How to stay out of trouble

It would be easy to be pessimistic about 2014.  But as Adam Gopnik cleverly illustrates it is really impossible to know whether we are on the Titanic, destined for disaster, or its twin the Olympic, which plied the seas for two more decades without faltering.

The question is what will keep America out of trouble?  How do we avoid the icebergs of contemporary international relations?  Gopnik suggests avoiding challenges to honor and face and worrying little about credibility or position.  This seems to me wise.  The question of reputation in international affairs is fraught, but anyone of the Vietnam generation will want to be skeptical about claims the United States needs to intervene in the world to prevent its reputation from being sullied or to prove its primacy.

Hubris is the bigger danger.  I, along with many others, don’t like the Obama Administration’s aloof stance towards Syria.  But the least good reason for intervention there is to meet the Russian challenge, reassert primacy in the Arab world or prevent others from thinking America weak.  We are not weak.  We are strong, arguably far stronger than we would have been had we intervened in Syria a year ago and gotten stuck with enhanced responsibilities there.  The reasons for intervention in Syria are more substantial:  the threat of a terror-exporting Sunni extremist regime either in Damascus or in some portion of a partitioned Syria as well as the risk to neighboring states (Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Israel) from Syrian collapse.

The arguments are similar for Afghanistan.  There is good reason to keep American troops there to train Afghan security forces and occasionally raid Al Qaeda affiliates.  Another state collapse in Afghanistan (by my count that would make three in thirty years or so) is virtually bound to create a haven for international terrorists and destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan, possibly threatening a wide rearrangement of borders in the region.  But if President Karzai continues to refuse to sign the agreement that would allow the Americans to stay, withdrawal is better than insistence that we have to show strength by staying.

Questions of credibility and face are particularly important in the Far East, where America allies Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines (as well as our new best friend Vietnam) face Chinese provocations over bits of largely uninhabitable territory and open ocean.  These disputes are more substantial than they appear at first, since vast oil and gas resources are thought to be at stake, as well as freedom of navigation both on the sea and in the air.  Many will argue that we need to be uncompromising in meeting Chinese nationalism, mobilized by its current leadership under the rubric “the Chinese dream.”  More likely we will do better to manage these conflicts and channel them towards win/win outcomes, which the resources involved make possible.

The big challenge this year to American credibility will come from Iran.  Assuming the nuclear negotiations produce a compromise that allows Tehran to enrich uranium to a low level but verifiably and irreversibly prevents it from accumulating material that might be quickly used to fabricate nuclear weapons, the US will need to swallow hard, overcome Israeli resistance, and tell its Gulf allies that an agreement is better than the war alternative.

If no compromise proves possible, Washington will need to decide whether it can live with the instability an Iranian virtual or actual nuclear weapon generates or prefers instead to go to war.  We have faced this same choice with respect to North Korea and have chosen not to use military means.  But containment of a nuclear but fragile and weak North Korea, with the Chinese on our side, is a much easier sell than containment of an emboldened and regionally hegemonic Iran, whose nuclear capabilities would become a target for Israeli intervention.

Staying out of trouble will not be easy this year, but it is not a bad short-term goal for American foreign policy.

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