Will we eventually look back on President Obama's drop-in visit to Kabul as his "Mission Accomplished" moment? He's got a tough re-election battle to fight, the endless war in Central Asia isn't popular, and he wants to remind everyone that he's The Man Who Got Bin Laden. So he pulled a George W. Bush and burned up a lot of jet fuel racing to Kabul for a mostly meaningless photo op and a not-very convincing speech. This sort of posturing may help him get re-elected -- though I doubt it will have much effect -- but it's not going to help his long-term legacy when the U.S. is finally gone and Central Asia is on its own.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I don't put much value in the new U.S.-Afghan "strategic partnership." It has some symbolic value, I guess, and it can provide a fig leaf for our eventual withdrawal. If everything breaks the right way after 2014, it might even provide a general framework that facilitates some additional counter-terrorist activities. But it's merely an executive agreement, not a treaty, it is woefully short on specifics, and other people will be in charge in Kabul and Washington by the time the agreement runs out. If circumstances change in ways that give us reasons to renege (or give Afghan leaders grounds to want a different arrangement), this much-ballyhooed "partnership" won't be worth the pixels it's published with.
All told, nobody came off very well in this little episode. Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney sounds both petty and silly trying to minimize Obama's genuine accomplishments against al Qaeda (and especially the elimination of bin Laden himself). But Obama's attempt to turn the Afghan debacle into some kind of strategic triumph isn't much better, as Juan Cole and Ahmed Rashid make clear in separate pieces. All of which is more evidence that our agonizingly long electoral cycle is a major impediment to a smarter foreign policy.
Obama should not forget that the elder President Bush won a far more smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War than we are going to get in Afghanistan, and he went down to defeat in 1992. It's still the economy, stupid, and most voters won't care much about bin Laden's demise when they go to the polls in November, no matter how often the president reminds them about it between now and then. Needless to say, that is precisely what Romney is counting on.
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Note: In response to my previous post on the hazards of the new Atrocities Prevention Board, Andrew Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action offers the following alternative view. I'm not persuaded, but it is a thoughtful and intelligent rejoinder that I wanted to share with you. Take it away, Andrew....
Andrew Miller writes:
Stephen Walt's skepticism of the recently-announced Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) is understandable. New bureaucracies often create more problems than they solve. But, the APB is a worthwhile (albeit, modest) attempt to improve the government's mass atrocity prevention and response efforts. A close look at the board shows that it has the potential to both avert atrocities and lessen the likelihood of humanitarian interventions -- outcomes that realists, of course, can welcome with open arms.
The APB will help ensure that atrocity situations don't get sidelined in the policymaking process. The Clinton administration failed to address the 1994 Rwandan genocide in part because White House officials were focused on the dual crises in Bosnia and Haiti. Thus, as hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda, the genocide wasn't even a side-show for policymakers; it was a "no show" in the words of then-national security advisor Tony Lake.
The APB, as a standing body with senior officials (assistant secretaries and above), would be well-positioned to avoid such bloodshed becoming a "no-show". In tandem with the board, the president has vowed to set up "alert channels" that allow lower-level officials to raise red flags about potential atrocities. The APB could serve as a conduit in processing these warnings and ultimately getting them to the Oval Office if warranted.
Does that mean the U.S. military is more likely to find itself in places of negligible U.S. interests such as Rwanda? Simply put: No.
As the board's title suggests, it will focus on prevention. Thus, its success will be measured on its ability to prevent tensions from deteriorating to the point where intervention is even considered. With a preventive approach, the United States can save more lives while expending less blood and treasure. Preventive tools such as economic sanctions or threats of prosecution used to deter would-be perpetrators and protect would-be victims are almost always cheaper and less risky than large-scale military operations.
Given the board's interagency make-up, it can leverage these preventive tools rather than relying on the military to resolve crises. The APB will have representatives from the departments of State, Defense, Treasure, Justice, Homeland Security, among others, with the White House's director for multilateral affairs Samantha Power chairing the group. This broad representation will help make the military less of a go-to institution for dealing with atrocities as has been the case since the end of the Cold War.
It is fair to ask, what happens if preventive action fails? Or, as Walt puts it, "how likely is it that [the APB] will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens?" While the APB will probably recommend taking serious mitigating steps, there is a wide range of measures short of a large-scale military operation. Even Power, whom the National Interest has dubbed "Interventionista", stresses measures beyond "sending in the Marines." In her book A Problem from Hell, she lays out a host of policies that the Clinton administration could have taken during Rwanda: frequently denouncing the slaughter, beefing up the United Nations peacekeeper force there, jamming belligerent radio broadcasts used to coordinate attacks, threatening to prosecute the perpetrators, etc.
These are the sorts of measures that the APB will rely upon. In fact, the Obama administration has already used them to help end last year's bloodshed in Ivory Coast. Atrocities broke out there when opposition forces tried to unseat incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo who had lost the country's November 2010 elections. The administration subsequently slapped sanctions on the main perpetrators, backed the United Nations peacekeeping mission in-country, and ultimately supported a French troop deployment. Tensions in Ivory Coast remain today, but the mass killings have stopped.
The APB would not have made intervention in Ivory Coast any more likely. Walt accurately states that there are "good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts." Even if the APB had advocated for U.S. troops, there is little reason to believe that Obama would have deployed them to a place of negligible U.S. interests. (Perhaps the only effect Ivorian instability had on Americans was a rise in chocolate prices.) In other words, the president's strategic calculus on Ivory Coast was set, and the APB would not have changed that -- a good thing from the realist point of view.
Finally, Walt raises the uncomfortable reality of the United States' spotty human rights record. He argues that past U.S. misdeeds make the APB just another example of American "smug self-congratulation." If one takes a victim's perspective, however, this smugness seems less relevant. Srebrenica's Muslims, for example, surely would have appreciated American help in July 1995 regardless of U.S. sanctions on Iraq at the time. In the same vein, would the United States want to end its fight against human trafficking (modern-day slavery in many respects) given its pre-1860s history? Most realists (presumably Walt included) would say, no.
As this blog has made clear, realists are not divorced from morality. Like anybody else, they don't want to see Rwandan rivers choked with bodies or emaciated Bosnians behind barbed wire. They also don't want to see the United States' national security imperiled by military overstretch. The APB is a modest step toward reaching both ends.
Andrew C. Miller is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action. He can be found on Twitter @andrewmiller802.
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Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, but the new "strategic partnership" agreement between the United States and Afghanistan strikes me as little more than a fig leaf designed to make a U.S. withdrawal (which I support) look like a mutually agreed-upon "victory." It is already being spun as a signal to the Taliban, Iran, and Pakistan that the United States remains committed, and the agreement will undoubtedly be used as "evidence" that the 2009 surge is a success and that's now ok for the US to bring its forces home.
I have no problem with cosmetic gestures that facilitate doing the right thing, but let's be clear about the limited significance of the agreement itself. Although the final text of the agreement has not been made public (which itself makes one wonder both what it says and what it doesn't say), the New York Times account says that there is no specific agreement on the magnitude of future U.S. aid. Indeed, it describes the agreement as "more symbolic than substantive." We're told that Washington has pledged to support Afghanistan for another ten years, but the actual aid amounts are unspecified and will have to be voted each year by Congress. Long-term U.S. support may also be conditional on reduced corruption and Afghan reforms, but given their track record to date, it is hard to believe that the Afghans will make much progress on that front.
Ten years is a pretty long time, and a lot will happen -- including three U.S. presidential elections -- between now and 2022. The Obama and Karzai governments can make whatever promises they want to each other, but those agreements will have to be carried out by their successors and both sides can always renege by claiming that "conditions have changed." I'm not saying that the agreement is worthless, but in the end the two states will abide by its terms only if it is in their respective interest to do so. Given the volatile nature of politics throughout Central Asia, it would be folly to assume that a deal hatched now will remain in force for ten years.
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For the life of me, I can't figure out what the Obama administration is thinking about Iran. And I can't tell if the administration is more confused than I am. Let me explain.
The first part of the puzzle was a column by the Washington Post's David Ignatius last week, which reported that "President Obama has signaled Iran that the United States would accept an Iranian civilian nuclear program if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can back up his recent public claims that his nation 'will never pursue nuclear weapons.'" Ignatius' story was obviously based on testimony from administration insiders, and the leaks were probably intended to send the message that diplomacy was working and that military force wasn't needed. In a similar vein, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News on April 3 that "it's our very strong belief, as President Obama conveyed to the Israelis, that it is not in anyone's interest for them to take unilateral action. It is in everyone's interest for us to seriously pursue at this time the diplomatic path" (my emphasis).
So far, so good. But then came Sunday's New York Times story supposedly laying out the P5+1 negotiating position. Like the Ignatius story, it was based on leaks (that is, on conversations with unnamed "senior U.S. officials"). It reported that the U.S. and its allies will insist that Iran shut down and eventually dismantle its underground enrichment facility at Fordow, as part of supposed deal intended to keep Iran as far away from a bomb as possible. The story quotes an unnamed official saying that the "urgent priority" is to get Iran to give up its supply of 20 percent enriched uranium, because it could be further enriched to weapons grade (>90 percent) relatively quickly. But they also quote NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor saying "Our position is clear: Iran must live up to its international obligations, including full suspension of uranium enrichment as required by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions."
But here's why I'm confused. I can see why the P5 +1 would like Iran to agree to these demands, just as I'd like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to each write me billion dollar checks. But I don't expect either of them to do this, yet the U.S and its allies seem to think this deal-breaking demand is a reasonable opening bid. In fact, their position sounds like a complete non-starter to me, and seems more likely to derail negotiations than advance them.
Remember: Iran has invested millions to build a protected underground enrichment facility, which is what any sensible government might do it it were constantly being threatened with a preventive strike. It would be an extraordinarily humiliating climb-down for them to agree to shut the facility down at this point and then dismantle it. Have you seen much evidence that the highly nationalistic Iranians would accept this sort of humiliation? Moreover, if Iran's main goal is not to have a nuclear weapon, but rather to have the capacity to get one quickly if it ever needed it, then it is unlikely to accede to our demands about its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium in the absence of some very big inducements.
The Times' story quotes a U.S. official saying "We have no idea how the Iranians will react... We probably won't know after the first meeting." In fact, the initial response from Tehran was both prompt and predictable. Guess what? They rejected it.
So here's why I'm puzzled. If you're the Obama administration, the last thing you want is a war. Certainly not before November, and maybe not ever. (It's bad enough that sanctions on Iran are adding about 25 cents to the price of gallon of gas.) But if that's the case, then the obvious course of action is to get the diplomatic track rolling and make a genuine effort to see if an acceptable deal can be had. So why start with an opening demand that Iran was virtually certain to reject? All that does is confirm Iranian suspicions that the United States and its allies aren't really interested in a negotiated settlement and give war hawks another reason to demand the use of force. If the U.S. and its allies soften their position on Fordow, however, the GOP will accuse Obama of appeasement and the war hawks at home and abroad will clamor that time is running out and that force is the only option.
It is possible, I suppose, that there's something more subtle going on here. Maybe the real P5+1 position will be a bit more reasonable, and these news stories will be forgotten. Maybe Iran's leaders are feeling the heat, and will be more forthcoming than I suspect. Maybe there's a tacit U.S.-Israeli deal reflected here, where they've agree not to launch a war and we've agreed to put forward a very tough line that leaves options open for the future. Maybe the demand to close Fordow is just a bargaining chip, and we will in fact get a deal on the 20 percent enriched uranium.
A lot of maybes. But from where I sit today, our approach looks like a good way to sabotage the negotiations before they start. What good does that do anyone?
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I hope to post later today on another issue, but in the meantime, here's a link to my contribution to a New York Times' "Room for Debate" forum on U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The question was whether we should get out sooner or get out later. As you can read, I favor the former. Money quote:
"Afghanistan is not a vital United States interest. President Obama had said that we must prevent Al Qaeda from establishing safe havens there, but Osama bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda already has better safe havens elsewhere. Victory in Afghanistan will not eliminate Al Qaeda, and leaving won’t make it more dangerous. If it makes no difference whether we win or lose, why fight on?"
I would only add that I don't think most Americans have any idea what the conflict in Afghanistan has really been like, or what U.S. soldiers and commanders really did and really thought. We will learn more with the passage of time, and I suspect it won't be pretty.
