When the revolt in Tunisia occurred back in January, I wrote:
Although most Arab governments are authoritarian, they are also all independent and depend on a slightly different mix of political institutions and measures to keep the rulers in power. The fact that Ben Ali ultimately mismanaged a challenge and was driven from power does not mean that other Arab leaders won't be able to deflect, deter, or suppress challenges to their rule."
Tunisia is an obvious warning sign to other Arab dictatorships, and they are bound to be especially vigilant in the months ahead, lest some sort of similar revolutionary wave begin to emerge."
While conceding that a revolutionary cascade was possible and that pressure for greater openness might succeed in the long term, I concluded that a rapid transformation was unlikely.
As I've noted previously, I underestimated the degree to which events in Tunisia would inspire like-minded movements in other countries, and it's clear that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak didn't respond as swiftly or effectively as I expected. But Arab governments are under no illusions now, and we seem to be witnessing precisely the sort of counterrevolutionary responses that often serve to contain a revolutionary outbreak.
In Libya, the Qaddafi regime has responded in brutal but increasingly effective fashion and now seems likely to retain power in at least part of the country for some time to come. With few genuine foreign friends, a big pile of cash, and no place to run or hide, Qaddafi and his family had little choice but to fight it out and hope for the best, even if their brutal suppression of the rebel forces lands them back on the list of international pariahs.
For its part, the Saudi government has sought to pre-empt significant protests by doling out $37 billion worth of new social benefits, while making it clear that protests will be dealt with harshly. In neighboring Bahrain, the Khalifa dynasty has responded to rising protests from its Shiite majority population with heightened repression. It has also invited the Saudis -- which share the Khalifa regime's fear of Iranian influence -- to send several thousand troops there to back up the government.
So if you believed that the events in Tunisia and Egypt -- which were both relatively bloodless and remarkably swift -- were likely to be duplicated elsewhere, you were wrong. The revolutionary impulse has been remarkably contagious, but revolutionary outcomes much less so, at least thus far. Nor do we yet know how far-reaching the reforms in Tunisia and Egypt will ultimately be (though I remain cautiously optimistic).
All that said, I still find it hard to believe that these events do not herald more far-reaching political change throughout much of the Arab world. Even if some governments are able to keep the lid on for now, the social, political, and economic conditions that have given rise to these upheavals won't vanish anytime soon. Whether they consent to real reform or not, ruling elites are likely to be more mindful of popular opinion going forward, for fear of facing new protests in the future or driving frustrated reformers in more radical and dangerous directions.
If this view is correct, then the days when the United States could base key elements of its Middle East grand strategy on alliances with a set of Arab regimes whose policies tended to ignore popular sentiment -- including widespread popular anger at the U.S. role in the region -- are coming to an end. A new grand strategy is going to be needed -- and soon.
To say that I am appalled by the brutal murder of an Israeli family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar (near Nablus) is an understatement. Israel's occupation of the West Bank is universally recognized as a violation of international law and depends on force, intimidation, and violence, but there is no justification for anyone to take the lives of an entire family in this way. No good can possibly come from such a senseless act -- not for Palestinians, not for Israelis, and not for anyone else -- and it should be universally condemned.
But while we are at it, we should not spare the other parties who have helped create and perpetuate the circumstances where such crimes are likely to occur.
Let us therefore condemn every Israeli government since 1967, for actively promoting the illegal effort to colonize these lands.
Let us condemn those Palestinian leaders who have glorified violence in the past or who continue to do so today.
Let us condemn the hypocrisy of governments throughout the Arab world, who mouth solidarity with the Palestinians yet do little to improve their lives or advance the goal of an independent Palestinian state.
Let us condemn the craven passivity of U.S. politicians, whose deference to the Israel lobby has enabled the occupation for more than four decades, squandered the opportunity afforded by the Oslo Accords, and undermined efforts to create a viable Palestinian state.
Let us condemn the misguided fervor of Christian Zionists, who turn a blind eye to injustice against the Palestinians in the belief that it will hasten the "end times" tomorrow.
Let us condemn the cynicism of the Netanyahu government, which used this latest tragedy to announce the construction of 500 more housing units in the Occupied Territories.
And those of us who still hope for a two-state solution deserve criticism as well, for we have clearly not done enough to make that hopeful vision a reality.
Whoever wielded the knife in Itamar deserves to be condemned, caught, and punished for this reprehensible act. But let us not forget that many people bear responsibility for creating and perpetuating this conflict, and all of them should feel shame at this latest episode.
Postscript: For a thoughtful reflection on the incident from an Israeli peace activist, see Dimi Reider here.
Most of the news out of Libya is deeply disturbing, but I did catch two uplifting developments:
1. For the first time, Israel and the Palestinians co-sponsored a resolution, in this case condemning Qaddafi's brutal treatment of the Libyan people.
2. In a worthy humanitarian gesture, the government of Israel said it would allow 300 Palestinians fleeing the Libyan violence to enter the West Bank. Among other things, this admirable act reminds us that stateless peoples are vulnerable precisely because they lack any sort of safe homeland.
I've been writing this blog for a couple of years now, and for the most part I'm satisfied with what I've had to say. But no social science theory is 100 percent accurate, and no social scientist is right 100 percent of the time, especially when reacting to rapidly moving events. Anybody who writes a blog and sticks their neck out is going to get a few big things wrong, which is why I tell prospective bloggers to start with a thick skin.
