And we decrease backlash against and anxiety over US power. So, the argument went, the neocon policy of George W. Bush will actually undermine US interests by making it harder to get things done internationally.

The Obama years seemed to validate this argument. Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize just being Barack Obama. America signed a ground-breaking nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the New START. The United States negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran, and was part of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change.

Then Trump came. He withdrew from the JCPOA and the Paris Agreement. There are signs New START is going to fall apart. Trump was skeptical of other international commitments, withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty and signalling he may withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. The United States left the UN Human Rights Council. Trump was openly disparaging of NATO. And he was generally not nice in his foreign policy, bullying Canada and China over trade agreements, demanding South Korea provide more money for US troops based there.

Based on the logic of liberal internationalism, US influence should be waning. States will tire of Trump’s aggression and stop following US directions. America will find it harder to get anything done.

But…that’s not happening.

There are some signs of waning US influence. The UN General Assembly famously laughed at Trump during a speech, and NATO leaders mocked him behind his back. China seems to be increasing its sway over the UN.

But that doesn’t seem to extend to substantive complications in US foreign policy. Canada still went through with the new US trade deal despite irritation with Trump’s tactics. South Korea has been scrambling to keep Trump happy, even as they’re frustrated with his pressure. And as we saw, Trump’s unilateral and imbalanced Israel-Palestine deal isn’t provoking much anger among Arab leaders.

So what does this mean for liberal internationalism?

One could argue that America is just so powerful it can get away with behavior like this. But that would be an important caveat for liberal internationalism, which often argues that it’s in America’s interest to be nice.

One could also argue Trump is doing long-term damage to America’s influence. Basically, wait for it. This sounds uncomfortably similar to realist defenses of their predictions that the world will balance against a unipolar America, though. With two of three 21st century US Presidents pursuing aggressive unilateral policies, we should be seeing definite signs of strain by now.

But I think it is very possible that liberal internationalists are just wrong. It is not in a states’ interest to be nice in their foreign policy, especially when that states has the resources to be mean. And maybe, as the neocons argued, it is even necessary to be tough when dealing with other states if you want to maintain your influence.

So where does that leave everyone who opposes Trump’s foreign policy?

Well, we could point out that his approach is effective in advancing his Administration’s interests, but those are not necessarily America’s best interests. For example, Trump may succeed in getting NATO to “pay more” for America’s support, but that doesn’t actually help America much. The benefit of multilateralism and cooperation, then, is not that it advances America’s interests; the process of working with other states helps us better understand what those interests are.

Or it may provide further support for the growing restraint crowd. Maybe the only way to lead the world is to be mean. And if we want to be cooperative and helpful, we’ll have to sacrifice some of our expansive interests. So…we sacrifice those expansive interests. If the only way to lead the world is to act like Trump (or George W. Bush), then we must be satisfied with a more restrained foreign policy.

I’m happy to be proved wrong; please feel free to provide evidence of Trump facing real substantive challenges in foreign policy due to his approach.

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The sneaky rise of “common wisdom” in Middle East studies

We’ve all spent the weekend processing the killing of Iranian official Qassim Suleimani by a US airstrike. While this is obviously very important, we should think about a secondary implication of this act–how this undermined the apparent Middle East analyst consensus that America was pulling back from tensions with Iran, and how this consensus even emerged in the first place.

A few months ago I noticed something interesting. Saudi Arabia, after adopting a hostile foreign policy on Qatar and Yemen–motivated by its fears of Iran–seemed to be getting nervous. They’d issue warning signs about the impact of a war, and their UAE allies actually seemed to be trying to calm things down. I noted this on Twitter (I’m not going to look up my tweets, but you can find them), and thought I was onto something.

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The biggest losers from the Suleimani strike may be America’s Gulf allies

Depending on your Twitter addiction, you either went to sleep or woke up with the news that America had assassinated Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force. Suleimani was one of the most powerful men in Iran, and the driver of its activities in the Middle East, so this is a big deal. People are debating whether this was just and necessary, and what happens next. But I wanted to raise a different point: what this means for America’s Persian Gulf allies.

Many would suspect these states–particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)–to be the biggest winners in this strike. Both states have a history of antagonism with Iran. Both were also the victim of strikes against their oil industry likely orchestrated by Iran (likely by Suleimani himself). And both have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen against Iran. So removing him from the region would be a good thing for them.

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Chain-ganging in reverse? Gulf states and US hostility towards Iran

I had a piece in the Washington Post’s “Monkeycage” over the weekend, which you can read here. I noted that many worry Saudi Arabia and the UAE will pull America into war with Iran. But it actually looks like they’re the ones restraining us. The piece was inspired by the famous “chain-ganging” dynamic in IR scholarship, but there was little discussion of that as it was geared towards a broader audience, so I wanted to expand here.

