Stephen M. Walt

The Top 10 Questions About the World's Biggest Problems

Will anyone ever outfox Putin? Why are we still using old solutions to solve the same old Middle East Problems? And where exactly are we going in Afghanistan?

I'm in Washington today to attend the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. The timing is fortuitous, because I'm pondering a number of big questions these days and I'll be interested to see what some of the nation's best scholars think about them. So for what they may be worth, here are my Top 10 Foreign Policy Puzzles:

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Is Barack Obama More of a Realist Than I Am?

This president isn't weak and waffling. He's calculating, coldhearted, and decisive when it counts.

I had a strange thought late last week, while chatting with a colleague about the various hot spots that are dominating the news and interfering with U.S. President Barack Obama's vacation. Is it possible, I wondered, that Obama is craftier and more ruthless than I've realized? I've been disappointed by a lot of his foreign-policy decisions, but have I underestimated him? Far from being indecisive or too easily swayed by hawkish advisors, might he be even more of a realist than I am?

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Double Diss

With her knock against Obama, Hillary Clinton was criticizing more than one former president's foreign policy.

For me, the surprising thing about Hillary Clinton's lengthy interview with the Atlantic was not her subtle dissing of the president whom she served for four years. If you've been watching her for the past 20 years, her willingness to shape-shift when needed is not news. Nor was it surprising that she took decidedly hawkish positions on some big issues, as that mindset has been her calling card ever since she started running for office herself.

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Do No (More) Harm

Every time the U.S. touches the Middle East, it makes things worse. It's time to walk away and not look back.

In case you hadn't noticed, the Middle East is going from bad to worse these days.  

The Syrian civil war grinds on. Israel and the Palestinians spent the last month in another pointless bloodletting (most of the blood being Palestinian). ISIS keeps expanding its control in parts of Iraq, placing thousands of members of the Yazidi religious sect in peril and leading the Obama administration to consider airstrikes or some form of airborne humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, officials back in Baghdad snipe mostly at each other. Libya continues to unravel, belying the high-fives that liberal hawks gave themselves back when Qaddafi fell. A U.S. general was shot and killed in Afghanistan, and another disputed election threatens democracy there and may give the Taliban new opportunities to make gains at Kabul's expense. Turkey's Prime Minister Recip Erdogan has been calling Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi a "tyrant," an irony given Erdogan's own authoritarian tendencies. A diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar remains unsettled. Nature even seems to be against us: the MERS virus on the Arabian Peninsula may be transmissible by airborne contact. I'm sure you could find some good news if you tried, but you'd have to squint pretty hard.

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It's Not the Guns of August -- It's the Trenches of October

100 years later, we still spend too much time talking about how World War I started. The real lessons are in why it lasted so long. 

Assuming you're not living in a cave or completely off the grid (in which case you won't be reading this), you're probably aware that this week marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. The war was arguably the greatest man-made disaster of modern times: it bankrupted the European powers, killed or wounded some 37 million people, allowed communists to seize power in Russia, and sowed the seeds for an even more destructive world war two decades later.

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