Case in point: My post on why the revolution in Tunisia would not spread. To say my prediction was wrong is an understatement, and some of the usual critics have seized on this opportunity to take a shot or two. Fair enough, but when I look back at what I actually wrote, I don't feel particularly embarrassed. After all, I began by noting that revolutionary events are inherently hard to forecast (for reasons that other scholars had already identified), and the actual post (as opposed to the provocative headline) made it clear I didn't think contagion was impossible, just unlikely.
Moreover, I still think my reasons for being skeptical about the possibility of contagion were cogent, even if my forecast was clearly wrong in this instance. Large-scale protests are hardly a rare occurrence in many parts of the world, but the vast majority of them do not lead governments to fall. And when a government is toppled, most of the time this does not lead to similar upheavals elsewhere, and certainly not within a few days or weeks. My original prediction was off the mark, but it would have been correct in most cases.
But not this time, which raises the obvious question: Why was this case an exception? What did I miss? Because we still don't know exactly why and how the upheaval in Tunisia caught fire so quickly, what follows is inevitably speculative. But with that caveat in mind, here's where I think I blew it.
First, although everyone knew that authoritarian regimes like the Mubarak government in Egypt were unpopular, I underestimated the degree of internal resentment. Of course, as Timur Kuran and others have shown, that is precisely why it is impossible to predict the timing of a revolutionary upheaval: Citizens in an autocracy won't express their true preferences (and especially their propensity to rebel) openly because doing so is dangerous. This tendency for what Kuran calls "preference falsification" makes it impossible for anyone to know exactly how likely a revolution might be. But with hindsight, it's clear that resentment against some of these governments was deeper and wider than we recognized.
Second, it now seems likely many commentators -- including yours truly -- were unaware of the level of anti-government organization that had already taken place in places like Egypt, and it seems clear that the Mubarak government didn't know about it either. Massive yet disciplined street demonstrations don't occur entirely by accident, and we now know that young activists had been quietly mobilizing and organizing long before the Tunisian revolt lit the fuse. Given Egypt's central place in Arab politics, Mubarak's unexpected ouster fueled the perception that change was possible elsewhere, thereby fueling similar responses elsewhere.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images.
Last Friday the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Israel's continued expansion of settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank. The resolution didn't question Israel's legitimacy, didn't declare that "Zionism is racism," and didn't call for a boycott or sanctions. It just said that the settlements were illegal and that Israel should stop building them, and called for a peaceful, two-state solution with "secure and recognized borders. The measure was backed by over 120 countries, and 14 members of the security council voted in favor. True to form, only the United States voted no.
There was no strategic justification for this foolish step, because the resolution was in fact consistent with the official policy of every president since Lyndon Johnson. All of those presidents has understood that the settlements were illegal and an obstacle to peace, and each has tried (albeit with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm) to get Israel to stop building them.
Yet even now, with the peace process and the two-state solution flat-lining, the Obama administration couldn't bring itself to vote for a U.N. resolution that reflected the U.S. government's own position on settlements. The transparently lame explanation given by U.S. officials was that the security council isn't the right forum to address this issue. Instead, they claimed that the settlements issue ought to be dealt with in direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the security council should have nothing to say on the issue.
This position is absurd on at least two grounds. First, the expansion of settlements is clearly an appropriate issue for the security council to consider, given that it is authorized to address obvious threats to international peace and security. Second, confining this issue to "direct talks" doesn't make much sense when those talks are going nowhere. Surely the Obama administration recognizes that its prolonged and prodigious effort to get meaningful discussions going have been a complete bust? It is hard to believe that they didn't recognize that voting "yes" on the resolution might be a much-needed wake-up call for the Israeli government, and thus be a good way to get the peace process moving again? Thus far, all that Obama's Middle East team has managed to do in two years is to further undermine U.S. credibility as a potential mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, and to dash the early hopes that the United States was serious about "two states for two peoples." And while Obama, Mitchell, Clinton, Ross, and the rest of the team have floundered, the Netanyahu government has continued to evict Palestinian residents from their homes, its bulldozers and construction crews continuing to seize more and more of the land on which the Palestinians hoped to create a state.
Needless to say, the United States is all by its lonesome on this issue. Our fellow democracies -- France, Germany, Great Britain, Brazil, South Africa, India, and Colombia -- all voted in favor of the resolution, but not the government of the Land of the Free. And it's not as if Netanyahu deserved to be rewarded at this point, given how consistently he has stiffed Obama and his Middle East team.
The Wall Street Journal is a fine newspaper, but its op-ed page is like listening to O'Reilly, Beck, or Limbaugh but with a better vocabulary. And it usually makes about as much sense as they do.
The regime in Tehran -- aptly described by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday as 'a military dictatorship with a kind of theocratic overlay' -- feels zero compunction or shame about repressing political opponents. Hosni Mubarak and Egypt's military, dependent on U.S. aid and support, were susceptible to outside pressure to shun violence. Tehran scorns the West.
To put it another way, pro-American dictatorships have more moral scruples. The comparison is akin to what happened in the 1980s when U.S. allies led by authoritarians fell peacefully in the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, even as Communist regimes proved tougher."
