Ironically, the cyber-attack that shut down the Web sites of the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Trade Commission struck on Independence Day. Because as unsophisticated as the attacks were, they made it clear that the U.S. is as intertwined with its enemies as it is with its allies, in a newly emerging, little-understood, and rapidly evolving 21st-century terrain. In probing the future of American influence, it’s apparent now that cyberspace occupies a prominent place in an unwieldy battlefield known as the global commons. Michele Flournoy — who holds the position of undersecretary of defense for policy at the […]

Few countries engage in internal debates with the passion and intensity that one finds in Israel. And no debate has engendered more intensity in Israel than the one over how to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Which makes it all the more striking that, today, Israelis have reached a quiet consensus on one key point: President Barack Obama needs to make some urgent changes to his Mideast push for peace. Just what exactly Obama should change is, of course, far from agreed. Washington may never satisfy the demands of Israelis on the extreme right who insist on keeping the West […]

Last August, the senior officer aboard the USS Kearsarge, a U.S. Navy ship deployed to Latin America, issued an unusual order. Capt. Frank Ponds ordered the hundreds of sailors, Marines, soldiers and airmen under his command to avoid using the term “troops” when describing themselves to Latin American reporters. The seemingly bizarre command reflects widespread concerns over the military’s escalating involvement in humanitarian missions all over the world. Kearsarge’s six-month cruise supporting hundreds of military and civilian doctors, engineers and aid workers in six countries, including Nicaragua and Colombia, was one result of that increased involvement. While the Pentagon characterizes […]

Thanks to the assets and strategy developed during the past decade, the United States has thus far effectively managed the swine flu (H1N1) threat. The resources, plans, and authority now at the federal government’s disposal have enabled it to respond to a major health crisis that caused more serious problems in other countries. The Bush administration left a robust toolkit for the Obama team, which for its part has used it well. Cooperation among federal, state, local, private, and other important actors has been effective in distributing public face masks, implementing mass inoculation campaigns, and taking other timely responses. At […]

Last February, the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction published a comprehensive 456-page historical analysis of the Iraq reconstruction experience entitled, “Hard Lessons.” The IG, Stuart Bowen — who was there from the beginning, assuming the post actually before the invasion — was kind enough to send me a copy this week. Having now read it, I must say it’s an incredible piece of data collection and analysis, even if, in my opinion, its concluding optimism about the U.S. government’s recent efforts to better prepare itself for the next “Iraq” — already upon us in the form […]

Last week, while I was busy writing about two fascinating scenarios for the future of U.S. influence, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was delivering the latest in a long line of brilliant speeches, this time in Chicago. In it, he nailed down exactly the kinds of concrete changes that must happen in order to retool the institutions of American foreign policy for the radical challenges of the next two decades. The speech underscored that, even as Gates emerged victorious this week from a Washington budget battle, there’s a more massive challenge looming. At first glance, the battle in Washington was […]

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Six months after he ascended to the presidency of the United States, Barack Obama can point to a distinct new tone in American foreign policy and the start of a discernible makeover of the country’s image around the globe. When it comes to specific achievements in the international arena, however, the administration does not have much to show, so far. The transformation of America’s global standing had already started even before the president moved into his new Pennsylvania Avenue address on Jan. 20. Two factors triggered the process. First, Obama replaced a man who had become extraordinarily unpopular throughout most […]

A 30-ton Mi-26 helicopter, operated on a NATO contract by the Moldovan firm Pecotox Air, was hovering with a load of supplies near the town of Sangin in southern Afghanistan on July 14, when Taliban fighters fired on it with a rocket-propelled grenade. The crew of an accompanying helicopter saw the rocket sheer off the Mi-26’s tail boom, causing it to crash. All six Ukrainian crew members on board died, as did an Afghan boy on the ground. Less than a week later, on July 19, a civilian Mi-8 operated by a Russian company crashed at the NATO base in […]

Since taking office in May 2008, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has made improving ties among the former Soviet republics that form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) a foreign policy priority. Nonetheless, recent weeks have yielded further signs of Moscow’s flailing leadership within the group. Only five of the 10 heads of state, invited personally by Medvedev, participated in the latest annual informal CIS summit, held on July 18. The centerpiece of the event, as in past years, was attendance at the annual President’s Cup horse race at Moscow’s Central Hippodrome. Humorists blamed the large number of no-shows on Medvedev’s […]

