The interim nuclear deal with Iran is an important step forward, and the various negotiating teams can be justly proud of their achievement. Far be it from me to be a killjoy at this rare moment of progress, but let's not lose our heads amid all the high-fiving and back-patting. Why? Because Iran's nuclear program is not in fact the real issue. The more important issues are Iran's future relations with the outside world and whether the deal paves the way for reintegrating that country into the world economy and the broader international community.
There is something of a paradox in the ways that opponents and supporters of a deal approach the whole subject of Iran's nuclear program and the country's broader relations with the United States and other major powers. Opponents of a deal tend to believe that 1) Iran is governed by irrational and highly aggressive Shiite fanatics; 2) it is hellbent on getting a nuclear weapons capability; and 3) if Iran does get the bomb, it will have dramatic and overwhelmingly negative consequences for regional stability and world politics more generally. Given those (unwarranted) beliefs, you'd think hawks would be thrilled with this deal, insofar as it freezes Iran's current capabilities, will reduce the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (i.e., the stuff that could be enriched to weapons grade fairly quickly), and leaves all the truly significant sanctions in place. If the nuclear program is your big concern, then this is a great first step and a more far-reaching comprehensive deal would be even better. (The alternatives -- an unconstrained Iranian program or another Middle East war -- are clearly inferior.)
By contrast, many who support the current deal believe that 1) Iran's leaders are rational individuals seeking to advance Iran's national interests; 2) Iran has not yet decided to seek a nuclear weapon and probably prefers a condition of nuclear latency to a fully developed nuclear arsenal; and 3) getting the bomb wouldn't transform Iran into a major world power overnight and certainly wouldn't enable it to threaten Israel or blackmail its neighbors. If this view is accurate, then a final deal on Iran's nuclear program -- i.e., one that scales back those elements that shorten the breakout period but leaves Iran with some enrichment capacity -- isn't that significant by itself, because Iran wasn't really seeking a weapon anyway and its getting a few bombs wouldn't have that big an impact on world politics.
Thus, the paradox: Many supporters of a diplomatic deal don't believe the danger of a "nuclear Iran" is all that momentous, while opponents of the current deal think Iran's nuclear program poses a grave and imminent threat. One would think the former would be more relaxed about recent progress, while the latter would be more enthusiastic. But that isn't the case: Those with a moderate view of the nuclear danger are much happier with the deal than those who (logically) ought to be more interested in anything that constrains what Iran is able to do.
In fact, the real issue isn't whether Iran gets close to a bomb; the real issue is the long-term balance of power in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. Iran has far more power potential than any of the other states in the region: a larger population, a fairly sophisticated and well-educated middle class, some good universities, and abundant oil and gas to boost economic growth (if used wisely). If Iran ever escapes the shackles of international sanctions and puts some competent people in charge of its economy, it's going to loom much larger in regional affairs over time. That prospect is what really lies behind the Israeli and Saudi concerns about the nuclear deal. Israel and Saudi Arabia don't think Iran is going to get up one day and start lobbing warheads at its neighbors, and they probably don't even believe that Iran would ever try the pointless act of nuclear blackmail. No, they're just worried that a powerful Iran would over time exert greater influence in the region, in all the ways that major powers do. From the perspective of Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the goal is to try to keep Iran in a box for as long as possible -- isolated, friendless, and artificially weakened.
But from the U.S. perspective, that's neither a realistic nor a desirable long-term goal. As I laid out last week, America's main strategic interest in the Greater Middle East is a balance of power in which no single state dominates. In such a situation, U.S. interests and leverage are best served by having good relations with as many states as possible and at least decent working relations with all of them. America's long-term interests are best served by helping reintegrate Iran into the global community, which is likely to strengthen the hand of moderate forces there and make Iran less disruptive in other contexts (e.g., Lebanon). Managing this process will require reassuring existing allies, but this development would also force current allies to listen to Washington a bit more attentively, which wouldn't be a bad thing.
Over the next six months, the fine details of a long-term nuclear deal will receive enormous attention and debate. Given the attention that Iran's nuclear program has received over the past decade or more, that level of scrutiny is unavoidable. But in the end the nuclear issue doesn't matter that much; what matters is whether an agreement on that issue will allow relations between Iran and the United States and the rest of the P5+1 to normalize in the months and years ahead. And it is that development that opponents of an agreement will be desperate to prevent.
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As I promised in my last post, today I want to offer a somewhat different view of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. I've been traveling for the past 10 days, giving talks at several venues in the United Kingdom and attending the World Economic Forum's meeting of Global Agenda Councils in Abu Dhabi. There was a lot of discussion of America's evolving role in the world at these meetings, and I intend to revisit some of those issues in subsequent posts. But for now, a few thoughts on the Middle East, which is in the news big time these days.
For me, any discussion of U.S. strategy has to begin by acknowledging America's remarkably favorable international position in the world. In the endless quest to identify and neutralize new threats -- both real and imagined -- Americans often forget just how secure the United States is, especially compared with other states. As I've noted many times before, the United States is blessed with a large population, abundant resources, fertile land, navigable rivers, and a technologically sophisticated economy that encourages innovation. These core sources of American power are highly robust, which means that U.S. security and prosperity depend more on what happens at home than on anything that might happen abroad.
Furthermore, the United States has no serious rivals in the Western Hemisphere. It is protected -- still! -- by two vast oceans. As the French ambassador to the United States said in 1910: "The United States was blessed among nations. On the north, she had a weak neighbor; on the south, another weak neighbor; on the east, fish, and on the west, fish." Today, the United States possesses the world's most capable conventional military forces and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal, giving Washington a deterrent power that others can only envy. Indeed, the main reason the United States can roam around concerning itself with other countries' business (and interfering in various ways) is because it doesn't have to worry about defending itself against foreign invasions, blockades, and the like.
One consequence of this favorable position, by the way, is that the country routinely blows minor threats out of all proportion. I mean: Iran has a defense budget of about $10 billion (less than 1/50th of what the United States spends on national security), yet we manage to convince ourselves that Iran is a Very Serious Threat to U.S. vital interests. Ditto the constant fretting about minor-league powers like Syria, North Korea, Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya, and other so-called "rogue states."
When we talk about U.S. strategy in the Middle East, therefore, we need to start by recognizing that the United States is in very good shape, and a lot of what happens in that part of the world may not matter very much to the country in the long run. Put differently, no matter what happens there, the United States can almost certainly adjust and adapt and be just fine.
So what are U.S. interests in the Middle East? I'd say the United States has three strategic interests and two moral interests. The three strategic interests are 1) keeping oil and gas from the region flowing to world markets, to keep the global economy humming; 2) minimizing the danger of anti-American terrorism; and 3) inhibiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The two moral interests are 1) promotion of human rights and participatory government, and 2) helping ensure Israel's survival.
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A heads-up for regular readers: I will be traveling for the next ten days and blogging will be sparse. I'm off to Cambridge University tomorrow, where I have the honor delivering the 2013 F.H. Hinsley Lecture. My topic will be "Follies and Fiascoes: Why U.S. Foreign Policy Keeps Failing," and the main challenge I face will be sticking to the time limit! (Historical backround: Sir Harry Hinsley was a noted cryptographer in World War II, but also a prominent IR scholar, and you can read more about him here). I'll also be visiting a seminar with IR grad students there, and looking forward to hearing what they have to say. Then into London for a talk at the European Council on Foreign Relations and another lecture at the London School of Economics on Friday. If you're in any of those neighborhoods and have nothing better to do, c'mon by.
And then I fly to Abu Dhabi for a conference of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Councils. I'm on the council on "geopolitical risks," and we'll be trying to figure out what the most prominent global dangers are this year. Suggestions welcome.
Our council will be shooting at a moving target given all the diplomatic balls that are currently up in the air. As you all know, the P5+1 didn't reach an interim agreement with Iran after all, and the participants are now trying to kick up a bit of fairy dust, trying not to point fingers, and hoping that progress will resume in a week or so. It would be amusing to watch American neocons and hardliners suddenly discover an unfamiliar affection for the French--who played a major role in derailing the interim deal over the weekend -- if the consequences of failure were not so worrisome. Let's not forget that the main alternatives to a successful deal are either a nuclear-armed Iran, another Middle East war, and heightened tensions within the region. But we've got a great track record of reaching diplomatic agreements with Middle Eastern countries, right? Right?
So I'm crossing my fingers and hoping the negotiations succeed, even if an agreement would undercut the central thesis of my Hinsley lecture.
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Secretary of State John Kerry is now in Geneva, no doubt invigorated from his diplomatic triumph at the Israel-Palestine "peace" talks (not). He wouldn't be headed there if there wasn't some tangible progress to report (and take some credit for). The reported deal is straightforward: Iran will halt its nuclear program for six months in exchange for the U.S. lifting a few minor sanctions.
This is a small first step. Its main purpose is building confidence, and buying time for the negotiators to work on a comprehensive permanent deal. Not surprisingly, opponents of an agreement are already working to derail it, by trashing any short-term deal in Geneva or by sponsoring new sanctions legislation designed to poison the atmosphere, discredit the diplomatic approach, and ultimately scuttle any deal.
The battle lines on this issue are now easy to identify. On one side are Obama and Kerry, the U.S. negotiating team, most of the arms control community, and much of America's national security apparatus, including seventy-nine well-connected former officials who endorsed the administration's efforts yesterday. This broad group understands that Iran is not going to accept zero enrichment and that the United States cannot physically prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon if it really, really, wants to get one. Even if the US used force to damage Iran's nuclear infrastructure, they could rebuild it and disperse it and we would have to keep attacking them forever. This group believes -- correctly, in my view -- that Iran is not currently trying to build a nuclear weapon and that a deal can be struck that makes it hard for Iran to sprint toward a bomb if it ever changes its mind. This group recognizes that another Mideast war would be a disaster for us and for others and would merely increase Iran's desire to acquire an effective deterrent. Finally, this group understands that the deal is likely to get worse the longer we delay.
On the other side are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who has already denounced the interim deal), Saudi Arabia, the hardline elements within the Israel lobby, extremist journalists like Jennifer Rubin, and various Congresspersons who are overly beholden to some or all of the above. Despite a dearth of genuine evidence, they believe Iran is hell-bent on getting a bomb and that this development would have far-reaching negative effects on world politics. They think Iran is only negotiating now because we tightened sanctions, and that tightening the screws some more will get Tehran to say "uncle" and give us everything we want. Perhaps they haven't noticed that the United States could have gotten a better deal in 2006 -- before the latest round of sanctions was imposed -- but the Bush administration foolishly spurned Iran's offer. The opponents have a lot of energy and fervor on their side, but logic and evidence doesn't seem to be their strong suit.
Which side will win? I don't know, but I do think this is a winnable fight for Obama if he tries. If the negotiators in Geneva can reach an agreement that 1) avoids war, 2) reduces Iran's incentive for a bomb, 3) moves them further from the nuclear threshold, and 4) strengthens the already-tough inspections regime, and presents it to the American people as a done deal, I think the public will support it strongly. The administration will have no trouble trotting out lots of former officials and bemedaled generals to endorse it, and to explain to skeptics or the undecided why the deal is in our interest. The rest of the P5+1 will be ecstatic (except maybe Russia and China, because they benefit from the United States and Iran being at odds), and they will be making supportive noises as well. Hardline opponents won't be able to attack the deal without engaging in transparently obvious special pleading, partly on behalf of a country that already has nuclear weapons and hasn't been all that cooperative lately. Under these circumstances, some of those diehard opponents in Congress might think twice about killing the deal, because their fingerprints would be all over the murder weapon. Indeed, that may be why they are now proposing new sanctions: better to kill the diplomatic process before it produces results than to try to discredit a reasonable deal later on.
Obama hasn't wracked up a lot of foreign policy successes thus far, and there aren't a lot of promising opportunities elsewhere. The Affordable Care Act snafu has him in the doldrums here at home and he could use a big-ticket breakthrough somewhere. Bottom line: he should go for it. I mean, what's the point of being president if you aren't going to lead?
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One of the most common phrases in contemporary foreign-policy discourse is the declaration that the threat to use military force must be kept "on the table." Pundits and policy wonks say this all the time, and so do prominent politicians from both political parties. These days it's most commonly found in discussions about the U.S. relationship with Iran, but that's hardly the only place where we are constantly being reminded about the need to keep our powder dry and our finger on the trigger.
The more I think about it, however, the dumber that expression sounds. Why? Because for the United States, the option of using military force is always on the table, especially when we're dealing with weak states like Iran. After all, since the end of the Cold War the United States has used force over and over: in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bosnia, Serbia, and a host of other places too. We've fired cruise missiles, Hellfires, and other sophisticated chunks of ordnance at a wide variety of targets, and you could add Special Forces operations and computer viruses (e.g., Stuxnet) to the list.
Of course, people do not use this admonition to keep force "on the table" in a serious or sophisticated fashion; it's just an easy way for politicians and pundits to show they're tough-minded and not averse to using the pointed end of the stick. In other words, it's a way to maintain your inside-the-Beltway street cred. But it's really a meaningless phrase, because countries like Iran (and others) are well aware that the option of using force is right there and could be used if U.S. leaders ever decided it would accomplish a genuine positive purpose.
