When a president finds his approval rating in the doldrums and Congress slow to enact his domestic agenda, he naturally turns to foreign policy in search of quick wins. That, at any rate, is the cynical interpretation of President Donald Trump’s decision to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian airfield in Homs, in retaliation for Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in an attack that killed more than 80 civilians.
My view of Trump’s action is more positive. It is not that I think one salvo of missiles is going to end the civil war in Syria. Of course it won’t. But I think we can now discern the beginning of the improvement in US foreign policy we have been waiting for ever since President Obama packed his bags, collected the biggest book advance in history and departed to the eight-bedroom schloss in Kalorama where he now resides.
Bear in mind that Obama’s worst mistake as president was his indecision about Syria. Back in August 2011, as you may recall, he told Assad to “step aside”. He didn’t. In February 2012, Obama tried going through the UN security council, but Russia and China vetoed action on Syria. Under pressure from Republicans to arm the Free Syrian Army, Obama refused. Defence secretary Leon Panetta explained that arming the FSA would lead to “a terrible civil war”. A terrible civil war happened anyway.
In the summer of 2012, Panetta, secretary of state Hillary Clinton, CIA director David Petraeus and chairman of the joint chiefs Martin Dempsey all pressed Obama to arm rebel groups. Obama reluctantly authorised CIA training of just 10,000 rebel fighters. These fighters prove useless.
It was in the wake of these failures, in an attempt to sound tough, that the White House warned Assad that if he used chemical weapons he would “cross a red line”. Guess what: he used them anyway. In September 2013, Obama’s red line proved to be a pink dotted line when he announced that he would seek congressional approval for military action.
Enter the Russians, who said they would persuade Assad to hand over his chemical weapons to avert any such action. In a lame address to the nation, Obama announced that America was no longer the “global policeman”. Less than a year later, Isis murdered James Foley and other western hostages, leading Obama to authorise airstrikes in Syria, but only against Isis targets. The Russians intervened on a much larger scale in late 2015, deploying not only jet fighters but also ground forces to Latakia and warships to the Caspian Sea. They directed their fire against Assad’s opponents.
Obama has said he remains “very proud” of his decision not to enforce the red line. I find that hard to believe. Syria lies in ruins. The total death toll lies somewhere between 320,000 and 470,000. The Syrian Network For Human Rights puts the number of civilian fatalities at 207,000. More than 10m people have been driven from their homes; half of them have fled abroad. Not only did Obama leave Syria in ruins, he left American credibility in the region in a similar state. Matters were hardly improved by his readiness to conclude a nuclear “deal” with Iran that did nothing to restrain that country’s intervention in support of Assad.
The termination of this shameful saga of American impotence is surely to be welcomed. Not convinced? Well, one indication that a decision is really good is when really bad people line up to denounce it. Step forward Ann Coulter, scourge of the left, author of books with titles such as Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole, and until this point an ardent fan of Trump.
“Trump campaigned on not getting involved in Mideast,” Coulter tweeted shortly after the Tomahawks struck. “Then he saw a picture on TV.” And: “He told us he would be the president of America, not ‘the world’. Could somebody show him pictures of Americans raped & killed by illegals?”
Next up: Glenn Greenwald, scourge of the right, darling of Guardian readers, and confederate of Edward Snowden, the “whistleblower” who fled to Russia after exposing the National Security Agency’s data surveillance operation.
“The idea that a person only becomes a ‘real US president’ by killing foreigners is a long-standing media theme to encourage US war,” Greenwald tweeted.
Finally, let’s hear from Greenwald’s pals in Moscow. According to the Kremlin, Trump was guilty of “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law”. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman warned that the chances of collision between Russian and American forces in Syria were now much higher. The head of the Russian propaganda outlet RT observed darkly that the airstrikes had been ordered on the centenary of the US entry into the First World War.
It is true that America went to war in April 1917 partly for humanitarian reasons: wartime propaganda never tired of condemning German “atrocities” against Belgian civilians and passengers aboard the Lusitania. Yet these were not the principal reasons why President Woodrow Wilson opted for intervention in Europe. A German plot to back Mexican territorial claims against America had been exposed by British intelligence. More importantly, Russia’s revolution had given Germany the prospect of victory. Intervention gave America an opportunity to tip the scales in Britain and France’s favour and to reshape the postwar international order.
Wilson, in short, had a strategy. Does Trump?