I suspect most readers of this site had to read Christensen and Snyder’s “Chain gangs and passed bucks” at some point. In case you didn’t, the argument is basically that in multipolar systems, alliances tend towards chain-ganging (being dragged into wary by allies) or buck-passing (wars breaking out because no one wants to stand up to an aggressor). The former happens in the case of offensive-dominant systems, the latter in defensive dominant ones.

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Wait…what about Iran?

Remember this summer, when we were about to go to war with Iran? Iran seized an oil tanker passing through the Persian Gulf. Iran also shot down a US drone. The United States responded by shooting down an Iranian drone flying near a US ship, and nearly launching an air strike against Iran. The United States also expanded sanctions on Iran.

With Trump’s behavior becoming…unpredictable, and hawkish advisers like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo seemingly ascendant in the Administration, some sort of military clash appeared likely. But at some point this likely event kind of…faded away. It’s hard to point to a specific moment–someone backing down, tensions defusing dramatically. The issue just slipped away.

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Need some evidence of America’s waning influence?

One of the (many) concerns about the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is the impact it will have on US influence around the world. Will Trump’s rhetoric and actions restore US dominance in the international system, or will they aggravate the world, leading them to look elsewhere for leadership? We can find some answers in the reports that Trump is considering branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Most debating US influence under Trump think it’s waning. Dan Drezner has pointed to public opinion polling suggesting a turn away from the United States. The UN Secretary General agrees. And others have suggested America start learning lessons in hegemonic decline from Great Britain.

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Sending Iran Back Out into the Cold

Since the U.S. election Iranian-American relations have gone into a rapid tailspin, with Iran reacting to the triumphalist tenor of the Trump campaign and the improvised response of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn that sought to “put Iran on notice.” The arrival of his replacement in General H.R. McMaster offers the U.S. a fresh opportunity to tone down its approach to Iran, beginning with guarding against any dramatic escalation of the stakes.

For unless the Administration is actually willing to go to war with Iran, this confrontation actually won’t get the U.S. anywhere useful. What it will do, which is already under way, is strengthen the hardliners in Tehran and undermine moderates like President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif at a precipitous moment less than three months ahead of the Iranian election.

The Trump team does not have a strategic plan in place, regarding Iran or any other region/country of the world for that matter. But this matters most regarding countries currently in crisis accretion mode vis-à-vis the U.S., specifically Iran, Russia, North Korea, and China (in descending order). The danger of rapid escalation with Iran that could easily slip into spiraling conflict is acute. Therefore the first order of business for NSA McMaster is to get the U.S. on a more strategic track that militates against a burgeoning conflict with Iran. Continue reading

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Ben Rhodes, Part the Second: Or, Journalistic Interpolations are Not Evidence

For those of you not on Twitter.

(yes, I know the post is displaying parent tweets; WordPress is stripping the code to remove them)

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The White House Pushes for its Policies, and Other Surprises from Ben Rhodes

It seems that everyone (at least on the political right) is in a tizzy about the “revelations” in David Samuels’ New York Times Magazine story on Ben Rhodes. For example, Lee Smith, at the Weekly Standard, headlines “Obama’s Foreign Policy Guru Boasts of How the Administration Lied to Sell the Iran Deal.” As I’ll explain below, that’s, at best, massive hyperbole.  But what we really learned is that Ben Rhodes has a massive ego—Thomas Ricks is less kind in his assessment. We also learned that Samuels—like any reporter—wants to break big stories. Put the two together, and you come away less, not better, informed.

Let’s start with one of the passages from the story that’s receiving a lot of attention—and that Smith partially blockquotes:

As Malley and representatives of the State Department, including Wendy Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry, engaged in formal negotiations with the Iranians, to ratify details of a framework that had already been agreed upon, Rhodes’s war room did its work on Capitol Hill and with reporters. In the spring of last year, legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters. “We created an echo chamber,” he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

When I suggested that all this dark metafictional play seemed a bit removed from rational debate over America’s future role in the world, Rhodes nodded. “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this,” he said. “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked.” He is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. “We drove them crazy,” he said of the deal’s opponents.

This is, more or less, a description of what every single White House does when seeking to pass a major, and controversial, initiative. They connect with allies, they disseminate talking points, they coordinate with like-minded policy and industry groups, and they feed those groups information. Administrations create multiple information channels to the press, the public, and elected officials.The Obama Administration did this for the Affordable Care Act. The Bush Administration did this for its massive tax cuts, for the Iraq War, and, unsuccessfully, in its efforts to privatize Social Security. Continue reading

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Bringing Iran in From the Cold

Iran

Even as western sanctions are lifted in response to Iran’s dismantling crucial, large-scale elements of its nuclear facilities, critics continue to believe that Iran is preparing to cheat on the nuclear deal, is increasing its support of proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, and is bent on achieving regional hegemony. But instead of taking Khamenei at his word, observers should focus on concrete actions rather than rhetoric that is meant largely for domestic consumption. This is especially critical in light of Iran’s upcoming elections, which will likely bring even more revolutionary rhetoric and hardline behavior.