In fact, this constant insistence that force must be "on the table" also reveals a pervasive blindness about how the United States looks to others. People repeat this phrase because they seem to think that other countries see the United States as a feckless wimp that will never do anything to harm them and that our politicians need to rattle sabers and bluster just to get other countries' attention. News flash: That's not how the rest of the world sees Uncle Sam these days. In reality, everybody knows the United States is still very powerful -- the sequester notwithstanding -- and other countries are well aware of the frequency with which we've been blowing things up in different places for the past 20 years. Our politicians may be trying to remind U.S. voters that they are willing to use force, but the rest of the world hardly needs to be told at this point.
In the vast majority of cases -- including Iran -- the use of force makes no sense because it won't advance U.S. policy goals and could in fact make things worse. And the only way to give the option of using force more coercive bite is to make it look like we are really about to use it, either by issuing an ultimatum (with a strict time limit) or by mobilizing forces in a highly visible way so that it really looks like we're coming. But that tactic has obvious risks: If the target doesn't capitulate and do our bidding, either we have to follow through with an attack we may not really want to launch or we pay the political costs of issuing a threat and then backing down. Issuing overt military threats is also a really good way to destroy the current coalition that is pressuring Iran and the absolutely best way to convince Iran that it has no choice but to sprint across the nuclear threshold as quickly as it can.
Given the many options that America's vast military power creates, the bigger challenge might be figuring out how to convince others that force is off the table. If we want Iran to forgo nuclear weapons, for example, we should try to convince Tehran we're not going to bomb Iran and not going to try to overthrow the government. If we did that, the Iranians would feel less need for either an active deterrent or a short timeline breakout capability. Bombing won't accomplish much and we probably couldn't overthrow them if we tried, but we certainly have the capacity to attempt either one. So how can we convince Tehran that we won't exercise either option?
In theory, President Barack Obama could make an explicit statement to that effect, or the two states could even sign some sort of "nonaggression" pact. Such pledges are never ironclad, however, and U.S. and Iranian officials both say they will judge each other not by words but by actions. The United States could also draw down its forces in the Persian Gulf region as a sign of good faith, but that's going to drive our other regional allies bonkers and would be quite imprudent in the short term. It's a tricky problem, but isn't it interesting that we seem to spend all our time thinking about how to make our threats credible, instead of thinking just as hard about how we could make our assurances equally convincing?
In the end, the real issue is whether potential adversaries can resolve the political issues that might bring the use of force into play. The option to use it is always right there on the table -- especially for the United States -- but most states don't worry about this very much because the political differences between them and us aren't serious enough to warrant a military response. The bottom line: We would get further in our efforts to resolve some of our differences with others if U.S. politicians and commentators weren't constantly reminding them that we have oodles of military power lying right there on the table ready to be used. I mean: It's not like Iran doesn't know that already.
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Some of America's Middle Eastern allies are reportedly not very happy with the United States these days. I refer, of course, to Saudi Arabia and Israel, who are troubled by U.S. discussions with Iran and upset by Obama's reluctance to plunge head-first into the Syrian quagmire. But those of us with a more strategic view of U.S. interests in the Middle East may welcome these developments, as they contain the kernel of a more flexible and effective approach that may be emerging.
Let's start with U.S. interests. The United States has at most three strategic interests in the Middle East. First, we want Persian Gulf oil and gas to continue to flow to world markets. Hydraulic fracturing notwithstanding, a major disruption in energy supplies from the Gulf would drive up world prices and hurt a still-fragile global economy. Second, we want to discourage countries in the Middle East from developing WMD, and especially nuclear weapons. (It would have been better had the United States done more to stop Israel from getting the bomb, but that horse left the barn in the 1960s.) Third, we would like to reduce extremist violence emanating from this region, mostly in the form of terrorism. (This threat is usually exaggerated, in my view, but it is hardly non-existent.)
The key to advancing these interests is two-fold: first, help maintain a balance of power in the region, and second, keep the US military presence there to a minimum. If one regional state becomes too powerful, or if an external power were able to intervene there, it might be able to dominate the various oil-producing countries and manipulate energy supplies in ways we might find unpleasant. Concerns about that possibility led the United States to create the Rapid Deployment Force in the late 1970s, and led us to tilt toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. It also led to our direct military intervention to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.
At the same time, excessive U.S. interference and a large-scale U.S. military presence threatens our other strategic goals, either by encouraging some states to seek WMD as a means of deterrence or by fueling anti-American terrorism of the Al Qaeda sort. Policies like 1990s-era "dual containment" or the Bush administration's disastrous attempt at "regional transformation" were strategic missteps for this reason, not to mention their human and economic costs. Given the unpredictable turmoil that has roiled the region ever since the "Arab spring" erupted, it makes even more sense for the U.S. to keep its presence limited, lest we be seen as a predatory imperial power addicted to interference in local political events.
A balance of power (or if you prefer, balance of threat) approach to the Middle East also highlights the costs of America's "special relationships" with Israel and Saudi Arabia. If you are playing the balance of power game, you want to maximize your diplomatic flexibility and avoid becoming overly committed to any particular ally. As was said of England during its own balance of power heyday: it had "no permanent friends, only permanent interests."
Today, because the United States is so closely tied to Israel and Saudi Arabia, it gets blamed for and associated with their various misdeeds. Specifically, we are seen as complicit in Israel's cruel treatment of its Palestinian subjects, and seen as the chief protector of a decadent Saudi monarchy whose ruling values are sharply at odds with our own. Equally important, preserving these "special relationships" has reduced U.S. influence over both partners: the Saudis have repeatedly dragged their feet on counter-terrorism issues while Israel has continued expand settlements and either threatened or used force with disturbing frequency, and often in ways that complicate US relations with the rest of the region.
Talking to Iran and taking a more measured approach to intervention in the region is thus a very good development. Although the United States and Iran won't become close allies anytime soon, rebuilding a working relationship with Tehran would be a great benefit to the U.S. strategic interests. Not only would it facilitate cooperation on various issues where U.S. and Iranian interests align (such as Afghanistan), but the mere fact that the U.S. and Iran were talking to each other constructively would also make our other allies in the region more attentive to our concerns and responsive to our requests.
I don't want to overstate this trend or exaggerate its likely benefits: the United States is not about to abandon its current allies or entirely reverse its long-standing regional commitments, and widening our circle of contacts won't immediately force others to leap to do our bidding. Nor do I think it should. But a bit more distance from Tel Aviv and Riyadh, and an open channel of communication between Washington and Tehran would maximize U.S. influence and leverage over time. It's also a useful hedge against unpredictable events: when you become too strongly committed to any particular ally (as the U.S. was once committed to the Shah of Iran), you suffer more damage if anything happens to them.
Because the United States is not a Middle Eastern power -- a geographic reality we sometimes forget -- and because its primary goal is the preservation of a regional balance of power, it has the luxury of playing "hard to get." That's why it's not such a bad thing if our present regional allies are a bit miffed at U.S. these days. Remember: they are weaker than the United States is and they face more urgent threats than we do. And if they want to keep getting U.S. protection and support and they are concerned that our attention might be waning a wee bit, they might start doing more to keep U.S. happy.
For further reading: for an excellent analysis of these issues which makes a number of similar points, see Paul Pillar's blog post here.
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As I write this, Iranian and American negotiators, along with the other members of the P5+1, are meeting in Geneva to discuss the nuclear dispute that has divided Iran and these nations for many years. The core issues are: 1) how much of Iran's present nuclear capacity might it be willing to give up, 2) the scope of international inspections of Iran's remaining facilities, and 3) the speed with which the United States and others will lift the economic sanctions they have imposed on Iran.
Colin Kahl and Alireza Nader have already posted an excellent guide to the negotiations, and they correctly note that pursuing the pipe dream of "zero enrichment" will merely ensure that this latest round of negotiations fails. If Obama and his team want success, therefore, they are going to have to ignore the various voices that are now recommending either unrealistic demands or ill-advised negotiating strategies.
Obama should ignore these voices because their approach has been a complete failure for over a decade. Iran had zero centrifuges in operation in 2000 and only a handful in 2005, the last time the Iranians offered to freeze their program. The United States rejected all these previous offers, and now Iran has some 19,000 centrifuges, a plutonium program, and a larger stockpile of uranium that could in theory be enriched to make a bomb if Iran ever decides it wants one. In short, the hard-line position of issuing threats, imposing sanctions, and insisting that Iran give in to all our demands has backfired and put us in a worse position today.
Here's a quick guide to some of the voices whose advice should be ignored.
First and foremost, the government of Israel, which continues to insist that Iran be forced to dismantle its entire enrichment program. I can understand why nuclear-armed Israel would like this, but it's not going to happen unless and until the entire region becomes a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Letting Tel Aviv dictate our negotiating position guarantees failure.
Second, the bipartisan group of senators issued one of those helpful "open letters" to Obama last week. In addition to repeating the usual bromides about "a convincing threat of the use of force" and describing Iran's "nuclear weapons program" (which the U.S. intelligence community does not think exists), the senators told Obama to seek full suspension of Iranian enrichment in exchange for a suspension of new U.S. sanctions. In other words: Iran should give us the most important thing on our wish list, in exchange for our generously agreeing to leave the existing sanctions in place but not add any new ones. This idea is not serious, which is hardly surprising given that it came from Capitol Hill.
Third, lobbying groups like JINSA and United Against Nuclear Iran. The former group issued a new policy brief last week, outlining the usual set of U.S. demands and recommending that the United States increase pressure on Iran in order to get a deal. In their view, the best way to get a successful deal is to impose more sanctions on Iran and to threaten U.S. or Israeli military strikes. (Right: Military threats are an ideal way to convince a country that it has no need for even a latent nuclear deterrent.) Oddly, the report acknowledges that Iran has responded to the past decade of U.S. pressure with its own strategy of "counter-pressure": assembling more centrifuges, accumulating larger stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, making nuclear fuel at the Arak reactor, etc. Yet even though the approach they recommend has backfired for a decade, we should just keep doing it. And as I've noted in other contexts, a one-sided deal that you impose on an adversary by brute coercion isn't likely to endure; it just gives the other side reason to reverse the results once conditions are more favorable. To succeed, any deal with Iran has got to give both sides something positive, instead of leaving one side thinking it got screwed.
As for United Against Nuclear Iran, this is the group of diplomatic geniuses that was pressuring hotels in New York not to rent rooms to Iranian President Hasan Rouhani during his recent visit. Its new president, Gary Samore (who is also a colleague of mine at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs), wasn't in charge of the group when that little flap occurred, but he seems to be on board with the same coercive approach that has repeatedly failed in the past. He told Time magazine last week that "[the Iranians] want to have a nuclear weapons capability" and that our only tool is "coercive pressure." He added that any deal we reach will not end the matter, but will only be a way to "buy time, in the hopes that the next Iranian government has a different calculation of their national interest" (my emphasis). For United Against Nuclear Iran, it seems, the real goal is still regime change.
In short, the hard-liners' approach to Iran still insists on maximal objectives on our end and zero carrots for Iran. It still sees sanctions and active threats of military force as the only way to convince Iran to abandon most if not all of its nuclear energy program. This approach is also deeply hypocritical, given America's own nuclear arsenal and our propensity to use force with far greater frequency than the Islamic Republic has. And worst of all, it has been a complete failure so far: Iran has a far more extensive nuclear program than it did when the United States started trying to coerce it into complete capitulation. You would think that America's foreign-policy establishment would look back at the past decade or more and at least consider a different approach, but that seems to be a very hard thing for us to do.
Photo: Iran International Photo Agency via Getty Images
Thomas Friedman had a mostly sensible column in yesterday's New York Times, in which he endorsed the crazy, dangerous, irrational, doesn't-make-any-sense-at-all idea of seriously negotiating with Iran. Not only did he correctly note that Iran might see a nuclear capability (if not nuclear weapons) as insurance against regime change (i.e., the same reason that other nuclear-armed states got them), but he also made a useful comparison between Iran today and the People's Republic of China. Here's his big question:
But how much of their "nuclear insurance" [is Iran] ready to give up to be free of sanctions? Are they ready to sacrifice a single powerful weapon to become again a powerful country -- to be more like a China, a half-friend, half-enemy, half-trading partner, half-geo-political rival to America, rather than a full-time opponent?
This analogy is even more illuminating than Friedman thinks, because back when China was first developing its own nuclear capability, it was described in virtually the same terms that hard-liners now apply to Iran. For example, here's then Secretary of State Dean Rusk testifying to the Senate Subcommittee on Far Eastern Affairs in 1966:
[The Chinese communists] are now developing nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.… But such weapons need not serve a defensive role. They can be used directly by Peking to try to intimidate its neighbors, or in efforts to blackmail Asian countries into breaking defense alliances with the United States, or in an attempt to create a nuclear "balance" in Asia in which Peking's potentially almost unlimited conventional forces might be used with increased effect. These weapons can ultimately be employed to attack Peking's Asian neighbors and, in time, even the United States.
Rusk noted that such attacks would be "mad and suicidal," but then went on to say:
Peking's present state of mind is a combination of aggressive arrogance and obsessions of its own making.… I would be inclined … to advance the view that a country whose behavior is as violent, irascible, unyielding, and hostile as that of communist China is led by leaders whose view of the world and of life itself is unreal.… They seem to be immune to agreement or persuasion by anyone, including their own allies.