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The killing of 16 Afghan civilians -- nine of them children -- by a rogue U.S. soldier is a tragedy in several senses. First, because of the loss of innocent life. Second, because the alleged perpetrator is likely someone whose psyche and spirit broke under the pressure of a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign. And third, because it was all so unnecessary.
Because Barack Obama has run a generally hawkish foreign policy, his Republican opponents don't have a lot of daylight to exploit on that issue. But if they weren't so preoccupied with sounding tough, they could go after Obama's foolish decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan back in 2009, which remains his biggest foreign policy blunder to date.
A brutal reality is that counterinsurgency campaigns almost always produce atrocities. Think My Lai, Abu Ghraib, the Haditha massacre, and now this. You simply can't place soldiers in the ambiguous environment of an indigenous insurgency, where the boundary between friend and foe is exceedingly hard to discern, and not expect some of them to crack and go rogue. Even if discipline holds and mental health is preserved, a few commanders will get overzealous and order troops to cross the line between legitimate warfare and barbarism. There isn't a "nice" way to wage a counterinsurgency -- no matter how often we talk about "hearts and minds" -- which is why leaders ought to think long and hard before they order the military to occupy another country and try to remake its society. Or before they decide to escalate a war that is already underway.
And the sad truth is that this shameful episode would not have happened had Obama rejected the advice of his military advisors and stopped trying to remake Afghanistan from the start of his first term. Yes, I know he promised to get out of Iraq and focus on Central Asia, but no president fulfills all his campaign promises (remember how he was going to close Gitmo?) and Obama could have pulled the plug on this failed enterprise at the start. Maybe he didn't for political reasons, or because commanders like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal convinced him they could turn things around. Or maybe he genuinely believed that U.S. national security required an open-ended effort to remake Afghanistan.
Whatever the reason, he was wrong. The sad truth is that the extra effort isn't going to produce a significantly better outcome, and the lives and money that we've spent there since 2009 are mostly wasted. That was apparent before this weekend's events, which can only make our futile task even more impossible.
Here's what I wrote about this situation back in November 2009:
"America's odds of winning this war are slim. The Karzai government is corrupt, incompetent and resistant to reform. The Taliban have sanctuaries in Pakistan and can hide among the local populace, making it possible for them simply to outlast us. Pakistan has backed the Afghan Taliban in the past and is not a reliable partner now. Our European allies are war-weary and looking for the exits. The more troops we send and the more we interfere in Afghan affairs, the more we look like foreign occupiers and the more resistance we will face. There is therefore little reason to expect a U.S. victory."
It didn't take a genius to see this, and I had lots of company in voicing my doubts. It gives me no pleasure to recall it now. Indeed, I wish the critics had been proven wrong and Obama, Petraeus, McChrystal, et al. had been proven right. I concede that the situation in Afghanistan may get worse after we depart, and the more civilians will die at the hands of the Taliban, or as a consequence of renewed civil war. But the brutal fact remains: the United States can't fix that country, it is not a vital U.S. interest that we try, and we should have been gone a long time ago.
I did a brief interview for All Things Considered last Friday, on the topic of media handling of the current war scare over Iran. Here's a link to the story, which ran over the weekend.
The interview got me thinking about the issue of media coverage of this whole business, and I'm sorry to say that most mainstream news organizations have let us down again. Although failures haven't been as egregious as the New York Times and Washington Post's wholesale swallowing of the Bush administration's sales pitch for war in 2002, on the whole the high-end media coverage has been disappointing. Here are my Top Ten Media Failures in the 2012 Iran War Scare.
#1: Mainstreaming the war. As I've written before, when prominent media organizations keep publishing alarmist pieces about how war is imminent, likely, inevitable, etc., this may convince the public that it is going to happen sooner or later and it discourages people from looking for better alternatives. Exhibits A and B for this problem are Jeffrey Goldberg's September 2010 article in The Atlantic Monthly and Ronan Bergman's February 2012 article in the New York Times Magazine. Both articles reported that top Israeli leaders believed time was running out and suggested that an attack might come soon.
#2: Loose talk about Iran's "nuclear [weapons] program." A recurring feature of Iran war coverage has been tendency to refer to Iran's "nuclear weapons program" as if its existence were an established fact. U.S. intelligence services still believe that Iran does not have an active program, and the IAEA has also declined to render that judgment either. Interestingly, both the Times' public editor Arthur Brisbane and Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton have recently chided their own organizations for muddying this issue.
#3: Obsessing about Ahmadinejad. A typical insertion into discussions of Iran is to make various references to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, usually including an obligatory reference to his penchant for Holocaust denial and his famously mis-translated statement about Israel "vanishing from the page of time." This feature is often linked to the issue of whether Iran's leaders are rational or not. But the obsession with Ahmadinejad is misleading in several ways: he has little or no influence over Iran's national security policy, his power has been declining sharply in recent months, and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini -- who does make the key decisions -- has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam. And while we're on the subject of Iranian "rationality," it is perhaps worth noting that its leaders weren't goofy enough to invade Iraq on a pretext and then spend trillions of dollars fighting an unnecessary war there.
#4: Ignoring Iranian weakness. As I've noted before, Iran is not a very powerful country at present, though it does have considerable potential and could exert far more international influence if its leaders were more competent. But its defense budget is perhaps 1/50th the size of U.S. defense spending, and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. It could not mount a serious invasion of any of its neighbors, and could not block the Strait of Hormuz for long, if at all. Among other things, that is why it has to rely on marriages of convenience with groups like Hezbollah or Hamas (who aren't that powerful either). Yet as Glenn Greenwald argues here, U.S. media coverage often portrays Iran as a looming threat, without offering any serious military analysis of its very limited capabilities.
#5: Failing to ask why Iran might want a bomb. Discussions of a possible war also tend to assume that if Iran does in fact intend to get a nuclear weapon, it is for some nefarious purpose. But the world's nine nuclear powers all obtained these weapons first and foremost for deterrent purposes (i.e., because they faced significant external threats and wanted a way to guarantee their own survival). Iran has good reason to worry: It has nuclear-armed states on two sides, a very bad relationship with the world's only superpower, and more than three dozen U.S. military facilities in its neighborhood. Prominent U.S. politicians repeatedly call for "regime change" there, and a covert action campaign against Iran has been underway for some time, including the assassination of Iranian civilian scientists.
#6: Failing to consider why Iran might NOT want a bomb. At the same time, discussions of Iran's nuclear ambitions often fail to consider the possibility that Iran might be better off without a nuclear weapons capability. As noted above, Supreme Leader Khameini has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam, and he may very well mean it. He could be lying, but that sort of lie would be risky for a regime whose primary basis for legitimacy is its devotion to Islam. For another, Iran has the greatest power potential of any state in the Gulf, and if it had better leadership it would probably be the strongest power in the region. If it gets nuclear weapons some of its neighbors may follow suit, which would partly negate Iran's conventional advantages down the road. Furthermore, staying on this side of the nuclear weapons threshold keeps Iran from being suspected of complicity should a nuclear terrorist attack occur somewhere. For all these reasons, I'd bet Iran wants a latent nuclear option, but not an actual nuclear weapon. But there's been relatively little discussion of that possibility in recent media coverage.
#7: Exaggerating Israel's capabilities. In a very real sense, this whole war scare has been driven by the possibility that Israel might feel so endangered that they would launch a preventive war on their own, even if U.S. leaders warned them not to. But the IDF doesn't have the capacity to take out Iran's new facility at Fordow, because they don't have any aircraft that can carry a bomb big enough to penetrate the layers of rock that protect the facilities. And if they can't take out Fordow, then they can't do much to delay Iran's program at all and the only reason they might strike is to try to get the United States dragged in. In short, the recent war scare-whose taproot is the belief that Israel might strike on its own-may be based on a mirage.
#8: Letting spinmeisters play fast and loose with facts. Journalists have to let officials and experts express their views, but they shouldn't let them spout falsehoods without pushing back. Unfortunately, there have been some egregious cases where prominent journalists allowed politicians or government officials to utter howlers without being called on it. When Rick Santorum announced on Meet the Press that "there were no inspectors" in Iran, for example, host David Gregory didn't challenge this obvious error. (In fact, Iran may be the most heavily inspected country in the history of the IAEA).
Even worse, when Israeli ambassador Michael Oren appeared on MSNBC last week, he offered the following set of dubious claims, without challenge:
"[Iran] has built an underground nuclear facility trying to hide its activities from the world. It has been enriching uranium to a high rate [sic.] that has no explanation other than a military nuclear program - that has been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency now several times. It is advancing very quickly on an intercontinental ballistic missile system that's capable of carrying nuclear warheads."
Unfortunately, MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell apparently didn't know that Oren's claims were either false or misleading. 1) Iran's underground facility was built to make it hard to destroy, not to "hide its activities," and IAEA inspectors have already been inside it. 2) Iran is not enriching at a "high rate" (i.e., to weapons-grade); it is currently enriching to only 20% (which is not high enough to build a bomb). 3) Lastly, Western intelligence experts do not think Iran is anywhere near to having an ICBM capability.
In another interview on NPR, Oren falsely accused Iran of "killing hundreds, if not thousands of American troops," a claim that NPR host Robert Siegel did not challenge. Then we got the following exchange:
Oren: "Imagine Iran which today has a bunch of speedboats trying to close the Strait of Hormuz. Imagine if Iran has a nuclear weapon. Imagine if they could hold the entire world oil market blackmailed. Imagine if Iran is conducting terrorist organizations through its terrorist proxies - Hamas, Hezbollah. Now we know there's a connection with al-Qaida. You can't respond to them because they have an atomic weapon."
Siegel: Yes. You're saying the consequences of Iran going nuclear are potentially global, and the consequences of a U.S. strike on Iran might also be further such attacks against the United States..."
Never mind the fact that we have been living in the nuclear age for some 60 years now, and no nuclear state has even been able to conduct the sort of aggressive blackmail that Oren suggests Iran would be able to do. Nuclear weapons are good for deterrence, and not much else, but the news media keep repeating alarmist fantasies without asking if they make sense or not.
Politicians and government officials are bound to use media moments to sell whatever story they are trying to spin; that's their job. But It is up to journalists to make this hard, and both Mitchell and Siegel didn't. (For another example of sloppy fact-checking, go here).
9. What about the human beings? One of the more bizarre failures of reporting on the war debate has been the dearth of discussion of what an attack might mean for Iranian civilians. If you take out some of Iran's nuclear facilities from the air, for example, there's a very real risk of spreading radioactive material or other poisonous chemicals in populated areas, thereby threatening the lives of lots of civilians. Yet when discussing the potentially dangerous consequences of a war, most discussions emphasize the dangers of Iranian retaliation, or the impact on oil prices, instead of asking how many innocent Iranian civilians might die in the attack. You know: the same civilians we supposedly want to liberate from a despotic clerical regime.
10. Could diplomacy work? Lastly, an underlying theme in a lot of the coverage is the suggestion that diplomacy is unlikely to work, because it's been tried before and failed. But the United States has had very little contact with Iranian officials over the past thirty years, and only one brief set of direct talks in the past three years. Moreover, we've insisted all along that Iran has to give up all nuclear enrichment, which is almost certainly a deal-breaker from Tehran's perspective. The bottom line is that diplomacy has yet to succeed-and it might not in any case-but it's also never been seriously tried.
I'm sure you can find exceptions to the various points I've made here, especially if you move outside major media outlets and focus on online publications and the blogosphere. Which may be why more people are inclined to get their news and analysis there, instead of from the usual outlets. But on the whole, Americans haven't been well-served by media coverage of the Iran debate. As the president said last week, "loose talk" about an issue like this isn't helpful.
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Close your eyes, and imagine the following situation...
Suppose the town or city where you live had a bunch of heavily-armed foreign soldiers living nearby. As part of their normal duties, they sent patrols down your street with some frequency, bristling with guns and other instruments of war. Imagine that these soldiers were from a very different culture and nearly all of them did not speak your native language, although they could occasionally use a local translator to order you around. You have been told repeatedly that they are there to protect you, but sometimes these protective activities involve entering your neighbors' houses, arresting people, and even shooting up the place. Of course, these well-armed foreign troops have access to lots of sophisticated airpower, including helicopters, fighter-bombers, and drones, and these sophisticated gadgets fire missiles and drop bombs on suspected bad guys in your city, town, or village. Most of the time it appears that the foreign occupiers get who they were aiming at, but sometimes they make mistakes and kill your friends and neighbors. Maybe even one of your close relatives.
