Unless the Obama administration (and in particular, Attorney General Eric
Holder), has more smoking gun evidence than they've revealed so far, they are
in danger of a diplomatic gaffe on a par with Colin Powell's famous U.N.
Security Council briefing about Iraq's supposed WMD programs, a briefing now
known to have been a series of fabrications and fairy tales.
The problem is that the harder one looks at the allegations about Manour Ababasiar, the fishier the whole business seems. There's no question that Iran has relied upon assassination as a foreign policy tool in the past, but it boggles the mind to imagine that they would use someone as unreliable and possibly unhinged as Ababsiar. I won't rehash the many questions that can and should be raised about this whole business; for compelling skeptical dissections, see Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Tony Karon, and John Glaser.
As I said yesterday, I don't know what actually happened here, and I remain open to the possibility that there really was some sort of officially-sanctioned Iranian plot to assassinate foreign ambassadors here on U.S. soil. But the more I think about it, the less plausible whole thing appears. In particular, blowing up buildings in the United States is an act of war, and history shows that the United States is not exactly restrained when it responds to direct attacks on U.S. soil. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and we eventually firebombed many Japanese cities and dropped two atomic bombs on them. Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and we went out and invaded not one but two countries in response. When it comes to hitting back, in short, we tend to do so with enthusiasm.
Iran's leaders are not stupid, and surely they
would have known that a plot like this ran the risk of triggering a very harsh
U.S. response. Given that extraordinary risk, is it plausible to believe they
would have entrusted such a sensitive mission to a serial bungler like
Ababsiar? If you are going to attack a target in the United States, wouldn't
you send your A Team, instead of Mr. Magoo?
Hence the growing skepticism, including the possibility that this might be some sort of "false flag" operation by whatever groups or countries might benefit from further deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations. If the Obama administration can't back up their allegations in a convincing way, they are going to face a diplomatic backlash and they are going to look like the Keystone Cops. They could even face a situation where rightwing war-mongers seize on their initial accusations to clamor for harsh action (a development that has already begun), while moderates at home and abroad lose confidence in the administration's competence, credibility, and basic honesty.
So my advice to Holder & Co. is this: you better show us what you've got, and it had better be good.
Photo courtesy of Nueces County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images
For the record: I don't know if there was a genuine Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. Let me repeat that: I don't know. And neither do you. All we know is that the U.S. government claims to have uncovered such a plot, involving an Iranian-American used-car salesman who allegedly was getting direction from some part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. This dangerous criminal mastermind reportedly thought he was paying a Mexican drug cartel to conduct the actual attacks, when he was in fact dealing with an undercover DEA agent.
As I said, none of us really know what was going on here, but several features ought to be kept in mind. First, the Iranian government is by all accounts a contentious and unruly body, and it is possible that some rogue element of the Revolutionary Guards came up with this cockamamie but obviously despicable scheme. Whether Supreme Leader Khamenei or President Ahmadinejad had anything to do with it, of course, is another matter entirely.
Second, the FBI doesn't have a terrific track record in identifying and documenting this sort of conspiracy, and we'd be fools to take their accusations at face value. There is sometimes a fine line between uncovering a real terrorist plot and subtly encouraging one, as in the famous case of the "Miami Seven," whose plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago appears to have been largely inspired by the undercover agent who eventually exposed them. Until we know a lot more about the actual time line and evidence behind these latest accusations, a certain skepticism is warranted. And I wouldn't be surprised if the government eventually reveals that the evidence of direct Iranian involvement is based on intercepted signals intelligence, which it will then claim it cannot make public without compromising sources and/or methods. In other words, just trust us...
Third, before we leap to the conclusion that this is more evidence of how heinous Iran's revolutionary leadership is, let's pause to remember that the United States and some of our allies have done similar things in the past. We tried to bomb Muammar al-Qaddafi's tent back in the 1980s, and the CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro and a few other foreign leaders back in the 1960s. And the United States has certainly backed various groups that used assassination and other forms of terrorism to advance their political aims, such as the Nicaraguan contras. Some of you might think that these efforts were justified; my point is simply that we aren't wholly innocent in this regard. That doesn't justify what Iran is accused of doing, but it might temper our own moral outrage a bit.
Lord knows there's plenty of grounds for concern about various Iranian actions (including their reliance on murder and/or sabotage on several occasions in the past), and no shortage of conflicts of interest between Tehran and Washington. But this story is sufficiently bizarre -- would a real Iranian agent actually try to hire a drug cartel to do his dirty work? -- and the potential consequences are sufficiently grave that we really ought to wait until we know more before drawing any conclusions at all.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Today is one of those days when blogging is difficult -- lots
of meetings through the day, office hours for students, and then I take off for
Korea. So no time for extended reflection on anything, except...
I sometimes think the U.S. Congress is working overtime to prove my point about the domestic origins of our screwed-up Middle East policy, and to set a new record for fealty to the Israel lobby. Of course you already saw that those enlightened and courageous patriots up on the Hill have voted to slash our foreign aid budget, except, of course, for the biggest chunk, which happens to go to one of the wealthiest recipients. Translation: Israel will still get its $3 billion per year, even though its per capita income is now 27th in the world and even though lots of other countries and programs are getting their aid totals whacked. Moreover, as Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now runs down here, they are also targeting the Palestinian Authority because it had the temerity to apply for recognition as a state a week or so ago. Those fiends! How dare they seek a state of their own!
Needless to say, it is hard to imagine a policy that could be better designed to solidify regional resentment and hatred of the United States, and at a moment when local populations are finding their own voice for the first time in decades. And it's equally hard to find an approach to this conflict that is more likely to do long-term harm to Israel itself, by encouraging it to continue the policies that have squandered so much international acceptance and directly contributed to various social and economic problems there. Not to mention the dubious morality of punishing stateless peoples while rewarding the country that is continue to expand its illegal settlements. Talk about hitting the negative policy trifecta: bad for the United States, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for Israel too.
Meanwhile, I'm off to Seoul this evening, to attend a conference on regional security issues at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security. It is a very impressive group of American and Korean scholars, including several who know a lot more about these issues than I do. I expect to learn a lot, but mostly I'm interested in figuring out just who worries the South Koreans most: China, North Korea, or us?
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
Despite what you might think, I don't have much to say about Tom Friedman's column in the Sunday New York Times, where he openly bemoans the disastrous influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy and puts up in bright lights how bad it is for Israel as well. I'm grateful to Glenn Greenwald and Phil Weiss for pointing out that this is the main point that John Mearsheimer and I have been making for some time in our writings about the lobby.
But I will say this: Friedman's admission reflects the protracted failure of U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestine issue, going back several decades. That's not news, of course. What has changed in the past few years is that the lobby's operations and its harmful influence are now out in the open for all to see, which makes it almost impossible to make the old arguments that Israel is a "vital strategic asset" or a country that "shares our values" with a straight face, or to convince anyone who's not already in agreement. Not after more than forty years of occupation, not after 9/11, not after the 2006 Lebanon War, not after Operation Cast Lead, not after the killings on the Mavi Marmara, and not after PM Netanyahu's repeated acts of contempt toward the U.S. president.
The United States has backed Israel no matter what it did because AIPAC and the other groups in the lobby have enormous influence inside the Beltway and use that political muscle to defend Israel whenever its government's policies clash with America's interests. But the problem they face now is that almost everyone can see what they are doing and people like Friedman understand that the policies the lobby is promoting are a disaster for the United States and Israel alike. At this point, only hardcore individuals and groups in the lobby and opportunistic fellow-travelers try to kick up dust by blaming our failed Middle East policy on "public opinion" or on the supposed influence of Christian evangelicals. Right: like they were the ones who told Obama to stop pressing Netanyahu if he wanted to get his health care bill passed, and they were the ones holding one-sided Congressional hearings and threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it goes to the UN to get statehood.
The elephant has been in the room for a long time, but now it has the spotlights on it and it's wearing a pink bikini too. It's hard to miss, in short, which is surely why Tom Friedman wrote what he did.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Michael C. Desch of Notre Dame offers the following guest post:
There are lots of reasons that President Barack Obama will remain comfortably within the consensus here in the United States and oppose any Palestinian request for recognition of their statehood later this month at the United Nations.
Not opposing the Palestinians' request for U.N. recognition would cut against the grain of U.S. policy toward the region. In a July vote marked by the level of unanimity that is usually only seen in one party "people's democracies," the House of Representatives voted 406 to 6 to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it moves ahead. The president is also up for re-election next year, and given the shaky state of the U.S. economy, the race will be close and he will not want to alienate any potential supporters, including the Israel lobby.
But the problem with our "unwavering" support for the policies of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is that it rests on a questionable assumption: That the Palestinians represent the main obstacle to peace today.