Sound familiar? The language and arguments advanced by Rusk regarding Maoist China are strikingly similar to the way hawks have described Iran for years. Like China back then, Iran is said to want nuclear weapons for various offensive purposes. And like China back then, the fact that any use of such weapons would be suicidal can be of no comfort to us, because we are supposedly dealing with people who are irrational and whose view of life "itself is unreal." Remember when neoconservative historian Bernard Lewis warned of an imminent Iranian attack on Aug. 22, 2006, based on his belief that Iran was infused with a "culture of martyrdom" and that Aug. 22 corresponded to a supposedly significant date on the Islamic calendar? (I may have missed something, but I'm pretty sure that this date passed without incident.)
The second lesson, of course, is that Rusk was dead wrong. China tested nuclear weapons and eventually built a modest nuclear arsenal, but it didn't try to blackmail, invade, or intimidate anyone. In fact, the acquisition of nuclear weapons did almost nothing to increase China's international influence. What did increase China's global stature were the post-Mao economic reforms (the "Four Modernizations"), which unleashed three decades of rapid economic growth.
And that's the third lesson too. The nuclear issue has dominated U.S. policy toward Iran for more than a decade, and while it is not a trivial problem, it's probably not the most important one either. Iran is not going to give up control over the full fuel cycle (meaning it will insist on keeping some enrichment and reprocessing capabilities), though it may agree to some limits and to intrusive inspections. If we demand more than that, there won't be a deal. Put differently, any deal that Teheran will accept is still going to leave it with the ability to produce a bomb if it ever decides it needs to; we are mostly going to be negotiating over the length of time it would take them to do so and thus how much warning we are likely to get.
But over the long term, what really matters is Iran's overall power potential and not whether it has a latent nuclear capability, a few weapons hidden away, or a fully developed arsenal akin to the ones that Israel, India, and Pakistan already possess. Iran has a large, relatively young population, considerable oil and gas, a lot of well-educated people, and considerable economic potential. As with communist China, sooner or later the leaders who have mismanaged Iran's economy will lose their grip or change their policies, and the sanctions imposed by the West will be lifted. At that point, Iran is likely to take off rapidly. So the real question is whether a more powerful Iran will be eager to be a "half-friend" to the United States -- which is how Friedman now describes China -- or will it be angry and resentful and looking to push us out of the region entirely? That depends at least in part on us.
Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Even if you stayed up since Friday and skipped the finale of Breaking Bad, there's no way you could have kept up with all the commentary about the U.S.-Iranian minuet at the U.N. General Assembly opening last week. There was a lot of spinning going on, of course, with proponents of a nuclear deal looking for reasons to be optimistic and die-hard opponents looking for signs that it was all just a bad dream.
For a conventional assessment of where things now stand, I recommend Richard Haass's piece today in the Financial Times. Haass notes the various obstacles that still remain and argues that the two sides have reached a tacit agreement on the end point of negotiations but not the sequence of events. In other words, he thinks there's already something of an understanding on the terms of a nuclear deal (i.e., how much nuclear capability Iran will be allowed to retain), but what needs to be worked out is the pace at which elements of Iran's nuclear program are given up and the pace at which economic sanctions are lifted.
Haass also believes the political obstacles to a deal are formidable, especially on the Iranian side. In making this claim, he offered a classic illustration of the biases that warp U.S. efforts to deal with countries like Iran. Here's the sentence that caught my eye:
It was also that Mr Obama's UN address gave Iran quite a lot -- no US desire for regime change; acceptance of Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear programme - but Mr Rouhani offered little in return.
For Haass (and many other Americans, one suspects), Obama was being incredibly generous last week. In Haass's mind, saying that the world's most powerful country won't seek regime change in Iran is a wonderful gift, a lavish sign of American goodwill. Never mind that overthrowing the Iranian regime would be an illegal act of war. Never mind that Haass would probably not see a pledge by Rouhani that Iran does not seek regime change in America as giving the United States "quite a lot."
This attitude is symptomatic of an enduring U.S. foreign- policy mindset: Overthrowing other governments is just one of those "normal" options that we keep in our foreign-policy tool kit, and telling another country we won't actually use it this time is a really big sacrifice on our part. Haass probably thinks it is, because he was openly calling for the United States to topple the clerics back in 2010. And he now thinks those pesky Iranians ought to be grateful that Obama didn't follow his advice.
Similarly, it is not an act of generosity for the United States to "accept" Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program. That right is enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory. Full stop. Iran is also one of the most heavily inspected countries on Earth, and neither the International Atomic Energy Agency nor the U.S. intelligence community believes that Iran has a nuclear weapons program at present. Iran did violate some of its NPT obligations in the past, and there are valid reasons to wonder about its long-term nuclear aims. Reaching agreement on additional safeguards is likely to be essential to any future nuclear deal, and the United States (and others) should press for them. But Iranians see their "right" to a peaceful program as something they already possess; it is not a gift or a concession or a sign of U.S. goodwill. From their perspective, there was no need for Rouhani to offer up something in return.
To be clear: I found last week's events heartening, though we have a long way to go before we get an actual agreement, and this initiative won't be a success until it gets all the way across the finish line. But a good way to derail this process is for Americans to believe that we are making lots of big concessions or gifts -- and getting little for them. And my guess is that we're going to hear a lot of people making that sort of argument in the weeks and months ahead.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
By all indications, Iran's new president wants a deal with the United States on its nuclear program and has the authority to negotiate one. As predictably as the sunrise, hard-liners in the United States and Israel are dismissing the possibility on various grounds. Indeed, about 10 minutes after President Hasan Rouhani was elected, they began describing him as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and suggesting that nothing had changed. Then, after Rouhani unleashed a wave of conciliatory actions, skeptics like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by proposing a new set of deal-breaking conditions, and other Israeli officials suggested that time had already run out and that further diplomacy was a waste of time.
Given that these are the same people and organizations that have been pushing for military action against Iran for some time, it is hardly surprising that they pooh-pooh the prospect of diplomacy now. But notice that their core position is fundamentally contradictory: They have been saying for years that only sustained outside pressure will get Iran to "say uncle." So the United States and the European Union have ramped up sanctions and made repeated threats to use force. Surprise, surprise: Iran's new leaders are now saying they want a deal, precisely the response that this pressure was supposed to produce. If the hawks were consistent, they would at a minimum recommend that we explore the possibility carefully. Instead, they are trying to make sure that the United States continues to demand complete Iranian capitulation (or maybe even regime change). This tells you all you need to know about their sincerity and why Barack Obama shouldn't pay them the slightest attention.
In fact, the United States and Iran are facing a classic problem in international relations (and other forms of bargaining): Given that an adversary could be bluffing or dissembling, how do you know when a seemingly friendly gesture is sincere? Political scientist Robert Jervis explored this issue in depth in The Logic of Images in International Relations (1970) and drew a nice distinction between "signals" (i.e., actions that contain no inherent credibility) and "indices," which he defined as "statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct."
More recently, this basic idea was resurrected in economics (and borrowed by IR scholars) in the notion of a "costly signal." Unlike "cheap talk," a costly signal is an action that involves some cost or risk for the sender and therefore is one that the sender would be unlikely to make if they didn't really mean it. A classic example was Anwar Sadat's 1977 offer to fly to Jerusalem and speak directly to the Israeli Knesset in search of a peace deal. Because this move was obviously a risky step for Sadat (who was condemned throughout the Arab world), his Israeli counterparts had good reason to believe that his desire for peace was genuine.
So should we take Rouhani's overtures seriously? I think we should. As noted above, the possibility that Iran is genuinely interested in a deal is inherently credible, because we have in fact been squeezing the Iranians quite hard. To repeat: Isn't what they are now doing exactly what we've been trying to achieve? Equally important is that Iran has taken a wide range of actions that were not cost-free. First, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been granted enhanced authority to negotiate a deal, and Rouhani has appointed officials who favor negotiations and are familiar to their American interlocutors. Any time you pick one set of officials over another, there are political costs involved. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has publicly stated that Iran should show "heroic flexibility," thereby lending his own authority to this effort. And this has all been done in public view, making it harder for Iran's leaders to reverse course on a whim.
Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
After President Barack Obama was re-elected last year, I wrote that I didn't expect him to devote much attention to foreign affairs and that we should not expect any major breakthroughs in that arena. In light of recent events (e.g., Syria, the relaunching of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, etc.), does my position need rethinking?
Yes and no.
It is true that the Syria business has forced Obama to spend more time on foreign affairs than he probably wanted to, but let's not forget that what happens in Syria is not that important in the larger scheme of things. Yes, it is obviously important to the people of Syria and to some of their immediate neighbors, but Syria itself is just not that powerful or influential. No matter what happens in Syria -- a victory for Bashar al-Assad's thugs, the removal of all the chemical weapons, a complete rebel triumph, the establishment of genuine democracy, or the creation of an Islamist state, etc. -- the broader trajectory of world politics isn't going to change very much. So even if the deal in Geneva works out as well as one might hope, and even if I gave Obama & Co. full credit for the deal (which they don't deserve), I wouldn't score it as a "major" foreign-policy achievement.
Now for some more bad news. Right now, it doesn't look like the main currents of the so-called "Arab Spring" are going to turn out well either, at least not in the short term. Given that Obama pushed for greater openness throughout the region, having to tacitly support a military coup and crackdown in Egypt hardly seems like a big win for U.S. policy. Similarly, the resumption of "peace talks" between Israel and the Palestinians is not a success unless it actually gets all the way to the finish line and produces a viable Palestinian state. How many of you would bet $5 on that outcome? Instead, as Ian Lustick laid out clearly in the New York Times yesterday, what we have is a "peace process" that does far more harm than good. Actually achieving a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace would be a major achievement, but is the talks are far, far more likely to end in another ignominious failure.
So where might a genuine foreign-policy accomplishment be found? The obvious place is the troubled U.S. relationship with Iran. Iran is a potentially powerful and influential state (though not the looming danger that threat-mongers often depict), and a positive relationship between Tehran and Washington would benefit both countries. Indeed, even having a more normal sort of rivalry -- including diplomatic recognition -- would make it easier to deal with the various areas of friction that might remain. That is why people like Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomat Thomas Pickering see the present moment as a golden opportunity to explore a fundamentally different relationship with Tehran.
Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
I am having a fabulous visit to Brazil, lecturing at FGV in Rio earlier today and flying down to Sao Paulo this afternoon. I also managed to do some interesting sightseeing in Rio, including a visit to a community ecopark in a Rio favela ("shantytown") where local activists are reclaiming vacant land from drug gangs. Truly inspiring.
There has been hardly any time to catch up on news or do serious blogging, but I will have reflections when I return. In the meantime, here are a couple of resources you can use for background on the ever-evolving situation in Syria.[[LATEST]]
•First, the Project on Defense Alternatives has this website, full of useful commentary.
•Second, my colleagues at the Belfer Center have put up this collection of resources.
You had better get busy and read them, because the situation will probably have changed in another 48 hours.
And by the way, isn't it interesting to think about how much time, energy, political capital, presidential attention, press coverage, etc. the Syrian affair has burned up over the past few weeks? There's something seriously maladjusted with U.S. foreign policy when an event like this commands so much attention, especially when there really aren't truly vital interests involved and when the best moral course isn't obvious either. (Unfortunately, just intervening because Bashar al-Assad is a thug and his forces used chemical weapons isn't necessarily the most moral thing to do, because it might make a bad situation worse and lead to greater human suffering.) Yet Syria has managed to take over the U.S. foreign-policy agenda for a time. Learning to keep U.S. interests in somewhat greater perspective would be a real advance, but ADHD seems to be a chronic component of the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus.
Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
I don't know how the Syria business is going to turn out, and neither do you. But I think everyone ought to take a deep breath and ratchet down their forecasts of how deep, significant, and meaningful this event is.
On one side, advocates of military strikes have been using increasingly overheated rhetoric over the past week, employing the familiar tropes and arguments that hawks have relied on ever since World War II. Comparisons to Hitler and the Holocaust? Check. Obligatory reference to Munich? Got it. Lurid warnings about a loss of American "credibility"? Uh-huh. Repeated attempts to portray opponents of a military strike as "isolationists" or worse? Roger.
This approach makes it appear that what is at stake in the Syria debate is nothing less than America's Future Role in the World. If the United States doesn't act, so the argument runs, this one decision heralds a progressive retreat of the United States from its global responsibilities (whatever those are), its steady decline as a great power, and the onset of a new era of global anarchy. But if the United States can just find the will to send some cruise missiles into Syria, then all those terrible things can be avoided and American leadership will be restored (until the next time it is hanging by a hair, of course -- probably a few months from now).[[LATEST]]
Dire warnings can be just as lurid on the other side. Opponents warn that bombing Bashar al-Assad's forces will start the United States down a slippery slope to a major ground-force commitment (it might, but it's unlikely). They suggest that attacking Assad will bring al Qaeda extremists to power (a possibility, but far from certain). Or they believe it will just reinforce America's tendency to use force first and do diplomacy later, a tendency that has gotten the United States into trouble repeatedly over the past two decades. And some more overwrought doves worry that attacking yet another Middle Eastern country will further intensify Islamic radicalism and produce a lot of nasty blowback down the road.
I remain opposed to military intervention because I do not think it will advance U.S. strategic or moral interests, and because I do not believe we have a magic formula for solving the Syrian civil war. But I also believe that both sides in this debate need to take a deep breath and to stop portraying this moment as an all-important fork in the road that will shape world events for decades to come.