I'm no fan of the Islamic Republic, but two points are relevant here. First, plenty of pro-American dictators--including former President Mubarak--felt zero compunction about brutally repressing political opponents in the past. That's one big reason why his regime was so unpopular. He just didn't do it this time around, in part because his security police weren't up to the task and because Egypt's armed services apparently refused to kill large numbers of their countrymen to keep him in power.
Second, and more importantly, has the WSJ editorial team completely forgotten about the fall of communism? Remember those nasty, hostile, brutal, anti-American, and vicious communist governments in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the USSR itself? These regimes didn't prove to be "tough" at all. In fact, by declining to suppress the "velvet revolutions" by force, they seem to have exhibited the same "moral scruples" that the WSJ attributes to its list of "pro-American" despots.
When Zhou en-Lai was asked in the 1970s about the historical significance of the French Revolution, he famously responded that it was "too soon to tell." Given that wise caution, it is undoubtedly foolhardy for me to try to pick the winners and losers of the upheaval whose ultimate implications remain uncertain. But at the risk of looking silly in a few days (or weeks or months or years), I'm going to ignore the obvious pitfalls and forge ahead. Here's my current list of winners and losers, plus a third category: those for whom I have no idea.
1. The Demonstrators
The obvious winners in these events are the thousands of ordinary Egyptians who poured into the streets to demand Mubarak's ouster, and to insist on the credible prospect of genuine reform. For this reason, Mubarak's designated deputy, Omar Suleiman, had to go too. Some of the demonstrators' activities were planned and coordinated (and we'll probably know a lot more about it over time) but a lot of it was the spontaneous expression of long-simmering frustration. By relying on non-violent methods, maintaining morale and discipline, and by insisting that Mubarak had to go, the anti-government uprising succeeded where prior protest campaigns had failed. "People power" with an Arab face. And oh yes: Google got a great product placement too.
2. Al Jazeera
With round-the-clock coverage that put a lot of Western coverage to shame, Al Jazeera comes out of these events with its reputation enhanced. Its ability to transmit these images throughout the Arab world may have given events in Tunisia and in Egypt far greater regional resonance. If Radio Cairo was the great revolutionary amplifier of the Nasser era, Al Jazeera may have emerged as an even more potent revolutionary force, as a medium that is shared by Arab publics and accessible to outsiders too. And I'll bet that is what Mubarak now thinks.
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President Obama is reportedly angry with the U.S. intelligence agencies for failing to anticipate the upheavals in Tunisia or Egypt. His irritation is silly, because there's a well-founded social science literature (by Timur Kuran, Susanne Lohmann, and Marc Granovetter, among others) explaining why it is nearly impossible to predict the onset of a revolutionary upheaval. You can identify countries where the government is unpopular or illegitimate, and thus were a rebellion might occur, but that doesn't tell you if or when a popular uprising of the sort we have been watching will occur.
As I explained before, the reason is because an individual's willingness to rebel is essentially private information, and nobody is going to tell you what they really think in an authoritarian society. Furthermore, an individual's willingness to march openly against the regime depends on what he or she thinks others will do, and that cannot be ascertained in advance either. But when conditions are right and some triggering event occurs (which can be almost anything), then you can get a rapid and unexpected revolutionary cascade, as more and more people decide that it is safe to express their previously-concealed resentment and that doing so is likely to succeed.
Instead of being angry with the U.S. intelligence agencies, therefore, Obama should be reserving his ire for his foreign policy advisors, who have been screwing up U.S. Middle East policy for over two years now and who may be in the process of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory yet again. If the news reports I've seen are correct, the United States is now getting behind a political transition that will be orchestrated by the new Vice President Omar Suleiman, a close Mubarak associate. It's not even clear if the United States now thinks Mubarak has to step down. Instead, Secretary of State Clinton seems to be suggesting that we need to help VP Suleiman "defuse" the street demonstrations, which would remove most of the impetus for change.
An unnamed "senior U.S. official" has also suggested that the Obama administration is dead set against a substantial political role for the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, the official reportedly suggested that what the United States wants is a purely "secular" government in Egypt (i.e., one with no Islamist influence) as if that's even possible in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim.
It's early days, of course, and as FP's Josh Rogin reports here, there is a potential legal nightmare trying to revise Egyptian law in ways that would permit a genuinely "free and fair" election. But I worry that the Obama administration is about to repeat the same mistake that the Bush administration made in the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006. After insisting that the elections be held, the United States simply refused to accept the results of the elections when we didn't like the winner (Hamas). Are we now going to keep our thumb discreetly on the scale in Egypt, to make sure that a post-Mubarak government continues to dance to Washington's tune? When will Washington learn that you cannot simultaneously proclaim your commitment to democracy and freedom and then insist on dictating who is allowed to win?
The other problem is that Suleiman doesn't have much (any?) credibility as a steward of democratic change. I suggested a couple of days ago that one way he could bolster his position would be to help push Mubarak out (and to make it clear that he is doing so), and to openly declare that he (Suleiman) will serve only as a caretaker and not run for office himself in the next election. I'm not at all sure that these measures would work, however, and the anti-government forces might well see him as no different than Mubarak himself. That certainly seems to be their reaction thus far. And if subsequent reforms are mostly cosmetic and individuals or groups associated with the old regime end up retaining power in a subsequent election, they are likely to have no more legitimacy than Mubarak has right now. And the U.S. image in the region, which is bad enough already, will take another big hit.