Certainly, last week’s action has signalled to the world that a new sheriff is in town and he doesn’t fire blanks. That in itself is good. Second, Trump has also made it clear to his guest at Mar-a-Lago, the Chinese President Xi Jinping, that he will not shirk from using force against rogue regimes. That includes China’s wayward client North Korea.
Third, we can presumably now forget the theory that Trump is the “Muscovite candidate”, controlled remotely from the Kremlin. “Russia faces a choice,” the White House said on Thursday: “Either it takes responsibility for ensuring that Assad complies with the removal of these weapons, as Russia committed it would do, or it admits that it lacks the ability to control Assad.” Some puppet.
Yet none of this amounts to a coherent strategy to stabilise the Middle East. If Thursday was merely a return to the old Clintonian habit of firing missiles into the sand without any wider strategic purpose, then the disappointment will be intense. If, on the other hand, we now see steps in the direction of a US-led peace conference, then a bright new red line will have been drawn — a line under the failed American foreign policy of the Obama era.
Since former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke uttered the word "taper" in June 2013, emerging-market stocks and currencies have taken a beating. It is not clear why talk of (thus far) modest reductions in the Fed's large-scale asset-purchase program should have had such big repercussions outside the United States. The best economic explanation is that capital has been flowing out of emerging markets in anticipation of future rises in U.S. interest rates, of which the taper is a harbinger. While plausible, that cannot be the whole story.
For it is not only U.S. monetary policy that is being tapered. Even more significant is the "geopolitical taper." By this I mean the fundamental shift we are witnessing in the national-security strategy of the U.S.—and like the Fed's tapering, this one also means big repercussions for the world. To see the geopolitical taper at work, consider President Obama's comment Wednesday on the horrific killings of protesters in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The president said: "There will be consequences if people step over the line."
No one took that warning seriously—Ukrainian government snipers kept on killing people in Independence Square regardless. The world remembers the red line that Mr. Obama once drew over the use of chemical weapons in Syria . . . and then ignored once the line had been crossed. The compromise deal reached on Friday in Ukraine calling for early elections and a coalition government may or may not spell the end of the crisis. In any case, the negotiations were conducted without concern for Mr. Obama.
The origins of America's geopolitical taper as a strategy can be traced to the confused foreign-policy decisions of the president's first term. The easy part to understand was that Mr. Obama wanted out of Iraq and to leave behind the minimum of U.S. commitments. Less easy to understand was his policy in Afghanistan. After an internal administration struggle, the result in 2009 was a classic bureaucratic compromise: There was a "surge" of additional troops, accompanied by a commitment to begin withdrawing before the last of these troops had even arrived.
Having passively watched when the Iranian people rose up against their theocratic rulers beginning in 2009, the president was caught off balance by the misnamed "Arab Spring." The vague blandishments of his Cairo speech that year offered no hint of how he would respond when crowds thronged Tahrir Square in 2011 calling for the ouster of a longtime U.S. ally, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Mr. Obama backed the government led by Mohammed Morsi,after the Muslim Brotherhood won the 2012 elections. Then the president backed the military coup against Mr. Morsi last year. On Libya, Mr. Obama took a back seat in an international effort to oust Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, but was apparently not in the vehicle at all when the American mission at Benghazi came under fatal attack in 2012.
Syria has been one of the great fiascos of post-World War II American foreign policy. When President Obama might have intervened effectively, he hesitated. When he did intervene, it was ineffectual. The Free Syrian Army of rebels fighting against the regime of Bashar Assad has not been given sufficient assistance to hold together, much less to defeat the forces loyal to Assad. The president's non-threat to launch airstrikes—ifCongress agreed—handed the initiative to Russia. Last year's Russian-brokered agreement to get Assad to hand over his chemical weapons is being honored only in the breach, as Secretary of State John Kerry admitted last week.
The result of this U.S. inaction is a disaster. At a minimum, 130,000 Syrian civilians have been killed and nine million driven from their homes by forces loyal to the tyrant. At least 11,000 people have been tortured to death. Hundreds of thousands are besieged, their supplies of food and medicine cut off, as bombs and shells rain down.
Worse, the Syrian civil war has escalated into a sectarian proxy war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, with jihadist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Nusra Front fighting against Assad, while the Shiite Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force fight for him. Meanwhile, a flood of refugees from Syria and the free movement of militants is helping to destabilize neighboring states like Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. The situation in Iraq is especially dire. Violence is escalating, especially in Anbar province. According to Iraq Body Count, a British-based nongovernmental organization, 9,475 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013, compared with 10,130 in 2008.