In fact, what happens in Syria is not going to affect America's overall position in the world very much. Syria is a small and weak country, and what happens there isn't going to alter the global balance of power in any significant way. It's not even clear it will alter the regional balance all that much. (Israel will remain the region's strongest power no matter what happens in Damascus.) America's global position will be determined primarily by the state of the U.S. economy and by what happens in places like China, the European Union, India, Turkey, and Brazil in the years ahead.
To be more specific: If America's economic recovery continues and if the advent of hydraulic fracking and cheaper energy gives the U.S. economy an additional boost, then America will remain the world's No. 1 power no matter what happens to Assad, the Free Syrian Army, or the al-Nusra Front. If China's economy hits a wall, if Brazil, Turkey, and India hit economic headwinds, and if the EU remains hampered by its various economic woes, then the United States will be in relatively good shape whether it bombs Damascus or not.
Ditto "American engagement." Contrary to what people like Bill Keller seem to think, the United States is not becoming "isolationist." Opposition to the Syrian adventure stems from the fact that U.S. strategic interests are not deeply engaged (here the American people have got this one right), and moral considerations do not mandate intervention because we might easily make things worse and increase the level of human suffering. But comparisons to World War II are deeply misleading: Assad is a thug and a war criminal, but he's not genocidal or bent on world domination, and Syria is not a great power like Germany was. No matter what happens in Syria, the United States will remain the single most formidable international actor, and other countries aren't going to lose sight of that reality in the years ahead. I'd even bet that the pivot to Asia continues no matter who is elected the next U.S. president, unless China slips badly and doesn't seem like an emerging threat anymore.
Instead of becoming "isolationist," the American people seem to be returning to a realistic degree of prudence. To oppose a military response in Syria because it won't make Americans more secure and may not help the Syrians very much isn't cowardly, irresponsible, or feckless; you might just call it common sense.
Postscript: There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity today, based on a Russian proposal to take control of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. If the U.S. goal is merely to reinforce the "red line" against chemical weapons use, then it has little choice but to take the deal and spin it as a great success for "tough" U.S. diplomacy. But it is likely to take some time to work out the procedures and actually secure the weapons, and there's always the risk that Russia would renege (or Assad would cheat) so as to retain a chemical weapons option in extremis. More importantly, this arrangement doesn't by itself get us much closer to settling the war, which should be our primary objective. To do that, the United States is going to have to engage with Russia and Iran, and we might even have to agree to leave Assad in power for a while. That's not a very satisfying outcome, perhaps, but it is one that would save a lot of lives.
Thumbnail image: The Keep Calm-o-Matic (www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/p/keep-calm-and-dont-bomb-syria-1)
The Honorable Joseph Kennedy III
Dear Representative Kennedy:
I am a resident of Brookline, Massachusetts, and I voted for you with enthusiasm during your election campaign last year. I am writing to encourage you to oppose the proposed resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria. The Washington Post currently scores you as "undecided" on the resolution; I urge you to get off the fence and make your opposition publicly known.
A U.S. attack on Syria is unwise for several reasons. First, the United States has no vital strategic interests there. Bashar al-Assad's government is clearly a brutal dictatorship, but neither Democratic nor Republican presidents have cared about that before now. Instead, presidents from both parties have cooperated with the Assad regime whenever it seemed advisable to do so. More importantly, helping to topple the regime is likely to turn Syria into a failed state, igniting a struggle for power among competing sectarian factions. Some of these factions are deeply hostile to America and sympathetic to al Qaeda, which means that U.S. intervention could help bring some of our worst enemies to power.
Second, the moral case for intervention is not compelling either. Yes, the Syrian people are suffering greatly, but U.S. airstrikes will not alter that situation and could easily make it worse. Indeed, recent scholarly research on civil wars shows that outside intervention tends to increase civilian killings and doesn't shorten the length of wars. If we are interested in reducing human suffering, therefore, we should eschew airstrikes and increase our relief aid to Syrian refugees instead.[[LATEST]]
The likely use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government does not justify war either. Thousands of Syrians have already been killed by conventional arms; that a small percentage of the dead were killed by weapons that happen to be banned is not by itself a reason to get directly involved. Nor is it necessary to bomb Syria to "defend the norm" against these weapons. Chemical weapons have only been used a handful of times over the past 80 years, mostly because they are less effective than conventional arms in most battlefield situations. The United States did not punish the other governments that violated this norm, and it is not obvious why this most recent violation calls for a major military response on our part.
Supporters of a new Middle East war claim that we must act because our "credibility" is at stake. We have heard such arguments many, many times in the past; they are the inevitable refuge whenever someone is trying to bolster a weak case for war. The United States has used military force dozens of times over the past several decades, and President Barack Obama himself escalated the war in Afghanistan and ordered dozens of drone strikes and special forces operations in several countries over the past four-plus years. No one seriously doubts U.S. power or our willingness to use it when our vital interests are genuinely engaged. If we refrain from using force when vital interests are not involved or when doing so would only make things worse, it says nothing about our willingness to use force when it is truly necessary and when it can achieve clear and well-defined objectives.
Lastly, wise leaders do not go to war without robust international and domestic support. Neither is present in this case. U.S. public opinion opposes military intervention in this case, and few foreign countries favor a U.S. military response at this time. You will undoubtedly face pressure from organized special-interest groups that now favor war, but these groups are neither representative of broader public opinion or the opinions of most of your constituents here in Massachusetts.
Back in 2002, I had the privilege of speaking with your great-uncle, the late Senator Edward Kennedy, on several occasions regarding the proposed war with Iraq. I opposed that war, as did he, and I supported his efforts to craft an approach that would have prevented that act of folly. Were he alive today, I have no doubt he would be equally opposed to this ill-advised approach to the Syrian tragedy.
For all these reasons, I encourage you to be a "profile in courage" and to come out strongly against the proposed resolution when it comes to the congressional floor
Stephen M. Walt
Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Who is this imposter who has the gall to call himself "John Kerry?" The real John Kerry is an intelligent liberal, indeed something of a hero for having the courage to not only vigorously oppose the Vietnam War -- the last U.S. war fought in the name of "credibility" -- but to openly charge that the U.S. was committing "war crimes" there. Surely this can't be the same fellow who is not only leading the charge for the U.S. to plunge into yet another unnecessary and unwise war, but whose rhetoric is increasingly bizarre.
Now he fears that if we don't go to war in Syria, we will lose our "credibility?" Credibility to do what? Stupidly intervene in yet another civil war in a country of little importance to vital U.S. interests, in which we not only lack "vital interests" at stake, but in which, if we had, we wouldn't know which side to support, and in which we have no idea whether our intervention will save innocent lives or put them still further into danger?
If that wasn't bad enough, now "John Kerry" accuses opponents of an attack on Syria of advocating "armchair isolationism." What? First of all, to oppose the war in Syria does not make one "isolationist," or even "anti-war," as opposed to opposing this specific war. The opposite of "isolationism" usually is defined as "internationalism." By such reasoning, then, this must mean that "internationalists" favor going to war with everyone.
Moreover, the United States would greatly benefit from a healthy dose of isolationism to at least partly balance what ought to be called "mindless interventionism." After all, the problem with U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II -- and even more so since the end of the Cold War -- has not exactly been a refusal to get into foreign wars.
Finally, the very concept of an "armchair isolationist" is incoherent. Apparently Kerry has confused the term with that of the common one, "armchair warrior." That is a coherent and, indeed, powerful concept. It refers, of course, to someone who wants other people to go to war while he sits safely at home. Now try making sense of "armchair isolationism."
Jerome Slater is a University Research Scholar and professor of political science (emeritus) at the State University of New York, Buffalo. He blogs at jeromeslater.com, where this article is cross-posted.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Some wise words from the late Dorothy Sayers, from the 1942 short story "Talboys." In the story, one of Lord Peter Wimsey's sons is accused of stealing peaches from a neighboring farmer. Lord Peter investigates and clears his son of the crime, while fending off the well-intentioned but naive interference of a nosy governess. Along the way he offers his son, Bredon, the following advice:
"I'll tell you a secret, Bredon. Grown-up people don't always know everything, though they try to pretend they do. That is called 'prestige,' and is responsible for most of the wars that devastate the continent of Europe."
Or the Middle East, one might add. I don't mean to make light of the tragedy that has been unfolding in Syria, but Sayers's observation -- in the voice of Lord Peter -- has always struck me as of considerable relevance to contemporary foreign policy-making, especially in the credibility-obsessed USA.
Thumbnail image from Amazon.com ("Lord Peter : The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories")
Remember the Powell doctrine? Elaborated by Colin Powell back in 1990, during his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it consisted of a series of questions identifying the conditions that should be met before committing U.S. military forces to battle. The questions were:
1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
For Powell, each question had to be answered in the affirmative before a decision to use military force was made. If these conditions were met, however, Powell (and other military officers of his generation) believed that the United States should then use sufficient force to achieve decisive victory.[[LATEST]]
Like the closely related "Weinberger doctrine" (named for Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger), these guidelines were designed to ensure that the United States did not stumble into pointless wars whose costs far outweighed the benefits. Powell understood that civilians often had idealistic or quixotic ideas about improving the world with U.S. military power and that they were often too quick to employ it without thinking through the broader strategic implications. One might think of the Powell doctrine as a checklist designed to curb the well-intentioned but naive desire for global do-gooding that has inspired American liberal interventionists for decades.
The Powell doctrine also rests on a decidedly realist vision of U.S. security and grand strategy. Powell's eight questions implicitly recognize that the United States is an extraordinarily secure country and one that rarely needs to rush into war to keep itself safe. It is a vision of U.S. strategy that does not shrink from using force, but only if vital national security interests are at stake. If they are, then the United States should defend those interests by taking the gloves off and doing whatever it takes. But most of the time vital interests are not at stake, and the United States can and should rely on "other nonviolent policy means." It is a doctrine designed to husband U.S. power and keep the country's powder dry, so that when America does have to go to war, it can do so with ample domestic and international support and with military forces that have not been ground down and degraded by endless interventions in arenas of little strategic importance.
What do we learn if we apply Powell's principles to the current debate on Syria? Just ask and answer the questions, giving the administration the benefit of the doubt. The results are not pretty.
1. Vital national interests at stake? Hardly. The United States hasn't cared who governed Syria since 1970, and it did business with Bashar al-Assad's regime whenever doing so suited it. If it didn't matter who ran Syria for the past 40-plus years, why does it suddenly matter so much now? Nor is defending the norm against chemical weapons a "vital" interest, given that other states have used them in the past and they are not true weapons of mass destruction anyway.
2. Clear obtainable objective? Nope. If you can figure out what the Obama administration's actual objective is -- defend the chemical weapons norm? reinforce U.S. credibility? weaken the regime a little but not a lot? send a warning to Iran?, etc. -- you have a better microscope than I do.
3. Costs and risks analyzed fully and frankly? Well, maybe. I'm sure people in the administration have talked about them, though it is hard to know how "fully" the risks and costs have been weighed. But let's be generous and give the administration this one.
4. Other nonviolent policy options exhausted? Hardly. As I've noted before, there has been a dearth of imaginative diplomacy surrounding the Syrian conflict ever since it began. Oddly, the administration seems to have thought this whole issue wasn't important enough to warrant energetic diplomacy, but it is important enough to go to war. And there in a nutshell is a lot of what's wrong with U.S. foreign policy these days.
5. Plausible exit strategy to avoid entanglement? Not that I can see. Barack Obama, John Kerry, et al. seem to recognize the danger of a quagmire here, so their "exit strategy" consists of limiting the U.S. attack to airstrikes and cruise missiles and maybe some increased aid to the rebels. In other words, they are preemptively "exiting" by not getting very far in. But that also means that intervention won't accomplish much, and it still creates the danger of a slippery slope. If the action they are now contemplating doesn't do the job, what then? If credibility is your concern, won't those fears increase if the United States takes action and Assad remains defiant?
6. Have the consequences been fully considered? It's hard to believe they have. Whacking Assad's forces won't do that much to restate any "red lines" against chemical weapons use, and as noted above, that's a pretty modest objective in any case. But military action might also help bring down the regime, thereby turning Syria into a failed state, fueling a bitter struggle among competing ethnic, sectarian, and extremist groups, and creating an ideal breeding and training ground for jihadists. It may also undercut the moderate forces who are currently ascendant in Iran, derail any chance of a diplomatic deal with them (which is a far more important goal), and even reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Is there any evidence that Obama, Kerry, Rice & Co. have thought all these things through?
7. Support from the American people? No, no, and no. Surveys show overwhelming public opposition to military action in Syria. Obama can boost those numbers with some saber-rattling and threat-inflation (now under way), but the American people are going to remain skeptical. I suspect Congress will eventually go along -- for a variety of reasons -- but right now the idea of going to war in Syria is even less popular than Congress itself (which is saying something). Bottom line: This criterion is nowhere near being met.
8. Genuine and broad international support? Not really. The British Parliament has already voted against military action, and Germany has made it clear that it's not playing either. Russia and China are of course dead set against. America's got the French (oh boy!), the Saudis, and (quietly) the Israelis, along with the usual coalition of the cowed, coerced, or co-opted. But it's a far cry from the support the United States had in the first Gulf War or when it initially entered Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. This is not the sort of "genuine and broad" support that General Powell had in mind.
I draw two conclusions from this exercise. First, the case for military action in Syria remains weak, and the fact that the United States is barreling headlong toward that outcome anyway is a powerful indictment of its foreign policy and national security establishment. Second, Colin Powell was really onto something when he laid out this framework, and the United States would be in much better shape today had that framework guided U.S. military responses for the past 20 years.