The Palestinians' and the rest of the Arab World's unwillingness to recognize the Jewish state may have been the primary road-block to peace in the past. But since the Arab League's March 2002 Beirut Declaration offering recognition of Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state and the coming to power in the West Bank of a moderate and effective government under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad Salam, Israel now has, Hamas notwithstanding, real partners for peace. Indeed, had the Palestinians focused their struggle for self-determination in the U.N. 40 years ago, we all would have been thrilled.
But it is not clear that the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world have a partner on the Israeli side. Former head of Israel's secret service the Mossad Meir Dagan, surely no pro-Palestinian dove, has vociferously criticized Netanyahu's lack of vision for failing to offer a credible Israeli peace initiative; a criticism that Netanyahu's ally World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder echoed.
It is the structure of Israel's multi-party democratic political system that gives the roughly 30 percent of the Israeli public unalterably committed to retaining the occupied territories and all of Jerusalem disproportionate influence in Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. There are other potential coalition partners for Netanyahu who support the two state solution, including the Centrist Kadima Party, but Obama needs to prod Netanyahu to embrace them.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
If you're still wondering why the United States is in trouble these days, a good place to start is Bill Keller's piece in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. It's a softball attempt at self-criticism, in which Keller reflects on why he was wrong to favor war in Iraq, and it illustrates a lot of what is wrong with entire foreign policy establishment in the Land of the Free. The tone is mildly sorrowful, but there's only a hint of genuine regret. One gets little sense that Keller has lost much sleep over his error, and he barely acknowledges that the war he and his associates enabled left hundreds of thousands of people dead, created millions of refugees, and squandered trillions of dollars.
Instead, he tells us that his post-9/11 hawkishness came from "a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the [9/11] attack." Excuse me? I'm all for fatherly devotion, but I also expect people in a positions of authority like Keller's to keep such feelings in check and think with their heads and not just their hearts. And did Keller ever stop to think about the Iraqi fathers and daughters whose lives would be irrevocably shattered by the U.S. invasion?
Keller makes much of the fact that lots of other liberal pundits were hawkish on the war, a group he refers to as the "I Can't Believe I'm a Hawk Club." This defense amounts to saying "Ok, I was wrong, but so were a lot of other smart guys." What he fails to mention is that plenty of others got it right, including the thirty-three international security scholars who published a paid advertisement on Keller's very own op-ed page on September 27, 2002. But did Keller or any other members of the Times' editorial board reach out to them, to see if their opposition to war was well-founded? Of course not.
Finally, Keller's reflections are silent on what the Times has done to prevent similar debacles in the future. Let's not forget that Keller & Co. hired William Kristol, who deserves as much blame for the war as anyone, to write an op-ed column a few years back, long after the Iraq War had gone south. That little experiment didn't work out too well, but it gives you some idea of the Times' learning curve.
To cap it all off, turn to yesterday's Book Review, where the cover story is neoconservative David Frum's review of Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum's new book on how America can get its mojo back. Frum is the former Bush speechwriter who gave us the phrase "axis of evil," and co-author (with Richard Perle) of one of the most comically over-the-top books on the "war on terror." And like Keller, Frum, Friedman and Mandelbaum were all enthusiastic Iraq War hawks too.
There you have it, folks: on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the Times gave prominent place to four people who were all vocal supporters of the invasion of Iraq, a decision that did far more damage to the United States than Al Qaeda ever did. Instead of holding itself accountable for its past misjudgments and looking elsewhere for expert advice, the Times -- like most of the foreign policy establishment -- continues to run on autopilot and recycle the same ideologues. And if the country keeps relying on advice from those who gotten so many big things wrong in the past, why should it expect better results?
Postscript: I did not feel inclined to join the orgy of 10th anniversary reflections this past week, but I did offer a brief assessment on the Belfer Center's website here.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
According to the New York Times, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is backing a plan to keep some 3,000-4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq past the end-of-year deadline, albeit only in a training role. This plan would violate President Obama's pledge to remove all U.S. troops by that time, but it is fewer troops than 14,000-18,000 figure that the military reportedly recommended.
But the real kicker comes later in the article, where the Times reports:
Even as the military reduces its troop strength in Iraq, the C.I.A. will continue to have a major presence in the country, as will security contractors working for the State Department ... "
The administration has already drawn up plans for an extensive expansion of the American Embassy and its operations, bolstered by thousands of paramilitary security contractors. It has also created an Office of Security Cooperation that, like similar ones in countries like Egypt, would be staffed by civilians and military personnel overseeing the training and equipping of Iraq's security forces.
Even without an extension of the deadline after 2011, that office is expected to be one of the largest in the world, with hundreds if not thousands of employees. Officials have previously suggested that keeping American soldiers in this office might not require a new security agreement to replace the expiring one since they would be cover by the same protection offered to diplomats (my emphasis)."
My question is: Whom do we think we are fooling? Surely not the Iraqis, who aren't likely to see much difference between U.S. soldiers and U.S. "paramilitary security contractors." Indeed, the Sadrist movement has already denounced these plans, and is holding a major demonstration in Baghdad today to demand a complete U.S. withdrawal. And we aren't fooling the remaining anti-American extremists in the rest of the region, who believe that the United States is an aggressive imperial power seeking to dominate the region with military force and who will use our remaining presence-no matter how it is camouflaged-as a recruiting tool.
The real answer, I suspect, is that we fooling ourselves. By removing most of the troops, and leaving behind CIA personnel and thousands of contractors, we are pretending to have fulfilled the pledge to leave Iraq. This will make it easier for Obama to claim that he ended an unpopular war and for Americans to think we won some sort of victory. Of course, the fact that the Pentagon still thinks we have to have troops there to "stabilize" the situation underscores how false the latter claim is. But one danger is that we will think we have left Iraq when we really haven't, and so we won't understand why many people there (and in neighboring countries) continue to see the United States as having designs on the region.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
All eyes have been riveted on the endgame in Libya, and I'm as guilty as anyone in that regard. Qaddafi was hard to ignore because his behavior was often peculiar and because he caused a lot of trouble over 40 years of rule. A violent uprising in which NATO has backed one side is bound to command a lot of attention too, and it's only natural for us to spend time trying to figure out what implications, if any, this will have for the broader process of political change that is taking place in the Arab world. Add it all up, and it's hardly a surprise that events in Tripoli have dominated the headlines and taken up a lot of megabytes and pixels here at FP.
Nonetheless, I feel compelled to remind everybody that Libya is not in fact a very important country. It has a very small population (less than 6.5 million, which means that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg governs more people than Qaddafi ever did). Libya does have a lot of oil, but it's not a market-setting swing producer like Saudi Arabia or a major natural gas supplier like Russia. Libya has little industrial capacity or scientific/technological expertise, its military capabilities were always third-rate, and even its nuclear research programs never came anywhere near producing an actual weapon. And Qaddafi's incomprehensible ideology won few, if any converts, apart from those who had little choice but to pretend to embrace it.
Instead, Libya under Qaddafi was mostly significant as a sometime sponsor of terrorism and for Brother Muammar's own bizarre behavior. He was a troublemaker, to be sure, but fortunately he lacked the capability to cause as much trouble as he might have liked.
It is heartwarming to see the rebels triumph, and let's by all means hope that they defy expectations and manage to build a new and reliably democratic Libyan state. But in the larger scheme of the world this revolt is a pretty minor event. In the long term, more good would probably come from 1) getting the United States and Eurozone economies restarted (which would have lots of positive secondary effects), 2) preventing an intense security competition between the United States and China, 3) finding some way to reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions, 4) settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 5) ensuring that democracy takes firm root in Egypt, or 6) preventing more bloodbaths in South Asia (just to name a few).
I don't mean to be a killjoy here, and nothing I've just said diminishes the achievement of the courageous Libyans who have fought to regain control over their own country and their own lives. But their success won't help us make progress on a lot of other big issues in world politics, and we ought to keep that in mind too.
One of the things that gets in the way of conducting good national security policy is a reluctance to call things by their right names and state plainly what is really happening. If you keep describing difficult situations in misleading or inaccurate ways, plenty of people will draw the wrong conclusions about them and will continue to support policies that don't make a lot of sense.
Two cases in point: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are constantly told that that "the surge worked" in Iraq, and President Obama has to pretend the situation there is tolerable so that he can finally bring the rest of the troops there home. Yet it is increasingly clear that the surge failed to produce meaningful political reconciliation and did not even end the insurgency, and keeping U.S. troops there for the past three years may have accomplished relatively little.
Similarly, we keep getting told that we are going to achieve some sort of "peace with honor" in Afghanistan, even though sending more troops there has not made the Afghan government more effective, has not eliminated the Taliban's ability to conduct violence, and has not increased our leverage in Pakistan. In the end, what happens in Central Asia is going to be determined by Central Asians -- for good or ill -- and not by us.
