James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

Friday File: Is It Time to Intervene in Syria?

by James M. Lindsay Friday, January 20, 2012
Lebanese and Syrian protesters in northern Lebanon carry banners and burn a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as they march in solidarity with Syria's anti-government protesters on January 20, 2012. (Omar Ibrahim/courtesy Reuters) Lebanese and Syrian protesters in northern Lebanon carry banners and burn a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as they march in solidarity with Syria's anti-government protesters on January 20, 2012. (Omar Ibrahim/courtesy Reuters)

Above the Fold. Anyone who watched last night’s GOP presidential debate from Charleston, South Carolina could be forgiven for concluding that the United States has no pressing problems overseas. Not a single foreign policy question came up. That’s too bad, because I was hoping to hear how the candidates thought the United States should respond to the growing violence in Syria. My colleague Elliott Abrams has been arguing for some time now that the conflict is devolving into a civil war and that Washington’s policy should be “winning, as fast as possible.” Steven Cook, another one of my colleagues, wrote earlier this week that it’s time to think seriously about intervening in Syria. So does Steven have it right? The rising death toll—which at more than 5,000 far exceeds the carnage in Libya that triggered Operation Odyssey Dawn—certainly suggests he is. And as Robert Danin, yet another of my colleagues and someone who has met Bashar Assad twice, reminds me, publicly downplaying the possibility of U.S. or allied action on Syria serves only to reassure the regime that it will win in the end. Still, I can’t say that I find the arguments for military intervention convincing. It’s not just that the track record for U.S. military interventions is mixed at best. Or that as my colleagues—I have a lot of colleagues—Stewart Patrick and Isabella Bennett note, that the UN isn’t likely to follow the Libyan precedent and bless a military operation against Syria. Or that the American public’s appetite for another military operation in the absence of a direct threat to the United States is at a low ebb. Or that initiating military operations in a fourth Muslim country may be pushing our luck. It’s that I haven’t seen a convincing analysis of how a military intervention could be conducted at an acceptable cost and in a way that maximizes the odds that what follows Assad is better and not worse. So for now I’ll hope that stepped up diplomatic and economic pressure on Damascus can do the trick. But I remain open to being convinced otherwise. Read more »

TWE Remembers: The Best (and Worst) Inaugural Addresses

by James M. Lindsay Friday, January 20, 2012
Workers make final preparations for Barack Obama's inaugural address in 2009 (Jason Reed/courtesy Reuters). Workers make final preparations for Barack Obama's inaugural address in 2009 (Jason Reed/courtesy Reuters).

A year from today someone—perhaps Barack Obama, perhaps Mitt Romney, or maybe even Donald Trump—will stand outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and deliver an inaugural address ushering in a new presidential term. The odds are good that the speech will be forgettable. Most of them are. Read more »

The World Next Week: Obama’s State of the Union

by James M. Lindsay Thursday, January 19, 2012
President Obama speaks during last year's State of the Union address in January, 2011 (Jim Young/courtesy Reuters). President Obama speaks during last year's State of the Union address in January, 2011 (Jim Young/courtesy Reuters).

The World Next Week podcast is upBob McMahon and I discussed President Obama’s State of the Union address next Tuesday; the growing debate over cuts to U.S. defense spending; the GOP primary in South Carolina on Saturday; and the upcoming World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Read more »

What to Worry about in 2012

by James M. Lindsay Wednesday, January 18, 2012
The New Year's Eve ball in New York (Mike Segar/courtesy Reuters). The New Year's Eve ball in New York (Mike Segar/courtesy Reuters).

I had the pleasure to preside at a CFR meeting today on “What to Worry about in 2012.” The panelists were David Gordon, head of research and director of global macro analysis at the Eurasia Group, Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, and Paul Stares, who heads up CFR’s Center for Preventive Action. David, Mark, and Paul are all savvy foreign policy experts, and each worked hard late last year to think through the major international crises that might preoccupy policymakers in 2012. David co-authored a Eurasia Group study entitled, “Top Risks 2012,” Mark’s shop produced “Next Year’s Wars,” and Paul oversaw the publication of CPA’s “Preventive Priorities Index. Read more »

What Do Americans Know about the GOP Presidential Candidates?

by James M. Lindsay Saturday, January 14, 2012
Mitt Romney is shown on television monitors in the filing center during the Republican presidential debate at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. (Danny Moloshok/courtesy Reuters) Mitt Romney is shown on television monitors in the filing center during the Republican presidential debate at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. (Danny Moloshok/courtesy Reuters)

In yesterday’s Friday File I flagged a CBS/Vanity Fair poll that showed that most Americans do not know that Mitt Romney’s first name is Willard—as opposed to Mitt (or Mittens or Gromit). That’s a cute poll result that added a bit of levity to my weekly news roundup. But to judge by another poll, this one by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, there’s a lot else that the public doesn’t know about the Republican candidates even though they are dominating the stories on all the cable news channels: Read more »