The question I'd ask you is this: If you had been living in such circumstances for five or ten years, do you think you and your neighbors might become resentful of those well-intentioned but heavy-handed foreigners? Do you think you might even begin to hate their intrusive interference, even if it were done with the best of intentions? If you then discovered that some of them were burning Bibles, Torahs, or the American flag, might you leave your house and join an angry demonstration, or may even try to do something worse?
If the answer to those questions is "yes," then you can probably understand why the United States and its allies are in such deep water in Afghanistan.
You see, the outburst of public rage at the idiotic burning of a bunch of Qurans actually tells you something very important about our Afghan campaign. It's not as if the news about this act suddenly swung lots of Afghans from being really fond of the United States to being really mad at us. Rather, news of the Quran burning was just a catalyst-the proverbial straw on the camel's back-that ignited resentments that have been building up for a long time.
The fact is: Nobody likes being ordered around by a tough and well-armed bunch of foreigners, and no amount of "hearts and minds" feel-good diplomacy can totally eliminate that fact. (And a lot of that COIN-speak was rhetoric intended as much to make the war sound more genteel here in the United States). That is one of the many reasons why the Obama administration was wrong to escalate the Afghan war in 2009, and why neoconservative supporters of the Afghan "surge" were as wrong about that as they were about the similar surge in Iraq. (For more on the latter issue, see Jim Sleeper's pointed commentary here).
Sending more troops to Afghanistan escalation didn't alter the trajectory of the war in any fundamental way, and this recent article in Armed Forces Journal suggests that we've been fed a bill of goods about the real conditions there. The Afghan reaction to the Quran burning is one of those moments of clarity where the real landscape is revealed, and it's not a pretty sight.
And now, all we need to do is imagine an administration that can face these facts squarely and bring this misguided effort to an end. I can't guarantee that Obama would do it in his second term (after all, he whiffed on this decision the first time around), but I'd bet he's more likely to do it than the people who hope to challenge him in November.
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The continued carnage in Syria is leading more people to call for some sort
of international intervention, ostensibly to protect Syrian rebels from further
attacks by government forces. A prominent example was a New York Times op-ed
last week by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the
State Department, which recommended that the United States and others create
"no-kill zones" on Syrian territory, protected by a coalition of
outside powers. She also wants these outside powers to give the rebel forces
various forms of weaponry, military training, and tactical advice. To avoid the
criticism that her policy would fuel a civil war, Slaughter insists that
support be conditional on the aid being used "defensively," though
Turkish or Arab League units would be free to use drones or unmanned helicopters
"to attack Syrian air defenses and mortars in order to protect the no-kill
The core problem with this proposal, as Paul Staniland makes clear in this incisive critique, is that it ignores basic military realities. The rebels are trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad; once we commit ourselves to arming and protecting them, how are we going to stop them from doing whatever they can to bring him down? Once engaged on their behalf, is it realistic that any government could cut them off because they had gone beyond our Marquis of Queensbury rules of engagement? Moreover, Slaughter admits that we cannot protect her "no-kill zones" without degrading Assad's forces. In practice, therefore, her neat distinction between "defensive" and "offensive" operations would quickly break down.
In fact, her proposal would lead inexorably to an active military effort to overthrow the Assad regime. As in Libya, what sounds at first like a noble effort to protect civilians would quickly turn into offensive action against a despised regime, and in partnership with a host of opposition forces whose character and competence we can only guess at. If that's what Slaughter and others want to do, they should say so openly, instead of performing what can only be described as a strategic bait-and-switch. China and Russia have figured this ploy out, by the way, which is one reason they've been so reluctant to endorse any international action to stop the killing.
Here's the basic problem. Once we commit ourselves to creating safe havens ("no-kill zones"), we will be obliged to defend them for as long as there is any possibility that Assad's forces might attack. As our experience with the no-fly zones in Iraq teaches, this could involve defending them for years. And if Assad's forces start shelling the rebel areas, then we will have to defend them or risk humiliation. But let's be clear: "defending them" means attacking Assad's own forces. In other words: war. And once that happens, the United States and the other outside powers will face enormous pressures to complete the job.
In fact, it is hard to believe that we could take the step Slaughter is recommending and subsequently agree to leave Assad and his regime in place. As soon as outside powers take sides and intervene, a failure to remove Assad from power would be interpreted as a striking defeat for the intervening powers and a blow to those who have seen the Arab Spring as a hopeful turn for a troubled region.
In short, there is no way to conduct the sort of minimalist, purely defensive, and strictly humanitarian operation that Slaughter describes in her op-ed, without it eventually leading to forcible regime change. And one big reason that Syria's neighbors have been reluctant to go that route is their understandable fear of a protracted internal conflict there that would make the present carnage look mild by comparison.
I take no pleasure from that reality, and I share Slaughter's anger and disgust at what Assad is doing. But the choice we face is stark and agonizing, and pretending that we can keep our balance on this steep and slippery slope is not helpful.
Jason Reed/AFP/Getty Images
The Libyan revolution celebrated its first anniversary last week, and though there were a few news stories and blog posts about it, the milestone didn't attract as much attention as one might have expected. Instead, the focus of debate has moved on to the grim tragedy unfolding in Syria, and the perpetual sabre-rattling over Iran, not to mention vital issues such as whether 1) Santorum or Romney will win Michigan, 2) Jeremy Lin is a fluke or a phenom, and 3) Bobby Brown was treated badly by the security team at ex-wife Whitney Houston's funeral.
Meanwhile, what about Libya? There's no question that efforts to build a stable, legitimate, and effective post-Qaddafi government haven't gone all that well, belying the confident proclamations that rebel leaders made during the fighting itself. The National Transitional Council is increasingly seen as weak and ineffective, dozens of armed militias continue to hold sway throughout the country, and radical Islamists are openly contending for power. Amnesty International reports that human rights abuses are widespread, including acts of torture, extra-judicial executions, and acts of retribution against ethnic minorities. Thousands of man-portable surface-to-air missiles remain unaccounted for, and some of the weapons may be helping fuel conflicts in neighboring countries and maybe even getting into the hands of terrorists.
Does this mean the effort to topple Qaddafi was a mistake? Those of us who were skeptical about the wisdom of the operation might be tempted to declare our view vindicated, but to do so would be just as foolhardy as George W. Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq. Fixing a country as screwed up as Libya was is going to take time, and I still believe we won't really know the answer for another year or two at least.
What is more troubling to me is the short attention span we seem to have about these events. The foreign policy community is like a kid with ADD: A crisis erupts, and there's a sudden flurry of interest and activity. Advisors huddle and plan, spokespersons proclaim, diplomats confer, pundits opine, and yes, bloggers like me type our hearts out for awhile. And then the moment passes (often as soon as the former ruler does), and attention moves on to the next set of headlines. A year ago, Libya; today, Syria, tomorrow, who?
And in the meantime, Libyans are more-or-less left to their fate. Yes, there is a UN mission there, and yes, the United States has pledged a modest amount of aid. In particular, we are funding a program to buy up the remnants of Qaddafi's arsenal of weapons, which tells you that we care more about that issue than we do about the condition of the Libyan people. As you can read about in this very useful Congressional Research Service study, a few Congressmen have inserted various Libya-oriented programs into various authorization bills, which suggests that a few people in Washington are still engaged by the issue. But overall, one doesn't get the sense that Libya is taking up much bandwidth in the foreign policy establishment anymore.
Mind you, I'm not saying that the United States should be offering Libya a new Marshall Plan, or trying to conduct an ambitious "state-building" operation there. We've tried that in some other places and our track record isn't encouraging. But I worry that while we may have lost our appetite for state-building, we haven't lost our appetite for state-destroying (otherwise known as regime change). Call it a policy of "drive-by interventionism": We'll help take out this month's bad guy (and let's be clear, the leaders we've gone after lately have been pretty despicable), but then we'll leave it to others to sort out the bodies and rebuild the institutions. If they do. And if things go south later, well, by then we'll have moved on.
In some ways, this is the central tension in America's current global posture. Despite some largely rhetorical efforts to emphasize diplomacy, development, and other forms of "civilian power," our approach to contemporary security problems continues to privilege the sharp end of the stick. Outside powers cannot build functioning states on the ashes of the old without committing massive resources to the task -- and it may not work even if you do -- and the United States and its allies have neither the resources nor the motivation to do that anymore. Instead, we send drones and planes and Special Forces to topple governments who have fallen from favor. These policy instruments are cheap and sometimes effective, but they are of little or no value when it's time to rebuild.
Again: it's too soon to say whether the Libyan adventure will turn out well or not. But thus far, it is a cautionary tale for those who are now eager to do something similar in Syria. I share the widespread desire to see Assad give up power and accede to the demands for reform, but we have no way of knowing whether aid to the rebels will hasten that shared goal or simply ignite an even more punishing civil war. In other words, be careful what you wish for: There's hardly any situation that is so bad that it couldn't get worse.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Did last year's triumph in Libya help stymie efforts to forge an international consensus on Syria?
Some of you will have already seen FP colleagues Marc and Colum Lynch's excellent posts bemoaning the U.N. Security Council's inability to pass a resolution addressing the continuing violence on Syria. The proximate cause was a joint Russian and Chinese veto of the proposed resolution, ostensibly on the grounds that it was one-sided.
I think Marc is right to say that this lapse weakens the authority and legitimacy of the Security Council (SC). I place less weight on the SC than some commentators do, but even I don't think a weak and discredited SC is a good thing. I also agree that this development increases the danger of a prolonged conflict in Syria, and maybe even an internationalized civil war there.
There are a number of reasons why the U.N. effort has failed thus far, but part of the blame lies with the liberal interventionists who abused the Security Council's mandate during last year's intervention in Libya.
You'll recall that UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized military action in Libya to protect civilians. The resolution was directly inspired by the fear that Qaddafi loyalists laying siege to the rebel town of Benghazi were about to conduct some sort of massacre there. In response, Res. 1973 authorized member states "take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." France, the United States and other foreign powers quickly went beyond this mandate, using airpower and other forms of assistance to help the rebels defeat Muammar Qaddafi's forces and oust him from power.
One can argue that this was the right course of action anyway, because getting rid of a thug like Qaddafi was worth it. That's a debate for another day, although I would note in passing that post-Qaddafi Libya remains deeply troubled and the collapse of the regime seems to be fueling conflicts elsewhere. But what if the Libyan precedent is one of the reasons why Russia and China aren't playing ball today? They supported Resolution 1973 back in 2011, and then watched NATO and a few others make a mockery of multilateralism in the quest to topple Qaddafi. The Syrian tragedy is pay-back time, and neither Beijing nor Moscow want to be party to another effort at Western-sponsored "regime change." It is hardly surprising that Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin condemned the failed resolution on precisely these grounds. In short, our high-handed manipulation of the SC process in the case of Libya may have made it harder to gain a consensus on Syria, which is arguably a far more important and dangerous situation.
Don't get me wrong: I shed no tears for Qaddafi or his family and I'd be delighted to see Bashar al-Assad gone in Syria. The Libya precedent is not the only reason why China and Russia dug in their heels, and I think their decision to veto the resolution could be costly for them. But it is both ironic and tragic that some of the most enthusiastic defenders of multilateralism and international law seem all too willing to ignore them when they get in the way of other things they want to do, however laudable the latter goal might be. But a commitment to multilateralism and international law is not something you can invoke when it suits you and ignore when it doesn't, at least not without paying a price. Powerful states like the United States can (and do) act with impunity on occasion, but they shouldn't be surprised when such behavior backfires later on.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
The drumbeats for war with Iran keep pounding, as you can read about here and here. There are some features of the campaign that are scarily (or maybe comically) reminiscent of 2002-2003 (as Glenn Greenwald documents here), but for now there's one key difference. Back in 2002, the neocon-heavy Bush administration led the charge to sell the invasion of Iraq. Today, by contrast, the case for war is being made primarily by other countries (i.e., Israel), or by assorted think tanks, lobbying groups, and national security commentators in the United States. The Obama administration isn't leading the campaign, having correctly concluded that a war is neither necessary nor wise. In particular, they do not seem to have bought into the rampant threat inflation that forms the core of the hawks' case for war.