The scale of the strategic U.S. failure is best seen in the statistics for total fatalities in the region the Bush administration called the "Greater Middle East"—essentially the swath of mainly Muslim countries stretching from Morocco to Pakistan. In 2013, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, more than 75,000 people died as a result of armed conflict in this region or as a result of terrorism originating there, the highest number since the IISS Armed Conflict database began in 1998. Back then, the Greater Middle East accounted for 38% of conflict-related deaths in the world; last year it was 78%.
Mr. Obama's supporters like nothing better than to portray him as the peacemaker to George W. Bush's warmonger. But it is now almost certain that more people have died violent deaths in the Greater Middle East during this presidency than during the last one.
In a January interview with the New Yorker magazine, the president said something truly stunning. "I don't really even need George Kennan right now," he asserted, referring to the late American diplomat and historian whose insights informed the foreign policy of presidents from Franklin Roosevelt on. Yet what Mr. Obama went on to say about his self-assembled strategy for the Middle East makes it clear that a George Kennan is exactly what he needs: someone with the regional expertise and experience to craft a credible strategy for the U.S., as Kennan did when he proposed the "containment" of the Soviet Union in the late 1940s.
So what exactly is the president's strategy? "It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shiites weren't intent on killing each other," the president explained in the New Yorker. "And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion . . . you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran."
Moreover, he continued, if only "the Palestinian issue" could be "unwound," then another "new equilibrium" could be created, allowing Israel to "enter into even an informal alliance with at least normalized diplomatic relations" with the Sunni states. The president has evidently been reading up about international relations and has reached the chapter on the "balance of power." The trouble with his analysis is that it does not explain why any of the interested parties should sign up for his balancing act.
As Nixon-era Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued more than half a century ago in his book "A World Restored," balance is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. "The balance of power only limits the scope of aggression but does not prevent it," Dr. Kissinger wrote. "The balance of power is the classic expression of the lesson of history that no order is safe without physical safeguards against aggression."
What that implied in the 19th century was that Britain was the "balancer"—the superpower that retained the option to intervene in Europe to preserve balance. The problem with the current U.S. geopolitical taper is that President Obama is not willing to play that role in the Middle East today. In his ignominious call to inaction on Syria in September, he explicitly said it: "America is not the world's policeman."
But balance without an enforcer is almost inconceivable. Iran remains a revolutionary power; it has no serious intention of giving up its nuclear-arms program; the talks in Vienna are a sham. Both sides in the escalating regional "Clash of Sects"—Shiite and Sunni—have an incentive to increase their aggression because they see hegemony in a post-American Middle East as an attainable goal.
The geopolitical taper is a multifaceted phenomenon. For domestic political as well as fiscal reasons, this administration is presiding over deep cuts in military spending. No doubt the Pentagon's budget is in many respects bloated. But, as Philip Zelikow has recently argued, the cuts are taking place without any clear agreement on what the country's future military needs are.
Thus far, the U.S. "pivot" from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region, announced in 2012, is the nearest this administration has come to a grand strategy. But such a shift of resources makes no sense if it leaves the former region ablaze and merely adds to tension in the latter. A serious strategy would surely make some attempt to establish linkage between the Far East and the Middle East. It is the Chinese, not the Americans, who are becoming increasingly dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Yet all the pivot achieved was to arouse suspicion in Beijing that some kind of "containment" of China is being contemplated.
Maybe, on reflection, it is not a Kennan that Mr. Obama needs, but a Kissinger. "The attainment of peace is not as easy as the desire for it," Dr. Kissinger once observed. "Those ages which in retrospect seem most peaceful were least in search of peace. Those whose quest for it seems unending appear least able to achieve tranquillity. Whenever peace—conceived as the avoidance of war—has been the primary objective . . . the international system has been at the mercy of [its] most ruthless member."
Those are words this president, at a time when there is much ruthlessness abroad in the world, would do well to ponder.
Mr. Ferguson is a history professor at Harvard and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. His most recent book is "The Great Degeneration" (Penguin Press, 2013).
For much of the last decade, Mexico and Brazil were a study in contrasts. "Brazil Takes Off" was a typical magazine cover, depicting Rio's huge statue of Christ literally blasting off. The equivalent story for Mexico was "The War Next Door: Why Mexico's Drug Violence is America's Problem Too."
In the past two years, however, the roles have been reversed. Riots in São Paulo and the downfall of billionaire Eike Batista have badly dented Brazil's glamorous image. Meanwhile, a succession of bold moves by Mexico's charismatic new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, have finally awakened foreign observers to the fact that Mexico is Latin America's new "country of the future."