So the United States has two long-term challenges. The first is to make sure it is not once again perceived as working to quash a genuinely representative government in Egypt. The second is get ready to accept the results of that process, even if the people we might prefer don't win.
For more analysis along these lines, check out Asli Bani and Aziz Rana's article "The Fake Moderation of America's Moderate Mideast Allies," from Foreign Policy in Focus, here.
Egyptians have returned to the streets for what anti-government forces have dubbed a "day of departure." The early reports I've seen are heartening: the demonstrations are peaceful, more and more members of the elite appear to be embracing change, and key institutions like the army continue to behave with restraint and to enjoy respect from the crowds. If it holds up, this augurs well for a transition that avoids most of the worst-case scenarios.
Meanwhile, there seems to be a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy going on, trying to convince Hosni Mubarak to step down and to coordinate some sort of transitional process. I hope that is the case, because Egypt will need a credible caretaker government to orchestrate the revision of the constitution, conduct either new elections or the elections already scheduled for September, and to maintain order during this process.
I don't know what sort of transitional arrangements would work best, so I'm not going to prescribe any particular scenario or road-map. Instead, here are few items you might want to read, to get a sense of the different issues, possibilities, and pitfalls.
1. My colleage Tarek Masoud has an very interesting op-ed in today's New York Times, arguing that Mubarak needs to say long enough to orchestrate a transition that is consistent with the existing constitution. His point is that it makes sense to change the government via existing procedures, to emphasize the importance of rule of law. I'm not convinced this will work (i.e., the popular forces may not tolerate it), but his broader point about giving the transitional process as much legitimacy as possible seems right to me. But would the best be the enemy of the good?
2. For an alternative procedure, see the statement by a group of Egyptian activists that was translated and released by the Carnegie Endowment here. In their scenario, the Vice-President would oversee an independent process of revising the constitution and preparing for new elections, in consultation with independent jurists and constitutional experts. For additional commentary on the proposal, and the more general problem of constitutional reform, see Egypt expert Nathan Brown's posting here.
3. If you've been hearing those wild-eyed claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is a mortal threat to US interests and the nucleus of a future radical Islamic republic in Egypt, please read Helena Cobban's thoughtful discussion of the MB and its background. I should add that I think the lurid fears of some sort of radical jihadist takeover of Egypt are wildly off-the-mark, especially so long as the Egyptian army remains intact and respected (as it has so far). And as Masoud says in the op-ed discussed above, "democracy in Egypt, or any other part of the world, is not something we should fear."
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
The last day or two demonstrates that Mubarak has no intention of going down without a fight. At the same time, Egypt's Prime Minister has expressed regret for the loss of life and is pledging an orderly transition. Where does this leave us?
First of all, the events in the past day or two confirm a point I've made before: revolutionary upheavals are very hard to predict and the final outcome often isn't determined for weeks or months or even years. I was obviously wrong about the potential for contagion from the original Tunisian catalyst, but not about the fact that authoritarian governments are often able to ride out these storms. I'm not saying that Mubarak will (and as I said a couple of days ago, I think the regime is fatally compromised even if he does hang on), but the past day or two reminds us that the regime is not without resources. To repeat myself further, the danger is that the onset of a significant violence will create a situation where extremists on both sides feel empowered, resulting in far more extensive damage to Egypt's social order.
From a U.S. perspective, I'm with FP colleague Marc Lynch. If Obama goes wobbly at this point, he'll look even weaker than many people in the Middle East already assume he is. Given that Mubarak is beginning to do exactly what Obama asked him not to do, now's the time to distance ourselves even further. Obama should announce an immediate suspension of military aid to Egypt, while ordering the Pentagon to send a quiet message to Egyptian military commanders that aid will resume as soon as Mubarak steps down. We are playing the long game here, and need to take clear steps to ensure that we are not seen as complicit in dictatorial repression. Here I'm standing by my earlier remarks about the likely strategic consequences
From the perspective of the Egyptian leadership-and especially the new Vice President, Omar Suleiman, how do things look? Nobody is sharing any secrets with me, but I can still speculate. I caught part of an interview that Suleiman gave on Al Jazeera English (which has been indispensable throughout this crisis), and I thought he was doing his best to sound reasonable and to hold out the prospect of substantial reform but in an orderly manner. The problem, as I noted yesterday, is that neither Mubarak nor Suleiman (a long-time Mubarak associate who runs the intelligence services) has much (any?) credibility as a reformer. If Suleiman really wants to lead an orderly transition via constitutional reforms and September elections, therefore, the smartest thing he could do is to get Mubarak to leave power now, take credit for having done so, and then to govern openly and explicitly as a caretaker. That's just about the only way that Suleiman could gain a bit of credibility and legitimacy, and it might just make it possible to conduct a reform effort that could command broad acceptance.
One last point. In today's Washington Post, E.J. Dionne says that Obama's handling of this crisis will ultimately be judged by whether we get an anti-American/anti-Israel outcome or not. In his words, "Obama will be judged by results. If the Egyptian uprising eventually leads to an undemocratic regime hostile to the United States and Israel, the president will pay the price." I think he's right as a matter of practical politics, but this view also reflects the widespread assumption that the United States government has the capacity to determine the outcome of unruly political processes of the sort we are now witnessing in Egypt. This is silly: Nobody is in control of events there, nobody knows how it will turn out, and it's quite possible that we'll get either a good outcome or a bad outcome no matter what the United States government does. That doesn't mean the USG shouldn't try to shape events to the extent that we can, but we should not forget that our capacity to mold them is inherently limited.