We are at truly historic crossroads. Iran has complied with the nuclear deal in full up to this point, sooner and more comprehensively than expected. A number of Americans unlawfully detained by Iran are now home. And just when it appeared that Iranian hardliners would try to turn the perfect storm of U.S. swift boats errantly breaching Iranian territory into a deal breaker, Iran set the crews free in less than a day (and with all their gear intact). This action bodes well, even as Iran continues adhering to a pattern of “covering” its cooperative actions with seemingly harsh actions.

Why is Iran doing this, in particular when so many experts predicted that after the deal Iran would do the opposite of moderating its behavior? Far from black and white, Iran’s post-deal behavior has been a solid gray. And appearances can be deceiving, such as the large vocal demonstration at the old U.S. Embassy on the 36th anniversary of the Iran hostage crisis—not to mention the Supreme Leader telling his people that “Death to America” is a pillar of Iranian culture. However, the evidence demonstrates that Iran in fact has gradually been tacking in a more positive direction in terms of its net contribution to international order. Upon closer examination, Iran has been deftly balancing its cooperative behavior with a fair dose of uncooperative behavior, though the latter tends to be less consequential than the former. Frequently, a planned positive move is preempted with a negative red herring move, all by specific intention. Continue reading

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Play it Cool

Yesterday I had the great fortune to sit on a faculty panel discussing the Iran nuclear deal put on by my colleagues at Georgia Tech [I will link to the video when it is available]. A logic of thought that came up, in different formulations, related to the idea that the nuclear deal might transform US-Iran relations and/or change Iran’s domestic politics. Coincidentally, the New York Times reported yesterday the answer is apparently a resounding no from the Ayatollah Khamenei–Iran would not be having anything more to do with the US lest the Great Satan “sneak back in through the window.”  As a bonus, he predicted Israel will “not be around in 25 years’ time.” These comments are almost certain to provoke anxiety in Israel and give renewed strength to critics of the nuclear deal in the US. I would caution them to hold their fire.

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Institutional Aspects of the Iran Deal

I woke up this morning to read (a few hours behind most of you…one of the few downsides to living in the Pacific Northwest is living behind the news cycle!) about the finalizing of a nuclear deal between the E3/EU+3 and Iran. I’ll leave it to others to analyze whether the deal is a good one and whether it will indeed limit the ability of Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Charles Krauthammer hates it. Joe Cirincione loves it. Jeffery Goldberg isn’t quite sure what he thinks of it.  My own thinking tends towards agreeing that the agreement isn’t spectacular, but that it might be the least worst option of military strikes (unlikely to have a meaningful, lasting impact and almost certain to increase Iran’s resolve to develop an extant weapon) and indefinite sanctions (a degrading commodity that have limited impact).

Still, rather than focus on the efficacy of the agreement and its details, I’d like to talk about a different aspect: what we can learn about Iran’s intentions to comply with the agreement or build a nuclear weapon. My first published work, “Institutional Signaling and the Origins of the Cold War,” addressed the ability of states to use international agreements and organizations to force other states to reveal privately held information about their preferences and intentions (as my institution has a subscription to Taylor and Francis, I’m not sure if the article is behind a paywall. If it is, you can also find it here or e-mail me and I’ll send it to you). To make a long article short, I argue that:

the process of negotiating and creating international institutions plays a critical role in enabling states to send and evoke credible statements of preference. Institutions, by virtue of their ability to impose costs on states as a result of compliance with the rules and obligations,provide a means of generating signals that will be accepted as credible by the policymakers of a given state. Those signals will be interpreted as revealing vital information about the true nature and interests of other states.

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Tuesday Linkage

Editor’s note: this post previously appeared on my personal blog. I’ve been doing links posts on Tuesdays over there for a while now, so I guess I might as well start cross-listing them.

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Belated Thanksgiving Linkage – Iran Nuclear Deal Edition

This was a momentous week with the announcement of an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program. There were some critics to be sure of this effort, but I for one am hopeful that the six month effort to halt or at least pause some aspects of Iran’s nuclear program will eventually lead to a permanent reduction of tensions between Iran and the West.

