Permit me to indulge today in a bit of speculation, for which I don't have a lot of hard evidence. As I read this article yesterday on Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war, I began to wonder whether U.S. involvement in that conflict isn't more substantial than I have previously thought. And then I did a bit of web surfing and found this story, which seemed to confirm my suspicions. Here's my chain of reasoning:
1. The Syrian conflict has become a proxy fight between the opposition and its various allies (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey, etc.) and Bashar al-Assad's regime and its various outsider supporters (Iran, Russia, Hezbollah).
2. For Washington, this war has become a golden opportunity to inflict a strategic defeat on Iran and its various local allies and thus shift the regional balance of power in a pro-American direction.
3. Israel's calculations are more complicated, given that it had a good working relationship with the Assad regime and is concerned about a failed state emerging next door. But on balance, a conflict that undermines Iran, further divides the Arab/Islamic world, and distracts people from the continued colonization of the West Bank is a net plus. So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't object if the United States gets more deeply engaged.
4. Consistent with its buck-passing instincts, Barack Obama's administration does not want to play a visible role in the conflict. This is partly because Americans are rightly tired of trying to govern war-torn countries, but also because America isn't very popular in the region and anyone who gets too close to the United States might actually lose popular support. So no boots on the ground, no "no-fly zones," and no big, highly visible shipments of U.S. arms. Instead, Washington can use Qatar and Saudi Arabia as its middlemen, roles they are all too happy to play for their own reasons.
5. Since taking office, Obama has shown a marked preference for covert actions that don't cost too much and don't attract much publicity, combined with energetic efforts to prosecute leakers. So an energetic covert effort in Syria would be consistent with past practice. Although there have been news reports that the CIA is involved in vetting and/or advising some opposition groups, we still don't know just how deeply involved the U.S. government is. (There has been a bit of speculation in the blogosphere that the attack on Benghazi involved "blowback" from the Syrian conflict, but I haven't seen any hard evidence to support this idea.)
6. In this scenario, the Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks' demands for airstrikes, "no-fly zones," or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is.
To repeat: The above analysis is mostly speculative on my part. I have no concrete evidence that the full scenario sketched above is correct, and I don't know what the level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war really is. But that's what troubles me: I don't like not knowing what my government is doing, allegedly to make me safer or to advance someone's idea of the "national interest." And if you're an American, neither should you. If the United States is now orchestrating a lot of arms shipments, trying to pick winners among the opposition, sending intelligence information to various militias, and generally meddling in a very complicated and uncertain conflict, don't you think the president owes us a more complete account of what America's public servants are or are not doing, and why?
Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images
Guest post by Daryl G. Press and Jennifer Lind
With reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, many U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts have called for U.S. military intervention there. They quote President Obama's previous statements referring to chemical weapons use as an unacceptable crossing of a "red line." This is unsurprising: Every time analysts and leaders call for war, they warn that inaction will jeopardize America's credibility. What is more surprising, however, is how little evidence there is for this view.
What has actually transpired in Syria remains unclear (especially with a new claim that Syria rebels may have used nerve gas), but the possibility that Syria crossed the administration's "red line" has brought calls for U.S. military action. "The credibility of the United States is on the line," declared Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, "not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the president backs up his words with action." (Many others have made similar arguments, for example here and here.)
To be sure, for a country like the United States -- which seeks to assure allies and deter adversaries around the globe -- credibility is a precious asset. Credibility -- the belief held by others that a country will carry out its threats and promises -- is the difference between deterring attacks and having to wage war to repel them.
But how do countries build credibility? Those who favor intervention in Syria assert that credibility comes from having a reputation for keeping commitments. The "smoking gun" evidence for this view can allegedly be found in a 1939 speech in which Adolf Hitler explained to his generals why he felt emboldened to invade Poland. He dismissed French and British threats, mocking them for their concessions at the Munich Conference: "Our enemies are worms," he scoffed, "I saw them at Munich."
Hitler's quote, and the so-called "Munich Analogy," has come to embody the danger of breaking commitments and featured prominently in U.S. decisions to defend South Korea in 1950 and later to fight (and stay) in Vietnam. Since then, the fear of losing credibility helped propel the United States into conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya.
The problem is that there's little evidence that supports the view that countries' record for keeping commitments determines their credibility. Jonathan Mercer, in his book Reputation and International Politics, examined a series of crises leading up to World War I and found that backing down did not cause one's adversaries to discount one's credibility.
In another book, Daryl Press examined a series of Cold War crises between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. From 1958 to 1961, Nikita Khrushchev repeatedly threatened to cut off NATO's access to West Berlin. Each time, the deadlines passed and Khrushchev failed to carry out his threats.
If backing down damages credibility, Khrushchev's credibility should have been plummeting, but the deliberations of American and British leaders show that his credibility steadily grew throughout this period. And a year after the 1961 Berlin confrontation, when the same American decision-makers confronted Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they took his threats very seriously. Senior U.S. leaders were convinced that Khrushchev would respond to any forceful U.S. act against Cuba with an immediate Soviet attack against Berlin. Four years of backing down had not damaged Soviet credibility in the least.
Documents from American and British archives reveal that when NATO leaders tried to assess the credibility of Soviet threats, they didn't focus on the past. Instead, they looked at Khrushchev's current threat and the current circumstances and asked themselves two simple questions. Can he do it? And would it serve his interests?
In the eyes of the Macmillan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy governments, Soviet credibility was growing -- despite Khrushchev's bluster -- simply because Soviet power was expanding. Power and interests in the here-and-now determine credibility, not what one did in different circumstances in the past.
Even the canonical case for reputational arguments -- Hitler's dismissal of French and British threats in 1939 -- shows that credibility stems from power and interests. When Hitler told his generals why the British and French would not oppose him when he invaded Poland, he listed seven reasons, every one of which was about the balance of power. The "worms" quote was a throwaway line after a detailed analysis of the balance of military power and Poland's indefensibility.
Advocates of intervention in Syria worry that a failure to act will embolden U.S. adversaries around the world. But if Kim Jong Un is trying to figure out whether or not the United States would defend South Korea, he will notice that Washington and Seoul have been allies for more than six decades, and that with the rise of China, the United States is increasing its focus on East Asia. The notion that Kim would interpret U.S. reluctance to stop a humanitarian disaster in Syria as a green light to conquer a major U.S. ally strains credulity.
Similarly, leaders in Tehran assessing U.S. threats to strike their nuclear facilities will weigh America's clear interest in nuclear nonproliferation against the real limitations of airstrikes against Iran's deeply buried nuclear facilities. American reluctance to support various extremist rebels in Syria is unlikely to enter into Iran's calculus.
As the civil war in Syria unfolds, the United States may eventually decide to intervene. U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts might make the case (which we disagree with) to join the fighting in order to stop the humanitarian disaster, to contain regional instability, or to secure U.S. influence with the post-Assad Syrian government. But the case for U.S. military intervention should not rest on a bogus theory about signaling resolve to Khamenei and Kim. American credibility lies elsewhere.
Daryl G. Press is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and coordinator of War and Peace Studies at Dartmouth’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. Jennifer Lind is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. Follow her on Twitter @profLind.
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images
Does the possibility (likelihood?) that Syrian government forces have used sarin gas strengthen the case for military intervention or at least great U.S. involvement?
Pro-intervention hawks like Sen. John McCain certainly think so and have been quick to remind everyone that President Obama called chemical weapons use a "red line." But McCain has been a vocal advocate of greater U.S. action for quite some time, which suggests that the use of chemical weapons hasn't really altered his thinking at all. Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that far more sensible commentators -- such as former CIA analyst Emile Nakhleh -- also view these reports as an additional reason to topple Assad sooner rather than later.
But why? Nobody should be pleased that Assad's forces (may) have used chemical weapons, but it is not obvious to me why the choice of weapon being used is a decisive piece of information that tips the balance in favor of the pro-intervention hawks. It's been obvious for decades that the entire Assad regime was nasty, and it's been equally clear that the government forces were using lots of destructive military force to suppress the opposition. How else did 70-80,000 Syrians die over the past two years? It's not as though Assad has been acting with great restraint and sensitivity to civilian casualties and then suddenly decided to unleash sarin gas. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks, or chemical weapons? Dead is dead no matter how it is done.
The case against direct U.S. intervention never depended on believing that Assad was anything but a thug; rather, it rested first and foremost on the fear that intervention might make things worse rather than better. Specifically, it has rested on the interrelated concerns that 1) the fall of the Assad regime might unleash an anarchy of competing factions and warlords, 2) the opposition to Assad contained a number of extremist groups whose long-term agendas were worrisome, and 3) pouring more weapons into a society in the midst of a brutal civil war would create another Afghanistan, Iraq, or 1970s-era Lebanon. These prudential concerns still apply, irrespective of the weaponry Assad's forces have chosen to employ. And if his forces have used chemical weapons, then one might even argue that it raises the risks of intervention and thus strengthens the case against it.
This is not an open-and-shut issue, and there are obvious points to make on the other side. Obama did suggest that chemical weapons use might be a "red line," in what was a fairly transparent attempt to deter Assad from going down that road. So one might argue that Washington would incur some loss of credibility if it does not respond now. Although I think we routinely exaggerate concerns about our credibility, that doesn't mean that it is of no concern at all. Nonetheless, Obama's prior statements do not require any particular response, and the administration certainly shouldn't do something unwise simply because it feels it has to do something.
One might also argue that chemical weapons are a form of WMD and that allowing Assad to get away with their use will undercut the existing taboo against these weapons. There's a case for that point of view, but I think it exaggerates the supposedly "unique" lethality of chemical weapons. Sarin is very bad stuff, but it is not like a nuclear weapon. Nor should we forget that governments can sometimes kill lots of people using rather simple weapons -- in the Rwandan genocide, they did it with machetes -- and the overwhelming number of deaths in Syria have occurred through conventional means.
Like Senator McCain, I find my position on this issue unchanged by the revelations about possible chemical weapons use. I still see Syria as a tragically vexing policy question. It is heart-wrenching to see what is happening there and the instinct to "do something" is understandable, but the downsides to direct or indirect military involvement remain formidable. I certainly think we should be doing more to help refugees and to minimize the destabilizing effects of the carnage on Syria's neighbors. I am all in favor of continued diplomatic pressure on Russia and China to end their support for Assad, and the chemical weapons report may provide additional leverage on that point. (See here for some useful thoughts along those lines). But I hope that Obama doesn't allow himself to be bullied into doing a lot more simply because of these reports, unless he is convinced that doing more now reduce the risks later on.
YEHUDA RAIZNER/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration is reportedly rethinking its previous reluctance to send arms to the Syrian rebels. With violence continuing to rise and Assad refusing to blow town, the apparent aim is to ensure that the United States has some influence or leverage over at least some of the parties who will be competing for power in a post-Assad Syria.
This is the logic presented by former State Department official Frederick C. Hof, who told the New York Times that "the odds are very high that, for better or worse, armed men will determine Syria's course for the foreseeable future ... For the U.S. not to have close, supportive relationships with armed elements, carefully vetted, is very risky."
FP's Marc Lynch has already provided a comprehensive set of reasons why arming the rebels is not a good idea. Here I just want to challenge the idea implicit in Hof's statement above -- that providing arms to a warring group earns you lasting gratitude, leverage, or long-term influence. The issue isn't whether you can "carefully vet" the recipients or not; the issue is whether giving arms today has any lasting effects on what even well-vetted recipients might think, feel, or do in the future.