The truth is that the United States and its allies lost the war in Iraq and are going to lose the war in Afghanistan. There: I said it. By "lose," I mean we will eventually withdraw our military forces without having achieved our core political objectives, and with our overall strategic position weakened. We did get Osama bin Laden -- finally -- but that was the result of more energetic intelligence and counter-terrorism work in Pakistan itself and had nothing to do with the counterinsurgency we are fighting next door. U.S. troops have fought courageously and with dedication, and the American people have supported the effort for many years. But we will still have failed because our objectives were ill-chosen from the start, and because the national leadership (and especially the Bush administration) made some horrendous strategic judgments along the way.
Specifically: invading Iraq was never necessary, because Saddam Hussein had no genuine links to al Qaeda and no WMD, and because he could not have used any WMD that he might one day have produced without facing devastating retaliation. It was a blunder because destroying the Ba'athist state left us in charge of a deeply divided country that we had no idea how to govern. It also destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and enhanced Iran's regional position, which was not exactly a brilliant idea from the American point of view. Invading Iraq also diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, which helped the Taliban to regain lost ground and derailed our early efforts to aid the Karzai government.
President Obama inherited both of these costly wars, and his main error was not to recognize that they were not winnable at an acceptable cost. He's wisely stuck (more-or-less) to the withdrawal plan for Iraq, but he foolishly decided to escalate in Afghanistan, in the hope of creating enough stability to allow us to leave. This move might have been politically adroit, but it just meant squandering more resources in ways that won't affect the final outcome.
If you're like me, your attention this week has been focused on the gyrating stock market. That's not my area of expertise -- though my gut tells me that the wild swings of the past few days are mostly a reflection of uncertainty -- and I won't try to tell you what it means or how you can profit from all this turmoil. (If I had the answer for that, I'd have taken my wife's advice and moved our retirement funds into cash or Treasuries a couple of weeks ago. Oh well.)
Overall, I remain a long-term optimist about America's global position, because the United States still has lots of innate advantages and most of our current problems stem from self-inflicted wounds (stupid wars, threat inflation, a warped tax code, too much money corrupting politics, etc.). Compared with a lot of other countries, however, the United States remains geopolitically secure, wealthy, and technologically advanced. It has excellent higher education and a relatively young and growing population (especially when compared to most of Europe, Russia, or Japan). If we can just get our politics and our strategy right we'll be fine, though I admit that this is a big if.
So instead of brooding about my portfolio, I've been thinking about the Big Uncertainties that are going to shape events in the years to come. It's a subject I've visited before (see my "Five Big Questions" from July 2010), so you can consider this a partial update.
Here are my Five Big Uncertainties for 2011.
1. The World Economy: Meltdown or Malaise? Obviously, a major driver of the near-to-medium term environment will be whether we get another major economic slump. See FP colleague Dan Drezner for the nightmare scenario here, and especially bear in mind the danger that a serious slide would almost certainly lead to even more poisonous politics in lots of different places. (Like any good economist, Dan presents the optimistic scenario here, which tells you why President Kennedy used to complain that he wanted to meet a one-handed economist). The alternative that I foresee, alas, is not a scenario of rapid economic recovery. Instead, the best we can hope for is at least a couple more years of very modest economic growth. But at this point I'd take that in a heartbeat.
Ian McKinnell /Getty Images
Just when you think your contempt for Congress could not get any higher, our elected representatives manage to do something to ratchet it up another notch. After congressional shenanigans helped spark a major market sell-off and sparked fears of a double-dip recession, you'd think every single one of them would be heading back to their districts to figure out what their constituents wanted and to try to explain how they were going to help make things better. Or maybe a few of them would even spend the recess taking a crash course in macroeconomics and public finance, so that they could start exercising their public duties more responsibly.
But what did 81 of them decide to do instead? You guessed it: they are off on junkets to Israel, paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, an AIPAC spinoff that has been funding such trips for years. That's right: during the August recess nearly a fifth of the U.S. Congress will visit a single country whose entire population is less than that of New York City.
Such behavior is especially disturbing in light of our current woes; even Greta Van Susteren of Fox News found it appalling (h/t Mondoweiss here and here). But it's not really a new pattern: in recent decades about 10 percent of all Congressional trips overseas have been to Israel, even though it is only one of the nearly 200 countries in the world.
Why do Congresspersons do this, especially at a moment when it is obvious that they ought to be worrying about conditions here at home? Mostly because such junkets burnish a legislator's ‘pro-Israel' credentials and facilitate campaign fundraising. Such trips also expose these visitors to the policy preferences and basic worldview of Israel's leaders, which is of course why AIEF pays for them.
I suppose I ought to be grateful that AIPAC and its sister organizations continue to work overtime to prove me and my co-author right. But there are bigger issues at stake here, which is why I hope that every one of those eighty-plus Congressmen faces a lot of nasty questions from their constituents upon their return.
And in a related story, the Israeli government has just announced a new round of settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem. (For apt commentary, see Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress here.) If you've been wondering why most people have lost faith in U.S. stewardship of the peace process and are turning to other strategies--such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement or the push for a Palestinian state at the UN --well, I think you have your answer. And if "two states for two peoples" is never achieved and Israel ceases to be either a Jewish majority state or a true democracy, you'll know exactly which misguided or feckless Americans helped bring that about.
UPDATE: American taxpayers will be pleased to know that Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) has reassured Israelis that financial challenges "will not have any adverse effect on America's determination to meet its promise to Israel." Translation: we may be cutting Medicare and Social Security for U.S. citizens, but Israelis--whose country has the 27th highest per capita income in the world--will continue to get generous subsidies from Uncle Sucker.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Today is the 21st anniversary of a key date in world history. On this date in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, setting in motion a train of events that would have fateful consequences for Saddam himself, but also for the United States. Indeed, one could argue that this invasion was the first step in a train of events that did enormous damage to the United States and its position in the world.
Of course, we all know what happened in the first Gulf War. After a brief period of vacillation (and a vigorous public debate on different options), the first Bush administration assembled a large and diverse international coalition and quickly mobilized an impressive array of military power (most of it American). It got approval from the U.N. Security Council for the use of force. Although a number of prominent hawks predicted that the war would be long and bloody, the U.S.-led coalition routed the third-rate Iraqi forces and destroyed much of Saddam's military machine. We then imposed an intrusive sanctions regime that dismantled Iraqi's WMD programs and left it a hollow shell. Despite hard-line pressure to "go to Baghdad," Bush & Co. wisely chose not to occupy the country. They understood what Bush's son did not: Trying to occupy and reorder the politics of a deeply divided Arab country is a fool's errand.
Unfortunately, the smashing victory in the first Gulf War also set in train an unfortunate series of subsequent events. For starters, Saddam Hussein was now firmly identified as the World's Worst Human Being, even though the United States had been happy to back him during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. More importantly, the war left the United States committed to enforcing "no-fly zones" in northern and southern Iraq.
But even worse, the Clinton administration entered office in 1993 and proceeded to adopt a strategy of "dual containment." Until that moment, the United States had acted as an "offshore balancer" in the Persian Gulf, and we had carefully refrained from deploying large air or ground force units there on a permanent basis. We had backed the Shah of Iran since the 1940s, and then switched sides and tilted toward Iraq during the 1980s. Our goal was to prevent any single power from dominating this oil-rich region, and we cleverly played competing powers off against each other for several decades.
With dual containment, however, the United States had committed itself to containing two different countries -- Iran and Iraq -- who hated each other, which in turn forced us to keep lots of airplanes and troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We did this, as both Kenneth Pollack and Trita Parsi have documented, because Israel wanted us to do it, and U.S. officials foolishly believed that doing so would make Israel more compliant during the Oslo peace process. But in addition to costing a lot more money, keeping U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia for the long term also fueled the rise of al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was deeply offended by the presence of "infidel" troops on Saudi territory, and so the foolish strategy of dual containment played no small role in causing our terrorism problem. It also helped derail several attempts to improve relations between the United States and Iran. Dual containment, in short, was a colossal blunder.
But no strategy is so bad that somebody else can't make it worse. And that is precisely what George W. Bush did after 9/11. Under the influence of neoconservatives who had opposed dual containment because they thought it didn't go far enough, Bush adopted a new strategy of "regional transformation." Instead of preserving a regional balance of power, or containing Iraq and Iran simultaneously, the United States was now going to use its military power to topple regimes across the Middle East and turn those countries into pro-American democracies. This was social engineering on a scale never seen before. The American public and the Congress were unenthusiastic, if not suspicious, about this grand enterprise, which forced the Bush administration to wage a massive deception campaign to get them on board for what was supposed to be the first step in this wildly ambitious scheme. The chicanery worked, and the United States launched its unnecessary war on Iraq in March 2003.