Last week’s major policy address by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was as noteworthy for the strategic concepts she dismissed as for the ones she embraced. Clinton provided Americans with a strong sense of how she plans to conduct U.S. foreign policy: not merely as “the indispensable nation” that assumes international leadership, but rather as the global rule-set convener that aggressively builds partnerships across a strategic landscape pulsating with rising players — both state-based and transnational. In doing so, Secretary Clinton explicitly rejected the emerging — and yet painfully antiquated — conventional wisdom that portrays a world inevitably divided into […]

Measuring American influence from week to week seems enough of a challenge, as a glance at recent global developments illustrates. The electoral upheaval in Iran, for instance, will almost certainly give the U.S. the upper hand in any upcoming nuclear negotiations. Unless, of course, it doesn’t. Likewise, China’s distancing itself from North Korea will strengthen the U.S.’s position at the U.N. Security Council. Or it might not. The difficulty in knowing for sure arises from the fact that gauging even the nearest term outcomes means making sense of many moving parts. What about the long term? Two recent studies from […]

When ethnic disturbances broke out in western China last week, bringing the worst violence the country has seen in years, international reaction proved curiously mild. The violence in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, resulted in the deaths of at least 184 people, with some putting the number much higher. The events alarmed China’s leadership, prompting President Hu Jintao to suddenly leave the G-8 summit in Italy. As for the rest of the world, the sense of alarm, if there was one, seemed rather muted. World leaders remained eerily quiet or spoke in tones strikingly deferential to China, despite pleas […]

The ceremony last Feb. 12 at the commercial seaport in Mombasa, Kenya, was a surprising one. When the Ukrainian-owned merchant ship Faina sailed into port, five months after its capture by Somali pirates and a week after its release, the Kenyan government rolled out the red carpet. Civilian officials and military officers lined the pier, and armed guards patrolled, as Faina’s weary seafarers debarked. There were speeches and reluctant testimonies by Faina’s senior crew before the strange gathering came to a halting end. Hundreds of vessels had been seized by Somali pirates over the previous decade, and their releases had […]

Critics of the Group of Eight (G-8) tend to focus on economic issues in challenging the format’s continued relevance. Citing the decreasing share of the economic resources and clout at the group’s disposal, commentators often advocate replacing it with a G-14, a G-20, or some other, more inclusive body. Such a focus, however, neglects another important aspect of the work conducted by the G-8: Since the 1980s, the group’s annual meetings have given rise to important international security initiatives, which have been sustained and further developed over time. The G-8 structure has also proven sufficiently flexible to incorporate additional partners […]

For those in the West eager to uncover another Tiananmen-like crackdown by Chinese authorities last week in the Xinjiang provincial capital of Urumqi, the true story disappoints, even as it points to a potentially far-more-destabilizing social phenomenon: the emergence of race riots inside allegedly homogenous China. Note that President Hu Jintao’s embarrassingly rushed departure from the G-8 meeting in Italy was not provoked by Sunday’s riots by angry Uighurs, but rather by Tuesday’s even uglier revenge riots by even angrier — and better-armed — Han Chinese. The makings of this unrest should strike us Americans as painfully familiar. The influx […]

When I taught American foreign policy, I always began my lectures on Vietnam by showing the class Lesson No. 9 from “The Fog of War,” Errol Morris’ penetrating documentary about former Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara. The lesson? In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil. Undoubtedly, that contradictory logic has justified some of the United States’ most ferocious acts abroad. The nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the bombing of North Vietnam, are two extreme examples. Immediately after the clip ended, I would survey the 40-odd college students’ faces looking up at me […]

Vice President Joe Biden lived up to his “talks before he thinks” reputation once again, when he told an interviewer that the United States would not stop Israel if it decided to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. “Israel can determine for itself — it’s a sovereign nation — what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else,” Biden said on a weekend talk show. Political analysts decided this was another Bidenism, which President Barack Obama would soon have to correct. Sure enough, a couple of days later the president, during his visit to Moscow, […]

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