Indeed, isn't this a movie we've seen many, many times? The United States poured billions of dollars of aid into South Vietnam, but we could never get that government to behave the way we wanted. We sent vast piles of weaponry -- including sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles -- to the Afghan mujaheddin, and ended up helping create Al Qaeda. We bankrolled Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and listened to his advice about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, only to watch him go rogue after Hussein was toppled. We've given hundreds of billions of dollars to the Karzai government in Afghanistan, but that hasn't made it any less corrupt or any more compliant with U.S. wishes. Needless to say, it's easy to think of lots of other recipients of American largesse who take the money and the arms and then do whatever they think is right, even if it is sharply at odds with Washington's wishes.
And it's not just us, of course. The Soviet Union gave its own clients lots of money and arms over the years, but it rarely bought them a lot of lasting influence. Remember when Anwar Sadat kicked them out of Egypt and realigned with us instead?
This situation should not surprise us in the slightest. Politics can be a brutal and nasty business, especially during a civil war and certainly in conflict zones like the Middle East. In such circumstances, gratitude to a foreign patron is a luxury that few actors can afford, and especially not to a country whose reputation in the region is less than stellar. The question isn't even "what have you done for me lately?"; it is always "what will you do for me now?"
Assad's opponents would undoubtedly love to get lots of lethal weaponry from the United States (along with anything else we're willing to provide), and it might help them oust the Syrian dictator more swiftly. But what giving arms won't do is provide Washington with much influence over what these groups do afterwards.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Forces loyal to beleaguered Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad have reportedly begun firing Scud missiles at rebel groups. The New York Times' Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt call this a "significant escalation" in the fighting, but it's not at all clear why this is the case. In particular, this usage reflects the widespread but often unjustified tendency to view the introduction of any new weapon as a form of "escalation," even if doesn't involve an increase in lethality, war aims, or geographic scope.
In his book, War: Controlling Escalation, the late Richard Smoke pointed out that the term “escalation” has many meanings in strategic discourse. Sometimes it refers to the aims of war, at other times to the means being used, and in some cases to the scope of the conflict. When we talk about a conflict escalating, therefore, we usually mean it has crossed some strategically significant threshold and entered a qualitatively new phase. Thus, conflicts escalate when the original combatants adopt decidedly larger war aims, when a new category of targets (e.g., cities, civilians, etc.) are deliberately attacked, when other states join in the fighting, or when significantly more lethal means (e.g., WMD) are employed.
What constitutes a significant threshold is somewhat arbitrary, however. In this case, Assad’s aims haven’t changed and there’s no sign as yet that the Scuds are being used to attack a new set of targets. Instead, Assad’s forces appear to be using a different weapon to pursue the same ends (i.e., the defeat of the rebel forces and the retention of power). But given that the Scuds are armed with conventional high explosive, why assume that the use of different delivery system is itself a case of “escalation?” If Assad began using cavalry, hot air balloons, chariots, or pikes, would we call it “escalation?” I doubt it. Gordon and Schmitt’s use of this term implicitly assumes that the mere use of any type of ballistic missile is by definition a “higher” level of war, even if they don’t threaten or kill as many people as other weapons do.
The Scud is a tactical-range ballistic missile, originally developed by the Soviet Union. It carries a rather modest payload of roughly 900-1000 kilograms; enough to do lots of damage but not a form of WMD unless equipped with a chemical or nuclear warhead. The most modern version, the Scud-D, reportedly has a circular error probability of 50 meters (in theory); earlier versions are much less accurate.
There’s no question that Assad’s forces can probably use Scuds against various rebel targets with some effectiveness, and using missiles of this sort might help them avoid MANPADS (shoulder-fired rocket launchers) or other missile defenses that are now showing up in rebel hands. But using the term “escalation” implies that the Syrian government has somehow taken the conflict to a new level. This does not appear to be the case -- at least not yet -- because Scuds aren’t significantly more lethal than the other means -- such as artillery fire -- that Assad has already been using against the Syrian people.
What worries me, of course, is that careless use of language will convince people that the war is rising rapidly up some sort of “escalation ladder” and strengthen the chorus of voices demanding that the United States get more heavily involved. Reasonable people can disagree about that point, but the mere fact that Assad has now used Scuds is largely irrelevant. This decision may be a sign of growing desperation on his part; if so, I hope that some creative diplomacy can convince him to blow town before the entire country is destroyed. But unless he puts chemical warheads on top of them or starts attacking a new category of targets, the fact that Scuds are involved is not in fact very significant.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
What's going on in Egypt? The short answer is: precisely what we should have expected. What is happening is obviously disturbing, but it is also a completely predictable and probably protracted struggle for power. And unless the "Arab spring" is quite atypical, the political revolutions that began two years ago are going to take years to work out.
To summarize a passage from my 1996 book Revolution and War:
"Revolutions are usually (invariably?) characterized by violence. Even when the old regime collapses quickly, there is likely to be a violent struggle afterwards. The issues at stake are enormous, because the process of redefining a political community places everyone's future at risk. Until a new order is firmly established, no one is safe from exclusion and the temptation to use force to enhance one's position is difficult to resist. The possibility that winners will take all and losers will lose everything heightens the level of suspicion and insecurity. Fears of plots and conspiracies abound. Disagreements over specific policies can become life-or-death struggles . . . and achieving consensus on what new rules and institutions should govern the society is likely to be a difficult and prolonged process. In sum, revolutions are deadly serious contests for extremely high stakes." [pp. 20-21]
The history of modern revolutions confirms this view. The American Revolution was comparatively benign (though it did involve both a war of independence and the persecution and expulsion of the defeated loyalists), but more than a decade passed from the signing of the original Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. The original Articles of Confederation (1783) proved wholly inadequate, and the fight over the new Constitutions was protracted and sometimes bitter. Nor should we forget that the Founding Fathers sometimes saw each other as near-treasonous, and disputes between different factions were even more contentious than the partisan wrangling we observe today.
The French Revolution was equally protracted: it began in 1789, but Louis XVI was not deposed until 1792 and revolutionary France was convulsed by recurring struggles for power and several distinct governments and constitutions before Napoleon Bonaparte finally seized power in 1799 and eventually declared himself Emperor. By this standard, Egypt has a very long way to go.
The Russian Revolution was also a prolonged process: the Romanov dynasty was initially replaced by Kerensky's Provisional Government in March 1917, which was then ousted by the Bolshevik coup in November. But the Bolsheviks had to fight and win a protracted civil war and repel several foreign interventions before they consolidated their hold on power, a process not completed until the mid-1920s. Infighting among the Soviet leaders continued until Stalin was able to eliminate his various rivals and emerge supreme in the early 1930s.
The revolutions in Turkey, Mexico, China, and Iran were also violent and uncertain affairs, and in each case it took years before the final form of the new regime was reasonably well-established. Mao Zedong famously said that "a revolution is not a dinner party," and one might merely add that they are rarely, if ever, short.
There are several lessons to take from this quick history. First, unless the old guard somehow manages to regain full power quickly (thereby cutting off the revolutionary process), what is happening in Egypt (and elsewhere) will take a long time to work itself out. You cannot dismantle the rules and institutions of a political order and create new ones overnight. Even if you try, the various groups that have been mobilized through this process won't just nod and accept them, especially the new rules favor some groups more than others. What you get instead, of course, is a protracted struggle for power whose outcome is often highly contingent.
Second, outside powers can influence this process, but they cannot do so predictably. In fact, the more extensive and heavy-handed outside interference is, the more likely it is to backfire. In the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions, for example, outside interference helped radicalize the revolution, allowed hardliners to use nationalism and foreign threats as a pretext to crush more moderate forces, thereby producing precisely the outcome that the external powers opposed. It follows that outsiders (to include the United States) need to show enormous patience and a very light touch when dealing with these turbulent situations.
Third, the central theme of my earlier book was the revolutions tend to increase security competition and increase the risk of war. Among other things, they do this by 1) altering the balance of power, 2) creating fears of contagion, 3) encouraging spirals of suspicion, 4) bringing inexperienced elites to power, and 5) creating apparent "windows of opportunity" or necessity. Revolutions do not make war inevitable, but they do make it more likely. And one could argue that we are now in the early stages of just this sort of process, with a proxy war going on in Syria, continued strife in Gaza, and as-yet unresolved political contestation in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and several other places.
Put these three together, and one has to hope that US Middle East policy will be in the hands of people who are smart, sensible, prudent, even-handed, and above all, realistic. Or as Talleyrand recommended: "surtout, pas trop de zele." But how likely is that?
PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
We are often told that Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are deeply worried about Iran, and eager for the United States to take care of the problem. This is usually framed as a reflection of the Sunni-Shiite divide, and linked to concerns about Iranian subversion, the role of Hezbollah, and of course the omnipresent fretting about Iran's nuclear energy program.
I have heard senior Saudi officials voice such worries on more than one occasion, and I don't doubt that their fears are sincere. But there may be another motive at work here, and Americans would do well to keep that possibility in mind.
That motive is the Gulf states' interest in keeping oil prices high enough to balance their own budgets, in a period where heightened social spending and other measures are being used to insulate these regimes from the impact of the Arab Spring. According to the IMF, these states need crude prices to remain upwards of $80 a barrel in order to keep their fiscal house in order.
Which in turn means that Saudi Arabia et al also have an interest in keeping Iran in the doghouse, so that Iran can't attract foreign companies to refurbish and expand its oil and gas fields and so that it has even more trouble marketing its petroleum on global markets. If UN and other sanctions were lifted and energy companies could operate freely in Iran, its oil and gas production would boom, overall supplies would increase, and the global price would drop.
Not only might this new wealth make Iran a more formidable power in the Gulf region--as it was under the Shah -- but lower oil and gas prices would make it much harder for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to stave off demands for political reform through social spending. Saudi Arabia could cut production to try to keep prices up, but that would still mean lower overall revenues and a budget shortfall.
So when you hear people telling you how worried the Gulf states are about Iran, and how they support our efforts to keep tightening the screws, remember that it's not just about geopolitics, or the historical divide between Sunnis and Shiites or between Arabs and Persians. It's also about enabling certain ruling families to keep writing checks. Keep that in mind the next time you fill your gas tank or pay your home heating bill, or the next time somebody tells you the United States ought to think seriously about a preemptive war.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
I'm in Dubai for meetings of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Councils, which provide some of the background information and agenda setting for Davos and other WEF activities. I've been assigned to the group assessing "geopolitical risks" for 2013, so I'll be spending the next two days trying to figure out where dire things might happen in the next year (and where they won't).
Dubai itself is sort of like Disneyland-on-steroids, and I won't try to embellish on all the other descriptions of the place. But as I rode in my taxi to the hotel last night, I was also struck by the thought that the UAE (of which Dubai is a part) and other states like Qatar and Brunei, might be something of a realist anomaly. The puzzle is this: How is it possible for very small, very rich, yet militarily weak countries to retain their independence? Why haven't rapacious great powers or greedy neighbors gobbled these countries up long ago, and seized all that valuable oil and gas for themselves? If the world is as dog-eat-dog as realists depict, why are these states still in business?
There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that these states have enjoyed great power protection for a long time, originally from Great Britain and subsequently from the United States. Their rulers have accommodated their protectors in most ways, in exchange for implicit or explicit security guarantees. In short, realism does explain a lot of why these states have survived: It was in the interests of some powerful countries to keep them safe and secure.
But why didn't Britain or the United States take these places over and keep all that oil wealth for themselves? Simple. It turned out to be easier to let local elites run these societies, instead of turning them into sullen and resentful colonies. In the British case, moreover, the emergence of the Gulf as a major oil-producing center coincided with Britain's imperial decline, signified by the Suez debacle in 1956 and the decision to withdraw military forces east of Suez in 1967. So Britain was in no position to take these places over anyway.
The United States has never been a very enthusiastic colonial power, and U.S. leaders wisely preferred to exercise influence indirectly and keep U.S. ground forces out of the region. As the experiments with "dual containment" in the 1990s (which helped fuel the rise of al Qaeda) and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed, getting too heavily engaged trying to run the region directly is not something the United States is very good at. Nor was it necessary.