J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images
I don't have much to add to my earlier comments on Syria or to the piece I put up today as part of a New York Times "Room for Debate" exchange. But America's slow-motion entry into the Syrian bloodletting does illustrate how hard it is for the United States to stay out of these nasty little wars, even when it is not obvious what using force will accomplish, when it is clear that doing a little now will create pressure to do more later, when there is little public support for getting in, and when it is hard to identify a clear or vital U.S. interest at stake.
Yet we now appear to be getting ready to drop a lot of ordnance on Syria -- and for a pretty flimsy reason. John Kerry is outraged that Assad's forces have used chemical weapons -- or so he believes -- but as I've noted before, that fact (if true) is not dispositive. Assad's forces have already killed tens of thousands with good old-fashioned high explosive, which is much more effective than sarin in most cases. Yes, chemical weapons are illegal and yes, there's a taboo against their use, but going to war solely to reinforce a rather unimportant norm is a poor reason. The fact that Assad is killing innocent people with this particular tool and not some other equally nasty tool is not by itself a reason to get involved.
What is most striking about this affair is how Obama seems to have been dragged, reluctantly, into doing something that he clearly didn't want to do. He probably knows bombing Syria won't solve anything or move us closer to a political settlement. But he's been facing a constant drumbeat of pressure from liberal interventionists and other hawks, as well as the disjointed Syrian opposition and some of our allies in the region. He foolishly drew a "red line" a few months back, so now he's getting taunted with the old canard about the need to "restore U.S. credibility." This last argument is especially silly: If being willing to use force was the litmus test of a president's credibility, Obama is in no danger whatsoever. Or has everyone just forgotten about his decision to escalate in Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, and all those drone strikes?
More than anything else, Obama reminds me here of George Orwell in his famous essay "Shooting an Elephant." Orwell recounts how, while serving as a colonial officer in Burma, he was forced to shoot a rogue elephant simply because the local residents expected an official of the British Empire to act this way, even when the animal appeared to pose no further danger. If he didn't go ahead and dispatch the poor beast, he feared that his prestige and credibility might be diminished. Like Orwell, Obama seems to be sliding toward "doing something" because he feels he simply can't afford not to.
Sad, but also revealing.
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Thomas Friedman's piece in the Sunday New York Times was vintage Friedman: chatty, moderately insightful, and filled with quotations from his pal (and co-author) Michael Mandelbaum. The basic theme of the column was the limits of U.S. influence and U.S. interests in the Middle East. U.S. influence is down because the name of the game today is shaping the internal evolution of these societies, and outside powers will never be very good at that. U.S. interests are declining because the global energy market is changing and Middle East oil and gas are not as critical as they once were. As a result, what happens in the Middle East just won't matter as much as it did during the Cold War or even over the past couple of decades.
Fair enough. But here's the line that caught my eye, near the end of the piece:
"Obama knows all of this. He just can't say it."
Why in heaven's name can't he? What's the big secret that Obama or his administration dare not speak of? If Friedman can write about in the Times, why can't Obama or John Kerry or Susan Rice or Chuck Hagel talk about it too? What is to be gained from keeping the American people in the dark about the changing nature of American interests and involvement in this turbulent region?
Indeed, if I were to fault the Obama administration on its handling of the Arab spring (and a bunch of other issues) it is that they never bothered to lay out a clear strategic framework that explains why they are acting as they are. As Friedman and others note, it is clear that Obama is deeply reluctant to get drawn into more Middle Eastern conflicts and that he prefers limited uses of force (drones, targeted killings, etc.) to grandiose invasions and costly occupations. It is also pretty clear that Obama wants to shift American strategic attention out of the Middle East and toward Asia.
But for the most part this gifted communicator has never tried to explain why this policy makes sense. Sure, he keeps saying that it is up to the peoples of these countries to determine their own fate, but he keeps getting dragged back into doing things he'd clearly prefer to avoid (and stay tuned for airstrikes in Syria). Instead of educating the American people about how global interests are changing and how our policies must adapt to reflect new realities, Obama tends to fall back on the familiar rhetorical bromides that have informed U.S. grand strategy for decades: democracy, human rights, stability, order, rejection of extremism, and, of course, American leadership.
But then what we get are a series of ad hoc responses and a grab bag of justifications. First we are going to stay out of Libya, and then we get involved, and then we write it off (more or less). Then we help usher Mubarak out (because we think that's the way history is running), but then we refuse to call a military coup by its right name and acquiesce in the reimposition of Mubarak-lite. We ratchet up the rhetoric on Syria but limit our direct involvement to humanitarian aid and covert assistance, while turning a blind eye to continued oppression in places like Bahrain. And so on.
The problem with this ad hoc approach to policy formation is it leaves the administration perennially buffeted by events and vulnerable to pressure from all those factions, interest groups, GOP politicians, and ambitious policy wonks who think they know what ought to be done. If you don't explain what you are trying to do and why it makes sense, it is hard for anyone to get behind the policy or see the common thread behind each separate decision. By failing to lay out a clear set of principles -- which in this case means explaining to the American people the basic points that Friedman made and why it doesn't make sense for the US to toss a lot of resources into these various struggles -- Obama & Co. end up looking inconsistent, confused, and indecisive.
By the way, laying out a clear set of strategic principles wouldn't force the country into a rigid political straightjacket. Sometimes broad goals have to adapt to particular circumstances, and foreign policymakers often have to accept what is possible rather than what is ideal. But if you don't explain what your underlying objectives are, why those objectives are the right ones, and how your polices are on balance going to move us in the right direction, then you are giving your political opponents a free gift and your supporters little with which to defend you.
In other words, if Friedman is correct that President Obama and his advisors really do "know all this," it would be in their interest to explain it to the country. And not just in one of those stand-alone speechifying moments that Obama likes so much, but over and over and over. Who knows? Americans might like hearing the president explain why this part of the world is less important than it used to be and why Americans can start focusing their worries somewhere else.
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I was participating in an exchange on an email listserv the other day, and one of the participants -- Brendan Green, a visiting professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas -- made an intriguing observation. With his permission, I reproduce a slightly edited version here:
"Pre-2011, if you said that Mubarak would fall, that Egypt would experience a mass political mobilization that destroyed its political order several times over, that the streets of Cairo would run red with blood; that 100,000 would die in Syria, that the Levant would be aflame; that the entire region would start to conduct much of its politics on sectarian grounds, and that there would be no end in sight, I think most people would have told you the proposed situation would be disastrous for American interests. Certainly it would be disastrous for American influence in the region. And yet, are we really worse off that we were in 2010? By what metric?"
Green also argued that a similar principle applied in reverse-that anti-Americanism in the region depended less on our specific actions and more on the mere fact of American size and prominence, which made us a useful foil for jihadi ideologists no matter what U.S. policy actually is. In other words: we're damned if we do a lot in the region and damned if we don't. And then he concluded:
"At best, it appears like we are arguing over whether a nickel of American policy is going to buy us four or six cents worth of American interests. To me, the most compelling arguments for or against our policy are moral arguments. There seems to be an excellent case that shooting your citizens is appalling and we shouldn't give money to those who appall us, at least not without an excellent reason. There also seems to be an excellent case that other people's problems are none of our business, and that we should simply write "Hic Dragones" on this part of the map while investing heavily in hydraulic fracking and other sources of energy independence. But those sort of arguments seem off limits in the mainstream foreign policy community."
Though I have some reservations about Green's second point -- i.e., there is a lot of survey evidence suggesting that "what we do" does have a big impact on perceptions of the United States, especially in the Middle East -- I thought his basic comment was brilliant. If something as momentous, turbulent, and bloody as the "Arab Spring" can erupt and fester for several years, and yet have hardly any observable impact on the life expectancy or economic well-being of the overwhelming majority of Americans, what does that tell you about the true scope of "vital U.S. interests?"
Green's closing comment is also well-worth pondering: if genuine "vital interests" (as opposed to our assorted preferences and discretionary desiderata) are few in number, why do so few people in the foreign policy establishment see it this way? Could it be that endlessly expanding the sphere of "vital interests" is just a good way for ambitious policy wonks to give themselves something to do?
JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images
What's happening throughout the Middle East isn't really surprising. Mideast experts had long been aware of the strains that these societies are under: stagnant economies, widespread corruption, massive youth bulges, faded political ideologies, and the rise of various dissident movements -- all of them held in check by brutal police states. U.S. and other leaders rightly worried about what might happen if the old order began to collapse, and mostly they hoped that this would take place on someone else's watch.[[LATEST]]
When the Arab Spring first started, many people hoped it would shake the Arab world out of its torpor and eventually produce more just, open, and efficient societies. That might still happen -- eventually -- but it is going to take a very long time and it's going to be a bumpy ride. That shouldn't surprise us either: The emergence of modern democracy in Western Europe and the United States took centuries and was punctuated by contentious and bloody politics throughout. Remember the French Revolution? The Whiskey Rebellion? European fascism? The American Civil War? One may hope that the Arab world traverses this terrain more quickly than the West did, but there's little reason to think that it will or that it will end up in the same place.
I don't pretend to be expert on the domestic politics of these societies; for valuable commentary from some people who are, see Juan Cole, Marc Lynch, and Issandr El Amrani, among others. But here are some initial thoughts on the latest events.
For starters, what is happening in Egypt today is the triumph of stupidity. First Hosni Mubarak, who had clearly lost touch with the country by the time he was driven from power. Then Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, who had the opportunity to rule after decades in opposition and blew it, big time. Instead of building a political order in which power was shared among the various groups and factions in Egyptian society, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to run roughshod over its opponents, in a heavy-handed power grab that alarmed everyone else and brought the military back into the field. And now the generals are back and trying to suppress the Brotherhood and other opponents with brutal force. That's dumb too, because the Brotherhood is well organized, has deep roots in Egyptian society, and has been around for decades.
The only solution for Egypt that I can see is one where the contending groups agree to share the country. The competing factions will eventually have to realize that none of them can rule alone and that a political order must be devised that gives each a stake and guarantees each at least some degree of political influence. That's the only formula for successful participatory politics: Those in power today can't ignore the rest of society or try to rig the game to keep themselves in power forever. (BTW: This is a lesson that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP in Turkey might heed as well). If that doesn't happen, then I fear Egypt is headed down the same dark road that Algeria traveled in the 1990s and that Syria is already on today.
What should the United States do? Not much. I'm certainly with those -- like FP's Marc Lynch -- who are calling for the United States to cease all military aid to Egypt. I actually recommended this several weeks ago, in part because Egypt doesn't need more weapons and in part because it does the United States no good to be associated with yet another military crackdown. And oh yeah: Ending aid after the July coup would also have been consistent with U.S. law. Aid to Egypt's military isn't buying the United States any leverage and U.S. aid is dwarfed by the funds that the Gulf Arab states are pouring in. If they want to double down on a bankrupt order, fine; but there's no reason for the American taxpayer to do the same.
More importantly, there isn't much the United States can do. The country lost any moral authority it might have had years ago, when it backed Arab dictators, turned a blind eye to Israel's predations, and showed a callous disregard for Arab populations in places like Iraq. Nor does the United States know how to manipulate or guide Egypt's internal politics. If the Egyptians can't figure out how to construct a workable polity, do you think national security advisor Susan Rice or Secretary of State John Kerry could? And because a narrative of Western interference is a key element of jihadi ideology, the last thing the United States should do is intervene with military force or try to tell Egyptians how to run their own country.
The good news -- such as it is -- is that U.S. "vital interests" are not really engaged here. I know Americans like to think that everything that happens everywhere is a direct threat to American security, but this is another one of those cases where the actual U.S. interest is modest. We have every reason to prefer an Egypt that is stable, prosperous, friendly, supportive of human rights, and at peace with Israel. But Egypt has been none of those things at various points over the past 50 years, and somehow the United States managed to survive and prosper anyway. Yes, what happens in Egypt could affect Israel's security in a modest way, but Egypt is too weak to be an "existential threat" to Israel and Israel isn't the United States (despite what some senators and congressmen seem to think).
Lastly, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the U.S. government is basically out of its depth here and has been for some time. Bill Clinton's administration helped put the United States in al Qaeda's cross-hairs through its policy of "dual containment" and its bungling of the Oslo peace process. George W. Bush's administration made things worse by invading Iraq and promoting a policy of "regional transformation." And Barack Obama seemed to think that all he needed to do in the Middle East was give a few speeches and rely on the same discredited diplomats who were responsible for most of the previous failures. It is Obama's misfortune to be president when these long-simmering problems finally came back to haunt us, but the writing has been on the wall for a long, long time.
About six weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the election of new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. I said it was precisely the sort of opportunity that Barack Obama's administration had been looking for back in 2009, but I was pretty sure the United States and Iran would find a way to squander it. Here's one paragraph from that post, dated June 17, 2013:
Back in Washington, any attempt at a serious rapprochement will also have to overcome relentless opposition not only from AIPAC and the other major groups in the Israel lobby, but also from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system doesn't reward patience, and Obama has not shown himself to be especially bold or courageous when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, he has yet to take and stick to any foreign-policy position that requires him to buck powerful political forces at home. By the time his finger-in-the-wind approach to diplomacy has run its course, the opportunity for a new approach to Iran may be lost, thereby reinforcing the Iranian belief that the only thing the United States will accept is the end of the Islamic Republic, and strengthening the American conviction that even reformist Iranian leaders are beyond the pale.