Not only did "Mission Accomplished" soon become a costly quagmire, but wrecking Iraq -- which is what we did -- destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and improved Iran's geopolitical position. The invasion of Iraq also diverted resources away from the war in Afghanistan, which allowed the Taliban to re-emerge as a formidable fighting force. Thus, Bush's decision to topple Saddam in 2003 led directly to two losing wars, not just one. And these wars were enormously expensive to boot. Combined with Bush's tax cuts and other fiscal irresponsibilities, this strategic incompetence caused the federal deficit to balloon to dangerous levels and helped bring about the fiscal impasse that we will be dealing with for years to come.
Obviously, none of these outcomes were inevitable back in 1990. Had cooler heads and smarter strategists been in charge after the first Gulf War, we might have taken advantage of that victory to foster a more secure and stable order throughout the Middle East. In particular, we would have pulled our military forces out of the region and gone back to offshore balancing. After all, Saddam's decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 did not force the United States to choose "dual containment." Nor did it make it inevitable that we would bungle the Oslo peace process, pay insufficient attention to al Qaeda's intentions, or drink the neocons' Kool-Aid and gallop off on their foolish misadventure in Iraq. But when future historians search for the moment when the "American Empire" reached its pinnacle and began its descent, the war that began 21 years ago would be a good place to start.
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One of my occasional hobbyhorses on this blog has been the desirability of greater transparency on where research and advocacy organizations (and intellectuals) get their money. It's the old question: cui bono? You can read what I've said in the past here and here. I frankly would welcome a system where think tanks had to publicly disclose all of their sources of support, so that consumers of their work could see exactly who they were beholden to. Lest you think I'm being hypocritical about this, I think university professors ought to do the same with any outside income that they earn.** The reason in both cases is simple: when anyone participates in public discourse on vital issues, outsiders should be aware of potential conflicts of interest and should know exactly who might be paying for it.
Eli Clifton at the Center for American Progress has a revealing post up on the various backers of the neo-conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This organization has been in the vanguard of the campaign for war with Iran, reflexively supportive of the Israeli right, and a fertile source of fear-mongering Islamophobia. It will therefore surprise no one that its primary financial backers are also hard-core Zionists, and that the democracy it seems most committed to defending is located far from Washington D.C.
This situation underscores a point that John Mearsheimer and I emphasized in our book: the Israel lobby is not confined to formal "lobbying" organizations like AIPAC. It also includes well-funded think tanks and advocacy organizations that actively work to shape political debate and public discourse in ways intended to reinforce the U.S.-Israel "special relationship" and to persuade policymakers to support policies that these organizations believe (in my view incorrectly) will be beneficial for Israel and the United States.
It bears repeating that there's nothing illegal, conspiratorial, or unethical about what these donors are doing; individuals and foundations in the United States are entitled to fund whatever advocacy organizations they wish. But Clifton's data helps you understand why discourse inside-the-Beltway is so heavily skewed in one direction.
**Postscript: In my own case, in 2010 I received a consulting fee from the S Rajaratnam School in Singapore and speakers' fees from eight other universities (for public lectures). I also received honoraria for presentations at several events sponsored by the Department of Defense and for participating in a colloquium sponsored by the State Department. I was also paid to speak at an Economist magazine conference in Athens and for doing some research work for the New America Foundation. Foreign Policy pays me a modest amount to write this blog, and Cornell University Press pays me to co-edit a book series. And in case some of you are wondering, I didn't receive any money from any individuals, groups, countries, or corporations connected with Middle East politics.
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In case you missed it, veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar has written a scathing denunciation of U.S. Middle East policy -- and long-time Middle East advisor Dennis Ross -- in Ha'aretz. His bottom line is that Oslo is over, yet the United States is still trying to convince the Palestinian leadership to buy into a diplomatic process that has been a cover for continued settlement building and has manifestly failed to bring them a state. The key passage:
"It would be tough to find a bigger expert than Ross on the myths and illusions related to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. For years he has been nurturing the myth that if the United States would only meet his exact specifications, the Israeli right would offer the Arabs extensive concessions.
During the years he headed the American peace team, Israeli settlement construction ramped up. Now Ross, the former chairman of the Jewish People Policy Institute, is trying to convince the Palestinians to give up on bringing Palestinian independence for a vote in the United Nations in September and recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people -- in other words, as his country, though he was born in San Francisco, more than that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was born in Safed.
If they give up on the U.N. vote, Ross argues, then Netanyahu will be so kind as to negotiate a final-status agreement with them. Has anyone heard anything recently about a construction freeze in the settlements?
Ross is trying to peddle the illusion that the most right-wing government Israel has ever seen will abandon the strategy of eradicating the Oslo approach in favor of fulfilling the hated agreement. In an effort to save his latest boss from choosing between recognizing a Palestinian state at the risk of clashing with the Jewish community and voting against recognition at the risk of damaging U.S. standing in the Arab world, Ross is trying to drag the Palestinians back into the "peace process" trap.
If Obama really intended to justify his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, he would not have left the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hands of this whiz at the never-ending management of the conflict."
As Eldar makes clear, Ross has been advising presidents ever since the first Bush administration and played a central role in both the Clinton and Obama administration, and his stewardship of the "peace process" has led exactly nowhere.
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As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cleans out his desk and heads for retirement, Ido Oren of the University of Florida highlights what might have been his most important accomplishment: preventing a war with Iran. Money quotation:
"This scenario [of war with Iran] failed to materialize because the political forces pushing for active consideration of the military option -- Vice President Dick Cheney's camp in the George W. Bush White House, hawkish pundits, key congressional leaders and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- have been outmaneuvered by an informal antiwar coalition that included the Pentagon, the military's top brass, the intelligence community and the Department of State.
This coalition was ably led by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who is stepping down from his post at the end of the month. If one person were to receive the top credit for preventing an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, it would be Gates."
This non-incident also reminds us that sometimes policymakers succeed not by achieving some positive goal, but by helping produce a "non-event"; in this case, preventing the dogs of war from barking. Those who'd like the United States to be at odds with the entire Muslim world for the next century or so are probably disappointed that we didn't add Iran to the list that now includes Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya (and arguably, Pakistan), but the rest of us should be grateful for this rare bit of sanity.
I'm off to Europe this evening, and blogging will be light-to-non-existent for the rest of the week, depending a bit on internet access. First stop is Dublin, where I'll be giving a lecture on Obama's foreign policy at the Institute for International and European Affairs. It's not a particularly upbeat assessment-though I will give Obama credit for some positive steps -- and more and more I think he's in for a real dog-fight in the 2012 election.
We all know that he inherited a bleak economic picture, two losing wars, and an American whose global image was in free-fall. He's done a lot to repair America's overall image, and the administration's initial response to the financial crisis clearly averted a more serious and lasting meltdown. But with the passage of time, it's become clearer that Obama is more comfortable with bold rhetoric than bold action. With some rare exceptions -- the raid that took out Osama bin Laden being an obvious example -- it's been a pretty tepid and unimaginative presidency and at a moment in history where bigger and harder decisions were needed. He put together a financial rescue package, but it was smaller than necessary and it didn't do much to reform the overall financial system. He got a health care bill passed, but in a watered-down form that won't make that much difference to health care costs. And apart from the initial stimulus package, there wasn't a sustained focus on job creation, which is coming back to haunt him now.
On foreign policy, he's getting out of Iraq, but very slowly. Instead of cutting our losses in Afghanistan and focusing on more serious problems, he chose a half-hearted "surge" instead and will have trouble selling Afghanistan as a success story when he campaigns next year. He gives great speeches on the Middle East but doesn't follow through with policy change, so he can't claim any progress there either. He's done better in strengthening ties in Asia and I get the impression that he'd like to get us out of our current quagmires and focus even more attention there (which would be smart), but then he sends us into a strategically pointless intervention in Libya.
In short, it's not clear exactly what big achievements Obama is going to tout when he heads out on the hustings next year. You don't get much credit for helping avert disasters that didn't actually happen (like a spiral into another Great Depression), and it's already clear that the GOP field is going to beat him up repeatedly over the sluggish economy and the high unemployment numbers. And don't expect the Republican House to lift a finger to help on that front, no matter how many Americans suffer as a result. Foreign policy issues won't play much role in the campaign, but it's hard for me to think of any big wins that will sway many voters, and most people will have forgotten about our getting bin Laden by the time they enter the voting both. So if I were one of the people who write for FP's' "Shadow Government," I'd be keeping my CV up-to-date.
After spending Bloomsday sightseeing in Dublin (a city I've never visited), I'm off to a conference in France on Friday. The topic is "The Middle East and World Order: A Continued Focus of Transatlantic Concern," and there will be an interesting collection of people from Europe, the Middle East and the United States in attendance. I'm especially interested to hear how these problems look from outside the United States, and although the proceedings are "off-the-record", I'll try to pass along any pearls of wisdom (suitably anonymized) that I glean from the exchanges.