A second reason for the peculiar stability of the Gulf is the absence of a regional great power with the capacity to absorb the others, which in turn makes it possible for balance-of-power politics to work. The Shah of Iran did some minor muscle-flexing and territorial expansion in his day, but he never made a grab for any of his oil-rich neighbors. Saddam Hussein is the exception that proves the rule, and look what happened to him. Moreover, the militarily weak but oil-rich Gulf states all understand that trying to gain more wealth at someone else's expense was both unnecessary and bad for business.
The third reason why these states retain their independence is the norm of sovereignty. It may be an accident of geology that the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and others ended up with so much wealth underneath their soil, but once a country's government and borders have been recognized by others, the status quo takes on a life of its own and efforts to overturn it face an uphill fight. Saddam Hussein tried to convince the world that Kuwait was Iraq's "19th province" in order to make his invasion seem more legitimate, but nobody bought the argument and his invasion was seen as naked aggression. Because altering borders via force has become less and less legitimate over time, states can be really rich and really vulnerable and still be somewhat protected.
Finally, small countries like Dubai enhance their security by making themselves more valuable to others as independent entities than they would be as colonies. Dubai has established itself is a financial center, entrepot, cultural oasis, and diplomatic hub, which is precisely why the WEF is here this week. It has close ties with the West, but still has formal and informal dealings with others, including states such as Iran. In the broadest sense, the global community is probably better off with a few countries occupying this sort of niche, just as Switzerland did for decades, and that means that most countries would rather have it be independent than out of business.
Which is not to say that security in the Gulf is guaranteed, or that realism can't account for these states' survival (see #s 1 and 2 above). Given the diplomatic stalemate with Iran, in fact, it's easy to imagine scenarios where the present Gulf order would come under significant strain. But I'm betting it won't, if only because hardly anybody really has much interest in that happening. Now if only one could be confident that sensible self-interest would always prevail....
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Has AIPAC lost its mojo? Does Obama's reelection prove that the Israel lobby is getting weaker, and that he can return to Middle East peacemaking with new confidence and resolve? It's no secret that Obama has a frosty relationship with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, fueling GOP hopes that Israel would be a wedge issue that would attract lots of Jewish voters and donors. At least one prominent hardline Zionist, Sheldon Adelson, spent tens of millions of dollars trying to buy the election for Romney, and he got bupkis for all that cash. So now that Obama's got a second term, will he blithely ignore AIPAC et al and pursue an even-handed approach to the Middle East peace process?
Don't bet on it. For starters, the election didn't show that the traditional "status quo lobby" was substantially weaker. Why? Because Obama caved to these groups a long time ago, and there was hardly any daylight between him and Romney on this issue. As the Obama campaign repeatedly emphasized, they had been extraordinarily supportive of Israel from Day One: providing increased levels of military aid, expanding various forms of security cooperation (including joint operations against Iran), and providing diplomatic cover in the United Nations and elsewhere. Obama dropped his early insistence on a settlement freeze and eventually gave up on the peace process. The only thing that Netanyahu didn't get from Obama was a war against Iran, and plenty of top Israeli officials didn't think that was a very good idea either. Given that there wasn't much difference between Obama and Romney on Israel, therefore, American Jewry stuck with its long-standing liberal preferences and voted overwhelmingly for Obama and the Democrats.
But the election is over, and the second term beckons. Won't Obama be tempted to secure a legacy as a peacemaker (remember that Nobel Prize?), and go back to his original vision of "two states for two peoples?" I don't think so. Conditions in the region aren't propitious: Israel continues to drift rightward, Netanyahu is overwhelmingly likely to be reelected, and the tumult of the Arab spring is bound to make everyone more cautious (and with good reason). The Palestinian Authority is less and less popular, and even if he wanted to, Mahmoud Abbas could never persuade his followers to accept the one-sided Bantustan arrangement that is Netanyahu's idea of a "Palestinian state." Obama doesn't have to run for re-election again but Congressional Dems do, and they'll put the same pressure on him in 2014 that they did in 2010 if he tries to force Netanyahu to abandon his vision of "greater Israel." The bottom line: No U.S. pressure on Israel, and thus no chance for a deal.
If you're Barack Obama, in short, this just doesn't look like a smart place to invest a lot of time, effort, and political capital. Plus, my hunch is that he's going to try to secure his legacy by "nation-building" here at home, not by pursuing the elusive grail of Middle East peace. For that matter, if he decides to spend any political capital in that part of the world, it will be on Iran, not Israel-Palestine. Meanwhile, Congress will reflexively vote the aid package and sign whatever goofy letters and resolutions that AIPAC dreams up. Politicians and policy wonks will continue to pay homage to the "special relationship," lest they come under fire from the lobby and its various watchdogs and smear artists.
Which is not to say that nothing has changed, as Steve Rosen argues here. Public discourse on this topic is more open than it used to be, some journalists have become largely immune to intimidation, and the role of the lobby in stifling peace efforts and promoting a military approach to Iran is now plain for all to see. J Street has been more equivocal than some of us might have hoped, but it can take some pride in helping escort Islamophobes from office and getting some pro-peace candidates elected. Writers like Peter Beinart have bravely spoken truth to those with closed minds and closed eyes, and even some stalwart defenders of Israel seem increasingly troubled by where it's headed.
But I don't see a sea-change; at least not yet. AIPAC and its allies don't get everything they want, of course, but they can still put real limits on what the president and his advisors are willing to try. We still have not reached the point where politicians are willing to openly acknowledge that a normal relationship would be better for both countries than the current special relationship of unconditional U.S. support. You didn't hear Obama, Romney, or any other major candidate say anything like that in 2012, which tells you that fear of the lobby remains a potent political force. That's not good for us, but it's even worse for Israelis and Palestinians. Which is why I'd be delighted if the next four years proves me wrong.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Is it too early to talk about the foreign policy and national security agenda that will face the next president? No matter who wins on November 6, the feature that is going to dominate U.S. national security planning over the next four years is constraint. Even if we avoid going off the sequestration cliff, there is going to be considerable pressure on the defense budget. Forget all those promises that Romney made about ramping up defense spending, expanding the Navy, etc. If he does beat Obama and has to face reality (as opposed to his Etch-a-Sketch approach to campaigning) he'll figure out that budget math is real and unforgiving. And given the budget picture these days, that means limits.
Of course, foreign policy and national security tends to produce a lot of surprises; it's probably the least predictable part of a president's agenda. Remember that George W. Bush was totally blindsided by 9/11, an event that shaped almost everything he subsequently did in foreign and defense policy. Barack Obama didn't see the Arab spring coming, yet he's had to devote a lot of time and attention to figuring out what to do (or not to do) in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere. No list of agenda items will cover all the possible topics, and it's a safe bet the next president will get to deal with something that hardly anybody anticipated.
That said, what do I see as some obvious items that the next president will have to address? Obviously, he'll have to manage the withdrawal from Afghanistan, keep relations with China on an even keel, cultivate reasonable ties with Mexico and other neighbors in the western hemisphere, and hope that the Eurozone mess doesn't get worse. But here's my list of the items that might take up even more of his time.
#1: Managing America's Asian Alliances
No matter how much you hear about the importance of cooperating with China, a serious rivalry is almost inevitable. I don't expect a shooting war -- and certainly not in the next four years -- instead, the key element of that rivalry will be a competition for influence in Asia. The United States is already trying to shore up ties with Japan, Korea, India, and various Southeast Asian nations, and China is going to try to limit with this process where it can.
As I've noted before, leading this alliance is going to be much harder than managing NATO was during the Cold War. The geographic distances are much larger, which makes it easier for allies to shirk responsibilities when trouble occurs a long ways away. Relations among some of our Asian partners aren't that good, as the collapse of a South Korean-Japanese agreement on intelligence sharing earlier this year illustrated. Furthermore, our NATO partners had minimal economic ties to the former Soviet Union, while our Asian allies are tightly linked to China's economy and are going to want to keep those ties intact if they can. We can also expect big debates on burden-sharing: the United States will want the allies to bear as much of the burden as possible, while they will want to keep free-riding as much as they have in the past.
In short, maintaining a secure position in Asia will require a lot of expertise and adroit diplomacy, which is not always America's long suit. The next president will need a good team, and will have to devote some of his own time, attention, and political capital to the problem.
#2: Dealing with the Arab Spring.
The Arab world is in midst of vast and unpredictable upheaval, which is likely to produce governments that are more responsive to popular sentiment than their predecessors were. They may not be perfect democracies, but rulers will worry a lot more about popular opinion than their predecessors did. But this process will take time -- measured in years, not months. As we've already seen in Libya and Syria, these events raise vexing national security questions for the United States. Are these events an opportunity to diminish Iran's influence, strike a blow for democracy, and further marginalize anti-American forces? Or is the collapse of the old order undermining traditional U.S. friends and allowing anti-American sentiment (and Islamic extremists) a greater voice in the region's politics? What if Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the Kurds get drawn into the vortex?
Given what is already occurring, Obama or Romney will have to spend a lot of time worrying about this part of the world. But as Obama has already discovered (and Romney would quickly learn) they won't have a lot of leverage over these events, and not a lot of appealing policy options. What they'll have instead is a serious headache.
#3: Beyond the Two-State Solution.
The next president may also have to face up to the fact that there isn't going to be a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and begin to think seriously about what an alternative U.S. policy should be. Obama has already learned that trying to pursue the 2SS is "just really hard," and Romney famously told a group of fat cat GOP donors that he didn't think that goal was achievable.
I've always seen the 2SS as the best outcome given where we were, but it is no longer realistic to expect it to happen. The Israeli right has no interest in it, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to put meaningful pressure on them, and the United States is too compromised by the Israel lobby to be an effective mediator. The "two-state solution" has become a fig leaf for politicians to hide behind, while realities on the ground make it less and less likely by the day.
But sooner or later, it will be obvious to everyone that it simply isn't going to happen. As I've argued before, that epiphany raises all sorts of awkward questions: In particular, what outcome should a liberal democracy like the United States favor if "two states for two peoples" is impossible? Do we abandon our commitment to "one person, one vote" and endorse permanent apartheid? Do we abandon our deep commitment to a Jewish state and support a one-state democracy for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine? Or do we quietly encourage ethnic cleansing?
No matter who the next president is, I'm sure they will try to avoid those awkward questions for as long as they can. But they may not be able to do so forever without looking like they are living in fantasyland.
#4: Living with a Nuclear-Capable Iran:
No matter who wins, I suspect we'll see a new push for some sort of diplomatic deal with Iran. It's been reported (and denied) that Obama intends to do this after the election, and I wouldn't be surprised if a Romney administration made at least a gesture in this direction. But my guess that the United States is going to gradually adjust itself to a nuclear-capable (but not nuclear armed) Iran.
Here's why. I don't think Iran will cross any overt "red lines" in the next four years, meaning that it isn't going to try to fabricate or test a nuclear weapon or start enriching uranium to 90%. They won't do this because that is the one step that might trigger a U.S. attack. Absent such a move by Iran, I don't think either Israel or the United States will conduct a preventive strike. Israel doesn't have the capability to conduct a strategically meaningful attack, and most of the U.S. national security establishment thinks an attack would be foolish. I can't rule out war, however, because countries sometimes do stupid things and there are prominent voices who are still pushing it, but I'm betting that cooler heads prevail.
So the next president will be facing an Iran that is nuclear capable (meaning it has the theoretical capacity to build a bomb if it chooses to do so). Even if we don't reach a formal diplomatic deal (i.e., one that permitted Iran to enrich uranium to low levels and gradually reduced economic sanctions), he'll probably deal with it exactly the same way we dealt with other nuclear powers: i.e., via containment and deterrence. Note: this step will also mean negotiating security arrangements with key U.S. allies in a period where regional politics are going to be quite volatile (see #2 above). In short, plenty for the next president to do on this issue, too.