I'm all for holding leaders accountable, especially when they do foolish things entirely on their own initiative (like invading Iraq). But we would do a better job of judging our leaders' performance if we acknowleged that presidents are neither omniscient nor omnipotent.
There's a part of me that would like to blog about something other than Egypt, but how can I? Events there are both too dramatic and of potentially great import, so I find it hard to wrench myself onto other topics. Apologies to any of you who'd like me to turn my attention elsewhere...
If history is any guide (and it is, albeit a rather fickle and ambiguous one), we are still in the early stages. The French revolution went through a series of distinct phases for more than a decade (accelerated, to be sure, by war), before Bonaparte's seizure of power. The Russian Revolution began with the March 1917 uprisings, followed by the Bolshevik coup in October and then a civil war. The Islamic republic of Iran did not leap full-blown from the brow of the Ayatollah Khomeini, but took several years to assume its basic form. Even the United States was a work-in-progress for years after victory in the revolutionary war. (Remember the Articles of Confederation, and the debate over the Constitution?).
In short, history cautions that we have no clear idea what form a post-Mubarak government in Egypt will take, and there's a lot of contingency at work here. I have my hunches and hopes, but nobody can be really confident about their forecasts at this stage. (Heck, at first I didn't think the upheaval in Tunisia would spread!) It will help a lot if the process of political contestation in Egypt avoids large-scale violence, because the onset of mass violence (whether by the regime and its supporters or by the anti-Mubarak groups), is going to fuel greater hatred and paranoia and tilt the process in more dangerous directions. For this reason, those who are urging a peaceful and orderly transition (including the Obama adminstration) are exactly right. And that's why the reports I'm seeing about rising violence (a summary of which can be found on Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish) is worrisome.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Like nearly everyone-including, I assume, Hosni Mubarak himself -- I've been surprised by the speed, scope and intensity of the upheaval in Egypt. As I write this, it's still not clear whether Mubarak will remain in power. Nor do we know how far-reaching the changes might be if he were to leave. We should all be somewhat humble about our ability to forecast where things are headed, or what the future implications might be.
That caveat notwithstanding, I want to offer a realist interpretation of what these events mean for the United States, along with the basic prescription that follows from that analysis. And though it may surprise some of you, I think realism dictates that the United States encourage Mubarak to leave, and openly endorse the creation of a democratic government in Egypt.
Realists are often caricatured as being uninterested in democracy or human rights, and concerned solely with the distribution of power and a narrowly defined national interest. It is true that realists tend to see calculations about power as the most important factor shaping international politics, and they often see sharp tradeoffs between strategic interests and moral preferences. Yet domestic considerations-including human rights-can be relevant for realists, particularly when thinking about one's allies.
To maximize their own security, states want allies that are strong, stable, and that do not cause major strategic problems for them (i.e., by getting into counterproductive quarrels with others). Other things being equal, states are better off if they don't have to worry about their allies' internal stability, and if an allied government enjoys considerable support among its population. An ally that is internally divided, whose government is corrupt or illegitimate, or that is disliked by lots of other countries is ipso facto less valuable than one whose population is unified, whose government is legitimate, and that enjoys lots of international support. For this reason, even a staunch realist would prefer allies that were neither internally fragile nor international pariahs, while recognizing that sometimes you have to work with what you have.
ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images
Today's NY Times reported the death of Gladys Horton, lead singer of the Marvelettes, whose recording of "Please Mr. Postman" was Motown Records first No. 1 hit. I first heard the song in the Beatles' cover version (which ain't bad), but the original is even better: sharp, urgent, and it's got that classic Motown groove (courtesy of the immortal Funk Bros.)
There's something rather symbolic in the timing of Ms.
Horton's death, especially in light of what's going on in the Arab world. You don't see the
connection? Consider the lyrics of
Please Mister Postman, look and see? (Oh yeah)?
If there's a letter in your bag for me? (Please, Please Mister Postman)
Why's it takin' such a long time? (Oh yeah)?
For me to hear from that boy of mine?
There must be some word today?
From my boyfriend so far away?
Please Mister Postman, look and see?
If there's a letter, a letter for me
I've been standin' here waitin' Mister Postman?
For just a card, or just a letter?
Sayin' he's returnin' home to me"
The song is an anthem to anticipation, uncertainty, and longing -- why hasn't she heard from that absent boyfriend? -- and the entire premise of the song depends on that fact she's waiting for an actual physical letter to be delivered. It's back in the era of snail mail, folks, when long-distance telephony was prohibitively expensive and there was no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, no way for ordinary people to communicate instantly on a regular basis over long distances. That also meant you were really dependent on whatever newspapers, TV, and radio chose to tell you.
I remember my first trip overseas in 1976, to study at Stanford's overseas campus in Berlin. Correspondence with my then-girlfriend took a minimum of three weeks (round-trip), and longer if one of us was slow in responding. Like the singer in the song: you waited for a letter, and wondered what no news meant. If a letter was delayed, you agonized over what it might imply. It was a world where events moved more slowly, precisely because it took time for news to spread. Today, my teenaged son and daughter are surprised and irritated if a friend doesn't respond to a text in five minutes.