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A couple of weeks ago, Americans were treated to a remarkably clear demonstration of the power of the Israel lobby in the United States. First, Barack Obama gave a speech on Middle East policy at the State Department, which tried to position America as a supporter of the Arab spring and reiterated his belief that a two-state solution is the best way to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The next day, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rejected several of Obama's assertions and lectured him about what "Israel expects" from its great power patron. Then Obama felt it was smart politics to go to AIPAC and clarify his remarks. It was a pretty good speech, but Obama didn't offer any ideas for how his vision of Middle East peace might be realized and he certainly never suggested that -- horrors! -- the United States might use its considerable leverage to push both sides to an agreement. And then Netanyahu received a hero's welcome up on Capitol Hill, getting twenty-nine standing ovations for a defiant speech that made it clear that the only "two-state" solution he's willing to contemplate is one where the Palestinians live in disconnected Bantustans under near-total Israeli control.
Not surprisingly, this display of the lobby's influence made plenty of people uncomfortable, and some of them -- such as M.J. Rosenberg at Media Matters offered up some personal tales of their own run-ins with Israel's hardline backers. In response to Rosenberg's sally (and the hoopla surrounding the Netanyahu visit), Jonathan Chait of The New Republic has fallen back on a familiar line of defense. After conceding that there is a lobby and that it does have a lot of influence, he argued that "the most important basis of American support for Israel is not the lobby but the public's overwhelming sympathy for Israel." In other words, AIPAC et al don't really matter that much, and all those standing ovations on Capitol Hill were really just a genuine reflection of public opinion. He also said that John Mearsheimer and I believe the lobby exerts "total control" over U.S. foreign policy, and that we claim groups in the lobby were solely responsible for the invasion of Iraq.
To deal with the last claim first, this straw-man depiction of our argument merely confirms once again that Chait has not in fact read our book. I don't find that surprising, because a careful reading of the book would reveal to him that we weren't anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, had made none of the claims he accuses us of, and had in fact amassed considerable evidence to support the far more nuanced arguments that we did advance. And then he'd have to ponder the fact that virtually everything The New Republic has ever published about us was bogus. So I can easily see why he prefers to repeat the same falsehoods and leave it at that.
But what of his more basic claim that the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel is really a reflection of "the public's overwhelming sympathy?" There are at least three big problems with this assertion.
First, even if it were true that the public had "overwhelming sympathy" for Israel, it does not immediately follow that United States policy would necessarily follow suit. U.S. officials frequently do things that a majority of Americans oppose, if they believe that doing so is in the U.S. interest. A majority of Americans oppose fighting on in Afghanistan, for example, yet the Obama administration chose to escalate that war instead. Similarly, numerous polls show that the American people favor the "public option" in health care, but that's not exactly the policy that health care reform produced. Public opinion is an important factor, of course, but what public officials decide to do almost always reflects a more complex weighting of political factors (including the intensity of public preferences, broader strategic considerations, the weight of organized interests, etc.)
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Juan Cole had a nice piece over the weekend on the paltry Western offers of support for the Arab Spring. Helping the Arab economies recover and securing a moderate and democratic outcome in Egypt and Tunisia (and maybe elsewhere) is arguably one of the more significant priorities in contemporary international affairs, yet pledges of outside help have been pretty meager.
This isn't surprising, of course, because the United States is in deep fiscal trouble and some of our European allies are in even worse shape. So we're trying to get the Arab oil exporters to pony up a lot of the money, or we're making vague commitments of support that may not even be implemented.
If you want a comparison that reveals how our recent profligacy has undermined our ability to make bold moves in cases like this, consider that the European Recovery Program (aka the "Marshall Plan") cost about $13 billion in 1948 dollars, which would the equivalent of about $113 billion today. The U.S. economy was only about $270 billion back then, so Marshall Plan aid amounted to roughly 5 percent of U.S. GDP. If Washington were to pledge a similar percentage today, it would be about $700 billion. Of course, Egypt and Tunisia are just two countries, not a whole continent, but even a tenth of that amount would be some $70 billion (which is less than we spend each year fighting in Afghanistan). Yet nobody seems to be thinking in these terms. After all, what did Obama offer Egypt in his speech at the State Department? A couple of billion in loan guarantees and debt relief, and that's all. And I'm not saying he should've have pledged more, because I've no idea where he could find it or how he'd get Congress to authorize it.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why the United States and its allies aren't going to have much influence over how the Arab spring evolves.
P.S. I'll be appearing at a conference session in Washington today (Tuesday), co-sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative. Other speakers include Nathan Brown, Marina Ottaway, Tarek Masoud, Nicholas Burns, Marwan Muasher, and Christopher Boucek. I don't know if it will be live-streamed or not, but you can find out more about it here.
Mark Twain once described members of Congress as having "the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes." Twain's mordant assessment provides a parsimonious explanation for the predictably rapturous reception that Bibi Netanyahu received there yesterday. All one can say about the vast majority of our courageous elected officials is that they aren't genuine friends of Israel, because every burst of applause was another nail in the coffin of the Zionist dream.
Why? Because Netanyahu's central message yesterday was an emphatic rejection of a genuine two-state solution. While professing to be willing to make major sacrifices for the sake of peace, his lengthy list of preconditions made it abundantly clear that he thinks Israel is entitled to rule the Palestinian population in perpetuity-even when it becomes numerically larger than Israel's Jewish citizens -- and that the United States should back this effort no matter what. And even though the only alternatives to a two-state solution are 1) further ethnic cleansing, 2) a binational, one-state democracy, or 3) permanent apartheid, Congress is just fine with that.
It would be both tiresome and fruitless to fisk Netanyahu's speech in its entirety, but you can find intelligent commentary on it here, here, here, and here. And don't miss Lara Friedman's hilarious annotated version here. Among his various applause lines, my personal favorite was the claim that Israel has to keep its settlements because 650,000 people (i.e., about 10 percent of Israel's population) now live in them. (It's not entirely clear where Netanyahu got that number, as most estimates of the settler population put it "only" half a million or so.)
The key point, however, is that the settlements didn't sprout spontaneously, and the settlers themselves didn't just show up by accident. On the contrary, the vast majority of the settlers are there because every Israeli government since 1967 has actively promoted and subsidized the colonization of the West Bank, even though this policy is contrary to international law and at odds with measures such as U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. Not only does 242 say that Israel should withdraw from territories occupied in the Six Day War (the French version of the official text says "the territories") but it begins by emphasizing "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force." The United States played a key role in drafting the resolution, and then effectively ignored its implications for the next forty years.
Some people still believe that settlement building was just a wacky project undertaken and backed primarily by religious extremists and by rightwing parties like Likud. In fact, colonization of the West Bank began under the Labor-led governments in the 1960s and 1970s, and governments of all stripes have backed it without exception. Read Gershom Gorenberg's Accidental Empire, Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar's Lords of the Land, or Shlomo Gazit's Trapped Fools, and you will learn that settlement building was a deliberate policy designed to "create facts," so that future prime ministers like Netanyahu could claim it was simply impossible for Israel to withdraw. And the location of key settlement blocs like Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim were chosen to secure Israeli control over key aquifers and make it difficult-to-impossible to create a viable Palestinian state.
As I said in my previous post, Israel faces a choice -- a two-state solution or apartheid -- and it is now crystal-clear which one Netanyahu has chosen. I see this situation as genuinely tragic, as he is condemning several more generations to live in bitter conflict and putting his own country's future at risk. That's his privilege, I suppose, but America's blind support for this foolish policy is also a serious threat to U.S. national security. So if your Congressman or Senator was clapping loudly yesterday, you might drop him or her a note and ask why they care more about subsidizing an illegal and unjust occupation than they do about America's long-term welfare and well-being. You'll probably discover that Twain was on to something.
I was wrong. I thought it made little sense for President Obama to deliver a speech to the AIPAC policy conference, because he'd lose points globally if all he did was pander, and he'd face a firestorm at home if he told the truth and offered up a little tough love. Plus, I thought it was a little demeaning for a sitting president to appear in front of any foreign policy lobbying group.
But Obama was cleverer than that, which is one of the countless reasons why he is president and I am not. Instead of choosing between pandering and speaking truth to power, he did both.
Specifically, he offered up the usual bromides about shared values and ironclad commitments, and put down various markers about the U.N. vote and Hamas and security that were obviously intended to defuse suspicions. He also used the opportunity to expose how his critics-including Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu-had deliberately mischaracterized what he had said in his speech at the State Department last Thursday, especially his reference to the 1967 borders as a baseline for negotiations.