#5: What sort of country are we becoming?
Finally, the next president needs to do some hard thinking about the kind of country the United States is becoming. The United States has fought four wars since 1990, and is currently conducting drone strikes and special operations in a half a dozen countries. We are deeply worried about cyber-war and cyber-security, but we are also using these weapons for offensive purposes in ways that we would regard as wholly illegitimate if someone did it to us.
In the same way, American experts now discuss "preventive war" in remarkably casual terms, as if it were just one of many strategic options. They seem to forget that by definition, preventive war means attacking countries that have not attacked us and are not about to do so. "Preventive war" was what Japan did to us at Pearl Harbor, and ambitious young policy wonks now prescribe it without much self-reflection and seemingly unaware that real human lives are at stake.
Instead of the citizen army that we relied upon in World War I, World War II, and Korea, we now have a professional military that receives enormous deference from politicians, pundits, academics, and the public. U.S. politicians rarely have military experience -- Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, and Romney never served, and neither have any of their children -- and this fact inevitably affects their relations with the military establishment. Neither Obama nor Romney said a critical word about the military during any of their debates, even though the quality of military leadership and advice in both Iraq and Afghanistan has been deficient. U.S. politicians rarely talk about peace anymore; instead, they try to sound tough-minded and ever-willing to use force.
Since 9/11, we have created a vast array of intelligence and counter-terrorist organizations whose activities are largely hidden from the citizens who are paying for them and who will bear the consequences if their actions are misguided. Both common sense and much history teaches us that lack of transparency and accountability usually breeds bad behavior, and we may one day be shocked when we find out what's been done in our country's name over the past decade.
Who will play watchdog? Not most academics, who are too busy with ivory-tower exercises and for the most part discomfited by national security issues. Not the mainstream media, which depends on cozy relations with those in power. Not the DC think tanks funded by the defense industry and employing would-be or former officials eager to preserve their career options (and consulting businesses).
So, in addition to all those other challenges, I hope the next president will start unwinding some of the practices we adopted in the aftermath of 9/11, and move us back to being a country that is slower to anger, more interested in diplomacy, and not quite as trigger happy. But I wouldn't bet on it, becuase he'll be too busy dealing with the rest of his agenda, plus the inevitable surprises that will rise up to bite him.
Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images
What would I like to ask Obama and Romney at tonight's debate? Before I get to that question, let's start with the rather revealing list of selected topics. They are:
1. America's role in the world
2. Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan?*
3. Red lines -- Israel and Iran?*
4. The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism
5. The rise of China and tomorrow's world
Well, if I were European or Latin American I'd be feeling mighty dissed. No discussion of the Euro crisis? Europe was the focus of U.S. strategy for most of our history, and now it doesn't even rate a mention in the presidential debates? NATO or Greece might make a cameo appearance here and there, but what's striking is how the Greater Middle East and Asia dominate the list of issues.
Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa aren't going to get much attention either, unless someone brings up Sudan or the "new face of terrorism" includes the drug war. Maybe Brazil will come up as a "rising power," but I'll bet it doesn't rate more than a sentence or two. Instead, Obama and Romney will be trading sound-bites over some very well-trodden ground. There's no shortage of vexing problems to discuss, however, because the debate will center around the region that we've been busily screwing up ever since World War II. In a sense, it's not really fair to ask either candidate how they would fix problems that are the work of multiple administrations and both political parties. When Marx wrote "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living," he might have been describing the situation Obama inherited in 2009, or the problems that one of these two men will face in 2013. But since candidates always promise to be miracle workers, the intractability of these problems is not reason not to spent 90 minutes explaining how each will (not) solve them.
In any case, my crystal ball tells me this last debate will be the most rancorous and the least edifying of the three. Obama has run a rather hawkish foreign policy: intensifying the drone war against Al Qaeda and its allies, getting the United States and other key nations to tighten sanctions on Iran, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and giving Israel even more military aid and diplomatic support than his predecessors did. He even let Benjamin Netanyahu humiliate him repeatedly on the settlement issue, and just about the only thing he didn't do was promise to attack Iran on Israel's behalf. So Romney doesn't have much he can really criticize, unless he just starts making things up again (which he will).
Indeed, when it comes to substance, what's Romney going to argue? That he would have fought longer in Iraq, bombed Iran already, or killed Bin Laden deader? Hardly. The left in America might be genuinely disappointed in Obama (and with good reason), but it's hard to attack Obama from the right without without sounding like you want to take the country into a few more wars. And that is not what most of the electorate wants to hear these days.
Given that he doesn't have many tangible things to complain about, Romney is left trying to portray Obama either as 1) someone who doesn't love America as much as he (Romney) does); or 2) as someone who has been too tough on U.S. allies and too soft on U.S. adversaries. But when asked to spell out specifics, Romney's actual policy positions turn out to be close to carbon-copies of Obama's. And the one genuine difference -- Romney's pledge to ramp up defense spending -- can't be squared with his pledge to cut taxes and balance the budget too. So instead of a wonkish discussion of real issues, we'll got a lot of rhetorical posturing at tonight's debate, complete with pious references to America's special role, its glorious past, its bright future, its noble spirit, etc., etc. But if we're lucky, neither of them will try to sing.
Second, it won't be an edifying debate because neither candidate is going to say what they might really think about the key issues shaping policy in the Greater Middle East. Like almost all American politicians, they will try to outdo each other in affirming their "unshakeable" support for Israel (yawn), but they aren't going to be any more candid about the other issues currently afflicting that troubled region. Will Romney argue that Obama should have tried to keep Ghaddafi and Mubarak in power, against the wishes of their people? Of course not. Can Obama explain that he supported the democracy movement in Egypt but not in Bahrain because he didn't want to tick off Saudi Arabia? Will either candidate openly discuss the bipartisan debacle in Afghanistan, and point out that our military leaders gave very bad advice when they recommended a "surge" in 2009? I don't think so.
Be prepared for some pretty silly conversations on China, too. According to the latest survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, U.S. citizens think the most important foreign policy issue facing the country is "protecting the jobs of American workers." Indeed, 84 percent of respondents in both parties identified this issue as important. So Romney will talk a lot about getting tough with China on trade, currency, and intellectual property, even though there's not a snowball's chance that he'd really launch a trade war once in office. Obama, for his part, will talk about his "pivot" to Asia, and try to convince listeners that he can somehow be China's best friend and China's main rival at the same time.
Bottom line: This is a debate that will tell you more about the warped nature of American politics than it will tell you about the true foreign policy challenges facing the nation.
So if I were moderator Bob Schieffer, what questions might I ask? Here's my top-ten list of questions that I don't expect to hear tomorrow night.
Mr. President, Governor Romney:
1. You have both pledged to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. But the Taliban has not been defeated, there are no peace negotiations underway, the Afghan army remains unreliable, attacks on U.S. and NATO forces by Afghan soldiers have been increasing, and the Karzai government is still corrupt and ineffective. Given these realities, was the decision to send nearly 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009 a mistake? What could we have done instead, to avoid the current situation?
2. Gentlemen: Neither of you ever served in the U.S. military. Governor Romney, you have five grown sons, and none of them has ever served either. President Obama, you have two daughters, one of whom will be eligible to enlist in four years. Have either of you ever encouraged your children to serve our nation by enlisting in the armed forces? If not, why not?
3. Both of you claim to support a "two-state" solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But since the last election, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased by more than 25,000 and now exceeds half-million people. If continued settlement growth makes a two-state solution impossible, what should United States do? Would you encourage Israel to allow "one-person, one-vote" without regard to religion or ethnicity -- as we do here in the United States -- or would you support denying Palestinians under Israeli control in Gaza and the West Bank full political rights?
4. Gentlemen: Is the United States doing enough, too little, or too much to address the threat of climate change? If you are the next president, what specific actions will you take to deal with this problem?
(Follow up: Both of you favor increased domestic energy production through new technologies such as hydraulic fracking. But won't lower energy prices just encourage greater reliance on fossil fuels and make the climate change problem worse?)
5. Governor Romney, President Obama: Do you agree with former president George W. Bush's claim that terrorists want to attack America because they "hate our values?" Do you think some terrorists hate us because they angered by what they see as illegitimate U.S. interference in their own countries?
6. Do you believe Japan has a valid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? If the current dispute between China and Japan leads to a military confrontation, what would you do?
7. Both of you are men of faith, and your religions both teach that all humans are fallible. If so, then U.S. leaders must have made mistakes in their handling of foreign policy, and maybe even committed acts that were unjustifiable and wrong. Are there any other societies who have valid reason to be angry about what we have done to them? If so, how should we try to make amends?
8. The United States has the world's strongest conventional forces and no powerful enemies near its shores. It has allies all over the world, and military bases on every continent. Yet the United States also keeps thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready to deter hostile attack.
Iran is much weaker than we are, and it has many rivals near its borders. Many U.S. politicians have called for the overthrow of its government. Three close neighbors have nuclear weapons: Pakistan, India, and Israel. If having nuclear weapons makes sense for the United States, doesn't it make sense for Iran too? And won't threatening Iran with an attack just make them want a deterrent even more?
(Follow up: You both believe all options should be "on the table" with Iran, including the use of military force. Would you order an attack on Iran without U.N. Security Council authorization? How would this decision to launch an unprovoked attack be different from Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941?
And finally, an individual question for each candidate:
9. Governor Romney, when you visited Great Britain last summer, you were criticized for saying that there were a number of "disconcerting things" about Britain's management of the Games. Yet the Games turned out to be a splendid success. How did you get this one so wrong?
10. President Obama: if you could go back to 2009 and begin your term over, what one foreign policy decision would you like to take back?
I think a few questions like that would liven things up considerably, don't you?
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
I hadn't even finished my morning coffee, but one didn't have to be fully awake to detect a bit of tension between these two headlines in today's New York Times:
The first story details the various reasons why the long and costly U.S. effort to train Afghan security forces is mostly failing (illiteracy, desertion, corruption, etc.). The second story suggests we've learned little from that experience, and that U.S. leaders again think the way to achieve our aims in Libya is to get U.S. military officers in there to teach Libyans how to be good soldiers. Unfortunately, it is by no means obvious that this is something we know how to do, particularly in these contexts.
I know, I know: Libya is not Afghanistan, and training a small elite force is a lot easier than trying to build an entire national army from scratch. But we're going to face some similar problems (i.e., diversion of funds or weapons by corrupt Libyans, mistrust among the Libyans we're trying to recruit and train, infiltration by extremists with the wrong agendas, etc.). And some Libyans are bound to suspect that the real purpose of the training effort is to cement American influence (which, in a way, it is). There's also the danger that we'll succeed, and end up creating the nucleus of a new authoritarian regime.
But as you may have noticed, concerns like that rarely stop us from meddling in other societies. I hope this new effort works, but our recent track record doesn't exactly fill me with confidence.
If you're one of those people who still thinks it would be a good idea to attack Iran, you might spend a moment or two reflecting on the past week of events in the Middle East. If a stupid and amateurish video can ignite violent anti-American protests from Tunisia to Pakistan, just imagine what a joint U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran would do.
And don't be misled by the fact that a few Arab leaders are also worried about Iran's nuclear program. Some of them are, though they aren't going on the American airwaves to demand "red lines" and set the stage for preventive war. More importantly, surveys of Arab opinion suggest that these publics aren't that worried about Iran's nuclear potential, which they rightly see as a counter to America's military dominance and to Israel's already-existing stockpile of nuclear weapons. If the United States and/or Israel decides to launch an unprovoked attack on Iran, it's going to be seen in the region as the latest manifestation of Western hostility to Islam, as well as another sign that we are actively trying to dominate the region. Public sentiment will be overwhelmingly against us, and current governments will have little choice but to go along with it.