But today I want to focus on another remarkable feature of this situation: the absence of any sort of meaningful diplomacy between the United States and the country whose citizens we would be attacking and killing if we were to launch a strike. The United States had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union from 1933 on, including the period when Joseph Stalin was murdering millions. We never broke relations with Moscow during the Cold War, even though the United States and USSR had thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at each other and were waging bloody proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Africa, the Middle East, and Africa. U.S. and Soviet leaders met repeatedly at summit meetings (some of them contentious), and U.S. and Soviet diplomats interacted more-or-less constantly on matters of mutual concern. The purpose of these various exchanges wasn't appeasement or even accommodation; we talked to them so that we could figure out what they thought, and so that we could explain our positions to them. It was important that each side know what the consequences of different courses of action might be, and sometimes that involved spelling it out for each other.
And what was the result? Not only were the two superpowers occasionally able to cooperate in mutually beneficial ways (i.e., managing crises, reducing nuclear risks, ending wars, etc.) but the United States eventually won the Cold War and presided over the Soviet Union's demise without triggering a direct U.S.-Soviet clash. Indeed, U.S. diplomats did a good job of picking Mikhail Gorbachev's pocket as the USSR imploded, in part because they had established a good working relationship with him. Furthermore, contacts between Russians and Americans seem to have helped thaw communist society, in part by teaching younger Soviet elites that the West was doing better and was not irrevocably hostile.
By contrast, the United States hasn't had diplomatic relations with Iran for over three decades. That is a longer hiatus than occurred after either the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 or the communist seizure of power in China in 1949. Only a tiny handful of U.S. officials have direct experience with their Iranian counterparts. Few Americans have extensive dealings with Iranians, save for Iranian exiles who often have their own agendas. We don't have a good sense of where the different Iranian factions are, what they think, or how they might respond to different U.S. policies. Yet we blindly assume that there is no recourse but to sanction and maybe bomb them.
The Obama administration likes to portray itself as having "extended a hand of friendship" to Iran, but it was a half-hearted effort at best. Even now, we seem unable to offer Iran a "yessable" proposition, and we merely repeat our long-standing position it simply comply with our demands. The administration has done a good job of rounding up international support for its position, but isn't it ironic that we've devoted far more time and energy to that task, instead of exploring whether there might be a mutually acceptable solution to the current impasse itself.
The bottom line: I find it bizarre that anyone is seriously contemplating waging war on a country about whom we know so little and with whom we barely engage. And why do we know so little? Because we are too scared, or proud, or politically paralyzed to even talk to them. This is not the behavior one expects of a confident, mature great power: it is the behavior of a government that is either afraid it will get tricked by devious Persians, or that is more worried about domestic criticism than foreign consequences.
Winston Churchill has become something of an iconic figure among U.S. hardliners, including many in the vanguard of the war party. But it was Churchill who famously remarked that "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." Rather than unleashing the U.S. Air Force, in short, how about unleashing our diplomats instead?
Oh, wait. It's an election year. Never mind.
Back in August 2010, I wrote a post warning about the possibility that war with Iran was being "mainstreamed." My concern was the likelihood that incessant talk of war would gradually accustom people to the idea and harden perceptions to the point that eventually even former skeptics would be convinced that war was inevitable and that we might as well get it over with. As I put it back then:
If you talk about going to war often enough and for long enough, people get used to the idea and some will even begin to think if it is bound to happen sooner or later, than "'twere better to be done quickly." In an inside-the-Beltway culture where being "tough" is especially prized, it is easy for those who oppose "decisive" action to get worn down and marginalized. If war with Iran comes to be seen as a "default" condition, then it will be increasingly difficult for cooler heads (including President Obama himself) to say no.
I now wonder if my concerns were understated, and the danger a bit more subtle. It appears that we have gone beyond just talking about military action to actually engaging in it, albeit at a low level. In addition to waging cyberwar via Stuxnet, the United States and/or Israel appear to be engaged in covert efforts to blow up Iranian facilities and murder Iranian scientists. Earlier this week, the CIA lost a reconnaissance drone over Iranian territory (whether Iran shot it down or not is disputed). And just as I'd feared, this situation has led smart and normally sober people like Andrew Sullivan and Roger Cohen to endorse this shadowy campaign, on the grounds that it is preferable to all-out war.
I certainly agree that what the United States is doing is better than launching an all-out attack, but I question this approach on three grounds. First, as I've already argued elsewhere, our preoccupation with Iran vastly overstates its capabilities and the actual threat it poses to U.S. interests. Iran is a minor military power at present, and it has no meaningful power projection capabilities. It has been pursuing some sort of nuclear capability for decades without getting there, which makes one wonder whether Iran intends to ever cross the nuclear weapons threshold. Even if it did, it could not use a bomb against us or against Israel without triggering its own destruction, and there is no sign that Iran's leadership is suicidal. Quite the contrary, in fact: the clerics seem more concerned with staying alive and staying in power than anything else. Iran's "revolutionary" ideology is old and tired and inspires no one. The "Arab Spring" has underscored Iran's irrelevance as a political force, Iran's Syrian ally is under siege and may yet fall, and the ongoing U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will remove a key source of Iranian-Iraqi solidarity and encourage Arab-Persian differences to reemerge once again. Iran is a problem but a relatively minor one, and it is a sign of our collective strategic myopia that U.S. leaders either cannot figure this out or cannot say so openly.
Second, waging a covert, low-level war is not without risks, including the risk of undesirable escalation. No matter how carefully we try to control the level of force, there's always the danger that matters spiral out of control. Iran can't do much to us militarily, but it can cause trouble in limited ways and it could certainly take steps that would jack up oil prices and possibly derail the fragile global economic recovery. Moreover, if some U.S. operation misfired and a couple of hundred Iranians died, wouldn't the revolutionary government feel compelled to respond? If U.S. or Israeli operatives are captured on Iranian soil, will pressure mount on us to do more? (Just imagine what all the GOP candidates would start saying!) Such developments may not be likely, of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore such possibilities entirely. Nor should we ignore the possibility that others will learn from this sort of "unconventional" campaign and one day use similar tactics against U.S. allies or the United States itself.
Third, a semi-secret war of this kind raises the inevitable risk of "blowback." The late Chalmers Johnson defined blowback as the unintended consequences of U.S. action abroad, and especially those actions of which the public is largely unaware. When we conduct semi-secret, not-quite wars in other countries, the targets sometime try to hit us back. When they do, many people back home will see their actions as unjustified aggression, and as evidence that our enemies are irrevocably hostile and unremittingly evil.
A case in point is the alleged Iranian plot to get Mexican drug lords to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Americans immediately concluded that this scheme was a sign of dastardly Iranian perfidy, when it might just as easily have been a harebrained Iranian riposte to what we were already doing. This is not to say that Iran was justified in trying to blow up a building in our nation's capital, but by what logic is peace-loving America justified in doing something similar over in Iran? In short: If the American people don't quite know what their government is up to, they cannot understand or interpret what other states are doing either. We may have good reasons not to like what others are doing, but the bigger danger is that we simply won't understand it, and won't understand our own role in helping bring such actions about.
Lastly, ratcheting up military pressure -- even if done covertly and at a relatively low level -- can only reaffirm deeply rooted Iranian suspicions of the United States and prolong U.S.-Iranian animosity. (The same is true in reverse, of course). I'm under no illusions about the depths of this animosity and the degree of skill, imagination, and patience it would take to unravel it, but doing more of the same is not going to make it any easier. Yes, many Iranians loathe the regime and would like it to go, but that doesn't mean they welcome U.S. or Israeli attacks on Iranian soil. And that is especially true of attacks on the nuclear program, which Iranians of many political persuasions view as an important symbol of national pride.
In short, the "silent campaign" against Iran is not without its own risks and costs. It is preferable to all-out attack, but a silent war and an all-out war are not the only options. The third option is a sustained and patient effort to reengage with Iran, in order to convince Iranian leaders that they are better off not going nuclear and that both sides will be better off if we can gradually work out some of our differences. Such an approach does not require the United States to sacrifice any core interests, nor would it preclude continuing to press Iran on its human rights record and on other matters that trouble us. And maybe it won't work. But as Trita Parsi shows in his new book A Single Roll of the Dice, that alternative approach has never really been tried.
A perennial preoccupation of U.S. diplomacy has been the perceived need to reassure allies of our reliability. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders worried that any loss of credibility might cause dominoes to fall, lead key allies to "bandwagon" with the Soviet Union, or result in some form of "Finlandization." Such concerns justified fighting so-called "credibility wars" (including Vietnam), where the main concern was not the direct stakes of the contest but rather the need to retain a reputation for resolve and capability. Similar fears also led the United States to deploy thousands of nuclear weapons in Europe, as a supposed counter to Soviet missiles targeted against our NATO allies.
The possibility that key allies would abandon us was almost always exaggerated, but U.S. leaders remain overly sensitive to the possibility. So Vice President Joe Biden has been out on the road this past week, telling various U.S. allies that "the United States isn't going anywhere." (He wasn't suggesting we're stuck in a rut, of course, but saying that the imminent withdrawal from Iraq doesn't mean a retreat to isolationism or anything like that.)
There's nothing really wrong with offering up this sort of comforting rhetoric, but I've never really understood why U.S. leaders were so worried about the credibility of our commitments to others. For starters, given our remarkably secure geopolitical position, whether U.S. pledges are credible is first and foremost a problem for those who are dependent on U.S. help. We should therefore take our allies' occasional hints about realignment or neutrality with some skepticism; they have every incentive to try to make us worry about it, but in most cases little incentive to actually do it.
Don't get me wrong: having allies around the world is useful and some attention needs to be paid to preserving intra-alliance solidarity, especially when the ally in question does have important things that we want or need. But an excessive concern for credibility encourages and enables allies to free-ride (something most of them have done for decades), and it can lead Washington to keep pouring resources into shaky endeavors lest allies elsewhere doubt our resolve.
This logic is wrong-headed, because squandering billions on fruitless endeavors (see under: Afghanistan) ultimately leaves one weaker overall and eventually diminishes public support for active engagement abroad. By contrast, liquidating a costly burden enables you to rebuild and regroup and puts you in a better position to respond in places that matter. The real message that Biden and other U.S. representatives should be telling their listeners is that getting out of Iraq (and eventually Afghanistan) is going to improve America's ability to protect its real interests, and that important U.S. allies need not be that concerned.
More importantly, worrying a bit less about our credibility and "playing hard to get" on occasion would have real benefits. If other states were a bit less confident that the United States would come to their aid if asked, they would be willing to do more to ensure that we would. If key U.S. allies are not entirely convinced of U.S. support no matter what they did, they would be less likely to engage in dangerous or provocative acts of their own. Moreover, playing "hard to get" reduces the likelihood that the United States will be perceived as a trigger-happy global policeman. As the cases of the Balkans in the 1990s and the recent Libyan intervention illustrate, when Washington is more reluctant to take on collective burdens, it ends up being appreciated (and less feared) when it finally does get involved. Thus, worrying a bit less about U.S. credibility is a way to get others to do more, and to resent what we do less.
To be clear: I'm not saying the United States should cultivate a reputation for unreliability or capriciousness. It should make commitments that are consistent with its interests and, so long as those interests do not change, it should do its best to fulfill the pledges it has made. But it ought to be hardheaded about this process, and proceed from the clear understanding that most of our allies need us more than we need them (at least most of the time). There will still be hard bargaining on occasion, a need for constructive and empathetic diplomacy, and there is little to be gained from treating our allies with visible disdain. But the United States still holds a lot of high cards, and we should expect allies to spend as much time reassuring us that they are worth the effort as we do reassuring them.
J. Scott Applewhite/AFP/Getty Images
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that "offshore balancing" was a grand strategy whose time had come. My evidence at the time was the fact that Tom Friedman of the New York Times, previously an enthusiastic proponent of using American power to police the world and transform the Middle East, was now endorsing some of the key principles of offshore balancing. Now another recovering liberal interventionist, Peter Beinart, has written a column for the Daily Beast arguing that "offshore balancing" is the strategy that the Obama administration has adopted and offering a qualified endorsement of it.
On the one hand, it's gratifying to see another mainstream pundit embrace a strategy that is long overdue. But it is also troublesome that neither Friedman nor Beinart bothered to mention any of the people who have been championing this approach for a decade or more, including Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, Christopher Preble, Robert Pape, Andrew Bacevich, Patrick Porter, and yours truly.