Now consider what we're seeing in the Middle East. Whatever the ultimate outcome of events in the Arab world, the speed with which large numbers of people have responded to events far away is remarkable. Just as audiocassettes of the Ayatollah Khomeini's sermons served as a medium of transmission in Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, here a combination of modern mass media (Al Jazeera, the Internet, email, Twitter, etc.) has clearly played a major role in driving the pace of events.
At the same time, we're living with a nearly unprecedented outpouring of previously hidden information, via Wikileaks and the "Palestine Papers." This is the wave of the future, I suspect, because the Internet is making it impossible to contain a secret once it's out. Even if governments convinced some news agencies to suppress a secret, somebody somewhere else would release it and then we would all find it on the Web. That gives leakers a bigger incentive to release classified information, precisely because they can be more confident that the leak will get noticed and have an impact. This situation is bound to have significant second-order effects, as governments have to choose between supporting greater transparency, taking harsher action against leakers, or being more reluctant to speak candidly or to record confidential exchanges in ways that could be leaked.
In "Please Mr. Postman," the Marvelettes began by exhorting him to "Wait!" In today's world, the mediasphere isn't waiting for anyone.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
There is an awful lot of unpredictable stuff going on right now -- Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, etc. -- and I haven't had time to comment at length on the "Palestine Papers" that were leaked to Al Jazeera and released earlier this week. So here are a few quick reactions, based on a less-than-complete survey of the documents (which you can find here), and some perusal of the commentary surrounding them.
For starters, a caveat. As with the various WikiLeaks revelations, it's a mistake to view these documents (which detail all sorts of confidential negotiations) as "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." For one thing, the leaked documents are the Palestinians' record of these events, and even if they are being scrupulously honest (and they probably were, insofar as these were internal records), the other participants might have seen or heard the conversations differently. You know, the old Rashomon effect. As far as I know, nobody has successfully impugned their accuracy (the PA tried to do so at first, but soon dropped that approach), but these exchanges are hardly the sum total of the diplomatic record. They offer lots of revealing information, but they need to be read in context and supplemented with other sources.
Second, the above caveat notwithstanding, the documents put to death the idea that Israel has no Palestinian "partner for peace." On the contrary, they reveal a PA leadership that is desperate for peace -- sometimes to the point of being craven -- and getting no help at all from the Israelis and precious little from the United States. They keep offering various concessions and trying different formulas, and get bupkus in return. Indeed, even when they might think they've obtained something of value -- such as Condi Rice's pledge that the 1967 borders will be the baseline for negotiations and territorial swaps -- they find that the next set of U.S. negotiators take it away with scarcely a backward glance.
In this sense, the documents also expose the bipartisan and binational strategy that Israel and the United States have followed under both Bush and Obama: to keep putting pressure on the Palestinians to cut a one-sided deal. And if you thought George Mitchell was acting like an evenhanded mediator, think again: He keeps leaning on the Palestinians to get back to the table, to accept a less-than-complete settlement freeze, etc., yet there's no hint of any pressure on the Israeli side.
Third, I can't make up my mind about the PA itself. A good case can be made that they've become complicit in the occupation and that the much-heralded "Fayyadism" -- building state institutions, emphasizing development and normalcy, and cracking down on "extremists" -- has put them in the role of doing Israel's dirty work for it, but with little to show for it. (That's a familiar strategy for a colonial power: find local elites who like holding positions of power and use them as your local agents). And the fact that Abbas and Fayyad have exceeded their terms of office yet refused to hold new elections reinforces that case. Yet I'm reluctant to condemn them for this response, both because the Palestinians do need more effective institutions and because they had precious few cards to play. Another intifada was only going to make things worse.
Fourth, these releases can also be read as the final obituary for the Oslo peace process. Lord knows it had been on life support for years, and most analysts have already understood it was going nowhere. In that sense, these documents aren't really revelatory: They merely confirm what most of us had suspected ever since Obama began walking back from the Cairo speech. But what I've argued before is now abundantly clear: The Palestinians aren't going to accept anything less than a viable state (plus at least symbolic acknowledgement of a "right of return"), and Israel isn't going to offer them anything remotely close to that. (See Jeremy Pressman here for further details on the difficulties.) It's equally clear that the United States is incapable of acting like an honest broker on this issue, despite its importance to our broader security position. That means no "two states for two peoples," which in turn means that some future U.S. president is going to face some really awkward choices.
And if we step back and take a larger and longer view, it begins to look like the U.S. position in the Middle East, which seemed so dominant after the fall of the USSR and the first Gulf War, is now crumbling. Hezbollah just formed a government in Lebanon, possibly after the United States convinced former PM Saad Hariri to go back on a compromise deal over the U.N. tribunal investigating the murder of his father. Iraq is now governed by a Shiite government with extensive links to Iran and is denying the U.S. any future military role there. A democratic government in Turkey, while not anti-American, is charting an independent course. The Mubarak government in Egypt, long a close U.S. client, has been shaken, and even if it survives the current turmoil, its long-term status is up for grabs.
The problem is this: The United States has no idea how to deal with a Middle East where the voice of the people might actually be heard, rather than being subject to the writ of various aging potentates. And having followed policies for decades that are unpopular with most of those same people, we may be about to reap the whirlwind.