There are big problems throughout the Middle East these days: civil war in Syria, low-level violence in Iraq, pervasive instability in Yemen, armed militias in Libya, uncertainty in Egypt, slow-motion ethnic cleansing on the West Bank, and a host of others. But no set of problems is so great that we couldn't make them a lot worse.
I hardly ever watch network news, but I happened to stumble across this appalling report on NBC's "Rock Center" last night. In this clip, reporter Richard Engel blames this week's anti-American violence on "conspiracy theories" that Arab populations have been fed over the years by their rulers, including the idea that the United States and Israel are colluding to control the Middle East.
It's no secret there are conspiracy theories circulating in the Middle East (as there are here in the good old USA: Remember the "birthers?") I've heard them every time I've lectured in the region and done my best to debunk them. But by attributing Arab and Muslim anger solely to these ideas, Engel's report paints a picture of the United States (and by implication, Israel) as wholly blameless. In his telling, the U.S. has had nothing but good intentions for the past century, but the intended beneficiaries of our generosity don't get it solely because they've been misled by their leaders.
In short, Operation Cast Lead never happened, Lebanon wasn't invaded in 1982 or bombed relentlessly for a month in 2006, the United States has never turned a blind eye towards repeated human rights violations by every single one of its Middle Eastern allies, drones either don't exist or never killed an innocent victim, the occupation of Iraq in 2003 was just a little misunderstanding, and the Palestinians ought to be grateful to us for what they've been left after forty-plus years of occupation. To say this in no way absolves governments in the region for responsibility for many of their current difficulties, but Americans do themselves no favors by ignoring our own contribution to the region's ills.
In short, you want to get some idea of why most Americans have no idea why we are unpopular in the region, this example of sanitized "analysis" is illuminating, though not in the way that Engel and NBC intended.
Today we learn that Iran is resupplying the Assad regime in Syria via Iraqi airspace. Hardly surprising, for two reasons. First, Syria is a key Iranian ally, so naturally Iran is doing what it can to keep Assad in power. Second, the al-Maliki government is not nearly as anti-Iranian as Saddam Hussein was, and in some ways is sympathetic to Tehran's position.
All of which reminds us what dunderheads the neocons were when they dreamed up the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein. Of course, all those liberal hawks who eventually went along with the idea were nearly as foolish.
No, this is not nostalgia for Saddam Hussein. He was a thug and tyrant with as much blood on his hands as Assad, and I don't mourn either his ouster or his passing. But the negative consequences have been enormous, in lives and money and in geopolitical position, as this latest revelation makes clear.
Effective strategy requires thinking more than one move ahead, and not basing momentous decisions on worst-case assumptions about the risks of inaction and best-case forecasts about the benefits that war will bring. It was obvious at the time that destroying Iraq would tilt the balance of power in the Gulf in Iran's favor, and there was no good reason to expect it to produce the pro-American tilt that the neocons promised. So America ended up replacing an anti-Iranian government in Baghdad with one that is at least partially attuned to Tehran's wishes, with the bill for the operation being footed by the U.S. taxpayer.
This issue might not matter that much had we really learned from the experience, and if the people who got us into that foolish war had been put out to pasture. But as I've noted before, failure doesn't have any real consequences in America's foreign policy community, which is why the architects of the Iraq war still have safe sinecures at D.C. think-tanks, still have prominent platforms on FOX News and other major media outlets, and still have trusted positions advising the Romney campaign. Of course, the Democrats who backed the war haven't suffered any career penalties either, which may help you understand why things haven't improved as much as some of us hoped they would back in 2008.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
One of the nice things about being a superpower is you get to run around telling the rest of the world what to do. Other countries don't always listen, of course, but once you've defined yourself as the "leader of the Free World," or the "indispensable nation," you've given yourself a license to preach. There's no requirement to be consistent, of course: You can denounce an adversary's human rights record while remaining studiously silent about an ally's similar transgressions, just as you can tell other states not to even think about getting weapons of mass destruction while maintaining thousands of nuclear warheads yourself.
This same tendency rubs off on American commentators (including, on occasion, yours truly), but none more than Tom Friedman of the New York Times. Today's column offers some unsolicited advice to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, explaining why it was a huge mistake for Morsy to visit Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement meeting, on the heels of a visit to (horrors!) China. I agree with some of Friedman's points (such as the importance of reassuring potential investors and tourists that Egypt is stable and a good destination for capital or your next vacation), but what I question is the idea that Friedman has a better sense of Morsy's political needs and strategic objectives than Morsy himself does.
For starters, Friedman misunderstands Tehran's motivation in seeking to head the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). He tells Morsy that Iran's "only goal" in having all these world leaders attend the meeting is "to signal to Iran's people that the world approves of their country's clerical leadership and therefore they should never, ever, ever again think about launching a democracy movement." Here Friedman is mostly trying to shame Morsy, by accusing him of giving succor to a regime that opposes the sort of democracy Morsy is trying to build in Egypt.
In fact, Tehran's main goal in hosting the NAM isn't to enhance its domestic legitimacy -- I suspect most Iranians don't care about the NAM one way or the other. Rather, the goal is to demonstrate that Iran is not as isolated as Washington would like it to be. The Non-Aligned Movement doesn't have the symbolic clout that it possessed during the heyday of the Cold War, but it is still a prominent forum for the so-called global South. By hosting the meeting and taking over the rotating chairmanship, Tehran is reminding its adversaries that it is not a pariah state. It is also sending the not-so-subtle reminder that a lot of countries would regard an unprovoked attack on it as an illegitimate act of aggression.
Second, Friedman misses what's really driving Morsy. The Egyptian leader is not anti-American; he's just not the same sort of tame client that Hosni Mubarak was. Recall that one of the key themes of the Egyptian revolution was the desire to restore a sense of "dignity," both with respect to how individual Egyptians were treated but also with respect to Egypt's posture vis-à-vis the United States and other states. As I read it, Morsy is working to rebuild Egypt's ties in several directions, in order to maximize Egypt's freedom of movement and diplomatic options. Not only will this enhance Egypt's regional clout, it will encourage others to do more to keep Cairo happy. This approach is also likely to be popular with a lot of Egyptians, who weren't wild about their country being a supine patsy of the United States.
For Morsy, therefore, visiting Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement is a perfect opportunity, because he can rightly argue that he's there as part of a broad global movement that just happens to be meeting in Iran and that he's not endorsing Iran's leadership per se. This is basically the same line that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has used to justify his own attendance, by the way. Similarly, visiting Beijing might bring Egypt some tangible benefits and reminds the United States not to take Cairo for granted.
The bottom line: Friedman is just angry that Morsy wasn't willing to stick it to Tehran on behalf of Washington's regional agenda, even if doing so wasn't really in Egypt's interest. I like democracy as much as anyone, but if we can overlook it when our strategic interests dictate otherwise (see under: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia), why can't President Morsy pay a brief visit to Tehran without being lectured by Mr. Friedman?
Alex Wong/Getty Images
My colleague Nicholas Burns has a smart column in today's Boston Globe, where he makes the obvious but important point that "the United States should do all it can to avoid war" with Iran. His central theme is that war is not in the U.S. national interest, and that Washington should seize the diplomatic initiative and not allow itself to get buffaloed into a war by Israel. In his words: "The United States needs to take the reins of this crisis from Israel to give use more independence and to protect Israel's core interests at the same time." To do this, he calls for the United States to open a direct bilateral negotiating channel with Iran and to offer "imaginative proposals that would permit Iran civil nuclear power but deny it a nuclear weapon."
This position makes so much sense that you can be sure it will be rejected by AIPAC and the other hardliners who believe that Iran cannot be permitted even the theoretical capacity to produce a weapon at some unspecified time down the road. Together with the Netyanyahu government, these groups want to keep ramping up the war talk in order to slowly paint the United States into a corner. The reason is simple: Israel does not have a strategically meaningful military option of its own, because the IAF cannot do enough damage to Iran's nuclear facilities to end its program once and for all. To prevent any sort of Iranian nuclear capacity, therefore, requires the United States to take the lead in enforcing sanctions and if necessary, to fight another war.
And as Jodi Rudoren reveals in an important New York Times piece today, Israel's leaders understand that fact perfectly well. Based on interviews with a former national security advisor Uzi Dayan, she reports that PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak "had not yet decided to attack Iran's nuclear facilities and could be dissuaded from a strike if President Obama approved stricter sanctions and publicly confirmed his willingness to use military force" (my emphasis). She continues: "Mr. Dayan's assessment seems to buttress the theory that the collective saber rattling is part of a campaign to pressure the Obama administration and the international community, rather than an indication of the imminence of an Israeli strike."
In short, as I noted last week, the recurring talk of "closing windows," "red lines," "zones of immunity," and the like is a political ploy, designed to stifle diplomacy, strengthen sanctions, and gradually inch the United States closer and closer to a commitment to use force. The Israelis know that they cannot do the job themselves, and their larger aim is to keep attention riveted on Tehran (and not on settlement expansion) and to make sure that if war does come, the United States does the heavy lifting.
In short, all this war talk is a bluff, but one can scarcely blame Israel for employing a tactic that keeps working so well. It's our fault we keep falling for it.
EBRAHIM NOROOZI/AFP/Getty Images
Remember the war in Afghanistan? You know: It was the "good war," fought in response to Al Qaeda's attack on 9/11 and the Taliban's refusal to turn them in, and subsequently justified by 1) the need to prevent future terrorist "safe havens," 2) the desire to liberate Afghan women, 3) the imperative to bring democracy and modern governance to an underdeveloped tribal society, and 4) as always, the need to preserve American "credibility."
Writing on the New Yorker's website, reporter Dexter Filkins warns that our long and costly effort there is likely to be a failure. We're getting out, he says, but there is little sign that we will leave behind a properly functioning Afghan state. He notes that neither Obama nor Romney are saying much about the war in this campaign (in part because there is about an angstrom's worth of difference in their respective positions). But he says "You can bet that, whoever the president is, he'll be talking about it [after we're gone]."
Three points. First, it is not really news to hear that our Afghan project is failing, because the effort to impose a centralized state from the outside was probably doomed from the start. It's possible that a focused international effort from 2002 onward would have succeeded (and especially if the geniuses in the Bush administration hadn't taken their eye off the ball in order to invade Iraq), but the odds are against it. Plenty of people have been warning for years now that this war was going to end up a failure, which is why some of us opposed Obama's decision to escalate the war in 2009 and called for disengagement instead.
Second, even if Filkins' pessimism is right, it is not clear why the next president will want or will have to spend a lot of time worrying about Afghanistan. If Afghanistan were truly a vital strategic interest, it wouldn't be all that hard to convince Americans to pony up the resources to stay. But the fact is that Afghanistan isn't a vital interest: it's a land-locked and impoverished country thousands of miles from our shores. The only reason that we went there in the first place is because a handful of misguided crackpots decided to hide out there, and subsequently got very lucky in staging a dramatic attack on U.S. soil. Once they were scattered and/or killed, Afghanistan reverted to being the strategic backwater it has always been. The American people understand this, yet Obama had to concoct a face-saving strategy of escalating first in order to withdraw later. If the next president-whoever it is-is smart, he'll spend as much time worrying about Afghanistan as Carter and Reagan spent worrying about Vietnam. Which is to say: hardly any.
Third, this whole sad episode should really be seen as a colossal failure of the American national security establishment. The futility of the Afghan campaign was apparent years ago, and we've heard plenty of testimony from returning soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers that the ISAF effort wasn't likely to work. Even those who continued to defend the effort usually had to admit that success was going to require a decade or more of additional commitment and hundreds of billions of dollars in additional aid. Yet our national security apparatus couldn't reach the conclusion to withdraw without first escalating the war, and without wasting more soldiers' lives and a few hundred billion more dollars.