It's a bit too soon to say, "I told you so," but so far my initial prediction is on track. Although Rouhani has appointed a series of moderate officials (many associated with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani), softened Iranian rhetoric about Israel somewhat, and pledged to seek the path of "détente," we still have little idea how the Obama administration intends to respond. I'm not even sure who is taking the lead in figuring that out. In the meantime, hawks in the United States -- led by the always-helpful lobbyists at AIPAC -- are already doing everything they can to derail a possible rapprochement.
Unfortunately, they can always count on the help of a timorous and craven Congress, including a number of prominent "progressive" Democrats. Just last week, the House passed H.R. 850, an AIPAC-sponsored resolution tightening sanctions for the umpteenth time. The bill was called the "Nuclear Iran Prevention Act," but as Paul Pillar blogged on National Interest's website, a more honest title would be the "Nuclear Iran Promotion Act." The vote was 400-20 (with 378 co-sponsors!), and I'm sorry to say that my own representative, Joe Kennedy III, wasn't exactly a "profile in courage" on this issue. Of course, he had plenty of company.
And now 76 supine Senators are sending Obama one of those stern AIPAC-drafted letters warning him to keep up the pressure. Negotiating with Iran is OK, they concede, provided that any discussions are backed up by the constant threat of military force. Never mind that the United States has been threatening force and conducting various forms of covert action against Iran for years, and Iran hasn't said "uncle" yet. Never mind that Congress has repeatedly called for regime change in Tehran (now there's a confidence-building measure!), and Iran has responded by building more centrifuges. Never mind that Iran has said all along that it won't be bullied into concessions. Never mind the obvious fact that threats of military force are a pretty silly way to convince a much weaker country that it doesn't need some sort of deterrent. And please ignore the fact that America's key allies in Europe and even conservative publications like the Economist are urging the Obama administration to seize this and give Rouhani a serious chance. So is Bloomberg News.
I'm still fairly confident that Obama and the White House have little or no interest in another Middle East war. The State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence services aren't pushing for a war that could only delay but not eliminate Iran's nuclear potential either. And I'm 100 percent sure that the United States should engage Iran's new government seriously and patiently to see whether a deal can be struck. I even suspect that most of the senators and representatives who voted for or signed those silly but dangerous documents last week know all this too. But nobody ever went broke betting on the spinelessness of elected representatives in Congress, especially on just about anything concerning the Middle East.
It's no fun being a killjoy about the new "peace talks" between Israel and the Palestinians, but I would have to put my brain on the shelf to be optimistic. See David Gardner in today's Financial Times and this recent post by Richard Falk for more reasons to be gloomy, as if there weren't enough already.
But seeing all the obvious obstacles raises an obvious question: What does U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry think he's doing? Kerry may not be Mr. Charisma, but he's not stupid. So why has he chosen to put himself on this well-worn path to failure? No doubt it is partly because he knows unconditional U.S. support for Israel and the continued colonization of Palestinian land is deeply damaging to broader U.S. interests. No doubt he understands that current trends threaten Israel's long-term future. He's also getting pressed by J Street and other moderate pro-Israel groups here in the United States that know the window for a two-state solution is closing and that the alternative is Israel as an apartheid state.
One suspects Kerry is also troubled by the plight of the Palestinians themselves, who have been victimized by nearly everyone over the past century. There's probably a lot of ego involved too, along with the siren song of achieving diplomatic immortality should he defy the odds and somehow pull this off. Heck, if President Barack Obama can get a Nobel Peace Prize on spec, then Kerry can be forgiven for thinking he might finagle one too.
Bottom line: Kerry has lots of reasons for undertaking this quixotic crusade. But he may also be doing this because he genuinely believes that circumstances are oddly propitious for deal. Here's what I think may -- repeat, may -- be going on and why it is still misguided.
First off, even hawkish Israelis are worried about the "demographic problem," and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent warnings about the "one-state solution" reflect that concern. Serious Israelis are also worried about their eroding image worldwide, and the European Union's largely symbolic decision to ban grants to Israeli entities on the West Bank is an important bellwether in this regard. Even a passionate advocate of "Greater Israel" -- which Netanyahu surely is -- might see some value in cutting a deal now, especially if he thinks he can get one that is heavily skewed in Israel's favor.
Israeli and U.S. officials may also believe that the time is ripe to coerce Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) into accepting a one-sided final status agreement that formally ends the conflict but gives Israel almost everything it wants. Abbas is not especially popular and has been neither bold nor clever in the past. He's abjectly dependent on outside support, and the rest of the Arab world is distracted by events in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. Indeed, at this point the wealthy Arab regimes in Qatar and Saudi Arabia would mostly like the Palestinian issue to go away. So you can easily imagine Netanyahu and Kerry convincing themselves they can twist Abbas's arm hard enough to make him sign.
Ironically, Abbas's most potent source of leverage would be to threaten to dissolve the PA entirely, forcing Israel to bear the full costs of the occupation, and to launch a full-blown campaign for Palestinian civil and political rights within "Greater Israel." But he's not going to do that because the Palestinians would still prefer a state of their own and Israel would never grant such rights without a long and bitter struggle. Moreover, dissolving the PA would eliminate the lucrative patronage networks that Abbas & Co. now control.
If this interpretation is right, then we're going to see a new push for a "Palestinian state" that is barely "viable" and hardly meets the definition of sovereignty at all. In other words, precisely the sort of "state" that Netanyahu sketched in his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University. There may be various formal or informal references to the "1967 borders," but this formulation is largely meaningless given all the changes that have taken place over the past 46 years. Israel will insist on keeping the major settlement blocs, including Ariel and Maale Adumim, which were deliberately constructed to bisect any future Palestinian entity and to preserve Israel's control over key West Bank aquifers. It will insist that the future Palestinian state be demilitarized (and thus incapable of defending itself) and further demand that Palestinian airspace be open to Israeli military aircraft. Israel will also try to maintain a military presence in the Jordan River valley for many years to come, further truncating a future Palestinian government's independence. The Palestinians will be compensated for these various concessions with land swaps (albeit less valuable land than they used to have) and with a big slug of money designed to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians (and no doubt line the pockets of Fatah's leaders).
In short, Kerry and Netanyahu are hoping they can engineer a one-sided deal that Netanyahu can hail as a "final end to the conflict," thereby heading off the dreaded "one-state" solution and rehabilitating Israel's international image.
There's only one problem: A deal of this sort won't work. To create a truly lasting peace, the parties need an agreement that is "renegotiation proof." Both sides need to be relatively pleased with the outcome, and neither side should see itself as having been abjectly humiliated by the final terms. An agreement that you signed only because you were coerced into it is an agreement you'll be looking to renege on as soon as you think you can get away with -- and it wouldn't be a genuine "final status" agreement, no matter what the ink on the treaty said.
Paradoxically, this situation places the greater burden on whichever side is stronger because the stronger side has to resist the temptation to extract every last concession that its superior power could impose. If the stronger side is smart and farsighted, it would offer a generous peace and maybe even give the weaker side more than it originally expected, thereby giving the weaker party more reason to welcome the agreement and signaling a genuine desire to live together in the future. With luck, generosity of this sort buys goodwill and thus buys time for peaceful and mutually beneficial ties to develop over time, thereby marginalizing potential spoilers and obviating any desire to renegotiate later.
When the PLO recognized Israel's right to exist at the start of the Oslo process, it was reluctantly accepting that it had lost the decades-long struggle against Zionism. It was formally acknowledging that Israel wasn't going to disappear and that Israel would get roughly 78 percent of the land laid out in the 1947 U.N. partition plan. The PLO was also admitting that it would have to be content with the remaining 22 percent. Unfortunately, the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian leadership bungled the Oslo process and squandered the single best chance to end the conflict. In the meantime, Israel continued to expand settlements throughout the West Bank, insisted that "Jerusalem will not be divided," and demanded that any future Palestinian state be placed under restrictions that no other state in the world is forced to endure. In recent years, it has added the further demand that the Palestinians formally recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." Far from offering their defeated partners a generous peace, Israel's leaders have continued to haggle over every prior issue and create new ones in the bargain.
My fear: Even if a deal is somehow reached and the doves fly across the White House lawn nine months from now, it won't be a true end to the conflict. If the terms are blatantly one-sided and if Israel continues to seek concessions from its far weaker Palestinian neighbors, the deal will not produce a lasting peace. Instead, it will be but a temporary respite, and conflict is likely to resume at whatever point in the future the balance of power shifts.
In his The Second World War, Winston Churchill summarized the "Moral of the Work" in four Churchillian phrases: "In War: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Goodwill." The victors in the long conflict between Zionist Israelis and Palestinian Arabs would be wise to heed those maxims, and if I were John Kerry, I'd spend a lot of time over the next nine months reminding them about the last two.
Photo thumbnail: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Last Friday I posted an entry on America's "one-sided" war on terrorism, arguing that the country has focused enormous efforts on deterring, thwarting, or killing suspected terrorists and hardly any effort on removing the incentives or grievances that might make someone join a terrorist organization. The very same day, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution posted an article on the Daily Beast, arguing that various al Qaeda affiliates are making a significant comeback in places like Iraq and Syria.
Precisely my point. Undoubtedly, some pundits will interpret Riedel's article as evidence that the United States should have been even more aggressive and should have stayed in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or wherever for as long as it took. This argument overlooks the tremendous costs of these operations -- including their degrading effects on Army performance and morale -- as well as their inherently self-defeating character. Given that opposition to foreign occupation and interference is one of the prime motivations behind terrorist activity -- especially suicide bombings -- maintaining an extensive military footprint in the Arab and Islamic world is a recipe for endless war. Even more limited operations like drone strikes have been tactically effective but are strategically questionable, precisely because they give jihadi recruiters a constant pool of angry locals from which to draw and vindicate their claims that the United States is unalterably addicted to violent interference in their societies.
Indeed, the real lesson of Riedel's article is that much of the so-called "war on terror" has been misguided to the point of foolishness. It was both smart and necessary to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but letting Osama bin Laden slip away at Tora Bora was a massive command failure. It was dumb to take on the task of nation-building in Afghanistan, and even dumber to invade Iraq in 2003. It was both immoral and counterproductive to torture captured terrorists (it tarnished America's image and didn't yield better intelligence) and obtuse not to rethink other aspects of the United States' Middle East policy. The post-9/11 TSA regime has been a colossal waste of resources that has added little to Americans' overall level of security. And vacuuming up gazillions of bytes of email and phone records merely proved that government agencies operating in secret will invariably grow like Topsy, without making Americans significantly safer. As Riedel suggests, none of these activities has prevented al Qaeda and its copycats from making a comeback.
What is needed is a much more fundamental rethinking of the entire anti-terrorism campaign. As I suggested last week, part of that rethink means asking whether the United States needs to do a lot more to discredit jihadi narratives, instead of persisting with policies that make the extremists' charges sound plausible to their audiences. A second part is to keep the jihadi threat in better perspective: They are a challenge, but not a mortal threat to Americans' way of life unless the country reacts to them in ways that cause more damage to its well-being and its values than they do. Sadly, a rational ranking of costs, benefits, and threats seems to be something that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment is largely incapable of these days.
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
After the 9/11 attacks, the United States quickly declared a "war on terror." In the conduct of that war, the United States invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, imprisoned hundreds of captured "enemy combatants" without trial, tortured suspected terrorists, drastically ratcheted up homeland security, conducted drone strikes and/or targeted assassinations in several countries, and conducted a vast campaign of electronic surveillance at home and abroad.
Virtually all these actions were designed to detect or eliminate actual terrorists or prevent them from carrying out deliberate attacks. In other words, whether offensive or defensive in nature, they were actions designed to win the war by thwarting or eliminating existing terrorist organizations.
But what about the parallel problem of terrorist recruitment? The other way to defeat terrorism is to make it harder for movements employing terrorist methods to recruit new followers, and to gradually marginalize the radicals within the societies in which they were trying to grow. There was a lot of talk about trying to do this immediately after 9/11: The State Department commissioned a task force report on public diplomacy toward the Arab/Islamic world, George W. Bush's administration hired a series of public diplomacy czarinas, and various experts offered advice on how the United States could undercut Osama bin Laden's message and rebuild the country's dubious image in that part of the world. This goal also underlay Barack Obama's initial outreach to the region and especially his infamous Cairo speech in June 2009.[[LATEST]]
But looking back, has the United States actually acted in ways that would reduce the jihadi appeal? In some cases (e.g., Jordan and Iraq), we were fortunate that terrorist groups acted in ways that reduced their appeal significantly. But has the United States also adjusted its policies to make it harder rather than easier for a jihadi leader to convince a potential recruit to join up?
The answer is no.
When he launched the original al Qaeda and began targeting the United States, bin Laden emphasized three main grievances. First, he accused the West -- and especially the United States -- of constant and hostile interference in the Islamic world. This charge included the U.S. sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s (which caused thousands of Iraqi deaths) and the West's alleged exploitation of Mideast oil. Second, he accused the United States of propping up corrupt and illegitimate dictatorships in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and he specifically cited the stationing of thousands of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia following the 1991 Gulf War. Third, he blamed the United States for giving lavish, unconditional support to Israel and for turning a blind eye to Israel's harsh treatment of its Palestinian subjects.
These charges have remained prominent elements in the overall jihadi narrative ever since. The question is: Has U.S. behavior since then made such charges look more credible or less credible? Has the United States undertaken actions designed to show that bin Laden's charges were basically bogus, or has it behaved in ways that make them appear to be largely correct?