The omission may just be due to carelessness or haste, but it is not without consequences. By ignoring these (mostly) realist scholars who were among the earliest critics of neoconservative excesses (excesses that Beinart and many others once supported) and who have also been the principal advocates of a different approach to American grand strategy, Beinart's essay helps ensure that foreign-policy debates in the U.S. remain confined within rather narrow circles.
As I've observed elsewhere, a striking feature of our contemporary foreign-policy debates is the rather modest role that realists play in policymaking circles or in mainstream commentary. Neoconservatives are still highly influential despite a steady litany of failures, and liberal internationalists dominate the Democratic Party's foreign-policy establishment despite a mixed track record. By contrast, genuine realists remain something of an endangered species inside the Beltway, even though they were once important players in foreign-policy circles and even though "realism" is a respected theoretical perspective within the academic study of international relations. Yet there is no genuine realist writing on a regular basis for any of the major news outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post. (If you want to know how marginal realists have become, consider the frightening possibility that this rather modest blog might be the most visible mainstream outlet for more-or-less realist commentary.)
Of course, my point is not that realists get everything right, though our track record is pretty good. My point is that a realist perspective on U.S. foreign policy ought to get more attention than it typically does these days.
Beinart is a smart and independent thinker, and he deserves credit for recognizing where things are now headed and for calling his readers' attention to it. But he doesn't fully grasp some of the essential features of offshore balancing. His (and Obama's) version of this strategy remains highly interventionist; the only difference is that Washington now uses drones, cruise missiles, and special forces instead of large land armies. But we are still violating other states' sovereignty and killing terrorists and civilians in several different places, including some areas that are hardly vital interests. As we are witnessing in Pakistan, this approach is inflaming anti-Americanism, radicalizing the Pakistani diaspora, jeopardizing the overdue effort to leave Afghanistan, and quite possibly making the terrorism problem worse over time. And Obama and Beinart's version of the strategy still assumes that it is America's responsibility to solve security problems in places like Yemen or Central Asia, instead of relying primarily on others to do it.
Beinart also believes one of offshore balancing's limitations is that "it requires abandoning the idea that via nation building the U.S. can remake other societies." Offshore balancers do not see eschewing nation-building as a "limitation" but rather as an acknowledgement that outside intervention and foreign occupation are not good ways to move societies in a positive direction. On the contrary, realists believe that the United States is more likely to move the world in the right direction by offering a powerful and positive example to the world, an example that others admire and seek to emulate over time. Hence their concern that excessive global adventurism has fueled anti-Americanism in many places, inflated the influence of the military-industrial complex, led to torture and other violations of U.S. ideals, and gradually undermined civil liberties back home.
Beinart is also somewhat critical of allying with states that have questionable democratic credentials, which is sometimes necessary to preserve favorable balances of power in key regions. But we should not forget that the United States has done this throughout its history and benefited from many of these partnerships. Alliances with fellow democracies might be preferable (though some of them can cause problems too), but international politics is a contact sport and even powerful states cannot afford to be overly choosy when selecting allies and partners.
Finally, Beinart depicts offshore balancing as a strategy that has been forced upon us largely by fiscal constraints. In his words, "offshore balancing reemerges when the money and bravado have run out." He's correct that our economic woes have pushed the United States towards this more sensible strategy, but that does not mean we should go back on the interventionist warpath if we ever get our fiscal house in order. The interventionist approach that the U.S. followed from 1992 onward -- and especially after 2001 -- was a blunder even when our economy was healthy and the budget was in surplus, because it embroiled us in costly conflicts that were very hard to win and did not advance core U.S. interests anyway. Had we followed more realistic prescriptions after 1992 -- limiting or forgoing NATO expansion, rejecting "dual containment" and "regional transformation" in the Middle East, playing "hard to get" a bit more with key allies, and acting as an evenhanded mediator in the Oslo Process, etc. -- the United States might not have been attacked on 9/11 and would certainly have avoided the costly quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. We might even have achieved the ever-elusive two-state solution in the Middle East, though it is impossible to say that for certain.
The key point is that offshore balancing is the right strategy even when our coffers are full, provided that no peer competitors are threatening to dominate key strategic regions. Even during good times, it makes no sense to take on unnecessary burdens or to allow allies to free-ride on Uncle Sam's hubristic desire to be the "indispensable nation" in almost every corner of the world. In other words, offshore balancing isn't just a strategy for hard times; it is also the best available strategy in a world where the United States is the strongest power, prone to trigger unnecessary antagonism, and vulnerable to being dragged into unnecessary wars.
As I wrote back in 2005 (p. 223):
Offshore balancing is the ideal grand strategy for an era of U.S primacy. It husbands the power on which U.S. primacy depends and minimizes the fear that U.S. power provokes. By setting clear priorities and emphasizing reliance on regional allies, it reduces the danger of being drawn into unnecessary conflicts and encourages other states to do more to help us. Equally important, it takes advantage of America's favorable geopolitical position and exploits the tendency for regional powers to worry more about each other than about the United States. But it is not a passive strategy, and does not preclude using the full range of U.S. power to advance core American interests.
I cannot help but wonder how much better off we would be today had the United States followed this basic blueprint over the past two decades, instead of indulging in a series of misguided interventions around the globe.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
If you've been paying attention -- and maybe even if you haven't -- you'll have noticed that U.S. strategic attention is shifting toward Asia. The United States has already moved the bulk of its naval deployments towards the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has stated that future defense cuts won't be felt in Asia, and the Obama administration announced the other day that it is sending 2,500 Marines to a new base in Australia. Today, we learn that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is going to visit Myanmar, a move clearly intended to encourage the military regime there to continue its recent reform efforts and to try to wean the government from Beijing's embrace.
This trend reflects several developments: 1) the recognition that Europe faces no significant security threats and thus doesn't need U.S. protection, 2) the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have gradually convinced even die-hard liberal imperialists and a few neo-conservatives that using thousands of U.S. troops to do "nation-building" in the Middle East or Central Asia is a fool's errand; 3) Asia's growing economic importance, and 4) the widespread perception -- both in Washington and in the region -- that China's power is rising and needs to be countered by the United States (and others).
But why? Even some astute commentators are puzzled why Americans should care about Asian security. Writing on his blog over at the Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan inquires:
What on earth are we doing adding a military base in Australia to piss off China? Why shouldn't China have a sphere of influence in the Pacific? ... I see no way that putting a base in Australia somehow defends the homeland of the United States. It does nothing of the kind. It just projects global power."
In fact, there is a perfectly sound realist justification for this strategic shift, and the clearest expression can be found in George F. Kennan's book American Diplomacy. Kennan argued that there were several key centers of industrial power in the world -- Western Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States -- and that the primary strategic objective of the United States was to keep the Soviet Union from seizing any of those centers of power that lay outside its grasp. That's what containment was really all about, even if it was distorted and misapplied by people who thought areas like Indochina were critical.
More broadly, this logic reflects the realist view that it is to U.S. advantage to keep Eurasia divided among many separate powers, and to help prevent any single power from establishing the same sort of regional hegemony that the United States has long enjoyed in the Western hemisphere. That is why the United States eventually entered World War I (to prevent a German victory), and it is why Roosevelt began preparing the nation for war in the late 1930s and entered with enthusiasm after Pearl Harbor. In each case, powerful countries were threatening to establish regional hegemony in a key area, and so the United States joined with others to prevent this.
The point isn't a moral or ethical one: it is straightforward realpolitik. As long as the United States is the only great power in the Western hemisphere, it is much safer and doesn't have to worry very much about territorial defense. If you don't think this is important, ask Poland or any other country that has lots of powerful neighbors and has suffered from frequent invasions. And as long as Eurasia is divided among many contending powers, these states naturally tend to worry mostly about each other and not about us (except when we do stupid things, like invading Iraq). Instead, many Eurasian states have been eager for U.S. protection against local threats, which is why the United States has been able to lead successful and long-lived alliances in Europe and in Asia. In fact, it is the combination of enormous security here at home and compliant allies abroad that has enabled the United States to meddle in many corners of the world, sometimes to good purpose but often not.
LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/Getty Images
In a thoughtful dissection of the seemingly endless debate on Iran's nuclear program (and the various proponents of military action), Andrew Sullivan says "For my part, I cannot see how we can prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb." Sullivan is no fan of military action, but I suspect his view is widespread. Some think the inevitability of Iran's getting the bomb is a reason to attack them now; for others, it is an argument for turning to robust containment.
I'm against the former and would favor the latter if necessary, but I do not think it is a foregone conclusion that Iran will actually go forward and acquire a nuclear weapons capability. In particular, I can think of two good reasons why a smart Iranian leader would not want to cross the nuclear threshold.
First, an Iranian nuclear weapons capability means that they will automatically be suspected if a nuclear detonation takes place anywhere in the world. Right now, Iran does not have to fear retaliation should an act of nuclear terrorism occur, because we know with high confidence that they have no weapons at present. But if the Islamic Republic were known to have a nuclear weapons capability, and a terrorist used a weapon somewhere, I'd bet that it would be pretty high up on the suspect list. Nuclear forensics could in theory rule them out, but these techniques are not perfectly reliable and it's not obvious how clearly anyone would be thinking at that awful moment. Powerful countries like the United States have a way of lashing out when they are attacked, and they might not be all that careful to make sure they had the right perpetrator. After all, Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, but the Bush administration used that attack as a pretext to gin up a campaign against him. So Iran might want to think twice about crossing the nuclear threshold and inviting retaliation, even for acts in which it was not involved.
Second, and equally important, Iran has by far the greatest power potential of any country in the Persian Gulf. It has more people, more economic potential, and plenty of oil and gas too. If it ever had competent political leadership it would easily be the strongest conventional power in its neighborhood. But if it gets an overt nuclear capability, that act would raise the likelihood that other states in the region (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, even Iraq) would follow suit. It is far from certain that they would, but it would certainly make it more likely. And if they do, this step would partially negate Iran's conventional advantages.
Accordingly, a farsighted Iranian strategist should want to acquire a "latent" nuclear capability (and thus the ability to get a bomb quickly if needed), while making it clear to others that it had not crossed the line. (If I had to guess, that is what I think they are trying to do.) This means that it may be possible to convince them not to weaponize, mostly by not creating a situation where they decide that having an overt deterrent is worth the costs and risks. Needless to say, U.S. and Israeli policy is the exact opposite today: we ramp up sanctions, talk openly of regime change, conduct various acts of sabotage and/or covert action against them (the STUXNET virus, assassinations of Iranian scientists, etc.), and basically behave in ways that we would regard as acts of war if anyone did them to us. And then we wonder why Iran's leaders are so reluctant to end their nuclear program.
There are valid reasons to be concerned about Iran, even though the actual threat is poses is vastly overblown. Iran is an increasingly brittle and sclerotic regime of old men, who are mostly desperate to preserve an aging "revolution," and it is no longer an inspiration for anyone. Its economy is presently troubled and its military budget is about 2 percent the size of our own. Those who now seek to portray it as some vast Islamic menace really do not deserve to be taken seriously.
But it is also too early to conclude that there is "no way to prevent Iran" from getting the bomb. Ten-plus years of pressure and rhetoric haven't gotten us anywhere, and a military strike would solidify support for the regime, give it even more incentive to get a nuclear deterrent, and unleash all sorts of unpredictable forces within the region.
The only approach that stands any chance of success is genuine diplomacy (as opposed to the Obama administration's half-hearted version of same). Sadly, we aren't going to see any serious diplomacy in an election year, and probably not afterwards. Sullivan may turn out to be right, but not because there was no way to prevent an Iranian bomb. If Tehran eventually joins the nuclear club, it will be at least in part because we never made serious, smart and sophisticated effort to persuade them not to.
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One can only look on the continuing violence in Syria with a
mixture of awe, anguish, and dismay. Awe because so many Syrians continue to
protest against the Assad government, despite the enormous personal risks that
this entails. Anguish and dismay because there is relatively little that
outside powers can do to bring about a speedy end to the crisis, apart from the
measures that have already been taken (which I support).
The Obama administration has come under some criticism for not turning against Assad sooner. I'm inclined to cut them some slack here, because it would have been far better had the United States, Turkey, and a few others been able to convince Assad to begin a genuine process of dialogue, compromise, and liberalization. So it was worth trying to see if a deal could be struck, even if that effort ultimately failed. Having tried to give the Assad regime a way out also made it much easier to line up international support for sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
The central difficulty at this stage is two-fold: 1) the regime has no easy exit options and thus every incentive to fight on, and 2) its opponents inside and outside the country -- including the United States -- do not have a lot of attractive ways to put more pressure on the regime. Let's consider each aspect in turn.
