The Long Game coverIt is hard to think of anyone better qualified to write an early history of Barack Obama’s foreign policy than Derek Chollet. For over six years, Chollet served the Obama administration with distinction, in senior positions at the State Department, White House, and Defense Department. He is also an accomplished author who has written numerous well-regarded books on the history of American foreign policy.[1] Chollet’s most recent book is The Long Game: How Barack Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World. It is a lively and insightful insider’s account that, in the time since its publication in 2016, has proven as controversial and thought-provoking as Obama’s statecraft itself.

 

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The Distinction of Peace coverCatherine Goetze’s The Distinction of Peace is an important book. It breaks new ground in viewing peacebuilding as a field, and analyzing what attracts people to it and what enables some of them to remain. It contributes to research agendas on interventions in conflict zones, power in international encounters, and peacebuilding as a form of practice. What Goetze does particularly well is to show how seemingly commonsensical arguments about the desirability of peace and non-violence are used to create and sustain boundaries of a field, whose tentative insiders draw on the authority embedded in these arguments to position themselves in pursuit of distinction.

 

 

 

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Seal of the United States National Counterterrorism CenterAddressing the threat of terrorism, both real and perceived, would be a top priority for any president, but it is especially important for Donald Trump’s administration. Despite the dearth of Islamic State or other foreign-directed mass-casualty attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, polls from earlier in 2016 showed that 73 percent of Americans saw the Islamic State as a “very serious” threat to the United States, and another 17 percent saw it as “moderately serious”—a rare priority that crosses political lines. Almost 80 percent believed the Islamic State has assets in the United States and can “launch a major terrorist attack against the U.S. at any time.”[2] Exploiting these concerns during the presidential campaign, Trump regularly warned about “a major threat from radical Islamic terrorism,” and tweeted (the forum used for all serious discussions of policy) that “We better get very smart, and very tough, FAST, before it is too late!”[3] President Barack Obama, he claimed, had boxed U.S. generals in with a “strategy that is destined to fail.”[4]

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Reset ButtonIn the first half year of the new Trump administration, United States-Russian relations sped through a series of phases only to end suspended basically where they were on Election Day, 8 November 2016—badly damaged, friction-laden, and immobile. Whatever muddled hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage may have had for better times with Trump in the White House and whatever obscure intentions President Trump may have had of improving relations, the two sides remain mired in the new Cold War into which they had plunged in the last years of the Obama administration.[2] Their leaders were like figures in straitjackets: the more they struggled, the more their straitjackets tightened. Straitjackets, it might be noted, of their own manufacture, although each was of a different design. Trump was hamstrung by a Congress angry over the Russians’ interference in the presidential election and the possibility that Trump’s people had helped them, and in any event, persuaded that he meant to ‘go soft’ on Putin. Putin’s constraints were self-imposed. Much as he may have wished to ‘normalize’ the U.S.-Russian relationship, his jaded view of what drives U.S. foreign policy left him unwilling or, worse, unable to do his part to make progress possible.

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Replica of Armistice railcarIn introducing this Forum, I am reminded of the joke that when the latest entry into heaven is told that each newcomer is expected to tell the others about a major event in his life, he says that he will talk about a flood he witnessed. His guardian angel nods, adding “Just remember that Noah will be in the audience.” All of us have learned–and continue to learn–from the scholarship of Marc Trachtenberg, Dale Copeland, and Stephen Schuker, whose works blend history and political science.

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In his recent commentary in Foreign Affairs, Elliott Abrams invites us to view the Trump administration’s approach to U.S. foreign policy as somewhat ordinary. Trump challenged Washington with iconoclastic rhetoric and arrived in office with a circle of ‘believers.’ He promised to ‘drain the swamp’ of old Washington hands and pursue policies that place ‘America First.’ Still, much of the Republican establishment expected Trump, once elected, to ‘pivot’ from candidate to president. They assumed Trump would eventually rise to the challenge and to the requirements of the office. Inevitably, he would come to understand the enormous U.S. interests at stake, the awesome responsibilities of the presidency, and the broad obligations of leading the nation. At the very least, he would defer to those who knew their way around town, and the world. The result: Trump would leave the campaign behind and adopt a familiar policy approach.

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Donald_Trump_with_ceremonial_swordsmen_on_his_arrival_to_Murabba_Palace,_May_2017With one very important exception, and despite a number of rhetorical and stylistic differences, the Trump Administration’s approach to the Middle East is not substantially different from that of the Obama Administration.[1] President Barack Obama prioritized the fight against Salafi jihadist groups (al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS], and their offshoots) above other regional goals, as does President Donald Trump. Both came to office evidencing a general reluctance to get involved in large-scale military actions, reflective of their common perception that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake, though in both cases they proved willing to use military force in the region. Both publicly committed their administrations to finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though Obama’s efforts there failed and the first ventures by Trump do not look promising.[2] While Trump criticized Obama during the 2016 campaign for ignoring the interests of traditional American allies in the region, it is hard to sustain the proposition that the Obama Administration substantially altered American policy toward Israel and Saudi Arabia and that the Trump Administration is thus ‘restoring’ past ties.

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LOS ANGELES REACTIVE POLLUTANT PROGRAM (LARPP)In July 2017, the Washington Post reported that the new leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were planning on updating the agency’s museum in the Ronald Reagan building in the nation’s capital. Given that the museum had opened just three days before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the move was transparently based on political motivations rather than on needed maintenance. That the most significant reported change was the replacing of an exhibit about President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) with a display of coal came as no surprise to anyone who had been following the Trump Administration’s approach to regulating the environment.[1] In particular, the EPA has been at the center of the administration’s position that climate change is probably not a threat and certainly not one that humans can control anyway.

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Unclear Physics coverMalfrid Braut-Hegghammer’s new book Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Get the Bomb should find itself on the shelf of any serious student of nuclear proliferation, international security, and the internal and external security dynamics of dictatorial regimes. It is by far the best history of Iraq’s and Libya’s failed attempts at acquiring nuclear weapons, leveraging diverse archival material and primary interviews to illuminate new and interesting features of both programs. It argues that due to a lack of state capacity, Iraqi and Libyan dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi stunted their own nuclear programs, but to varying degrees. The Libyan program was terminally ill from the beginning, but Saddam and his son-in-law, Hussein Kamil, according to Braut-Hegghammer, were on the cusp of a major breakthrough in their nuclear program on the eve of the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. She argues that while both programs suffered from deep pathologies, Kamil’s management of the program pushed Iraq farther along by 1990 than anyone had realized. The implication is that, had Saddam not invaded Kuwait, Iraq might have successfully acquired nuclear weapons. The historical value of the book alone is worth the price of admission. It has no peer in its discussion of these nuclear programs. And the implicit theoretical argument raises a host of fascinating questions about the ability of some types of regimes to effectively pursue nuclear weapons, advancing work done by Jacques Hymans and, more recently, myself.[1]

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