Friday File: Is Obama Reinventing Government?

by James M. Lindsay Friday, January 13, 2012
President Barack Obama speaks about government reform at the White House on January 13, 2012. (Kevin Lamarque/courtesy Reuters) President Barack Obama speaks about government reform at the White House on January 13, 2012. (Kevin Lamarque/courtesy Reuters)

Above the Fold. My BlackBerry buzzed this morning with email alerts informing me that President Obama intends to ask Congress for authority to merge several of the federal government’s trade- and commerce-related agencies. The decision fulfills a pledge he made in last year’s State of the Union address to give Americans “a government that’s more competent and more efficient.” The news alert appealed to that part of me that likes nice, clean organizational flow charts. (I once co-authored an article on how to restructure the State Department for the twenty-first century. Have no fear, foreign service officers, my blueprint has no chance of ever being implemented.) And as the Government Accountability Office found last year, the U.S. government has plenty of redundant and overlapping government agencies. But what the White House is offering up is pretty small potatoes. The plan, assuming Congress blesses it, would cut 1,000 jobs and save $3 billion over ten years. To put that in perspective, the federal government has about 2.8 million civilian employees, and the Bowles-Simpson Commission concluded that the federal government needs to reduce the projected budget deficit over the next ten years by $4 trillion to get the national debt to level off. So today’s proposal isn’t going to make much of a difference in how Washington works. So why didn’t the White House put forth a truly ambitious plan to remake the federal government? Probably because such a plan would almost certainly be dead on arrival; virtually everyone would find something in it that they did not like. There’s the rub: it is easy to propose new ways to organize the federal government; it is nigh impossible to get people to agree on which one makes the most sense. But lest I leave you disillusioned about the future of American politics, here’s a piece of good news: while the population of the United States grew by nearly a third over the past three decades, the number of federal civilian employees actually declined by a few thousand. Read more »

The World Next Week: What Next on North Korea?

by James M. Lindsay Thursday, January 12, 2012
Kim Jong-un speaks while surrounded by soldiers in this undated still image by North Korean state TV KRT on January 8, 2012. (Courtesy Reuters) Kim Jong-un speaks while surrounded by soldiers in this undated still image by North Korean state TV KRT on January 8, 2012. (Courtesy Reuters)

The World Next Week podcast is upBob McMahon and I discussed the meeting of U.S., Japanese, and South Korean officials to discuss North Korea; Taiwan’s elections this weekend; the anniversary of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster; and next week’s Republican presidential debate. Read more »

How Secure Are Nuclear Sites Worldwide?

by James M. Lindsay Thursday, January 12, 2012
The Areva nuclear power plant in southern France (courtesy Reuters). The Areva nuclear power plant in southern France (Michel Euler/courtesy Reuters).

Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous weapons on the planet. So you would think that they and the fissile material used to make them are under tight control. Perhaps not.

That’s at least the conclusion of a new study conducted by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Using open-source data—that is, without relying on secret intelligence—they ranked the thirty-two countries that have at least one kilogram of weapons-useable nuclear materials (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) in terms of how tight their security is. (The study did not look at the security of other kinds of radioactive material that could be used in making so-called radiological or dirty bombs.) NTI and EIU weighed eighteen factors, ranging from physical protections at nuclear sites to broader questions of political stability and corruption, in compiling their rankings. Read more »

Friday File: Are We Near a Showdown with Iran?

by James M. Lindsay Friday, January 6, 2012
An F/A-18F fighter jet launches off the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis during maneuvers in the Arabian Gulf. (Benjamin Crossley/courtesy Reuters) An F/A-18F fighter jet launches off the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis during maneuvers in the Arabian Gulf. (Benjamin Crossley/courtesy Reuters)

Above the Fold. Pundits who predicted that Iran would top the list of foreign policy problems in 2012 have early evidence that they were right. President Obama signed legislation over the holiday break imposing tough new sanctions on Iran’s oil business. The EU is signaling that it will soon phase in an embargo on Iranian oil, a development that seemed unlikely just a year ago. Tehran has responded to these developments by threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and firing some short-range missiles. Read more »

The World Next Week: Can Iran Close the Strait of Hormuz?

by James M. Lindsay Friday, January 6, 2012
Iranian submarines take part in a naval parade near the Strait of Hormuz (courtesy Reuters). Iranian submarines take part in a naval parade near the Strait of Hormuz (courtesy Reuters).

The World Next Week podcast is upBob McMahon and I discussed the mounting tensions in the Persian Gulf; next week’s Republican primary in New Hampshire; and the conclusion of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak election.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Read more »