Assad's problem now is that he's lost any chance of a genuine compromise and must therefore fight on in the hopes that he can cow the opposition and restore order. Regrettably, that is precisely what his father managed to do when he crushed an uprising in Hama in 1982 (killing some 20,000 people in the process). Once an authoritarian ruler rejects compromise and liberalization and launches a bloody crackdown instead, they have to do whatever it takes to win. With 3,500 people already dead, no one in Syria would believe any offers Assad might subsequently make to share power, and Assad and his cronies undoubtedly know that the risk of future retribution will be considerable if other actors in Syria ever gain real political power.
The other option for Assad, of course, is accepting a graceful flight into exile (presumably with a pile of cash to pay for a comfortable retirement). Several Arab states have reportedly offered Assad this sort of safe haven, and other notorious dictators (such as Uganda's Idi Amin) left power in this way. But that option isn't very attractive for Assad either, because leaders with bloody hands now face international prosecution for crimes against humanity. Furthermore, this hypothetical option would only be available to Assad, his family, and perhaps his inner circle of advisors. But other members of the government are implicated in the crackdown -- most of them drawn from the minority Alawi sect -- and they would be inclined to fight on even if Assad himself were to leave. This situation helps us understand why the regime and its security forces haven't cracked yet: they just don't have a lot of options at this point and they must either hang together (or hang separately).
The problem for the United States, Turkey, and other opponents of the regime is that there are real costs and risks to trying to do a lot more than they are already doing. Syria is more urban, mountainous, and densely-populated than Libya, so an air campaign against the regime's security forces would be a far trickier affair and Syria could respond to a drone campaign or other overt military action in ways that we might find unpleasant. Moreover, Assad's security forces are mostly conducting small-scale operations against unarmed civilians, not massed army assaults on cities, so they are less vulnerable to an air campaign. Libya was also a minor player far from the center of Middle East politics, but Syria lies in the heart of the region and instability there could easily reverberate into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. Assad, for all his faults, is not as hated or despised as Qaddafi was, which means we aren't likely to get the same support from the Arab League that we had during the Libyan campaign. And we will never get UN Security Council authorization for military action, because both China and Russia are opposed. (This situation, by the way, is at least partly fallout from the Libya intervention, which Moscow and Beijing regard as having exceeded the Security Council mandate. It also reflects their enduring concern to limit U.S. efforts to dictate conditions in the Middle East.)
Hence the dismay one feels when reading news accounts and watching videos of the violence being wreaked against Syrian civilians, and when one remembers that their movement began in a completely peaceful manner. I fear that the Syrian tragedy will grind on for many months, and its principal victims will be ordinary Syrians who dreamt of a more open political order, and dared to think they could bring them about. And because societies take a long time to recover from extended bouts of internal violence (see under: Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia, former Yugoslavia, etc.), the consequences of this tragedy are likely to be with us for a long time after it is finally resolved.
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The New York Times reports that the United States is planning to beef up its security ties in the Gulf, in the aftermath of the withdrawal from Iraq. On the one hand, this makes sense given global dependence on stable oil exports from the Gulf region and the damage that the war in Iraq has done to the strategic balance there. On the other hand, a large ground or air force presence in the region is precisely the sort of thing that invites accusations of Western "imperialism," and puts the United States in a close embrace with regimes like the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain. One could argue that this is one of those places where strategic necessity requires us to compromise the idealistic commitment to democracy, human rights, and other desirable things like that.
There is little question that the idiotic decision to invade Iraq in 2003 weakened our strategic position and bolstered Iran's. As the Times story makes clear, some hardliners now complain that Obama's decision to cut our (considerable) losses in Iraq will undermine U.S. interests even more. That's what I'd expect them to say, but there are good reasons to question that judgment (and not just because these same hardliners have been wrong so often in the past). In fact, withdrawal from Iraq could actually bolster our strategic position in other ways, mostly by encouraging greater frictions between Iraq and Iran.
Ever since 2003, the U.S. presence in Iraq has reinforced cooperation between Iran and some significant portions of Iraq's Shiite community, and especially those elements (such as Muktada al Sadr's Mahdi Army) who really wanted the United States to get out. But once we withdraw, then it is far from obvious that the bulk of Iraqis -- including most Iraqi leaders -- will want to become a satrap for Iran. It's true that the Sunni-Shiite divide provides Iran with some avenues of influence in Iraq society, but there's also the enduring division between Arabs and Persians and Iraq's overriding interest in not allowing Iran to become a hegemonic power in the Gulf region. Let's not forget that the two countries fought a brutal and costly war for most of the 1980s, and plenty of Iraqi and Iranian Shiites killed each other during that conflict.
The Indochina war offers an obvious historical analogy. One of the reasons the United States fought there for so long was the familiar domino theory -- the dubious idea that a communist victory in Vietnam would trigger a cascade of falling dominos and undermine the entire US position in Asia (and possibly elsewhere). But when the United States finally got out, the exact opposite thing happened: none of our other Asian allies abandoned us and China and Vietnam had a rapid falling-out that led to war between the two communist states in 1979. And over time, of course, China abandoned Maoism and Vietnam grew more and more interested in better relations with America. And let's not forget that fourteen years after Saigon fell, it was the Soviet Union that ended up on the ash-heap of history. Once we stopped pouring troops and bombs into Indochina, in short, our strategic position began to improve and we could focus on the more serious aspects of Cold War competition.
In short, if you really think Iran is a threat to dominate the Gulf region, and if you also believe that states tend to balance against threatening powers instead of band-wagoning with them, then you should also expect the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to encourage more regional powers--including Iraq--to take actions to limit Iranian power and influence. And that might also include being a bit more favorably inclined toward the United States, despite all the other things we do that tick off people in that part of the world. That could be why we're getting a positive response to these new initiatives, and that's why getting out of Iraq may actually bolster our overall strategic position.
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I like robust debate as much as the next person, but I'm leery of the tendency for bloggers to get into extended back-and-forths with our fellow commentators. All too often, this can rapidly degenerate into a lot of self-referential posturing and leave readers wondering why the debaters don't get a life. So I'm a bit reluctant to respond to Dan Drezner's reaction to my comment on his upbeat appraisal of Obama's foreign policy. If we're not careful, this response will provoke another rebuttal, leading to a follow-up rejoinder, then to a vigorous reply, followed by a stinging rebuke ... and before long you will all be asleep.
That said, Dan raises a good point at the end of his post, asking about the relationship between my comments about Obama's foreign policy and my recent article in The National Interest. His basic point is that I blamed Obama for his lack of success in my FP piece, whereas in the TNI article I attribute this to deeper structural forces.
I don't think there's much of a contradiction here at all. One can fail (or, more charitably, not achieve success), in at least one of two ways. One source of failure is making bad policy choices; a second source is simply that the task was just too hard given the specific circumstances at hand. (Contrary to what Americans often think, not every problem has an easy solution).
In this case, lack of success is attributable to both problems, depending to a large degree on which issues you're considering. I've argued repeatedly since 2009 that Obama faced enormous constraints in several areas -- consistent with my TNI piece -- and that his foreign policy "to do" list contained an array of hard problems that were likely to defy easy solution. Accordingly, I've argued that he had to be careful not to get overcommitted or distracted by peripheral problems. His lack of success on climate change, global trade, North Korea, or Iraq falls into this category: there just wasn't a magic bullet to aim at those targets. By contrast, his failures on Israel-Palestine or AfPak, and the broad deterioration of the U.S. image in the Arab/Islamic world, are due more to specific choices he made (greatly exacerbated by domestic political constraints both here in the United States and in the relevant foreign countries). And then there are cases like Libya where it's just too soon to tell.
In short, I think Obama was dealt a horrible hand to play, and at a time when broad forces were making it much harder for the United States to wield reliable influence on an array of tough problems. I think he's played some of his cards well (e.g., in East Asia), but he's also misplayed a few rather badly. And the result, as I said in my original piece, is a foreign policy record that doesn't have a lot of meaningful successes so far. It could have been worse, of course (see under: George W. Bush), but it could have been better too.
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Today I'd like to bring to your attention two recent
articles on America's role in the world. Although written from somewhat
different perspectives, they reach similar conclusions. This isn't surprising,
as both authors write from an essentially realist perspective.
The first article, entitled "The End of the American Era," is by yours truly, and you can find it in the latest issue of The National Interest. My core argument is that the era when the United States could manage political, economic, and security orders in almost every part of the world simultaneously is a thing of the past, due primarily to the rise of new power centers and several serious self-inflicted wounds. Although the United States will remain the most powerful state in the world for many years, these developments require a different approach to grand strategy. Here's a taste:
Above all, Washington needs to set clear priorities and to adopt a hardheaded and unsentimental approach to preserving our most important interests. When U.S. primacy was at its peak, American leaders could indulge altruistic whims. They didn't have to think clearly about strategy because there was an enormous margin for error; things were likely to work out even if Washington made lots of mistakes. But when budgets are tight, problems have multiplied and other powers are less deferential, it's important to invest U.S. power wisely. As former secretary of defense Robert Gates put it: "We need to be honest with the president, with the Congress, with the American people . . . a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things." The chief lesson, he emphasized, was the need for "conscious choices" about our missions and means. Instead of trying to be the "indispensable nation" nearly everywhere, the United States will need to figure out how to be the decisive power in the places that matter.
The second article, "The Incapacitation of U.S. Statecraft and Diplomacy," is by Amb. Chas Freeman, and is published in the Hague Journal of Diplomacy. Freeman is one of the country's most incisive and wide-ranging strategic thinkers, and the piece is a tour de force of clear-eyed analysis and sharp writing. Here's how he begins:
The United States has long been the wealthiest and among the most assertive of the world's great powers.1 Over the century since the First World War, the United States' wealth - combined with the global appeal of its constitutional democracy and its unparalleled capacity to project military power to the most distant corners of the world - made it the central actor in defining a succession of ‘world orders'. The challenge to play this role is once again before the United States.
After the Second World War, the United States famously exemplified enlightened
internationalism. In consultation with Europeans, Americans led the way in the creation of successful new institutions, programmes and rules of international behaviour. The result was an ‘American half century' - Pax Americana in the space beyond the Soviet orbit. But the United States' diplomatic response to the challenge to lead global change has often fallen short.2 The current situation is a case in point, involving multiple failures of global governance amid rapid shifts in economic and political power.
In the post-Cold War era, the United States has yet to outline any principles, articulate any vision, or formulate any strategy for the reform of international institutions and practices, fiscal and monetary adjustments, or military retrenchment. So far, the United States has cast itself as the military defender of vested interests in a crumbling status quo rather than as the crafter of a new strategic order or a more effective international system. Why is this so? What might stimulate US strategic repositioning and leadership of the global response to change? What would it take to restore such leadership?
I believe the recommendations in these two articles point the way forward, and the United States is bound to move in this direction eventually. The question is not whether we will move to a smarter and more selective grand strategy; the only interesting question is how soon.
Yesterday was a crazy day here in Cambridge, and so I'm late with my reaction to the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Here's my initial take, for what it may be worth.
I don't think the death of any human being is something to celebrate, but there is no reason to mourn the man and we can take a certain grim satisfaction in his demise. Although one could point to a few achievements during his forty years as Libya's leader, such as improved literacy, the more important fact is that he was brutal and megalomaniacal dictator who killed his opponents, supported various forms of terrorism, stole much of Libya's wealth for himself and his cronies, and squandered innumerable opportunities to improve the lives of ordinary Libyans. Tin pot tyrants like him deserve no sympathy, and I feel none.
Moreover, Qaddafi's death probably reinforces some other positive aspects of the whole Libyan intervention. For starters, the campaign did not turn into a stalemate or a quagmire, as many of us feared and as seemed likely to occur at several moments during the war (and yes, it was a war). The Obama administration can also be congratulated for having shifted most of the burdens onto states whose interests were more directly at stake, and at having handled the necessary diplomacy fairly well (with one major caveat to be noted below).