Do the large and angry demonstrations in Egypt mean that I was wrong to predict that the revolution in Tunisia wouldn't spread? Not yet, but I will be watching events closely and developments there could eventually prove me wrong. (As Keynes famously retorted, "when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?") But thus far, I'm sticking with my original forecast.
A couple of quick points. In my original post on the subject, I emphasized that revolutionary upheavals are always inherently unpredictable, because it is hard to know how much the population is willing to risk to overthrow the authorities and because each person's reaction will depend on what they think others will do. (Someone might be reluctant to join an angry mob if they thought only ten other people will show up, but if they are convinced that 5000 other people will be there, then there's safety in numbers and they'd be willing to be the 5001st).
I didn't deny that events in Tunisia might generate some sympathetic rumblings elsewhere, because this is common after a revolution, but I said that I didn't expect a wave of upheavals that ultimately overthrew neighboring governments. The main reason was that authoritarian governments would be on their guard against contagion, and would act quickly to snuff out any rising revolutionary tide. Thus far, that's precisely what the Mubarak regime seems to be doing, and they have a lot of practice at this sort of thing. See here for an eyewitness account. As Juan Cole warns, "Egypt is not Tunisia."
So what do I think now? It's clear that events in Tunisia have provided a catalyst for Egyptians to express their discontent with the Mubarak regime. (That discontent is not new, of course). It seems plausible that social media (e.g., the internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) may have facilitated some degree of mass mobilization, thereby encouraging larger turnout at demonstrations than one might otherwise have expected. It's hard to know how important this has been, but it could be a change in background conditions that makes this sort of revolutionary contagion more likely. I have an open mind about that subject.
What we don't know yet is whether the popular discontent that is being expressed in the streets will ultimately be able to challenge the government's authority, undermine the cohesion and loyalty of the Egyptian security forces, and render Mubarak's continued rule untenable. If I had to bet, I'd say not at present. But am as I confident as I was last week? 'Course not.
And for me, the more interesting question is not the short-term possibility of revolutionary contagion, but rather the long-term possibilities for political and social change that these events herald. Even if governments like Mubarak's remain in power today, it is hard for me to believe that the current political order in much of the Arab world can survive unchanged for much longer. Smart governments will try to get out ahead of these processes, and manage a gradual evolution towards more legitimate and participatory forms of government (which may not bear much resemblance to Western-style liberal democracy). The point is that political change in the Arab world need not come about through violent revolution; the mere possibility of violent upheaval may be enough to convince some leaders that they need to rethink some of their policies. Whatever the mechanism, we'll be living in interesting times.
Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation is on a roll, doing his best to help the United States move toward a more sensible Middle East policy and to conduct a more civilized public discourse on that difficult topic. He made two important contributions in the past week, and I want to call your attention to both.
Item No. 1: Steve and several of his associates have sponsored an important open letter, co-signed by an impressive list of former government officials, journalists, and academics. The letter calls for the United States government to support a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's continued efforts to build or expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The normal U.S. practice is to veto such resolutions, even though the official U.S. government position is that settlement construction is illegal and an obstacle to peace. Given that the peace process itself is going nowhere, however, supporting such a resolution would be an important symbolic act that would signal to the Netanyahu government that it cannot act with impunity. It would also remind the rest of the world that the Obama administration isn't just a lap dog when it comes to these issues and that Obama's Cairo speech in 2009 wasn't just empty rhetoric.
More importantly, voting for this resolution is not an "anti-Israel" act, though it would undoubtedly be seen as such by most groups in the "status quo" lobby. The signatories to the letter were no doubt primarily concerned with advancing U.S. interests, but in this case the long-term interests of the United States and Israel are identical. As many Americans and Israelis now realize, the settlement enterprise has been a costly blunder for Israel. By making a two-state solution more difficult (and maybe impossible), it even threatens Israel's long-term future. Although no government likes open criticism or Security Council censure, backing this resolution is an easy way for the United States to help Israel begin to rethink its present course and strengthen our tarnished credentials as an honest broker.
ROB ELLIOTT/AFP/Getty Images
I normally like a lot of Anthony Shadid's reporting, but one odd line leapt out of this story, which I read online in Hanoi this morning. He was discussing the turbulent political situation in Lebanon, and offered this unremarkable observation:
It is yet another episode in which the United States has watched -- seemingly helplessly -- as events in places like Tunisia, Lebanon and even Iraq unfold unexpectedly and beyond its ability to control."
Shadid is obviously right, but the observation itself is banal in at least two senses. First, even a country as powerful as the United States doesn't "control" an awful lot of events in world politics, and especially the internal maneuverings and struggles of a country like Lebanon. And the sooner that Americans dispense with the notion that we can reliably control events in far-away places, the better off we'll be.
Second, it is hardly surprising that the United States has steadily lost influence (note: not control) in the Middle East. We're hamstrung by the "special relationship" with Israel, which reduces our freedom of maneuvers, makes our rhetoric about justice and democracy and human rights look hypocritical, and angers millions of people around the Arab and Islamic world. We foolishly invaded Iraq and then bungled the job, which made us look both aggressive and incompetent. We continue to follow a failed policy toward Iran, which only seems to make Ahmadinejad stronger. And we help prop up authoritarian regimes that are deeply unpopular, favoring democracy only when the candidates we like win.