Not only is Mexico's per capita GDP back above Brazil's, according to International Monetary Fund data, but over the past five years investors in the Mexican stock market have enjoyed nearly three times the returns of those who put their money into much-hyped Brazilian equities. Jobs are being created so fast in Mexico—more than two million since early 2010—that the problem of illegal immigration to the United States may soon be history.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Mexico was almost as well known for its financial crises as for its drug wars. Those days are gone. Although growth has been sluggish this year, thanks in large part to the troubles of the construction sector, the IMF predicts a rapid rebound between 2014 and 2018.
The catalyst for Mexican economic change has been political. In 2000, after 70 years of such complete dominance that Mario Vargas Llosa labeled it "the perfect dictatorship," the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost power in free elections. Two successive center-right administrations under the National Action Party, or PAN, struggled to deliver the kind of radical changes that Mexico required. Instead, after a dozen long years in the political wilderness, the PRI renewed itself. In July 2012, it returned to power thanks to a highly effective campaign by Mr. Peña Nieto, the youthful former governor of Mexico State.
The democratic world today is so lacking in Mr. Peña Nieto's kind of strategic leadership that the visitor is rather taken aback to encounter it. The day after his inauguration, President Peña Nieto signed the so-called "Pact for Mexico," a framework pre-committing the PRI and its opponents—the PAN and the left-wing Party of Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática)—to support key reforms in telecommunications, education and finance. It was a bold move, reminiscent of the 1977 Moncloa Pacts, which were the basis for Spain's transformation from Francoist pariah to integrated European democracy.
Then came a succession of confident initiatives. In February, the government arrested the teachers union leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, for alleged embezzlement. Most Mexicans had thought Ms. Gordillo—notorious for her French couture and villas in southern California—was untouchable. The final education reform bill, passed in September, was a still bigger blow against her union, creating independent teacher training institutes to replace the union-controlled university that had trained educators. The reform introduces performance testing to evaluate teachers and increases funding for new schools and learning centers.
The government also passed a telecom reform that most observers thought would never happen. The law boosts competition by encouraging new entrants to the telecom market with the ultimate goal of lowering prices for users. Raising income taxes on higher earners, as the new fiscal package does, is not too popular in the business community. Yet, it is politically smart for Mexico to invest in education and transportation infrastructure, while at the same time making the tax system more progressive.
Thanks to the "Pact for Mexico," the budget for 2014 easily passed last month. No government shutdown, no debt-ceiling drama (public debt is just 38% of GDP)—just agreement on the essential priorities.
Instead of compromising the independence of the central bank, as in Argentina or Venezuela, the Peña Nieto administration has diligently followed the recommendations of the Banco de Mexico to introduce deep structural reforms from education to antitrust laws. The government understands that only with consistently low inflation can the central bank keep interest rates low. In Mexico there is no wishful thinking that easy money could somehow substitute for real reform.
The most important project, however, is the liberalization of the energy industry, long held back by the state-owned Pemex monopoly. The same party that nationalized the country's oil fields 75 years ago is now embarking on a reform whose primary objective is to bring foreign capital and expertise back in. The PRI understands that only with outside assistance can the country develop its extensive shale resources and deep-water oil reserves. Many thought this reform would not pass, but the government delivered it ahead of schedule on Dec. 12.
Modern technology will take time to install. But thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement—the fierce critics of which have gone silent—cheap U.S. natural gas will soon be flowing down north-to-south pipelines. This will make Mexican industry, which is already beating China on labor costs, even more competitive. That will in turn support a growing Mexican middle class.
The government has not lost sight of income inequality and low productivity. But Mr. Peña Nieto's key insight is that attacking the mere symptoms of economic underdevelopment is not the answer. It is rare indeed to witness a president talking about "raising family incomes for all Mexican families through elevating and democratizing productivity," as Mr. Peña Nieto said during his state of the union in September. If social ills like drug violence stem from a lack of opportunities, then successful economic reforms should reduce them. Almost all measures of violence have fallen during Mr. Peña Nieto's first year of government.
Even in a lousy year for emerging markets, Mexico has future prospects that are the brightest in the region. Under the revitalized PRI, the country is on its way to a new kind of institutional revolution: one that could permanently transform it from Latin America's laggard into North America's new engine of growth.
Mr. Barbieri is a former fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Mr. Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard.
It is politics that explains why, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government will likely run a deficit every year from now until 2038. It is politics that explains why President Obama and Congress have been unable to agree on the reforms of taxation and entitlements that are so manifestly needed. And it is politics that explains why, before too long, Washington insiders will be back to the usual brinkmanship over government funding and borrowing.