The decision to intervene may have reinforced perceptions that the United States was in favor of democratic change in the Middle East, and kept some of the momentum of the "Arab Spring" alive. (According to Michael Hastings, that concern was a big part of Obama's rationale for going to war). It is also possible that the Colonel's fate will have a salutary effect on some other dictators (are you listening, Bashar?), and lead some of them to look for an early and safe exit instead of trying to hang on until the last bullet. Qaddafi's demise also eliminates any possibility of a restoration and spares the country the distraction of a prolonged trial and possible execution, thereby making it easier for Libyans to focus on the difficult task of constructing a workable political order.
So it would be foolish not to see a certain amount of good news in this outcome. But any sense of achievement should be tempered by several other considerations.
First, I still worry about the other lessons that other leaders may draw from Qaddafi's fate. He agreed to give up all his WMD programs in 2003, in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to overthrow him. And he got a lot of favorable attention from the United States after that--including a friendly visit from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- in part because he was openly hostile to Al Qaeda. Yet eight years later, that pledge was tossed aside and we intervened to help topple him from power. We should therefore expect the leaders of Iran and North Korea (and maybe some other countries) to draw the obvious conclusion: weapons of mass destruction are an effective means of deterring great powers from trying to overthrow you, and don't ever, ever believe Washington when it promises to leave you alone if you disarm.
Second, helping overthrow Qaddafi may have signaled U.S. support for the "Arab spring," but our response to upheavals in Bahrain and elsewhere shows that our policy is far from consistent. On the plus side, we did not allow at least one dictator to crush the opposition, and we can therefore claim to have taken action consistent with our values. But we are also guilty of obvious hypocrisy-both because we had previously embraced the supposedly reformed Qaddafi and because we have turned a blind eye when authoritarians on which we are more dependent cracked down on their populations. We can be sure that critics will remind us about our double-standards -- repeatedly. And any kudos we may have won in the Arab world are more than counteracted by our shameful policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
I had planned to write about something else this morning, but the simmering confrontation with Iran keeps intruding. For starters, President Obama is standing firmly behind the administration's allegations, but without offering any new evidence to support them. This approach isn't going to wash, however, especially if journalists do their job, start asking a lot of probing questions, and don't allow themselves to get spun by "anonymous" sources and inside leaks.
Add to the mix a New York Times story -- clearly based on briefings from U.S. officials -- that "militants trained and financed by Iran's Quds Force attacked United States forces in Iraq on Wednesday." As Time magazine's Tony Karon notes on his own blog, "Washington certainly seems to be scooping up everything it can find on alleged Iranian malfeasance to throw into the p.r. battle. U.S. and Saudi intelligence officials told the Washington Post that they believe that Iran was behind the May 16 killing of a Saudi diplomat in the Pakistani city of Karachi."
Put it all together, and it looks like the Administration is making a concerted campaign to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran. Countries like Britain, Saudi Arabia and France are going along with that program, and no doubt Israel is happy to see this development too. But so far other countries appear to be at best agnostic about the whole business, which is still the only sensible response in light of the paltry public evidence offered to date. And as I said yesterday, if Obama & co. can't produce some smoking gun support for their assertions, the backlash could be formidable.
More to the point: what's the endgame here? What is the positive purpose to be gained from this new campaign? If there really is hard and reliable evidence of a serious Iranian plot to bomb buildings in the United States and to kill foreign emissaries on our soil, then that's one thing. But if this turns out to be a much more ambiguous business -- either a rogue Iranian operation, a false flag scheme, or a case of FBI entrapment -- then what are we trying to accomplish by rolling out a seemingly well-orchestrated round of new accusations, especially when there's little chance of getting the sort of "crippling sanctions" that might actually alter Iran's behavior? Are we just trying to divert attention from other issues (the economy, the "Arab Spring," the failed diplomacy on Israel-Palestine, etc.), or is this somehow linked to the 2012 campaign?
Last point: as one would expect, Obama is already facing pressure from the right to do more. He's resisted their calls to attack Iran before, and if I had to bet I'd say he'll do so again. But the overall pattern of his presidency has been to accommodate hardline pressure on a variety of fronts, without necessarily adopting their entire agenda. And if you believe half of what Ron Suskind and Bob Woodward have written about Obama, he is a president who is prone to being played by his advisors, especially on national security matters. He escalated in Afghanistan, extended the deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, ramped up the drone war, ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, kept Gitmo up and running, and went spineless on Israel-Palestine after a promising start. There was an obvious domestic payoff to this approach: by tilting so heavily to the rightwing status quo, he's pretty much taken foreign policy off the table in the 2012 campaign. The GOP candidates can carp in various ways, but there's so little daylight between their views and his policies that he's not really vulnerable there.
But all that still leaves the more important question: where is this one headed? Like the alleged assassination plot itself, I'm still scratching my head on that one.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Unless the Obama administration (and in particular, Attorney General Eric
Holder), has more smoking gun evidence than they've revealed so far, they are
in danger of a diplomatic gaffe on a par with Colin Powell's famous U.N.
Security Council briefing about Iraq's supposed WMD programs, a briefing now
known to have been a series of fabrications and fairy tales.
The problem is that the harder one looks at the allegations about Manour Ababasiar, the fishier the whole business seems. There's no question that Iran has relied upon assassination as a foreign policy tool in the past, but it boggles the mind to imagine that they would use someone as unreliable and possibly unhinged as Ababsiar. I won't rehash the many questions that can and should be raised about this whole business; for compelling skeptical dissections, see Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Tony Karon, and John Glaser.
As I said yesterday, I don't know what actually happened here, and I remain open to the possibility that there really was some sort of officially-sanctioned Iranian plot to assassinate foreign ambassadors here on U.S. soil. But the more I think about it, the less plausible whole thing appears. In particular, blowing up buildings in the United States is an act of war, and history shows that the United States is not exactly restrained when it responds to direct attacks on U.S. soil. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and we eventually firebombed many Japanese cities and dropped two atomic bombs on them. Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and we went out and invaded not one but two countries in response. When it comes to hitting back, in short, we tend to do so with enthusiasm.
Iran's leaders are not stupid, and surely they
would have known that a plot like this ran the risk of triggering a very harsh
U.S. response. Given that extraordinary risk, is it plausible to believe they
would have entrusted such a sensitive mission to a serial bungler like
Ababsiar? If you are going to attack a target in the United States, wouldn't
you send your A Team, instead of Mr. Magoo?
Hence the growing skepticism, including the possibility that this might be some sort of "false flag" operation by whatever groups or countries might benefit from further deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations. If the Obama administration can't back up their allegations in a convincing way, they are going to face a diplomatic backlash and they are going to look like the Keystone Cops. They could even face a situation where rightwing war-mongers seize on their initial accusations to clamor for harsh action (a development that has already begun), while moderates at home and abroad lose confidence in the administration's competence, credibility, and basic honesty.
So my advice to Holder & Co. is this: you better show us what you've got, and it had better be good.
Photo courtesy of Nueces County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images
For the record: I don't know if there was a genuine Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. Let me repeat that: I don't know. And neither do you. All we know is that the U.S. government claims to have uncovered such a plot, involving an Iranian-American used-car salesman who allegedly was getting direction from some part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. This dangerous criminal mastermind reportedly thought he was paying a Mexican drug cartel to conduct the actual attacks, when he was in fact dealing with an undercover DEA agent.
As I said, none of us really know what was going on here, but several features ought to be kept in mind. First, the Iranian government is by all accounts a contentious and unruly body, and it is possible that some rogue element of the Revolutionary Guards came up with this cockamamie but obviously despicable scheme. Whether Supreme Leader Khamenei or President Ahmadinejad had anything to do with it, of course, is another matter entirely.
Second, the FBI doesn't have a terrific track record in identifying and documenting this sort of conspiracy, and we'd be fools to take their accusations at face value. There is sometimes a fine line between uncovering a real terrorist plot and subtly encouraging one, as in the famous case of the "Miami Seven," whose plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago appears to have been largely inspired by the undercover agent who eventually exposed them. Until we know a lot more about the actual time line and evidence behind these latest accusations, a certain skepticism is warranted. And I wouldn't be surprised if the government eventually reveals that the evidence of direct Iranian involvement is based on intercepted signals intelligence, which it will then claim it cannot make public without compromising sources and/or methods. In other words, just trust us...
Third, before we leap to the conclusion that this is more evidence of how heinous Iran's revolutionary leadership is, let's pause to remember that the United States and some of our allies have done similar things in the past. We tried to bomb Muammar al-Qaddafi's tent back in the 1980s, and the CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro and a few other foreign leaders back in the 1960s. And the United States has certainly backed various groups that used assassination and other forms of terrorism to advance their political aims, such as the Nicaraguan contras. Some of you might think that these efforts were justified; my point is simply that we aren't wholly innocent in this regard. That doesn't justify what Iran is accused of doing, but it might temper our own moral outrage a bit.
Lord knows there's plenty of grounds for concern about various Iranian actions (including their reliance on murder and/or sabotage on several occasions in the past), and no shortage of conflicts of interest between Tehran and Washington. But this story is sufficiently bizarre -- would a real Iranian agent actually try to hire a drug cartel to do his dirty work? -- and the potential consequences are sufficiently grave that we really ought to wait until we know more before drawing any conclusions at all.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
I'm back from a short trip to Korea, and I thought I'd pass along some of the lessons I gleaned from the trip. I should start by saying that my Korean hosts were extremely gracious and welcoming and the conference itself was exceptionally well-organized. Given that I'm something of a newcomer to many Asian security issues, I learned a lot from the exchanges and am grateful for the opportunity to add a country to my list. My one regret is that I didn't have much time to tour Seoul (let alone the rest of the country), and I only hope I have a chance to go back for longer.
The participants at the conference included a number of prominent Korean scholars and policymakers (the two categories overlap), along with several former or current U.S. officials (Jim Steinberg, Kurt Campbell, and Jeffrey Bader), and prominent academics (John Ikenberry, John Mearsheimer, Victor Cha, and yours truly). Interestingly, the conference also included two well-connected scholars from China, and the whole proceeding was "on-the-record" (and covered by the Korean media). The audience included an impressive number of Korean graduate students, by the way, who asked some excellent questions at the end of each session.
Not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the implications of China's rise and North Korea's continued status as a regional trouble-maker. As my last post indicated, South Korea would like to maintain both its extensive economic ties with China and its close security ties with the United States. In other words, they lean economically in one direction and militarily in the other. South Koreans are under no illusions about the implications of China's increasing power, however, and they are eager to preserve the alliance with the United States as a result. Given their strategic location and long history of foreign occupation, this attitude is hardly surprising.
In this regard, the Obama administration's decision to invite South Korean President Lee Myung Bak for a state visit this week was a very smart move, and the Free Trade Agreement that is now being considered by Congress is important as a signal of the U.S. commitment (its direct economic benefits is probably modest). We also had the opportunity to meet with President Lee for about an hour after the conference concluded, and I found him to be extremely impressive. We asked him a whole set of challenging questions, and his answers were clear, assured, and for the most part convincing. If he were American, he'd probably mop the floor with the whole set of GOP presidential hopefuls, and I suspect President Obama will enjoy their discussions.
There was of course broad consensus on the challenges posed by North Korea, and a general sense that the United States and South Korea have to take a harder line against provocations like the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong island. The participants were divided on the issue of reunification, however: some speakers saw reunification as wholly desirable, because they saw North Korea as a dangerous source of regional instability. In this view, reunification under South Korean auspices would be in everyone's interest, including Beijing. Others -- including myself -- were more skeptical about China's willingness to allow the two Koreas to unify. Unification under South Korean auspices would place a key U.S. ally on the Yalu River, and probably encourage an even more lively competition for influence there between Beijing and Washington. The United States could promise not to deploy forces north of the 38th parallel, of course, but why would Beijing take such assurances at face value? And if Beijing insisted that the northern areas of a reunified Korea remain demilitarized, wouldn't Koreans feel that this left have of their newly united country vulnerable to Chinese pressure? All this tells me that reunification is not in the cards anytime soon.
Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Kenneth
Pollack and Ray Takeyh have a rather
bizarre piece calling for the United States to "double down" on
Iran, including direct efforts to destabilize the clerical regime. While
rejecting preventive war -- at least for the moment -- they call for a variety
of new pressures, including the use of Special Forces and other military means
to ramp up the pressure. Although filled with protective caveats, their article
portrays these escalated pressures as something of a last-ditch effort to
convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program.
Like U.S. policy itself, their article is rife with internal contradictions. As such, it provides a textbook illustration of the stale thinking that has shaped U.S. policy for a couple of decades.