Has the United States stopped using military force in the Arab or Islamic world? Hardly. The United States invaded two Muslim countries -- Afghanistan and then Iraq -- even though the latter had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. Each war then led to long and incompetently run occupations in which many local inhabitants died. The United States was not directly responsible for all these deaths, of course, and some of its acts in both countries were obviously intended to help local citizens. But overall, these actions merely reinforced the idea that the United States has an irresistible propensity to interfere in these societies, and often with military force. The war on terror also led to drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and an outpouring of Islamophobic rhetoric by certain U.S. pundits and politicians. And oh yes: The United States has also imposed increasingly stringent sanctions on Iran, which makes both Israel and the Saudi royal family happy but reinforces perceptions of a powerful but hypocritical America. In short, the past 12 years provide plenty of ammunition for anyone trying to argue that the United States remains intrinsically hostile to the Muslim world.
Has the United States stopped propping up Arab dictatorships? The record here is more mixed, but it is hard to argue that the United States has consistently embraced a true "freedom agenda." The United States did remove its troops from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, but it's still an important military presence elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. The United States has consistently backed Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan, despite endemic corruption and even a palpably fraudulent election. Washington did help ease Hosni Mubarak from power two years ago, but it subsequently turned a blind eye to the Saudi-backed crackdown against popular forces in Bahrain and continues a cozy relationship with Jordan and Saudi Arabia. U.S. tolerance for the recent military coup in Egypt also suggests that its commitment to genuine democracy or the promotion of basic human rights remains thin. The Obama administration has for the most part stayed out of the Syrian mess (wisely, in my view), but some jihadists will no doubt see this as evidence that Washington isn't all that hostile to Bashar al-Assad's regime. Bottom line: bin Laden's complaint that the United States has no problem with Arab authoritarianism is still pretty hard to refute.
Is the United States still backing an expansionist Israel? Although public criticism of the "special relationship" has become somewhat more vocal in recent years, the broad outlines of U.S. policy have changed little. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have given Israel everything it has wanted (except a green light to attack Iran), and U.S. politicians continue to bend over backward to express their deep devotion to the Jewish state. The United States gave Israel diplomatic cover during the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008-2009 Gaza War, and also following the attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Obama caved completely on the issue of a settlement freeze, and the U.S. Congress continues to vote a generous aid package every year and demean itself with various AIPAC-drafted resolutions. Heck, if I were a jihadist trying to convince a recruit that the United States had no sincere commitment to human rights and no respect for Arab or Muslim lives, I'd just show them a transcript of Chuck Hagel or Samantha Power's confirmation hearings and leave it at that.
My point is not that the United States should have responded to 9/11 by totally upending its Middle East foreign policy or by leaning over backward to appease bin Laden's complaints. I'm certainly not suggesting that the United States break diplomatic relations with Riyadh or throw Israel under the bus. Nor am I suggesting that some adjustment to U.S. policies would make the terrorist problem dry up overnight, if only because many terrorist groups are motivated as much or more by local concerns than by a fundamentally anti-American agenda.
My point, instead, is that the United States has been fighting a completely one-sided campaign against al Qaeda and the group's cousins. It has hardened its own society (excessively) and taken the battle to those suspected of being hostile to it (probably excessively too). But the United States has done hardly anything to counter the narratives that anti-American forces use to rally support, and it has done plenty to reinforce them. And a lot of the things the United States has done -- such as invading Iraq or giving Israel unconditional support -- are bad for the United States and bad for its various friends in the region (Israel included).
This just isn't smart strategy: If we really want to bring the "war on terror" to an end, then we cannot simply deal with the terrorists who exist today -- we also have to diminish the number and fervor of those we will face tomorrow. Sadly, that task remains to be tackled.
HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images
There were two interesting developments regarding the United States' Middle East diplomacy last week. The first, of course, was Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement of a tentative agreement to resume peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I've already noted my skepticism about that initiative here, but feel free to look at Bernard Avishai or Ben Birnbaum if you'd like to read a more optimistic take. The second development was the surprising level of bipartisan congressional support for the Dent-Price letter endorsing renewed diplomacy with Iran. Given that Congress normally votes hawkish AIPAC-sponsored resolutions on Iran without a semblance of thought, the fact that 131 representatives from both parties backed this Dent-Price letter constitutes a rare moment of sanity on Capitol Hill.
I just hope that these two initiatives don't find out about each other. There are a lot of ways that diplomacy on both issues could fail, but one good way to raise the odds of failure would be to link the two. For instance, the United States could try to get Israel to be more forthcoming in its talks with the Palestinians by promising to take a tougher line toward Iran, based on the familiar theory that a more secure Israel will be more willing to make concessions.
Bad idea. For starters, this approach has been tried before, most notably in the policy of "dual containment" that Martin Indyk formulated during his first stint in government back in 1993. "Dual containment," in case you've forgotten, committed the United States to containing both Iraq and Iran, even though these two regimes were deeply hostile to one another and it would have made a lot more sense to play one off against the other. But as Trita Parsi and Kenneth Pollack have shown, the United States pledged to contain both states in part to reassure Israel, in the hope that it would then be more forthcoming in the Oslo peace process. This approach didn't work, of course, and keeping lots of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia (as dual containment required) was one reason Osama bin Laden decided to attack the United States on 9/11.
Furthermore, explicitly linking these two issues merely increases the number of players with a potential veto over any possible agreement. If progress on Israel-Palestine is tied to an agreement with Iran, then Tehran could in theory scuttle an Israeli-Palestinian deal by digging in its heels. Similarly, linking a deal with the Palestinians to a resolution of the various disputes with Iran would give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a perfect reason to either raise the ante or simply walk away from a deal that he doesn't like. Linkage would in effect force U.S. negotiators on both issues to look over their shoulders constantly to see what was happening in the other arena, thereby impairing their ability to craft a workable deal on the issue at hand.
Most importantly, this approach is neither necessary nor in the U.S. interest. On Israel-Palestine, U.S. leaders have correctly seen a two-state solution as the best outcome. As President Barack Obama put in his Cairo speech, it is in "Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest." Retired Centcom commander James Mattis underscored that point in his remarks at the Aspen Security Forum last week, telling his audience, "I paid a military security price every day as a commander of Centcom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel." I have my doubts about whether "two states for two peoples" is possible at this point, but achieving that goal would clearly remove one potent source of anti-Americanism in the region.
In short, the United States has a profound interest in an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal no matter what its relationship with Iran is like and no matter what Tehran is up to. And despite its occasional bluster, Iran is far less of an existential threat to Israel than continuing the occupation, because trying to maintain a "Greater Israel" is leading Jerusalem toward permanent apartheid and growing international isolation. Moreover, achieving a just peace with the Palestinians would deprive Iran of the one issue that gives it some modest street cred within the Arab and Islamic world and would make it easier for the United States to organize a regional coalition against Iran should that ever become necessary.
By the same token, a deal that reliably capped Iran's nuclear program and began a process of reconciliation with that country would be very much in America's (and the world's) interest, irrespective of the state of play on Israel-Palestine. Indeed, a good case can be made that Iranian meddling on that issue -- including its support for radical Palestinian groups -- is largely a tactical maneuver designed to ensure they are not marginalized within the broader region. Once a deal was reached, however, both Iran's incentive and its ability to make trouble on Palestine would decline. But even if Kerry's efforts fail and there is no two-state solution, resolving the dispute on Iran's nuclear program would still be highly desirable.
For these reasons, therefore, the United States should reject any attempt to link these two already difficult diplomatic projects. The key thing to remember is that progress on either one would be a good thing, even if there were little or no progress on the other. Indeed, progress on either one would probably facilitate progress on the other, but only if said progress were not contingent on movement on the other. It will be tough enough to overcome the many obstacles to agreement in either case, and linking the two is a blueprint for failure on both.
As I write this, numerous online news stories and Twitter feeds are announcing the imminent resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. (Apparently the framework for the talks is still being finalized, but presumably it's enough of a done deal for the United States to go public.) It is to some degree a vindication of Secretary of State John Kerry's dogged effort to get the peace process started again, and no doubt he and the rest of Barack Obama's administration are going to spin this achievement as an important breakthrough.
I hope they're right, but we can all be forgiven for a certain skepticism by this point. Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian leadership have been taking place off and on for over two decades (not counting the various back-channel, covert, or track II discussions), and the main result of all that palaver has been the further expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and the steady deterioration of Fatah's prestige and authority. Let's also not forget that Hamas was a relatively minor force when the Oslo process started back in the early 1990s; today it governs in Gaza. America's handling of the "peace process" hasn't won it any laurels either; serving as "Israel's lawyer" merely confirmed that the United States was incapable of being an effective mediator and made the country complicit in Israel's harsh treatment of its Palestinian subjects.
The only serious question to ask is whether this new round of talks has a better chance of succeeding. And let's be clear: Success means actually reaching a final status agreement that establishes a viable state for the Palestinian people. Kicking the can down the road for another few years is not success. Endless discussions that collapse in mutual recriminations, while the bulldozers continue to demolish Palestinian homes and construction crews erect more condos and apartments for Israelis in the occupied territories, are not success either. And neither is another demonstration of American fecklessness, naivete, and diplomatic incompetence.
The structural reasons for pessimism are plain for all to see. First, Israel's government is led by a man who opposed Oslo from the start and whose Likud party's official platform openly rejects any possibility of a Palestinian state. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken of a Palestinian "state" in recent years, it is clear that what he has in mind is a set of disconnected Bantustans under complete Israeli control, which is of course a nonstarter.
Second, most of Netanyahu's governing coalition is even more hard-line than he is, and his government would almost certainly collapse if he were to offer the Palestinians any sort of reasonable deal. And given that the Israeli peace movement is much weaker than it used to be, it's hard to imagine a different Israeli government being substantially more forthcoming.
Third, the Palestinians remain deeply divided themselves. Not only does this reduce their bargaining leverage (which was already pretty paltry), but it means Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has to get a pretty good deal if he is going to sell it to the broader population and marginalize the rejectionists. But as just noted, it's hard to imagine him being offered anything very generous by his Israeli counterparts, and it's even harder to imagine the United States putting sufficient pressure on Israel to make the kind of concessions that would now be needed.
Fourth, these are hardly ideal conditions to pursue a final status agreement. Syria is in flames, Lebanon is unsettled, and Egypt's future course is anyone's guess. One might argue that these events give Israel a big incentive to resolve the I-P issue once and for all, but even the boldest Israeli peacenik might be leery of making the necessary concessions while the regional environment is so uncertain. I personally think that this view is shortsighted and that Israel would be more secure if it reached a fair deal with the Palestinians, but I can easily understand why even moderate Israelis would proceed with caution these days.
So what are the grounds for optimism? Well, it is possible that Netanyahu & Co. are aware of broader global trends that are working against them. The recent EU decision barring aid to organizations operating in the occupied territories was a straw in the wind, and TIAA/CREF's recent decision to divest its holding in the Israeli firm Soda Stream might be another. By reminding even hard-line Israelis that the occupation is eating away at their international acceptance, such events give even the current government some reason to think differently. And there are prominent voices inside Israel -- such as the former Shin Bet heads profiled in the documentary The Gatekeepers -- who have been sounding the alarm about where Israel may be headed.
It is also possible that Obama will show more spine than he did during his first term and that he'll get sufficient cover from groups like J Street so that he can pursue a more effective approach. That approach is going to require a combination of bribes and pressure: Kerry and Obama will have to convince both sides that a bright future is ahead of them if they can end the conflict and focus instead on economic development, but Kerry and Obama are also going to have to make it clear that things are going to get worse for both sides if they don't. The Palestinians know that already, of course, because they are the ones under occupation and dependent on international handouts. On the other side, American economic subsidies and diplomatic protection have been insulating Israel from the consequences of its own intransigent expansionism. Until that situation changes, there's little reason to expect a different outcome this time.
Still, it will be interesting to see what the terms of the new discussions are. Will the 1967 borders be viewed as the starting point for talks, albeit with the understanding that the final borders will almost certainly be different? Will anything be said about a settlement freeze? What time frame, if any, will be put on the discussions? And will either leader make a gesture designed to demonstrate a genuine interest in reaching an agreement? I don't know, but I will be looking to see whether any of the three main parties -- the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority -- does or says anything different or surprising this time around. If not, then there's no reason to expect a different outcome.
My forecast: a lot of talk, but ultimately no action. The Palestinians have nothing left to give up (save for symbolic concessions over the so-called "right to return"), and I can't see Netanyahu offering them a deal that comes even close to a viable state. And while Kerry's tenacity is admirable, I've yet to see any sign of a genuinely different U.S. approach. Remember: Assorted U.S. diplomats have spent thousands of hours going back and forth with both sides over the years and have ended up with bupkis. So I think we'll see more talks, along with more settlement building, and ultimately no agreement. And then Obama and Kerry will be gone, and another "opportunity" for peace -- if it even is one -- will have been lost.
I take no pleasure in this gloomy appraisal, and I will be genuinely delighted to be proved wrong here. I'm prepared to eat my words, but alas, I fear I won't have to.
UPDATE: The text of Kerry's statement announcing the talk is now available here. He says a lot of the right things, and I'll be curious to learn more about the "positive steps" he says both sides are taking on the ground. Words matter here, but actions usually speak louder.