Most economists would agree that the politicization of monetary policy has undesirable consequences, like pre-election rate cuts and high inflation. Hence independent central banks. Yet there is no chance whatever of legislatures giving up control of the budgetary process to independent fiscal technocrats. So are there any alternatives? The obvious one is to enact budgets for longer than a single year.
This idea is not without precedent. A recent example of a multiyear budget comes from Israel, where one of us served as finance minister. The biennial budget approved in July 2009 (for the years 2009-10) was the first two-year budget in Israel’s history, and it was followed by biennial budgets for 2011-12 and 2013-14. Although Israel is going back to annual budgets in 2015, other democracies that have experimented with two-year budgets include Hungary and Spain. And a number of other states — including Austria, Canada and Slovenia — have moved toward rolling budgets, presenting two annual budgets at a time.
The idea has American precedents. In 1940, 44 states enacted biennial budgets. Today, however, only 20 do. And, while the idea of two- or three-year federal budgets has been floated many times in Washington, it has never made it to the statute books.
The principal arguments against multiyear budgets are, a) that they reduce the flexibility of fiscal policy in the event of sudden macroeconomic changes, b) that they rely on forecasts up to 30 months ahead, which are even less dependable than those for the next 12-18 months and, c) that, precisely for these reasons, two-year budgets would end up being revised after a year anyway.
Moreover, any legislature that reduces the frequency with which it tugs the purse strings loses power to the executive. That’s why Bismarck insisted on a seven-year military budget, to reduce the democratically elected Reichstag’s power over an army dominated by the Prussian aristocracy.
Yet longer-term budgets have important advantages. They reduce uncertainty for the ministries, agencies and private companies that depend on government funds. Public investment in infrastructure is a good example; so are defense contracts. In each case, long-term engagements need to be made with contractors and the results take years to materialize. But the danger always exists of unexpected budget cuts that terminate unfinished projects at high cost to all concerned.
A more subtle advantage of longer-term budgets derives from the argument of the Nobel laureates Finn Kydland and Edward Prescott that rules are often preferable to discretion in the realm of economic policy. A good example is investment in fixed assets. A short-sighted government might be tempted to set low taxes on business to encourage investment, but then raise them on installed capital after the fact. But investors who suspected such “time inconsistency” would simply not invest. Thus, a rule that bound a government from raising the tax rate on past investments would lead to higher investment.
Today, there is reason to believe that many Americans, contemplating the vast liabilities of the federal government, expect higher taxes and lower post-retirement entitlements. The rational response is to reduce consumption.
One of the main defects of the 2009 stimulus bill was that it was not accompanied by any credible plan to restore the federal budget to balance within, say, 10 years. If people had been more confident about future policy, they might have been more ready to spend rather than simply save their stimulus-generated dollars. While a direct causal link has yet to be established, in Israel the implementation of biennial budgets amid the global crisis was followed by an impressive 36 percent increase in fixed investment in the years 2010-12.
Longer-term budgets also have political advantages. Passing a budget in the United States, as in Israel, involves prolonged talks between the executive and legislative branches. True, this process is at the heart of democracy. Nothing connects a congressman to his constituents more than a vote on a tax hike or a spending cut. But does the horse-trading need to happen on an annual basis?
With annual budgets, much of the year is devoted to budget preparation. No sooner is the process over than it has to begin again. This treadmill leaves little time for ambitious structural reforms, or for legislators to scrutinize how public money is actually spent. In what other arena does budgeting so completely dominate implementation?
Economics is a world of double standards. For nearly two decades, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have recommended that developing countries adopt Medium Term Expenditure Frameworks. Yet this is not expected of developed economies, even though it is the United States, Japan and European countries that have the world’s biggest public debts.
America’s fiscal problems will not be solved without some bipartisan agreement. Biennial budgets might just be the place to start. After all, this is an idea that was supported not just by Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, but also by Bill Clinton, Al Gore (leader in 1993 of the National Performance Review) and the current Treasury secretary, Jacob Lew.
Moreover, Israel’s experience has been a great advertisement. Not only did it enjoy an impressively rapid recovery from the financial crisis under the system of biennial budgets; more remarkably, when directors-general of Israel’s government ministries were polled in 2010, not one of them favored returning to what one called “the Dark Ages and the madness of the single-year budget.”
Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University. Yuval Steinitz is the Israeli intelligence minister and a former finance minister.