But the important part of the speech was when he told AIPAC what everyone knows: Israel and its die-hard supporters here in the United States have a choice. Down one road is a viable two-state solution that will guarantee Israel's democratic and Jewish character, satisfy Palestinian national aspirations, remove the stigma of looming apartheid, turn the 2007 Arab Peace Plan into a reality and ensure Israel's acceptance in the region, facilitate efforts to contain Iran, and ultimately preserve the Zionist dream. Down another road lies the folly of a "greater Israel," in which a minority Jewish population tries to permanently subjugate an eventual Arab majority, thereby guaranteeing endless conflict, accelerating the gradual delegitimization of Israel in the eyes of the rest of the world, handing Iran a potent wedge issue, and making the United States look deeply hypocritical whenever it talks about self-determination and human rights.
The speech also tells you how much Obama has learned since taking office. After being repeatedly humiliated by Netanyahu and the lobby ever since the June 2009 Cairo speech, Obama has learned that he can't take them on directly. By necessity, therefore, he's now relying on the indirect approach. His strategy is to keep pointing out what is palpably obvious: the alternative that Netanyahu and AIPAC propose is simply not going to work, and the costs of trying to pursue it will only increase with time. And because this argument has the merit of being true, more and more people are going to be convinced by it.
It would be better, of course, if a great power like the United States could use its considerable leverage directly, in order to bring the parties to an agreement. Indeed, it would have been far, far better had the U.S. done so during the Oslo peace process, instead of acting like "Israel's lawyer." But given political realities in the region and the lobby's continued influence here in the United States, what Obama did yesterday was probably the best one could hope for. I doubt it will be enough, but it was better than I expected.
I know I'm supposed to get excited about the "major policy address" on Middle East policy that President Obama is going to deliver today, and you can be sure that plenty of people will be standing by to parse and spin every syllable. And then they'll do the same thing to his speech at the AIPAC policy conference on Sunday, and will hover with equal intensity over Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to Congress next week.
But I'm finding it hard to get motivated this time around, because I don't think all this blather means anything. The advance word on Obama's speech says he's going to try to position the United States as a supporter of the "Arab spring" (except, of course, where it might be inconvenient), he'll make the usual ritual condemnations of Iran, and he'll offer up a modest package of economic support for Egypt (reportedly $2 billion worth of loan guarantees and debt restructuring which mostly just reallocates some existing funds).
Is your pulse racing with excitement? Didn't think so. For starters, Egypt's foreign debt is already more than $30 billion, so a bit of restructuring and increased loan guarantees (which just let Egypt borrow money at lower interest), isn't exactly a "Marshall Plan for the Mideast." For Obama to condemn Iran isn't exactly headline news either, and while it might make the Saudis happy to hear him say it, the bigger problem is that it does nothing to reduce Iran's ability to exploit popular discontent with the situation in the region itself. And reports are that Obama's team has ruled out saying anything interesting on the Israel-Palestine issue, which is hardly surprising given how badly they've bungled that part of their portfolio.
But the big problem is that nobody cares what U.S. presidents say anymore -- and especially not Obama -- because he hasn't delivered. As surveys of popular opinion in the Arab world have repeatedly shown, what his audience in the Middle East wants is not more elegant phrases beautifully delivered -- but actual policy change. Obama gave a wonderful speech in Cairo in June 2009 -- which was well-received -- but since then we've seen him backing down on Israel's settlements, helping trash the Goldstone Report, vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution on the settlements, and adopting a decidedly inconsistent attitude towards the Arab spring (we like it in Egypt and Libya; not so much in Bahrain).
Words do matter, but only when they are backed up by appropriate action. Obama gave some pretty good speeches on our terrorism problem, for example, but it was the decision to redouble the search for bin Laden and then the bold choice to send a team after him in Pakistan that is the potential game-changer there. Without significant policy change, in short, the speeches we're going to hear over the next week will just be a lot of eloquent irrelevance.
One of the downsides of blogging is the feeling that if youtry to take a day or two off, something big will happen and you'll miss thechance to say anything about it. So mywife and I spent this weekend in Portland, Maine, to celebrate our 20thanniversary, and what happens? GeorgeMitchell resigns, Palestinian demonstrations in Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza,and Syria (!) spill across the ceasefire lines and the "most moral army in theworld" ends up shooting and killing several of them. Meanwhile, NATO officials call for escalating the war inLibya, the head of the IMF gets arrested on suspicion of rape in New York, andthere's lots of speculation about what Obama is going to say in his upcomingMiddle East speech (and what Israeli PM Netanyahu will say in his speech toCongress the day after). And then we learn that Obama is planning to address the annual AIPAC policy conferencenext weekend, a decision that strikes me as both beneath the dignity of the Presidency and a classic "no-win" situation to boot. (If he panders he'll just confirm what everybody now suspects about America's paralyzed Middle East policy; if he tells them the truth, he'll face a firestorm of criticism here at home. Why not just send Biden?)
I know this isn't about me, but if this is what happens whenI go away for a weekend, maybe I should just stay home. So let me play catch-up on some of the news.
The word that comes to mind is "trapped." George Mitchell was trapped in a dead-endjob as special envoy, because his job was to shepherd negotiations and therewere no negotiations taking place. Someof you may recall that I thought Mitchell should have resigned eighteen months ago, onceit became clear that Obama wasn't willing to take on Netanyahu or the Israellobby. Had he resigned then, it mighthave been of some modest value as a wake-up call. His resignation last Friday was more of awhimper than a bang.
But Mitchell wasn't the only one who's trapped. So are Arab dictators like Muammar Qadhafi in Libyaand Bashar Assad in Syria, even if they manage to cling to power temporarily throughthe use of brutal force. They aretrapped because demands for greater openness and justice aren't going to end,and their responses over the past few months now guarantee that there can be nosoft landing or safe exit strategy for them. If they fall, they will fall completely, andprobably lose their lives in the bargain. So they are trapped in the dead-end spiral of repression and stagnation,while the rest of the world advances.
The Palestinians are still trapped of course; they remain theworld's largest stateless populations and are simultaneously victims ofIsrael's expulsion in 1947-48 and again in 1967, decades of Arab neglect andexploitation, Israel's long occupation/control of the West Bank and Gaza, and prolongedWestern indifference. Their only silver lining is the growing realization that terrorist violence is not their best route to statehood, but diplomacy, publicity, and non-violent civil protest might be.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is trapped too: by hisideological devotion to the dream of "Greater Israel," by the even more hawkishstance of the settlers and his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and by theuncertainties created by the recent upheavals in the Arab world. He can't do the right thing and move swiftlytowards the creation of a viable Palestinian state--even if he wanted to, whichis highly unlikely--though this step would end the demographic threat toIsrael's democratic and Jewish character andremove the main reason why people around the world are increasinglycritical of Israel's conduct. Instead, by clinging to the policies of the past,the IDF ends up having to crack down on demonstrators on the West Bank andalong the borders, which means they start to resemble the thugs that areputting down pro-democracy movements in Syria and Bahrain. (No, I'm not saying the situations are identical, but appearances do matter).
And Barack Obama is surely trapped too. I think he's understood what needed to bedone in the Middle East since before he became president; he just didn't recognizethat it would be a lot harder to do than he thought. He knew that achieving a viable two-statesolution was the most obvious way to remove the primary source of Arab andMuslim anger at the United States, as well as the best way to safeguardIsrael's long-term future. As he said inCairo back in June 2009, a two-state solution was "in America's interest, thePalestinians' interest, Israel's interest," and the world's interest." And if he could pull that off, then theUnited States could stop devoting so much time on the squabbles in the MiddleEast and start shifting more of its strategic attention to the far more seriousissue of China's rise in Asia. But Obamadidn't fully recognize the power of the Israel lobby, which made it impossiblefor him to deliver on his early commitments. And as long as that is the case, Obama (or his successors) will remaintrapped in policies that aren't good for America, Israel, or any of our otherfriends in the region.
I've been buried with end-of-term obligations and some other administrivia, so I haven't posted anything since last week. Fortunately, you've all got the whole web to feast upon, so I doubt that anyone's been suffering from withdrawal.
Given all the other things that have been happening lately -- hey, did you hear we got bin Laden? -- I also haven't written anything about the unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas that was announced more than a week ago. Several correspondents weighed in by email and asked me what I thought of it, so here goes.
The first and most obvious point to remember is that the agreement is very fragile. There's a lot of bad blood between the two main Palestinian factions, stemming both from doctrinal and strategic differences but also from a lot of prior violence between the two. Fatah conducted a harsh crackdown on Hamas during the 1990s-in an attempt to prove to the U.S. and Israel that it was serious about controlling terror -- and the two groups fought a short civil war in Gaza in 2007. Incompetent U.S. "leadership" helped cause that war: not only did the US refuse to accept the results of the 2006 Palestinian elections because we were miffed that Hamas had won, but then we tried to arm Fatah and encouraged it to attack Hamas, which led the latter to preempt and drive the less effective Fatah cadres out. In other words, the United States helped foment a little civil war, and then the side we were backing lost. Well done!