Smart statecraft is sometimes opportunistic. No government can anticipate every twist and turn in global politics; the question is whether it can seize the moment when one arrives and advance the national interest in new, unexpected circumstances.
So it is with the recent ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This is an opportunity for the United States to do something it should have done a long time ago -- namely, end its unjustified military aid packages to Egypt and Israel. Robert Wright and Andrew Sullivan have raised this issue in different ways over the past week; here I want to explore the connection between the two aid programs.
In essence, the current level of U.S. aid to Egypt and Israel is a bribe dating back to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Israel demanded a long-term aid commitment in exchange for withdrawing from the Sinai, which it had occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. Egypt got the money as a reward for making peace and realigning with the West. The United States made a bunch of other commitments as part of this deal, and it has been locked in ever since, which is why recent events provide a tempting opportunity to restore U.S. freedom of action.
Let's start with Egypt. U.S. law prohibits the U.S. government from providing aid to any government that has taken power as the result of a military coup. Unless you torture the English language to the breaking point, this is precisely what has just happened in Egypt. So if you believe in the rule of law, the United States ought to be terminating its aid program.
But as Robert Wright tweeted on July 8, it would make a lot more sense to convert the current military aid program into something more useful, such as food aid. The last thing Egypt needs is more high-priced toys for its generals, like F-22s or tanks or even armored personnel carriers. Nobody is threatening to invade Egypt, and most of these weapons aren't all that useful for keeping public order. What Egypt needs is more-effective government, less corruption, economic growth, lower food prices, more reliable water and energy supplies, etc., etc. -- not more sophisticated or well-armed conventional military forces. The coup is an opportunity to end an aid program that outlived its usefulness a long time ago, and the United States ought to seize it.
Now for Israel. At this point there's no valid strategic reason for Israel to receive $3 billion to $4 billion in U.S. aid each year (most of it in various forms of military assistance). Israel isn't a poor country; its per capita income is nearly $30,000 per year, and it ranks in the world's top 30 countries on that indicator. Israel is far and away the dominant military power in the region, and its regional superiority would only increase if the United States stopped subsidizing Egypt's armed forces. Remember that Israel won the 1948, 1956, and 1967 Middle East wars, and each of these took place before the U.S. government was providing it with lots of military assistance. Egypt and Syria launched a stunningly successful surprise attack in October 1973, yet Israel eventually won that war too. And this was back in the bad old days when Israel's Arab adversaries were getting lots of help from the Soviet Union. Israel's various neighbors are much weaker today than they used to be (just look at the condition that Syria and Iraq are now in), and Israel also has the ultimate deterrent in the form of more than a hundred nuclear weapons. And as President Barack Obama learned during his first term, it's not like the United States gets any diplomatic leverage from giving Israel all that money. Bottom line: The case for continued U.S. military assistance is laughably weak.
So instead of military aid that Israel doesn't need and that serves only as an indirect subsidy for the settlements the United States opposes, the United States should offer Israel an equivalent amount of aid, provided it agrees to use the money to begin dismantling settlements in the West Bank and allowing the Palestinians to create a viable state of their own on these lands. That would be consistent with the stated U.S. objective of "two states for two peoples," and this shift in policy might actually get Netanyahu & Co. to pay serious attention to Secretary of State John Kerry the next time he pops in for a visit. (I don't think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would take the money and do this, by the way, but that's another issue).
In short, the events in Cairo are a perfect opportunity to wean these two dependencies off the U.S. dole or to convert U.S. assistance into something from which these two societies could actually benefit. This shift would also do wonders for the America's image in the region, which has taken a beating over the years for being too supportive of an expansionist Israel and too supportive of unpopular Arab dictatorships.
But we all know that a sensible response like this is about as likely as snow on the pyramids. The United States' Middle East policy isn't driven by rational calculations of the national interest or by a desire to make the United States stronger, more secure, or more prosperous. It's not even driven by moral considerations, given that the United States still provides generous support to governments that routinely commit serious human rights abuses or deny political rights to millions of people. Instead, it's driven mostly by domestic politics, especially the political power of AIPAC and the rest of the Israel lobby. And that's why the phrase "sensible U.S. Middle East policy" has become an oxymoron. The results, both for the United States and for the various peoples in the region, speak for themselves.
EPA/ABED AL HAFIZ HASHLAMOUN
What can I possibly add to the torrent of words, videos, tweets, and blogs that have proliferated since the coup in Cairo? Not much, I fear. But for what it may be worth, here's what has been going through my mind since the Egyptian Army stepped in and seized power last week.
First, we still have no idea where Egypt is headed, especially in light of the violence that broke out in the last 24 hours. As Simon Schama noted in the Financial Times, revolutionary upheavals tend to be long, drawn-out affairs with many unexpected twists and turns. The French Revolution proceeded through several distinct phases and abortive constitutions before culminating in Napoleon's coup d'état of 18 Brumaire. The Russian Revolution was equally turbulent, and the Bolsheviks' triumph was never preordained and the resulting Soviet Union did not emerge in its final Stalinist form for years after the storming of the Winter Palace.
Or consider events closer to home. The survival of "these United States" was hardly inevitable following victory in the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution that Americans now venerate wasn't even in place until more than a decade after 1776. As the early republic struggled, I can just imagine a bigoted 18th-century English version of David Brooks sneering that the former colonists lacked the "mental equipment" for self-government.[[LATEST]]
So the first and most important point is the need for patience; this isn't going to get resolved in a week or a month or even a year.
Second, for all the failings of the Muslim Brotherhood in its first experience in office, no one should be pleased by what is now transpiring in Egypt. Under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, the Egyptian military presided over decades of economic and social stagnation and rampant corruption, not to mention torture and widespread human rights abuses. There's no reason to believe the generals know how to restore Egypt's cratering economy or unite its fractious political factions, which is why they were reluctant to take a leading role and will try to turn power back to civilians (at least symbolically) as soon as they can.
But the recent turn toward violence is especially ominous, as it heralds the possibility of a civil war in a country of some 80 million. We are not there yet, but trends are in the wrong direction.
To repeat my first point, the struggle to create a legitimate, pluralist, and minimally competent government in Egypt has a long, long way to go.
Third, Americans should take a deep breath and recognize that Washington's ability to influence these events will be extremely limited. If Egypt's own people do not know where they are headed, if violence escalates, and if none of the contending forces are fully in control, then it would be folly for outsiders to think they can safely steer these events from afar. Moreover, given America's past support for Hosni Mubarak and the widespread Egyptian belief that "Mother America" is secretly pulling strings, any sort of heavy-handed U.S. interference is as likely to backfire as to succeed. If ever a set of events called for "benevolent neglect" and keeping one's distance, this is it.
Fourth, the good news, such as it is, is that vital U.S. interests are not really engaged here. I know that sounds like a radical statement, but it really isn't. Egypt is not a great power or a major oil producer, and there is no remotely plausible path by which the outcome in Egypt would make Americans substantially poorer or less secure at home. The United States would like to see the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty survive, of course, but even the worst Egypt you can imagine would be no match for heavily armed and well-trained Israelis, who beat Egypt soundly every time they fought in the past, and usually under less favorable conditions. Israel has a powerful nuclear deterrent to boot. An end to the peace treaty would not be a good thing, but it is not an existential threat to Israel and still less to the United States.
Indeed, given Egypt's parlous economic condition, whatever sort of government eventually emerges will be in no position to make regional waves. It will be in desperate need of trade, investment, and tourism for many years to come, and it will need good relations with as many countries as possible. Whether governed by the Egyptian Army, the Muslim Brotherhood, or some sort of coalition, it will pose little threat to any of its neighbors or to key U.S. interests.
Finally, I continue to believe that the Arab Spring is a watershed from which there is no turning back. I could be wrong -- the revolutions of 1848 ultimately fizzled -- but I do not think the Arab world can or will remain aloof from the broader global trend toward more participatory government. The road will be bumpy, contingent, and uncertain, and there is no guarantee that Western-style liberal democracy will be the end result. But I am still convinced that future Arab governments will be far more sensitive to popular sentiment than most of their predecessors were and that this development will eventually be a positive one.
Just not anytime soon.
The following guest post is an edited version of an email I received from a friend in Cairo who prefers to remain anonymous. Note that it was written prior to the Egyptian Army's July 1 "ultimatum" to President Mohamed Morsy.
A view from the Nile, 30 June 2013
I have moved along a spectrum of opinion on how Egyptians see their nation and their situation, and I want to share a few impressions about how Egyptians view how change can occur in their country.
Organizing for the anniversary of their first presidential election
I began both excited and dismayed at their naivete when the Tamarod ("Rebel") campaign began gathering signatures around a month ago to pressure President Mohamed Morsy to resign. Egypt has no impeachment process, so to a foreign political scientist, it seemed a bit pointless to gather signatures that could have no legal effect on removing Morsy from office. "Perhaps they were also gathering email or Facebook addresses in order to develop a more organized movement?" I thought. But no, it was mostly a mobilizing effort.
Over the months since the last big anti-government protests on the second anniversary of the revolution's start, Jan. 25, much activity outside government had fallen to a lull. People had gotten tired, and the Tamarod campaign was an effort to re-energize and develop a base -- to tap into the "undecideds," that range of Egyptians -- mostly urban in Cairo and a number of the larger Nile delta cities -- who were relatively neutral about what was happening in politics. Over this month, Tamarod collected its goal of 15 million signatures (it announced 22 million signatures gathered yesterday) and during the process gained attention and a seat at the table with the established anti-government political opposition parties. (Note: At the same time, a pro-government signature-gathering campaign began and is now claiming to have gathered 25 million signatures.)
Still, I questioned Tamarod's effectiveness -- how could it accomplish anything except for having people in the streets? -- until a little over a week ago.
Whom do you trust?
One of the two core challenges in this current dynamic is the fact that there are only two institutions that its people trust. While Americans have trust and confidence (at various times) in the media, the president, elections, the Supreme Court, local elected officials, and maybe even their police, Egyptians really only have two: the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF -- often just referred to as the Army for shorthand, but it includes a navy and an air force among a few other services) and their devout faith for Islam. This is not a political Islam for a majority but a spirituality that, at most, imbues their every action in life and, at least, encourages a sense of surrender and acceptance -- the idea that there are many things beyond one's control and the best you can do is to do your best.
The EAF and their faith are the two institutions that they feel they can rely on, trust, and believe in. They have been the constants -- before and after the revolution -- and the ones that they hope will "come to their rescue" against the current difficult situation. When foreigners tell them "trust in your institutions," they think we are telling them to trust in the current corruptness -- which includes their courts, elections, police, presidency, etc -- which they don't see changing. As a result, our message "sent" is not the message "received." Instead, they believe that we are telling them to stay with something that is unacceptable to them.
The second challenge of the current dynamic is Egyptians' perception that the only way they have been able to achieve any real change in their system -- and in their elected government's behavior -- has been through street protests and demonstrations. Hosni Mubarak fell due to 18 days of protest. Morsy changed his stance on extensive presidential oversight and power in the draft of the Egyptian Constitution only after massive street protests last November and early December. The decision to call for earlier parliamentary elections (which later was undone) was achieved after the Jan. 25 protests this year. Hence, Egyptians' almost supernatural belief in the ability of the demonstrations -- starting June 28 -- to force a change in the government.
For non-Egyptian government officials watching from Berlin or Washington, this is a recipe for extreme civil unrest at best and civil war at worst. Yet again, for the anti-government protesters, they feel, they believe, that they have their deus ex machina to pluck Egypt from chaos and into, hopefully, a do-over. The Egyptian Armed Forces have very clearly said that they exist to protect the nation of Egypt and its people. In the most obvious form, this is protecting vital national infrastructure and resources -- the Suez Canal, the power supply system, the water system, the communications system. Statements by Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over the past weeks also indicate his and the EAF's dismay and disappointment at the inability of the civilian elected government, political opposition, and media to come to agreements on how to run and support the country. At the same time, Sisi and his messengers have been very clear that they really truly do not want to return to their role of running the country as they did during the 18 months after the fall of Mubarak.
The stated scenario (some might call fantasy) of many opposing the current government is a temporary military takeover that cleans out the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and sets the stage for a temporary caretaker government (the media has reported on a council of three), a rewriting of the Constitution, the election of a house of representatives (their lower house of parliament), and then the presidential election. This scenario has enormous support among the population that opposes the current government. For them, this is not a coup d'etat -- it is how Egypt can save itself. For the rest of Egypt, who voted for and still support President Morsy (slightly dwindling in the delta area but still at around 43 percent overall), this would be an undoing of a legitimate political process of elections -- and one that those in the United States and Europe endorse and hold as the standard for the transfer of power.
A wide range of Egyptians is planning to turn out for the demonstrations. Tamarod has helped educate and mobilize them. They feel it is another "January 25" moment. They want to be counted because they want to believe their numbers will affect the decisions of President Morsy. In retrospect, they now think that if Mubarak had addressed the public's demands within the first few days after Jan. 25, 2011, he could have retained power and started to change the system. Some of them are hoping for such an inspired moment of compromise by Morsy and his government. The only prediction that I have been willing to make is that I expect the demonstrations to be relatively peaceful (and in Egypt, that is a relative word) on June 30. But if change doesn't occur within the first few days, then I could see violence developing by the end of the week. I could see the presidency declaring emergency law (essentially martial law) and then the question for the Army will be "Who's side are you on?"
MAHMUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.