I've offered my own thoughts on why it's hard to end costly wars here; today I'll simply say it's even harder when the culture of the national security establishment rewards hawkish postures, and tends to view anyone who counsels moderation or prudence as some sort of weak-willed idealist. Nothing does more than hard-headed and realistic assessments of the costs and benefits of alternative course of action, even when the writing was on the wall a long time ago.
Where is the Middle East headed? Where will it be a decade or two hence? Although most commentary tends to obsess about recent events (Will Assad fall? Was Hezbollah for the bombing in Bulgaria? Will there be war with Iran? Is the two-state solution really dead? etc.) today, I want to step back and ask what the larger implications of these various events might be. Here are three scenarios for the Middle East, judged largely from the perspective of U.S. interests:
1. The Good: The optimistic scenario for the Middle East runs something like this: Although the road may be bumpy for awhile, the various upheavals now subsumed under the heading “Arab spring” mark the end of a long period of regional stagnation. In this view, the Arab world has languished for decades under the bankrupt leadership of a series of autocrats who were better at clinging to power than in developing their societies. Education, scientific competence, economic development and human rights have all suffered as a result. These circumstances have also fueled anti-Americanism and intensified regional tensions, as various entrenched elites have used the bogeyman of “Western imperialism,” Israel’s presence and occupation, and the sufferings of the Palestinians to distract their populations from their own failings.
But in this scenario, that era is coming to an end. Assad will fall the same way Qaddafi did, and his departure will deal a body blow to the “axis of resistance” (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas), which is the last stubborn remnant of anti-Western opposition in the region. Weak and isolated, Iran will have no choice but to bow before the West’s demands, and the clerical regime itself will be living on borrowed time. As political change ushers in more responsive and accountable governments throughout the region, the long pent-up energies of these societies will be unleashed and broad-based economic development will begin.
Equally important, the flowering of democracy (or something closer to it) will reduce the current frictions between the United States and some of these societies, as citizens focus on getting educated and getting rich, instead of worrying about red herrings like the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza, or the U.S. military presence in the region. Islam may play a somewhat larger role in political life, but it will be mostly moderate and benign.
This view is consistent with the traditional liberal view of international relations, which tends to dominate how U.S. policymakers think about foreign policy. Liberal theories of IR argue that foreign policy behavior is heavily influenced by societal preferences and regime type, by economic interdependence, and by the creation of powerful global institutions. They tend to assume that human beings mostly care about material prosperity. As Middle East countries become more like us, so the argument runs, conflicts of interest will diminish, anti-Americanism will fade, and interest in obtaining WMD will decline. And once these states become more democratic and fully enmeshed in the world economy, they will drop their outdated objections to Israel and all will be well.
Notice also that this view implies that neoconservatives’ program for “regional transformation” was the right idea all along; the problem was that the people who tried to implement it were incompetent and their chosen instrument -- military power and direct U.S. intervention -- was simply the wrong tool. Obama’s embrace of the “Arab spring” has been cautious and not always consistent (see under: Bahrain), but it was directed at essentially the same goal and his approach has proven to be far more effective. On balance, he has positioned the United States on the progressive side of change and confined the U.S. role to helping local forces win their battles.
In effect, the administration is betting that the arc of history will bend in a direction that leads to more participatory politics, to greater gender equality and human rights, and to a dramatic reduction in both regional tensions and anti-Americanism over time. It may take a couple of decades for this hopeful vision to be realized, and because massive social change is always messy, there are bound to be some rocky moments along the way. But all Americans need to do is stay the course, use their still-considerable power to nudge these societies in the right direction, and manage the inevitable turbulence for a little while longer.
In many ways, it would be nice if this hopeful future came to fruition, although it would probably consign the Palestinians to another generation or two of impoverished statelessness. Alas, this is not the only scenario one can envision.
2. The Bad: In this version of the future, the political changes unleashed by the “Arab spring” continue to roll forward, and attempts to reimpose the old order (as Egypt’s military seems to be attempting) ultimately fail. Moreover, the emergence of more participatory politics and greater openness do in fact generate many of the positive features described above: education expands, economic development accelerates, and national unity is ultimately strengthened in many of these societies. In short, social and political mobilization continues and deepens, and governments manage to create more open and effective institutions.
But in this scenario, these shifts do not transform the Middle East into a region of calm Kantian liberals, or some Middle Eastern version of the EU. As political dynamism returns to the region, this scenario envisions more and more governments that are both increasingly responsive to popular sentiment and increasingly capable of advancing their national interests (as defined by popular beliefs) on the world stage. And because some of those sentiments are at odds with long-standing U.S. policies, the emergence of a more politically mobilized and capable Arab world might turn out to be a real headache for Washington.
Recent history offers several cautionary warnings. Turkey under the AKP has enjoyed impressive economic growth in recent years -- in sharp contrast to the military governments that preceded it -- but it has also become a less compliant ally of the United States and increasingly an independent force in the region. U.S. and Turkish interests are often compatible but not always, and that is likely to be true of a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Or consider what has happened to China. If Mao had lived forever, China would still be saddled with a dysfunctional command economy. Embracing capitalism has lifted millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty, but it has also given Beijing the capacity to challenge U.S. leadership on a host of issues, and may one day make it a true “peer competitor.” From a selfishly American perspective, therefore, it might have been better of the “four modernizations” had never occurred and China had remained weak and economically backward. By the same logic, Arab inefficiency is one of the main reasons why the United States and Israel have been able to dominate the Middle East for the past four decades, and we should not blindly assume that a more capable and competent Arab world would also be a more compliant one.
The “good” scenario assumes that the emergence of more participatory, quasi-democratic politics will eventually eliminate the existing conflicts of interest within the region and with the United States. But there are good reasons to question that optimistic belief. Sunni vs. Shiite divisions have been around for centuries and are likely to persist. Palestinians will still press for statehood (or for full voting rights), and politically mobilized Arab publics will continue to back them, in part because this might be an issue that democratic politicians exploit to make themselves more popular at home, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was done. A democratic Syrian government will still want the Golan Heights back, and a fully democratic Iran might want nuclear weapons as much as the Shah did or as much as democratic (and nuclear-armed) Israel does.
In this view, in short, we ought to be careful what we wish for. Autocrats like Hosni Mubarak and monarchs like King Hussein or King Abdullah of Jordan could ignore popular sentiment and align closely with Washington, but this may not be so easy for governments that have to depend on popular support. The assumption that progressive political change in the Arab world is a good thing for the United States rests on the belief that “all good things go together": political change will eventually foster economic development and attenuate existing political disputes. Unfortunately, history also reminds us that as states grow richer and stronger, they often grow more assertive and they start defining their interests in broader terms. This could be big trouble for Washington, given how unpopular U.S. policies have been and how deeply rooted these attitudes seem to be.
3. The Ugly: There is a third scenario, and it is the one we have already seen in Iraq and Lebanon and may now be seeing in Syria. In this version of the future, the Arab spring succeeds in overturning a number of bankrupt orders but does not lead to stable and progressive governance in some of them. Instead, we get weak and divided orders where sectarian quarrels are rife, extremism is rewarded, al Qaeda finds new followers, and those who are adept at violence are advantaged.
Needless to say, this bleak forecast implies that the region will remain messy and divided for many years to come. An economic renaissance will not occur, because political instability will discourage investment and tourism and force local populations to squander time and resources on fighting rather than building. Outside powers will be tempted to intervene in various ways, which will lead to tit-for-tat retaliations and raise the risk of broader regional conflicts. Given that the Gulf region will remain a key source of global energy supplies (no matter how much natural gas the U.S. eventually obtains from hydraulic fracking), continued regional instability could have far-reaching and harmful effects on the world economy.
This scenario isn’t good news for the United States either. It might be smart for the United States to remain aloof from the carnage, but that will be difficult given our interventionist tendencies and the pressure we’ll face from regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. And if the past is any guide, we can’t expect Russia or China or the Europeans to help us quiet things down; they’d rather hand Uncle Sam the burden of managing yet another regional cauldron. So not only would this scenario mean lots of trouble for people in the Middle East, it's bound to be a big headache for the United States too.
Which of these scenarios do I think is most likely? I lean towards the second, because I don’t think the Arab spring is reversible and because I don’t think that protracted instability in places like Syria will prove all that contagious. But that’s really no more than a hunch.
Of course, these three scenarios are not the only ones one can imagine. But they do help put the current turmoil into perspective, and they help us identify the underlying logic on which current U.S. policy is based. Needless to say, I’ll be delighted if the first scenario is the one we get. I’ll also be more than a little surprised.
I am pleased to offer the following guest post by Nasser Rabbat of MIT:
Nasser Rabbat writes:
The euphoria sparked by the 2011 Arab uprisings has settled into realpolitik. The youth who initiated the protest movements split into myriad organizations or withdrew in despair. The Islamists, disciplined through decades of clandestine political action, took over in Tunisia and Libya, and are poised to wrestle power from a recalcitrant army in Egypt. The secularists, assumed to be the natural allies of the West, are weak and divided. In Tunisia and Egypt, they garnered fewer votes in the elections than predicted. In Libya, they retreated from the National Transitional Council, leaving the Islamists to occupy its most powerful positions. In Syria, still struggling against a belligerent and criminal regime that is proving hard to nudge, the secularists in the opposition are constantly bickering, whereas the Islamists are organized and goal-oriented. Arab secularism, the events seem to suggest, is a spent force. The United States and other Western governments, claiming to be responding to the realities on the ground, are engaging the Islamic parties as the defining new paradigm of Arab politics.
Is this a new turn for the West? Did the West support the secularists before the revolutions? And has Arab secularism really become irrelevant? My answer to all three questions is an emphatic no. To begin with, the record of the West in the Arab world is patently not pro-secularist. Indeed, if we are to limit our assessment to the regimes that have been consistently backed by the U.S. in the last fifty years, we will find on the top of the list Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Morocco, all avowedly Islamic regimes, at least in their claims to legitimacy or their application of Islamic law. Conversely, some of the most ardent opponents of the U.S. have been the secular regimes of the Baath party in Syria and Iraq, though their secularism proved skin-deep and opportunistic. Moreover, when the United States decided to avenge the attacks of 9/11, perpetrated as they were by an extremist Islamist militancy, its most decisive act was to destroy the secular regime of Iraq. Eight years later, when the Americans finally withdrew from Iraq, they left behind not only a flagrantly sectarian regime, but also a political class composed largely of religious movements umbilically linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Nor does history show much Western support for the budding secular tendencies in the early twentieth century, which coincided with the colonization of most of the Arab world. Pragmatism may explain why colonial powers, Britain and France in particular, preferred to deal with traditional leaders. They had political influence, economic clout, and a wide base of clients. That they adhered to conservative forms of piety added to their usefulness: They understood the mechanisms of religious authority and could manipulate them to appease potential popular unrest. The few Arab secularists, on the other hand, even though thoroughly westernized and belonging to the social elite, were seen as troublemakers. Having been profoundly influenced by the principles of the Enlightenment, they formulated strong demands for liberation, democratization, and modernization. Many clashed with the colonial authorities and paid a heavy price of imprisonment or exile.
Independence, when it finally came, fell smack at the height of the Cold War. The West, which was eventually reduced to the United States, was seeking to build alliances of nations committed to countering the Communist threat. Conservative regimes, such as those of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, were obviously the most promising allies. So the West supported them regardless of their religious agendas. When military regimes came to power in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq after the defeat of these countries in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, they first toyed with accepting Western tutelage. Their subsequent turning to the USSR as a patron more sympathetic to their national causes, however, did not translate into espousing communism or rejecting religion. Ungodly these military regimes certainly were, but they were not secular. They neither believed in nor practiced the separation of religion and politics. They in fact heavily relied on religious symbolism to frame the image of their one inspired despot and his family or clan. This was the case of Anwar al-Sadat after Camp David and his successor Hosni Mubarak, as well as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad. Fundamentalism and its defiant social expressions actually grew under their watch, even if they had been relentlessly suppressing all Islamic political organizations, or any other political activism for that matter.
