In the Arena

US and the World

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I’ve just arrived here in Israel for the Tuesday elections after a foggy and slightly mind-bending weekend at the Munich Security Conference–an event which, in recent years, has been marked by tense confrontations between the U.S. and Russia. Two years ago, Vladimir Putin used the opportunity to slam U.S. policy in Iraq; for its part, the U.S. presence has been led and largely defined by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman–neither of whom was present this year, due to the stimulus votes in Congress. Their absence helped reinforce an abrupt shift in tone: the U.S. delegation, led by Joe Biden, was all reason and light…and nuance. This seemed to both please and confuse our NATO allies, and boggle the rest of the world. Indeed, the U.S. responded not at all to the anachronistic rantings of the Iranian Ali Larijani, said to be a “responsible” conservative and known to be very close to the Supreme Leader. It was Britain’s Foreign Minister David Miliband who chastised Larijani–in the driest, most elegant way imaginable: “It’s not going to get better than this,” he said, referring to Biden’s offer of an open hand. In other words, you’d better stop your public ranting and take advantage of the moment. 

Some other thoughts about Munich:

1. Aside from the new tone of openness set by Biden, the Obama Administration didn’t appear ready to lay many cards on the table. Biden’s speech was so crucial that the vice president actually read it word for word (or close enough, without a single Bidenic detour or imprecation like, “God Bless ‘im!”). Lines like “We will strive to act preventively, not pre-emptively,” did not elicit cheers or even applause from the audience, but the relief was palpable. And the Russians–used to McCain’s disproportionate bellicosity–seemed relieved when Biden promised to “press the reset button” on the US-Russian relationship, even though he maintained the Bush Administration’s position in favor of developing anti-missile systems–an obvious bargaining chip. 

2. None of the other U.S. speakers offered much in the way of specifics. A review of the big stuff–new policies toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Russia–is still being worked through. General Jim Jones, the National Security Adviser, seemed particularly opaque, offering only a description of the bureaucratic reorganization of his office. Richard Holbrooke and David Petraeus–appearing onstage together for the first time–emphasized the difficulty of the Af/Pak situation. Although Petraeus, a human power-point presentation, used phrases like “we must pursue the enemy tenaciously,” which clearly make the peacable Euros uncomfortable.

3. Indeed, the contrast between the British and German defense ministers said it all. The German, Franz Josef Jung, was archetypically skittish when it came to any mention of kinetics in Afghanistan, except to criticize the scourge of civilian casualties. His assessment of the situation was so ridiculously upbeat that the Afghan President Hamid Karzai praised it. (Karzai spent much of his presentation denying that his country was lapsing into a narco-state–as Hillary Clinton said in her Senate testimony–even though his brother is alleged by the US military to be integral to the poppy-economy in Kandahar province. “We are not a failed state,” Karzai said, with some reason, “We are a destroyed state.”) The British Defense Minister John Hutton was part of the panel after Jung and Karzai, and he–like Miliband–spoke his English plain and direct: “This is not a mission we sought,” he said of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, but added that it was, indeed, a war with a brutal enemy and the alliance needed “a wartime mentality” instead of the prevailing “peacetime mentality” marked by NATO’s obsession with “process and prevarication.” Oof!

4. I think I’ve mischaracterized the remarks by Petraeus and Hutton a bit: both emphasized the need for economic and social development in Afghanistan. Petraeus remains devoted to the community policing principles of his counterinsurgency doctrine, a far more humane form of warfare than has been practiced in the past. But there does seem to be a bright line in the NATO alliance between those countries–like the U.S. (even in the Obama Administration) and the U.K.–who see the need to eradicate the irreconcilable Al Qaeda and Taliban forces and those others, like the Germans, who find the language and reality of warfare unacceptable under almost any circumstances. The future of the NATO alliance may hinge on how that split is resolved over the next few years in Afghanistan.