Of course, those who oppose the creation of Palestinian state promptly denounced the recent unity agreement, declaring that of course one could never negotiate with a "terrorist organization." I've never understood this position, given that many current governments had their origins in groups that used terrorist methods as part of struggle to gain national independence, and several terrorist leaders (including some former IRA members, Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Shamir, and Menachem Begin) have all been welcomed at the White House. The U.S. government has backed its own "terrorist" groups on occasions, and some U.S. leaders are now openly hoping that bin Laden's death will encourage the Taliban -- which also relies on terrorism -- to come to the table and get serious about talks to end the war in Afghanistan. The obvious point is that sometimes states negotiate with groups using terrorist methods, if they are seriously interested in ending a conflict and they have sufficient reason to believe that the "terrorist" group is too. It didn't make sense to negotiate with bin Laden or al Qaeda, obviously, but it might with Hamas.
Israel and the United States now say that they won't negotiate with Hamas because it refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and because its charter contains some hateful and frankly bizarre clauses, including an endorsement of that old Tsarist fraud, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Here I find it hard to understand Hamas's reluctance to jettison rhetorical positions that serve no positive purpose and merely make it easy for their opponents to portray them as unreasonable. I can see why they might hold back on formal recognition-it's one of the last cards they have to play, and Fatah's decision to recognize Israel back in the late 1980s hasn't stopped the continued expansion of Israeli settlements or led to a Palestinian state. But Hamas could advance its own cause mightily if they made it clearer that they would be willing to recognize Israel provided that it withdrew to the 1967 borders and allowed for the creation of a Palestinian state. Some Hamas leaders have hinted about movement along these lines, but being less coy about it would place the Netanyahu government in a very difficult political position, especially now.
Despite these reservations, however, I think the unity agreement is in fact in everyone's interest. It is certainly in the Palestinians' interest, as they are already weak and vulnerable and internal divisions just make that situation worse. And given the current balance of power and the broader international situation, violence is not the Palestinians' best tactic: civil resistance, international publicity, and diplomatic engagement is. And I've always believed that the best way to either marginalize Hamas or force it to moderate its own positions was to make genuine progress toward ending the occupation and creating an independent state, which will make calls for continued resistance fall on deaf ears.
Palestinian reconciliation and unity is ultimately good for Israel too, assuming that Israel wants peace more than land. Divisions among the Palestinians were very useful for Israel during Zionism's expansionist phase, because it made establishment and consolidation of the state possible. But if Israel wants peace, then it needs a Palestinian neighbor that is not wracked by internal divisions: who wants to live next door to a failed state? At this point in Israel's history, in fact, its security would be enhanced by a stable, secure, and legitimate Palestinian government that could keep order in its territory, foster economic development, and when necessary, deal with any die-hard rejectionists that might still exist. (The same goes for Israel too: If a peace deal is ever reached, it will need to be able to control its own right-wing extremists, and that won't be a picnic either.) Ironically, Israel needs an effective Palestinian government as much as the Palestinians do, and that was always going to be hard to achieve so long as the Fatah-Hamas split endures.
Finally, the unity agreement is a potential opportunity for the United States as well, if it helps break the current deadlock and gets movement towards a final status agreement rolling again. As everyone knows (but some don't want to admit), the persistence of the I-P conflict is a major distraction for the United States and a major contributor to anti-Americanism, at a moment when the United States needs to be shifting its sights toward Asia and improving its relations with the Arab and Islamic world. So the idealist in me would love to believe that this agreement will hold, and that it can be used to jump-start a new diplomatic process (which will probably also involve moving beyond the current U.S. monopoly on this issue).
Alas, the realist in me suspects it won't. So far, nobody ever lost money assuming that things could go badly in that part of the world, or that new opportunities will be squandered.
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It seems somewhat superfluous of me to join the feeding frenzy of commentary on the killing of Osama bin Laden, but it is also an event that I can't quite ignore. I caught the announcement late last night, along with some rather breathless initial commentary. Here are a few initial reactions.
For starters, I think it's important to keep his killing in perspective. By all accounts bin Laden was no longer playing an operational role for al Qaeda, and his main value to the movement he founded was largely symbolic. It was the fact that he was still at large and still defiant that made him significant, and his death takes that symbolic value away. He may serve as an inspirational martyr for a few people, but I doubt that lots of new recruits will rally to al Qaeda's banner merely to avenge his death.
In fact, one could argue that the movement he founded has already failed. He hoped to inspire a broad fundamentalist revolution that would topple existing Arab governments and usher in a unified Islamic caliphate, but that goal has failed to resonate among Arab and Muslim populations and his own popularity has declined steadily since 9/11. Instead, the upheavals that have swept the Arab world in 2011 have drawn their inspiration not from bin Laden but from more universal ideals of democracy, human rights, and open discourse. And the more that these movements succeed, the more discredited his entire approach to politics will be.
Which is not to say that bin Laden was a complete failure. One of his main goals was to lure the United States into costly and protracted wars in the Muslim world, and with our help, he succeeded. Had 9/11 never occurred, the United States would not have squandered trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly accelerated the end of the "unipolar moment." But this "achievement" was not solely his doing. Had the Bush administration been smarter, and focused on counter-terrorism rather than a misguided campaign of "regional transformation," we might have found him sooner and at less financial, human, and reputational cost.
Going forward, focusing too much attention on bin Laden threatens to distract us from the broader social and political challenges that the United States still faces in the Arab and Islamic world. Bin Laden is gone, but anger at various aspects of U.S. policy continues to drive anti-Americanism and makes it more difficult to protect our core interests in that part of the world. Al Qaeda isn't the real reason we having a hard time in Afghanistan, and it has nothing to do with our difficulties with Iran. Indeed, even it it were disappear entirely, we'd still face plenty of other foreign policy challenges in the Middle East (and elsewhere).
Furthermore, there's a tendency for both presidents and the media to exaggerate the long-term significance of events like this. Whenever we are successful, we assume our credibility will soar, our opponents will be disheartened and confused, and our allies will once again be impressed by our prowess and inclined to do our bidding. Maybe so, but the effect usually wears off quickly. In the long run, what really matters is not our ability to catch a single bad guy after ten years of trying, but rather the long-term health of the U.S. economy and our ability to devise foreign and defense policies that other powerful states will welcome and/or respect.
Perhaps the best thing to hope for, therefore, is that Obama will use this event as an opportunity to "declare victory and get out." Not that he will do this overtly, but the United States can now claim -- as Obama did last night -- that the primary perpetrator of 9/11 has been "brought to justice," and that our long campaign in Central Asia has finally achieved its primary goal. (That's not quite true, of course, but politics often involves a bit of sophistry and rhetorical sleight-of-hand). So if Obama can exploit this triumph to justify an accelerated disengagement, he'll reap the maximum benefits from this otherwise modest victory.
But don't count on it. For one thing, we've spent that past ten years creating a pretty massive set of organizations designed to prosecute the "war on terror," and government bureaucracies (like other organizations) tend not to put themselves out of business without a fight. It will take a sustained political effort (and continued fiscal pressure) to unwind the post-9/11 version of the national security state, which means we'll be standing in TSA lines, conducting drone attacks, and having our emails and phone calls scanned for a long time to come. And I suppose bin Laden would take posthumous credit for that too.
Lastly, although President Obama and his team are undoubtedly (and deservedly) gratified by this achievement, I wouldn't rest on these laurels if I were them. President George H. W. Bush won a smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War, and then he was turned out of office by a disgruntled electorate eighteen months later. Americans will be exchanging high-fives for a few days and Obama will no doubt get a bump in the polls, but memories are short and other issues (e.g., employment) are likely to loom much larger come 2012. As the winner of the 1992 election, Bill Clinton, might have put it: "It's the economy, stupid."
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According to the New York Times, the U.S. government is actively trying to find someplace for Muammar al-Qaddafi to go, where he (and presumably his family) can be comfortable and secure from prosecution. The idea, obviously, is to "build him a golden bridge" to retreat across, and thus hasten his removal from power.
In a different story, the Times also describes how the Mubarak family in Egypt is getting accustomed to life in jail.
So let me get this straight: one former dictator ultimately decides not to unleash massive force against anti-government demonstrators, and eventually leaves power more-or-less peacefully, if not exactly voluntarily. His reward? He winds up in jail (maybe deservedly). Another dictator responds by using loyal military units to repress unarmed demonstrators, and when they arm themselves, he starts using all the means at his disposal to defeat them and remain in power. But because the United States is now desperate to end the Libyan debacle and avoid a costly stalemate, Washington ends up trying to find him some sort of safe haven for him.
Meanwhile, what lesson will future autocrats draw from these events? The obvious one, it seems to me, is "No more Mr. Nice Guy," which may not be the message we really want to be sending.