Secularists had no place in such a system. Those who dared to speak out against it found themselves dismissed from their jobs, jailed, or forced to leave their countries. Some, who persisted in their criticism of the dictators or of the rigid views of the growing Islamist extremists, like the journalists Salim al-Lawzi and Samir Kassir in Lebanon, Hidaya Sultan Al-Salem in Kuwait, Farag Foda in Egypt, and Mohammed Taha in Sudan, were assassinated. Others, unable to cobble together a political structure to unite them like the Islamists had, channeled their political activism into more intellectual and artistic pursuits. Secularism, already accused of elitism because of the social background of its proponents, became even more rarefied as it migrated either away from the pulse of the street and into the confines of academia and art or out of the country altogether.
The 2011 uprisings seemed at first to bring secularism back to the forefront as a vociferous political force. Fueled by a new breed of activists -- young, globally networked, and unbothered by considerations of class, religion or gender -- the uprisings wielded the same principles that earlier Arab secularists have advocated. But like those earlier Arab secularists, the youth did not translate their secularist rallying cries into framers of political parties able to compete for the post-revolutionary governments. Some movements, notably the 6th of April Movement in Egypt, simply declared after the fall of Mubarak's regime that it had no plan to become a political party, then lived to regret that impulsive decision. The prominent and reasonably popular candidate for the presidency in Egypt, Mohammad el-Baradei, withdrew from the race before it began, citing as a reason the reprehensible way politics was conducted by his detractors. The few attempts to register a secularist political presence in the elections in Tunis and Egypt were swept aside by the eminently more organized Islamist parties and by their shrewd appeal to the basic religiosity of the people, especially the poor and the illiterate.
Arab secularism, however, remains on the street and online. Though outdone in the current rush to power by the Islamists, it still has the ability to reassert itself in the political arena, if not as the ruling party, at least as lawful opposition and guardian of the principles of civic freedoms. The culture of lawful opposition, long absent under the totalitarian regimes, needs to be reinserted into the political discourse. This is as important a function as good governance for the well-being of the nascent Arab democracies. To that end, the efforts of the discontented revolutionary youth and the seasoned secular intellectuals should be united under the umbrella of political parties. The West should help them by recognizing their crucial political role and by treating them as long-term partners not just as recipients of training and aid.
In February 2011, after the victory of the Egyptian revolution in which they played no significant role, some of the most famous Islamic preachers gloated that the next government will be Islamic. Secularism, they contended, should be put to rest because it reigned for fifty years and failed. But true secularism has never had a chance to rule in the modern Arab world, except perhaps in Tunisia under al-Habib Bourguiba (1957-87). Otherwise, religion was always enshrined in the fiat constitutions of all the Arab kingdoms and republics, even those that were ferociously hunting down Islamists. Moreover, Arab rulers who hid behind secular masks, whether they were civilian or military, never separated religion from their politics. Many enlisted docile forms of religion and compliant sheiks as parts of their arsenal of control. In that, they were following in the footsteps of a long tradition of inglorious religion-based rule in the Arab world, which did not really end until the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923. It is thus more accurate to question what Islamic rule of the kind imagined by the vocal Islamist organizations will bring that was not tried before during the long centuries of what they themselves believe was an Arab decline.
Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of the History of Islamic Architecture at MIT.
I'm back from Japan after a very enjoyable trip, and catching up on developments elsewhere. A few quick comments on recent events elsewhere.
On Syria: As many have feared, the violence continues to intensify and prospects for a negotiated solution appear increasingly bleak. The stalemate between the regime and the opposition will increase pressure for a more forceful international response, but the case for military intervention remains weak. Not because anybody condones the Assad regime's behavior, but simply because outside intervention could easily make things worse. Regrettably, not every foreign policy challenge has a ready solution, and sometimes "standing there" is still better than "doing something."
Russia continues to be Assad's primary protector, and it will be interesting to see if Obama and Putin can make any progress toward agreement during their meeting at the G20 summit. As I've written previously, Russia is the key to a political settlement, but only if a way can be found to preserve Russian interests and give them lots of credit for helping resolve the crisis. Russia's amoral stance has elicited a lot of condemnation thus far, but we shouldn't be surprised or overly outraged by what Moscow is doing. Syria is Russia's only remaining Middle East client and Russia is simply trying to protect its own position there. More broadly, Russia has long sought to prevent the emergence of a world order dominated by the United States and its allies -- i.e., one where Washington gets to decide who governs in key regions -- and backing Assad is one way for Russia to remind everyone that Washington isn't all-powerful. I suspect Putin isn't happy about what Assad is doing, just as the Obama administration wasn't happy about the Saudi-backed crackdown in Bahrain. But when strategic interests are involved, moral niceties tend to be overlooked.
On Egypt: I'm not that surprised that Egypt's military leaders are trying to reverse the revolution/reform movement that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak. Step 1 was getting Egyptian courts to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated legislature; step 2 was the announcement that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would supervise the drafting of a new constitution. There are reports that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi has won the presidential election; if so, you can count on the SCAF to write a constitution that diminishes the president's powers. But I will be surprised if this effort to roll back the clock succeeds, because the SCAF has no solution for Egypt's debilitating economic and political stagnation and younger Egyptians aren't going to acquiesce in this reversal for long. And as Juan Cole notes on his own blog, once free and fair elections become the norm, it becomes increasingly difficult for unelected military rulers to retain the same level of influence. If we take a longer view, the Egyptian revolution is likely to continue.
Speaking of which, I wonder how American neoconservatives will react to SCAF's efforts to reverse or retard Egypt's move toward democracy? Neocons have long portrayed themselves as vigorous proponents of liberty and democracy, and they are usually quick to demand forceful U.S. action against any non-democratic regimes they don't like. So presumably they will now call for the United States to use cut off all aid to Egypt until the Egyptian generals allow full democracy to re-emerge. But don't hold your breath.
On Iran: Negotiations resume tomorrow between Iran and the P5+1. We may see some progress, but I don't expect a breakthrough. The key questions are: 1) are the P5+1 are willing to concede Iran's right to enrich uranium at low levels and under strict safeguards? and 2) will the United States continue to demand that Iran dismantle its underground enrichment plant at Fordow? These two demands are deal-breakers: Iran has made it clear for years that it won't give up the right to enrich, and insisting that they dismantle Fordow is asking them to leave their program vulnerable so that we (or the Israelis) can attack it whenever we want.
Think about this for a second. What sensible government would ever agree to something like that? Imagine how the United States would have reacted if the Soviet Union had demanded that we leave our ICBMs above ground and completely exposed to a surprise attack, and had further demanded that we give them the locations of all our ballistic missile submarines, so that the USSR could attack them too if they ever felt they needed to. We would have rejected such a silly request in a nanosecond. Demanding that Iran dismantle Fordow is similar; would any government spend a lot of money hardening its enrichment capability only to give it up, especially when the United States and others have already done various things to try to damage or destroy their other nuclear facilities? If the P5+1 aren't willing to compromise on those two issues, it shows we're not serious about a genuine diplomatic deal.
The Obama administration is caught between two fires: They understand that military action is foolish and counterproductive (i.e., such action will just convince Iran to redouble its efforts to gain an effective deterrent), but they also understand that a realistic compromise would expose Obama to (bogus) charges of appeasement from Israel and from hardliners in the Israel lobby. That's not an appealing prospect in an election year, especially when the election promises to be close. So they can't go to war, but they can't make a deal either, at least not between now and November. And that means that the real issue is whether the various parties can find enough common ground to keep the negotiations limping along until then.
The U.S. Agency for International Development is pulling the plug on the Pakistani version of Sesame Street, which it was funding as part of its broader development and public diplomacy efforts. The reason given was alleged fraud in the handling of funds, although the Pakistani producer responsible for the program denies any malfeasance. Bottom line: another upbeat moment on the increasngly fraught U.S. relationship with Pakistan.
I'm glad to hear that State's money managers are keeping a watchful eye on expenditures, but the whole theory behind this initiative seems dubious to me. Apparently the idea was that if you got Pakistani tots acquainted with cute Muppets like Elmo (the only character transplanted from the U.S. version), they'd develop a greater love of learning, a better sense of social tolerance, and they might even grow up with a more favorable image of the United States.
I'm not one to deny the power of television, but this strikes me as a bit of a stretch. The Pakistani version of Sesame Street (known locally as Sim Sim Hamara) may have been popular with kiddies (I don't know) and may even have encouraged some basic literacy and tolerance. But such programs are also justified by the desire to improve the U.S. image in places where it could use some polishing. And if that is the case, as Peter Van Buren notes here, then canceling the program could negate whatever benefits were previously gained by funding it.
More broadly, the assumption underlying most efforts at public diplomacy seems to be the belief that anti-Americanism around the world is a failure of marketing. If we just do a better job of selling what we do around the world (or if we get to them young enough, with clever characters like Elmo or Cookie Monster), then Pakistanis won't mind our launching drone strikes on their territory and will give us a free pass when we kill a bunch of border guards by accident.
The core problem, needless to say, is that a successful public diplomacy effort needs to start with a good product. Defending America's dominant world role isn't impossible, but it's not primarily a question of "spin," propaganda, cultural exchange, or better children's TV programming. If U.S. foreign policy is consistently insensitive to others' interests, and if our actions are seen by others as making things worse instead of better, then no amount of clever public diplomacy is going to convince them that Washington is really acting selflessly on behalf of all mankind.
Ironically, Obama's first term offers a potent illustration of both the potential and the limits of public diplomacy. In his first year, the percentage of people with a favorable image of the U.S. rose dramatically in most of the world, and even improved slightly in the Middle East (where the U.S. image is especially poor). But while Obama and the U.S. remain fairly popular in Europe, his subsequent policies have produced a profound slide in a number of key areas, including Pakistan. Other societies don't always have a fully accurate view of what the United States is doing and why, but they aren't completely ignorant or ill-informed either. Sorry to sound like Oscar the Grouch, but bringing Sesame Street to Islamabad wasn't going to fix that problem, even if all the money had been spent as intended.
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I've been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.
This past week, the New York Times has published two important articles on how the Obama administration is using American power in ways that remain poorly understood by most Americans. The first described Obama's targeted assassination policy against suspected terrorists, and the second describes the U.S. cyber-warfare campaign against Iran. Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It's not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I've noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn't know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.
Remember back in 2009, when Obama supposedly extended the "hand of friendship" to Iran? At the same time that he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran. When Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reacted coolly to Obama's initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president. We are observing, watching, and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago," U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer of friendship. With hindsight, of course, it's clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now, he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I'm no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail. As it did.
We keep wondering: "Why do they hate us?" Well, maybe some people are mad because we are doing things that we would regard as unjustified and heinous acts of war if anyone dared to do them to us. I'm not really surprised that the U.S. is using its power so freely -- that is what great powers tend to do. I'm certainly not surprised that government officials prefer to keep quiet about it, or only leak information about their super-secret policies when they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so. But I also don't think Americans should be so surprised or so outraged when others are angered by actions that we would find equally objectionable if we were the victims instead of the perpetrators.
And if we keep doing unto others in this way, it's only a matter of time before someone does it unto us in return.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Which university is more likely to defend academia's basic commitment to sharing ideas and knowledge in an open and unconstrained way, West Point or Yale? You'd probably think it would be Yale, that well-known bastion of tweedy academics and liberal values. How wrong you'd be.