For starters, Pollack and Takeyh admit that their past prescriptions have been a bust. They take credit for what they call the Obama administration's "two track" approach, writing that "the two of us were among the very first to propose this policy." Then they freely admit "it is time to acknowledge that the current version of the two-track policy has failed." The chutzpah here is impressive: although their own policy recommendations have failed, they think we should continue to respect their insights and follow their advice. It would be hard to find a clearer example of the lack of imagination or accountability that bedevils U.S. policy on this issue.
Second, Pollock and Takeyh present a one-sided narrative of U.S. policy toward Iran that exaggerates the carrots we've supposedly offered and overstates Iranian recalcitrance. They argue that the Obama administration started out with a "passionate determination to emphasize carrots," and claim that "the United States and the international community have offered Iran a path toward a responsible civilian nuclear program ... should it conform to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations." This formulation is at best misleading and at worst simply wrong. Obama & Co. were hardly "passionate" about emphasizing carrots; in reality, the United States made a couple of purely symbolic gestures but quickly reverted to mostly sticks when the symbolism didn't produce immediate Iranian concessions. Moreover, the United States and its allies have never made Iran a concrete offer; the supposed "path" to a deal was merely a list of topics Washington said it was willing to discuss as soon as Iran agreed to give us what we wanted (i.e., an end to nuclear enrichment).
In other words, when Pollack and Takeyh write that the administration was "offering the theocratic leaders a respectful path of out of their predicament," that "respectful path" was defined as complete Iranian acquiescence to Washington's demands. You surrender, and then we'll talk. And contrary to what they write, the issue isn't Iran's willingness to conform to its "NPT obligations," because nuclear enrichment is permissible under the NPT. Rather, the issue is conformity with various U.N. Security Council resolutions arising from a dispute with the IAEA over Iran's reporting of its nuclear activities many years ago. Other states-such as South Korea-also had reporting disputes with the IAEA, but never faced the same level of censure that Iran has.
The point is not that Iran is blameless or that its own negotiating behavior isn't as contentious, deceptive, or as incompetent as ours. Rather, it is that this one-sided narrative makes the Obama administration appear far more reasonable and forthcoming than is in fact the case.
Third, Pollack and Takeyh never confront the inherent contradiction in the "two-track policy" (which, to repeat, they admit has been a failure). This policy is supposed to convince Tehran that the United States is not irrevocably hostile, and that we would really, really like to have a better relationship. It is also designed to convince Tehran that it has no need for a nuclear deterrent, or even a latent nuclear capability that could be used to get a bomb at some point down the road. But while we are supposedly trying to reassure Iran about our intentions, the United States has been ratcheting up sanctions, almost certainly engaging in covert action against the clerical regime, pointedly emphasizing that all options (including the use of force) are "on the table," and making it abundantly clear that we would be perfectly happy if regime change occurred.
It is hard to imagine a policy that is less likely to encourage Iran to compromise, and more likely to fuel Iran's deeply rooted and understandable belief that it is us who cannot be trusted. Whether their perceptions are 100 percent accurate or not is irrelevant; there is clearly some basis for them and policymakers in Washington need to take that basic fact into account. The inconsistent policy prescribed by Pollack and Takeyh (and followed by Washington for many years) is probably the worst possible approach, because our crude attempts to combine half-hearted carrots with tangible sticks merely reinforces Iran's belief that our positive gestures are simply tricks designed to gull them into unwise concessions.
Ironically, Pollack and Takeyh provide telling evidence for this point in their own piece. They quote a speech by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, in which he cautions against cooperation with the United States by "the change of behavior they want. . .and which they don't always emphasize-is in fact a negation of our identity. . .Ours is a fundamental antagonism (my emphasis)." In other words, Khameini believes that our real objective is regime change ("negation of our identity"), which we don't always emphasize. As Pollack and Takeyh's own article makes clear, Khameini he has plenty of good reasons to think so.
Yet despite the protracted failure of this entire approach, Pollack and Takeyh now want us to "double down" on it: ramping up more sanctions, reaching out to the Green movement, possibly inserting Special Forces into Iran (!), and engaging in cyber-warfare and other forms of pressure. Never mind that the leader of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is also one of main architects of Iran's current nuclear program (which means that a "Green Revolution" might not end it). The bigger point is that these steps are more likely to reinforce Iranian intransigence and make them think harder about the value of some sort of deterrent.
Pollack and Takeyh also fail to see the irony -- or it is hypocrisy? -- in their own prescriptions. They say at the beginning of their piece that the US must "compel Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions, adhere to prevailing norms on terrorism and human rights, and respect the sovereignty of its neighbors" (my emphasis) Yet with a straight face they then proceed to outline a menu of options designed to violate Iran's sovereignty for as long as it takes to produce the government there that we want. And yet we wonder why Iran's leaders don't see us as especially principled or worthy of trust.
Fourth, their article is also inconsistent about Iran's motivations and our knowledge of them. On the one hand, they portray Iran's leaders as almost impossible to fathom, saying it is "a land that revels in ambiguity, opacity and complexity," and that outsider observers "should be duly humble given our incomplete understanding of Iran's politics or the policies that emerge from them." On the other hand, they outline an ambitious blueprint for additional sticks, apparently confident that they really do know how Iran will react. And once again, the fact that it hasn't conformed to their expectations in the past does not seem to trouble them that much.
In short, there is little reason to think that "doubling down" will do anything more than increase Iran's interest in moving closer to a latent nuclear capacity. It is a recommendation for more of the same policy that has been failing for over a decade. Instead of persisting with a failed policy, the United States ought to be rethinking both the goals it is trying to achieve and the means it is using to reach them. Ending enrichment is not in the cards, but it might be possible to convince Iran not to weaponize. That approach would require ratcheting down the pressure, making concrete offers instead of vague hints, and exercising a lot more patience instead of expecting a quick and decisive breakthrough. But because this approach -- which has never been tried -- is anathema inside the insulated Beltway mind-set, we end up with the endless recyling of failed approaches.
But my real concern goes deeper. It is hard to read this piece without hearkening back to Pollack's The Threatening Storm, the book that convinced many liberals to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003. What made that book especially persuasive was Pollack's depiction of himself as a former dove who had oh-so-reluctantly concluded that there was no option but to go to war. Similarly, this article explicitly says that it is not yet time to bomb, and that we have time to try a few more options first. But by falsely portraying the United States has having made numerous generous offers, by dismissing Iran's security concerns as unfounded reflections of innate suspiciousness or radical ideology, and by prescribing a course of action that hasn't worked in the past and is likely to fail now, Pollack and Takeyh may be setting the stage for a future article where they admit that "doubling down" didn't work, and then tell us -- with great reluctance, of course -- that we have no choice but to go to war again.
Iranian President's Office via Getty Images
The New York Times has a startling report today about an incident from way back in 2007, where Pakistani soldiers attacked a group of U.S. military officials, killing one officer and wounding three others. It is obviously a disturbing report, although not that surprising to anyone who's been paying even modest attention to the highly complicated relationship between the United States, the various factions that make up Pakistan's government, and the various groups that are contending for power in Central Asia. Juan Cole has a good quick rundown here.
I have two comments of my own. First, it is interesting that this story is coming out now, in the aftermath of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen's recent denunciations of Pakistani collaboration with the Haqqani network. The Times story says that the incident was hushed up back in 2007 so as not to disturb overall U.S. relations with Pakistan, but its appearance in the news right now sure looks like a deliberate leak. If so, what's the larger purpose here? Is the Obama administration or the Pentagon contemplating a real rupture with Islamabad, or do they think that turning up the heat in this highly public fashion is going to convince the ISI or whoever is doing these things to change their ways?
Second, the incident also shows you the dangers that arise when governments keep lots of secrets. Suppose this story had come out back in 2007. It would have been additional evidence conveying just how little control we had over our putative allies in the region, and cast further doubt on our ability to achieve a successful outcome in the Afghan campaign. Success in Afghanistan depends on cooperation with Pakistan (and in particular, on getting rid of the safe havens for the Taliban there), and this incident from four years ago was a clear sign that it was going to be damn hard to get the requisite help. It would also have suggested that U.S. officials really didn't understand very much about the complicated dynamics in that region, thereby suggesting that maybe, just maybe, we were never going to accomplish our stated objectives.
So: if Americans had actually known about this attack, they might have had a clearer picture of our prospects in Central Asia, and the uphill fight we faced. Barack Obama's claims that he was going to get out of Iraq and focus on Afghanistan might have been viewed with greater skepticism, and his subsequent decision to escalate the war might have faced greater opposition within his administration and in the public at large.
In short, when U.S. officials swept this incident under the rug for various short-term reasons, they encouraged the American people to maintain a false picture of the actual situation in Central Asia. Unfortunately, making judgments and decisions on the basis of inaccurate information rarely works out well.
John Moore/Getty Images
Despite what you might think, I don't have much to say about Tom Friedman's column in the Sunday New York Times, where he openly bemoans the disastrous influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy and puts up in bright lights how bad it is for Israel as well. I'm grateful to Glenn Greenwald and Phil Weiss for pointing out that this is the main point that John Mearsheimer and I have been making for some time in our writings about the lobby.
But I will say this: Friedman's admission reflects the protracted failure of U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestine issue, going back several decades. That's not news, of course. What has changed in the past few years is that the lobby's operations and its harmful influence are now out in the open for all to see, which makes it almost impossible to make the old arguments that Israel is a "vital strategic asset" or a country that "shares our values" with a straight face, or to convince anyone who's not already in agreement. Not after more than forty years of occupation, not after 9/11, not after the 2006 Lebanon War, not after Operation Cast Lead, not after the killings on the Mavi Marmara, and not after PM Netanyahu's repeated acts of contempt toward the U.S. president.
The United States has backed Israel no matter what it did because AIPAC and the other groups in the lobby have enormous influence inside the Beltway and use that political muscle to defend Israel whenever its government's policies clash with America's interests. But the problem they face now is that almost everyone can see what they are doing and people like Friedman understand that the policies the lobby is promoting are a disaster for the United States and Israel alike. At this point, only hardcore individuals and groups in the lobby and opportunistic fellow-travelers try to kick up dust by blaming our failed Middle East policy on "public opinion" or on the supposed influence of Christian evangelicals. Right: like they were the ones who told Obama to stop pressing Netanyahu if he wanted to get his health care bill passed, and they were the ones holding one-sided Congressional hearings and threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it goes to the UN to get statehood.
The elephant has been in the room for a long time, but now it has the spotlights on it and it's wearing a pink bikini too. It's hard to miss, in short, which is surely why Tom Friedman wrote what he did.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Michael C. Desch of Notre Dame offers the following guest post:
There are lots of reasons that President Barack Obama will remain comfortably within the consensus here in the United States and oppose any Palestinian request for recognition of their statehood later this month at the United Nations.
Not opposing the Palestinians' request for U.N. recognition would cut against the grain of U.S. policy toward the region. In a July vote marked by the level of unanimity that is usually only seen in one party "people's democracies," the House of Representatives voted 406 to 6 to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it moves ahead. The president is also up for re-election next year, and given the shaky state of the U.S. economy, the race will be close and he will not want to alienate any potential supporters, including the Israel lobby.
But the problem with our "unwavering" support for the policies of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is that it rests on a questionable assumption: That the Palestinians represent the main obstacle to peace today.
The Palestinians' and the rest of the Arab World's unwillingness to recognize the Jewish state may have been the primary road-block to peace in the past. But since the Arab League's March 2002 Beirut Declaration offering recognition of Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state and the coming to power in the West Bank of a moderate and effective government under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad Salam, Israel now has, Hamas notwithstanding, real partners for peace. Indeed, had the Palestinians focused their struggle for self-determination in the U.N. 40 years ago, we all would have been thrilled.
But it is not clear that the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world have a partner on the Israeli side. Former head of Israel's secret service the Mossad Meir Dagan, surely no pro-Palestinian dove, has vociferously criticized Netanyahu's lack of vision for failing to offer a credible Israeli peace initiative; a criticism that Netanyahu's ally World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder echoed.
It is the structure of Israel's multi-party democratic political system that gives the roughly 30 percent of the Israeli public unalterably committed to retaining the occupied territories and all of Jerusalem disproportionate influence in Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. There are other potential coalition partners for Netanyahu who support the two state solution, including the Centrist Kadima Party, but Obama needs to prod Netanyahu to embrace them.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.