It is also hard for me to believe that Qaddafi would accept our assurances at this point. After all, we promised not to try to overthrow him back in 2003, in exchange for his giving up his various WMD program. Given that overthrowing him is precisely what we are trying to do now, any guarantees we might give him are bound to sound pretty hollow and he's more likely to fight on and "gamble for resurrection."
Regrettably, this means that the intervening powers may have little choice but to persevere, in the hopes that the rebels eventually gain the upper hand. Unfortunately, that is likely to mean prolonging the current civil war, which in turn means more dead Libyans. All in the name of "humanitarianism."
NOTE: I'll be traveling for most of next week, and blogging will be intermittent at best.
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Was the decision to intervene in Libya justified by the threat of imminent massacres, and possibly even a genocide? And did President Obama have the authority to intervene?
If you're still wondering about either of those questions, I have two suggestions for further reading. The first is an op-ed by Alan Kuperman, which casts further doubt on the likelihood that Qadhafi's forces were about to engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of innocent bystanders in Benghazi. Kuperman points out that Qadhafi loyalists did not conduct massacres in any of the cities that they have recaptured, and that the Libyan tyrant's threats to show "no mercy" applied only to rebels. He also notes that the reported casualties are overwhelmingly male, which suggests that it is primarily combatants (i.e., rebels) who are being killed.
Note that Kuperman is no apologist for Qadhafi. He does not deny that Qadhafi is a thuggish ruler, that his loyalists were killing civilians, or that some of their actions constitute war crimes. The question, however, is whether there was an imminent risk of a bloodbath that "would stain the conscience of the world," as Obama put it.
Notice also that although Obama did not use the word genocide himself, both current and previous members of his administration did raise the spectre of a genocide in order to make the case for U.S. action. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former head of Policy Planning in the State Department, tweeted ""The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters. In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted." Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said ""We learned a lot in the 1990s. We saw what happened in Rwanda." The clear implication was that failure to act in Libya would produce hundreds of thousands of deliberate murders (which is what occurred in Rwanda in 1994).
Given that Qadhafi is a heinous ruler of dubious legitimacy, why does this matter? It matters because the case for intervention depends heavily on the magnitude of the humanitarian calamity that we sought to forestall. If the danger really was that grave, then the case for intervention goes up. But if the likely consequences of a Qadhafi victory were regrettable but not that large, then the case for intervention diminishes. And the case for action is even weaker if there is a genuine risk that intervention might prolong the fighting, produce a stalemate or a failed state, or provoke the government into acts of brutality that it might not have conducted otherwise.
Second: did Obama exceed his powers when he ordered the use of force? The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has issued an opinion on this issue (perhaps coincidentally, on April 1st), and--surprise, surprise--they've concluded that it was perfectly ok. The OLC makes three arguments: 1) it's not really a war, and the President has broad powers short of war; 2) we're enforcing a Security Council resolution, which gives the President even more authority, in part because he has to uphold the credibility of the Security Council; and 3) the War Powers Resolution permits the President to use force for sixty days without advance approval.
Michael Glennon of the Fletcher School examines the OLC's arguments in the Harvard National Security Journal and finds them wanting on legal and constitutional grounds. More tellingly, he also shows that these justifications are at odds with Obama's own statements before he became President. In 2007, for example, Obama told the Boston Globe that "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involves stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." (Obama used to teach constitutional law, so he's not exactly a tyro on these issues). And back when she was a mere Senator, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "I do not believe that the President can take military action--including any kind of strategic bombing--against Iran without congressional authorization." More strikingly still, State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh has repeatedly argued--as a scholar--against precisely this sort of expansive interpretation of presidential power. But not this time.
At this point in the history of the republic, it should come as no surprise that people working in the Executive Branch tend to think the President has the power to use military force just about any time the he and his advisors deem it necessary or advisable. It is equally unsurprising that politicians and pundits tend to be hypocritical about this issuet: they think the President ought to have broad powers when they agree with the particular use to which it is being put, and they think those powers ought to be limited when they think the President is doing something foolish or unnecessary.
Reasonable people can disagree about just how much authority the Executive Branch ought to have, just as they can also disagree about the course of action the United States and others should have followed with regard to the situation in Libya. But let's be clear about the long-term effects of the de facto authority we are granting every President. It's a messy world out there, and there will always be some trouble somewhere that people will want Uncle Sam to fix. If you give a single individual the authority to decide when to order the world's mightiest military into battle, without having to consult anyone except his own appointed advisors, then you shouldn't be surprised when that mighty military gets used over and over and over.
There's an interesting story in Politico, where Senator John Kerry (D-Mass) criticizes Obama's handling of the Middle East peace process and then goes out on a limb and predicts a new Middle East peace push. I don't know if he's right or wrong about that, but the Senator indulges in a bit of revisionist history about his past views on the peace process.
In particular, Kerry now says that he never thought it was a good idea to focus on Israel's continually expanding settlements in the West Bank. Money quote:
I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable," Kerry told the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, organized by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "I think it sort of put the cart ahead of the horse in a way here. The key is to get to the security and borders definition and if you can get the borders definition you've solved the problem of the settlements. But we can't get that discussion right now."
The problem is that this isn't what Kerry was saying and doing back in 2009, when the Obama administration was trying in vain to get a settlement freeze. When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Washington that spring, he met personally with Kerry in the latter's capacity as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Here's what Kerry said about his conversation back then:
John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, began his remarks following his meeting with Netanyahu by saying, ‘I emphasized to the prime minister the importance of Israel moving forward, especially with respect to the settlements issue.'"
As a good realist, I certainly don't expect politicians to tell the truth all the time. Maybe Kerry was just forgot. Or maybe he really did think focusing on settlements was a mistake, but went along at the time as good team player. But I'm more inclined to think he was in favor of Obama's approach. ... before he was against it.
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Over in another corner of the FP media juggernaut, David Bosco has challenged my claim that the humanitarian case for imminent intervention in Libya was weak. According to President Obama, the United States and its allies had to intervene because Qaddafi's forces were about to conduct a massacre that "would stain the conscience of the world." He said there would be "violence on a horrific scale." Drawing on some recent commentary by political scientist Alan Kuperman and journalist Stephen Chapman, I questioned this assumption and said the risk of such a massacre was slight. Bosco challenges me in turn, and says that my assessment is an "epic overreach."
To be clear, I do think rebel lives would have been lost had Qaddafi's force taken Benghazi, and I have no doubt that the Libyan dictator would have dealt harshly with the rebel leaders and anyone who fought to the bitter end. In other words, I'm pretty sure his forces would have murdered some of the rebels and probably some innocent civilians too. But the president seems to have been convinced that Qaddafi was about to unleash genuine mass killings of perhaps as many as 100,000 people, in a city of roughly 650,000 (remember his pointed reference to Benghazi being nearly the size of Charlotte?). Thus, the president's rhetoric strongly implied that tens of thousands of innocent bystanders were about to be ruthlessly slaughtered. That same image was reinforced by media references to the "lessons of Rwanda" that supposedly had shaped the views of some of Obama's advisors.
Yet as I noted in my piece, there were no large-scale massacres in the other cities that the loyalists had recaptured. It is easy to believe that Qaddafi would have gone after the rebel leaders and diehard followers -- whom he undoubtedly regards as traitors -- but turning Benghazi into a ghost town filled with corpses was probably not in his own interest.
The president is tiptoeing through a mine-field of conflicting imperatives, seeking to justify a war that he has launched even though there are no vital strategic interests at stake. And make no mistake: it is a war. When your forces are flying hundreds of sorties, and firing missiles and dropping bombs on another country's armed forces, it is Orwellian to call it anything else.
It is a war being fought for humanitarian objectives -- and there's nothing inherently wrong with that -- but the president's somewhat tortured parsing of the reasons for his action betrays an awareness that he's on shaky ground. And notice that almost all of his justifications were anticipatory in nature: we went to war to prevent a potential bloodbath in Benghazi, to prevent evens in Libya from possibly affecting developments elsewhere in the Arab world, and to forestall some future tarnishing of America's reputation. When you are as strong and secure as the United States really is, everything becomes a "preventive" operation. (Too bad we don't think that way when it comes to financial matters). Ironically, if the United States faced real threats to its security, it wouldn't be wasting much time or effort on operations like this one.
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Five years ago this week, John Mearsheimer and I published "The Israel Lobby" in the London Review of Books. Our goal in writing the article (and subsequent book) was to break the taboo on discussions of the lobby's impact on U.S. foreign policy, and to transform it into a topic that people could talk about openly and calmly. Because we believed the "special relationship" that the lobby had promoted was harmful to the United States and Israel (not to mention the Palestinians), we hoped that a more open discourse on this topic would move U.S. Middle East policy in a direction that would be better for almost everyone.
Did we succeed?To read the full article, click here.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.