As West Point faculty member Gian Gentile outlines in a fascinating piece in the Atlantic, former U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal has been teaching a course at Yale's Jackson Institute of Global Affairs on strategy and leadership. Nothing wrong with that: Plenty of universities (including my own) hire practitioners to share insights from the real world with students. And I've got no problem having a former general teach a course. But in a shocking departure from normal academic practices, Yale requires students taking the course to sign a non-disclosure form, pledging that they will not divulge what is said in the course to outsiders. In other words, McChrystal is teaching an "off-the-record" course.
This restriction is so contrary to the normal practice of universities that it is hard to know where to begin. Academic institutions exist to pursue knowledge, to teach what we know to our students, and to instill in them an appreciation for free and open inquiry. The whole principle of academic freedom rests on the idea that knowledge is best advanced by allowing ideas to blossom and to be shared without restriction. In this way, good ideas can be validated and retained and bad ideas or conjectures can be scrutinized and eventually excluded. By telling students in McChrystal's class that they cannot share what they learn with others, Yale is artificially constraining the normal give-and-take of ideas. There may be vigorous discussions inside that particular classroom, but the rest of Yale (and the larger world) won't know about them. Secrecy of any kind is fundamentally at odds with the principles that universities stand for, yet here Yale has enshrined it in one of their courses.
A commitment to free and open discussion also keeps the focus on the ideas themselves, rather than on the identity or the supposed prestige of the faculty member leading the course. Giving McChrystal a special exemption immediately tells Yale students that the general is a "Very Important Person" who gets to be treated differently from other members of the faculty. Again, that's not how universities are supposed to work: People taking my courses aren't supposed to accept what I tell them because I am the professor and they are mere students. They are supposed to accept what I tell them only if I've successfully convinced them it is useful and makes sense. And they are free -- even encouraged -- to disagree with me, especially if they have good reason to do so and can make their objections stick. And I want them to talk about my courses outside of class; maybe someone they know will point out a new way to think about an issue or identify a mistake I've made. But if I made my students sign a non-disclosure form, I would limit their capacity to hold me accountable.
Requiring students to sign a non-disclosure form also sends the subtle but unmistakable signal that the instructor is imparting secret knowledge that is too hot or potentially controversial to be shared with the outside world. I can easily imagine students lapping this up -- we all like thinking we're getting info that others aren't privy to -- but this is just not how universities are supposed to work.
Yale officials might argue that McChrystal is a unique asset for their teaching program, and that the only way they could convince him to teach there was to promise him that some student wouldn't blab about the course to the Yale Daily News or the New York Times. But that argument won't wash: If McChrystal really believes what he's teaching, then he should be willing to have it openly discussed. He shouldn't be able to win arguments in the classroom by saying, "Now let me tell you about some really secret stuff I did in Afghanistan, stuff you won't find out about in books. Trust me." He should be willing to be held accountable for what he says to his students, and not just by those who happen to be sitting there (and whom he might eventually be grading). If some students disagree with him, he should be willing to have them voice their disagreements to the rest of the class, but also to their roommates, friends, parents, other faculty members, and yes, even to reporters. That's the same risk that all of us run when we teach: All of our students are free to talk about what they learn with anyone they want. What's General McChrystal so afraid of?
Yale's abandoning of its principles is itself a symptom of the growing deference that Americans now grant the professional military (and to a lesser extent, top members of the broader national security establishment). The country has been at war for over a decade, and there's an inevitable tendency for civilians to start treating those who've been fighting these wars with kid gloves. This tendency is not healthy, however, because the professional military has its own interests and world view -- as such, it is not necessarily the best judge of what is in the overall interests of the nation. National security is a topic that affects all Americans, and it is more likely to be openly and intelligently debated when we don't give any of the participants (and especially not those with particular interests in the subject) a free pass.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
What to do, what to do about Syria? Hardly anyone is confident that the Annan mission will resolve the struggle between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition. Today I want to offer a more-or-less realpolitik approach to the problem, though I am not at all certain it would work or even that it would make sense to try. Consider it an effort to think outside the box.
As I've noted before, the central problem here is that there doesn't seem to be a genuine "compromise" option available that would leave Assad & Co. in place yet guarantee the safety of the opposition and their ability to organize politically. Neither side trusts the other at all, and neither can credibly commit not to try to eliminate their rivals if they get the chance. This creates the growing risk of a long and grinding confrontation and/or civil war. In this scenario I think outside powers would eventually get involved and Assad would eventually lose, but Syria would be in very bad shape when it was all over.
This latter outcome is not in anyone's interest, and certainly not ours. Our interests are best served if Assad leaves sooner rather than later, before all-out war occurs and before the entire Syrian state collapses. So the question is: Is there anyway to convince Assad and his closest associates to leave? I don't have a surefire way to do it, but one big step in the right direction would be for Russia to shift is position and stop protecting him. In other words, what if Moscow made it clear that they were willing to grant Assad et al asylum if they left, but were not willing to help keep them in power any longer?
Recall that it was the withdrawal of Russian support that eventually convinced Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate in the 2000 war in Kosovo. The circumstances in Syria are quite different, but the logic is the same: If Assad knew he'd lost Moscow's backing, and his associates figured this out too, they might start looking for any reasonably safe exit.
If you're still with me, then the question becomes: How could the U.S. and others convince newly "re-elected" Russian president Vladimir Putin to follow this path? I'm not sure we could, but one option would be by telling Putin that we would let him take full credit for resolving this confrontation. Putin and other Russian leaders have consistently opposed the emergence of a world order where Washington gets to determine which regimes survive and which regimes fall. For this reason, an overt attempt at Libya-style "regime change" is bound to upset them and encourage them to dig in their heels. But what if we made it clear that we were willing to let them take the lead (for example, by hosting an international conference to address the issue) and eager to let them have all the credit if they were able to ease Assad out. As Harry Truman once noted, "it's amazing what you can achieve if you don't care who gets the credit."
Now comes the tricky part. I doubt Putin would buy this sort of deal unless he got some sweeteners, and unless he thought that Russian interests would suffer if they continued their present course. In other words, the carrot of diplomatic credit might have to accompanied by some additional carrots, as well as the subtle hint of a stick. As for additional carrots, I'd happily toss in concessions on European missile defense, which is a costly boondoggle we ought to be ditching anyway. As for sticks, I think we'd have to try to convince Russia that outside intervention is going to happen sooner or later, and that once it does, Assad is going to be toast no matter what Moscow does. So they can either watch a regime they've backed for 40 plus years go down the tubes -- thereby reminding the world of their growing geopolitical impotence -- or they can get with us and get the credit for resolving a thorny problem, thereby allowing Putin to reaffirm Russia's importance on the world stage. There's bound to be a certain element of Kabuki theater in all this, but that's hardly unheard of in modern diplomacy. The risk, however, is that we have to threaten to intervene ourselves, and Moscow might call our bluff in the hopes of luring us back into a nice Iraq-style quagmire.
Like I said: I see this as a bit of a hail Mary, and I'm sure that readers will be able to poke a lot of holes in the idea. Go right ahead, but please offer up your own suggestions too.
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
Are you in favor of preventing atrocities? Of course you are. Me too. Nobody is going to openly oppose trying to prevent heinous crimes against humanity, which is why President Obama did a big roll-out for his new "Atrocity Prevention Board" (APB) yesterday at the Holocaust Museum in DC. As this White House press release makes clear, the new board will contain representatives from various government agencies and plan more robust ways to deal with mass killings, genocides, and other really bad things in the years ahead.
As noted, it is hard to imagine anybody objecting to something like this on principle, because who's in favor of turning a blind eye to atrocities? But a situation where nobody wants to question an initiative is also precisely when we ought to be wary, and I can think of three reasons why the new APB is a bad idea.
First, it is another manifestation of the American obsession with global police work. Despite all the problems that excessive interventionism have produced in recent years, as well as the dubious results of some recent humanitarian operations, the Obama administration is now taking a step that will further institutionalize the impulse to intervene. But America's problems today do not arise because we've been doing too little meddling overseas; they are in good part the result of getting bogged down trying to do the impossible in places we don't understand. Making it easier to get bogged down in the future is not the policy conclusion I would have drawn from recent experience.
Second, creating this new board does nothing to solve the core strategic problems that inevitably affect decisions to intervene, even in the case of gross human rights violations. There are often good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts -- even when atrocities are underway -- and having the new Atrocity Prevention Board won't make any of those impediments disappear. In theory, such a Board might help us determine when to do something and when we are likely to make things worse, but most bureaucratic entities tend to become self-justifying over time. After all, once you've got a coordinating body whose designated mission is preventing or halting genocides or other mass atrocities, how likely is it that it will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens? So look for us to get into trouble more often, but with the best of intentions.
Third, this new initiative suffers from the smug self-congratulation that is a hallmark of the modern American Empire. "Atrocities" are something that Very Bad People do, and of course we need to have a robust capability to stop them. But what about the bad things that the United States or its allies do? The United States orchestrated economic sanctions that may have killed as many as half a million Iraqis during the 1990s; when asked about it, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said "we think the price was worth it." Our invasion of Iraq led directly or indirectly to the deaths of several hundred thousand more, and U.S. forces clearly committed atrocities on several occasions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We've backed any number of odious dictatorships over the past century (and turned a blind eye to their abuses), offered Israel full diplomatic protection when it pummeled Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09, and supported terrorist organizations like the Nicaraguan contras or the Iranian MEK. The United States tortured prisoners during the Bush administration and has killed dozens of civilians in drone strikes in several countries. And yet we feel completely comfortable mounting our moral high horse and proclaiming that we are dead set against atrocities and we'll use our full power to prevent them.
As President Obama might say, let's be clear. As a realist, I understand that international politics is a rough business, that states and other groups play hardball, and that this situation sometimes requires moral compromises and leads to innocent suffering. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. government is no different from Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, the Rwandan genocidaires, or Bashar al Assad. But I'll bet this new initiative still looks hypocritical to a lot of people whose familiarity with the sharp end of American power is extensive, intimate, and unpleasant. It would be easier to take this initiative seriously if we seemed as concerned by the atrocities that we commit as we are by the crimes of others.
STEVE TERRILL/AFP/Getty Images
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.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
This month marks the ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Regardless of your views on the wisdom of that decision, it's fair to say the results were not what most Americans expected. Now that the war is officially over and most U.S. forces have withdrawn, what lessons should Americans (and others) draw from the experience? There are many lessons that one might learn, of course, but here are my Top 10 Lessons from the Iraq War.
Lesson #1: The United States lost. The first and most important lesson of Iraq war is that we didn't win in any meaningful sense of that term. The alleged purpose of the war was eliminating Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, but it turns out he didn't have any. Oops. Then the rationale shifted to creating a pro-American democracy, but Iraq today is at best a quasi-democracy and far from pro-American. The destruction of Iraq improved Iran's position in the Persian Gulf -- which is hardly something the United States intended -- and the costs of the war (easily exceeding $1 trillion dollars) are much larger than U.S. leaders anticipated or promised. The war was also a giant distraction, which diverted the Bush administration from other priorities (e.g., Afghanistan), and it made the United States much less popular around the world.
This lesson is important because supporters of the war are already marketing a revisionist version. In this counter-narrative, the surge in 2007 was a huge success (it wasn't, because it failed to produce political reconciliation) and Iraq is now on the road to stable and prosperous democracy. And the costs weren't really that bad. Another variant of this myth is the idea that President George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus had "won" the war by 2008, but President Barack Obama then lost it by getting out early. This view ignores the fact that the Bush administration negotiated the 2008 Status of Forces agreement that set the timetable for U.S. withdrawal, and Obama couldn't stay in Iraq once the Iraqi government made it clear it wanted us out.
The danger of this false narrative is obvious: if Americans come to see the war as a success -- which it clearly wasn't -- they may continue to listen to the advice of its advocates and be more inclined to repeat similar mistakes in the future.
Read the entire piece here.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
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.
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
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.