It’s obviously too soon to say but as we give thanks this holiday season for our families and friends, we can only hope that the diplomatic overtures will ultimately bear fruit. With the past decade plus having yielded relentless military campaigns (some of them necessary but wars without seeming end nonetheless), we can only wish for pragmatic leaders to seize moments of opportunity to avoid yet another war. I know some people don’t see it that way, so here’s a set of links describing the deal, providing some links and commentary from critics, and some links to defenders of the agreement. Continue reading

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Avoiding the Joint Security Trap (and Countering Conventional Wisdom)

Obama-Cameron

The diplomatic dustup over Syria brought Russia in from the cold but simultaneously froze any notion that western allies were getting their strategic act together. Nonetheless, although the mistakes in the U.S. and UK’s approach to building support at home and abroad for an intervention in Syria confused leaders and citizens alike, these mistakes should not be interpreted as an abrupt turn-around in their and their allies’ strategic thinking.

In fact the Europeans, even under a prolonged condition of austerity, are making progress filling in the capability gaps made clear in the course of the Libyan operation. Recent history has demonstrated that arguing the U.S. should keep its security blanket in place despite the end of the Cold War—out of fear that Europeans would not increase their own defense capabilities in kind—was mistaken. Still, austerity has prevented sufficient progress to avoid the joint security trap.

Were the Arab Awakening to go awry and were an al-Qaeda affiliate to begin setting up training camps and operating somewhere such as Yemen, the U.S. or possibly NATO would no doubt heed the call once more to deal with the threat.  But any future crisis in Europe’s direct neighborhood, somewhere like Tunisia, will require Europe to take the lead as the U.S. is likely to take a pass.  It is therefore in the joint interests of the U.S. and Europe not to reduce their mutual security at this critical juncture.

However Europe has yet to develop its own integrated, deployable, expeditionary military capability; instead a number of European allies à la the U.S. have been slashing their defense budgets under austerity.  But akin to the classic prisoner’s dilemma, if the U.S. and European allies do not coordinate their cuts and agree to begin “combining” what is left, both will become worse off and experience a mutual loss of security in lieu of cooperating.  In fact, at this juncture western allies are actually on the verge of becoming ensnared in the joint security trap. Continue reading

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Desecuritization and Iran

nuclear_donald_duckIt is shocking how little attention Iran’s recent efforts to satisfy the international community’s demands on nuclear question have received in the news media and academic discourse.  As I write this, there are 1182 related news stories on news.google.com related to Rob Ford’s struggles with the crack cocaine and only 85 related to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

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What if Iran Did Get the Bomb?

Casual observation suggests that the two most common answers to the question above are: 1) there’s a very good chance that they’d start a nuclear war with Israel; and 2) there’s no real reason to think any other state would be impacted in any significant way. I find both unpersuasive for reasons I’ll discuss below.

nukeiran

Before I do, though, let me get something out of the way—in this post, I will argue neither for nor against the use of force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. To answer questions of what should be done, one must not only draw upon some set of beliefs about the likely consequences of the available options, but one’s value judgments about the outcomes and the costs likely to be incurred along the way to producing them. I’m willing to try to persuade you to change your views about the likely consequences of certain outcomes, but I’m going to keep my value judgments to myself.

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Syria: Intervening Not Now But Later

Syria2 A full-scale US military intervention in Syria is off the table, as is a no-fly zone. The US decision to provide arms to Syrian opposition forces is nonetheless intended to shift the military initiative away from Assad regime. But the opposition is splintered, which has allowed the Hezbollah-backed government forces to level the playing field. Although the outcome remains unclear, it may be time for Western governments to begin serious planning for potential post-conflict stabilization operations.

At this stage it appears the Assad regime has the momentum, aided in particular by Hezbollah but also Iran and Russia.  US and European efforts to provide direct military aid to the Syrian opposition have been slow to take shape, which in combination with regime gains on the ground have fed the new conventional wisdom that Assad is on course to hold on to power.

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Friday Anti-Nerd Blogging: Matthew Kroenig Meme

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Monday Linkage

Photo by Hamed Saber

Mornin’ ducks… In anticipation of the P5+1 talks in Kazakhstan this week, let’s start the week  in…

Iran

  • Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, urges the West to make Iran a serious offer.  But Patrick Clawson argues that the Islamic Republic is just too dysfunctional to cut a nuclear deal.  Farhang Jahanpour at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog argues that talks with Iran might just work this time.  Whose argument should we believe?
  • In other news… For the first time since Iran and the US cooperated in overthrowing the Taliban, they have joined forces again to save … wrestling.  Wait … does this mean the Iron Sheik is coming out of retirement?!?  Hulkster, are you hearin’ this? Oh, wait it’s not the kind of wrestling where the Americans always win in the end… it’s the other kind.
  • There’s another area where Iran clobbers the US: Iran is apparently much better than the US at providing maternity leave.  But to be fair, almost everyone in the world is better than the US on this indicator (Notably, Iran also has obligatory two-week paternity leave).  Now on the issue of abortion rights in Iran it’s a rather different story… (h/t Robin Dougherty)

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