And then we wonder why we aren't able to "control" political events in Lebanon, and we're surprised that more honest brokers are acquiring greater influence? The mere fact that this trend seems surprising is itself quite eloquent testimony to the brain-dead nature of our Middle East diplomacy.
The only good news in this sorry tale is that the United States does not really have to "control" the Middle East. Our only vital strategic interest there is to ensure that oil continues to flow to world markets, and reliable access to oil only requires that the region not be controlled by a single hostile power. We don't have to control it; we just need to make sure that nobody else does. Our inability to dictate events in places like Lebanon may be inconvenient, but it's neither especially surprising nor even all that worrisome. But if you'd like the United States to have more genuine and lasting influence, then you'd better come up with an approach to the region that looks rather different than the one we've been following for as long as I can remember.
MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images
I'm generally not inclined to take issue with my FP colleagues, but David Kenner's recent posting on the WikiLeaks release of a cable recounting Saddam Hussein's infamous meeting with U.S. ambassador April Glaspie deserves a response.
In an article headlined "Why One U.S. Diplomat Didn't Cause the Gulf War," Kenner argues that the new release shows that Glaspie should not be blamed for the U.S. failure to make a clear deterrent warning to Saddam. And that is what he accuses me and John Mearsheimer (and the Washington Post) of doing. In his words, "the Washington Post described her as ‘the face of American incompetence in Iraq.' Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer piled on in a 2003 article for Foreign Policy, arguing that Glaspie's remarks unwittingly gave Iraq a green light to invade Kuwait."
I agree that the WikiLeaks release may exonerate Glaspie for being personally responsible for a diplomatic gaffe, but there are two problems with Kenner's version of events.
First, we never accused Glaspie of diplomatic incompetence, and we certainly didn't "pile on." Here's what we actually said in our 2003 piece:
In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, ‘[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.' The U.S. State Department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had ‘no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.' The United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is effectively what it did."
Notice that we offered no opinion on whether Glaspie was free-lancing, mis-reading Saddam, or simply following orders from Washington. Our article was focused on the issue of whether Saddam was deterrable, and the key issue that concerned us about the Glaspie meeting was whether she had conveyed a clear deterrent threat to Saddam, or whether she might have unintentionally given him reason to think he could go ahead and absorb Kuwait without facing a strong military response from the United States.
This is a follow-up to my previous post on the death of Jawahar Abu Rahmah. I'm trying to get ready for a trip to Southeast Asia and hadn't intended to write about it again, but subsequent events deserve a brief commentary.
After the initial press reports cited in my original post, IDF officials mounted a wide-ranging challenge to the story that Ms. Abu Rahmah died as a result of inhaling tear gas. In particular, an IDF spokesman (who apparently met with a select group of sympathetic bloggers and questioned whether Rahmah had been at the rally), noted some alleged inconsistencies in the medical records, and suggested that Rahmah might have been suffering from other illnesses, including cancer. The clear implication was that the IDF's actions had nothing to do with her death.
This transparent attempt to evade responsibility was immediately countered by Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard, who represents the Abu Rahmah family, by Noam Sheizaf of the website +072mag, and by Jonathan Pollack of the Popular Struggle Coordinating Committee. You can read or listen to their responses here, here and here. By late yesterday, YnetNews had reported that other IDF spokesmen were criticizing the initial attempt to spin the story, saying that army officers "were quick to make assumptions before all facts had been checked."
I have three quick thoughts. First, although the details of this incident have not been fully resolved, there's little reason to doubt that Ms. Abu Rahmah died at least partly because she inhaled tear gas at the rally. In this regard, read the insightful commentary by Jerry Haber here and here. Second, we've seen this pattern of behavior before, most recently in the Israeli response to the Goldstone Report and its initial reaction to the Mavi Marmara incident. In each case, an embarrassing incident was met with a cloud of disinformation and denials, most of which do not stand up to scrutiny and which were gradually abandoned as more facts come to light.
Third, Israel's behavior is neither surprising nor unique in this regard; plenty of other states act the same way when they are engaged in an illegitimate enterprise and confronted by embarrassing revelations about it. When the Iran/Contra scandal began to unravel during the Reagan administration, for example, its protagonists didn't come clean voluntarily. Instead, they kicked up enormous clouds of dust to justify or conceal their actions. When the Bush administration was priming the country for the invasion of Iraq, it ended up telling various lies in order to make the case for war. When France was waging a brutal colonial war in Algeria, it told repeated untruths about it too. Authoritarian governments like the bad old Soviet Union made "disinformation" a household word, precisely because they knew that the truth would undermine their cause.
The Israelis have kept the Palestinians under military occupation for nearly 44 years, while steadily seizing more and more land, and using their superior military power to stifle any form of resistance. This policy requires concealing what is really going on, and forces the IDF to work overtime to spin unpleasant realities. The problem is that the more you conceal things, the more corrosive it is to the body politic as a whole, and the more discredited you are when the truth comes to light. As it will.
It's a New Year, and there's more news from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No surprise: It's not good. Over the weekend a 36-year-old Palestinian woman, Jawahar Abu Rahmah, died after inhaling tear gas fired at a demonstration at Bilin in the occupied territories. For eyewitness accounts and useful commentary, check out the Israeli website +972mag here.
Please note that Abu Rahmah wasn't a suicide bomber, wasn't firing rockets, and wasn't demanding an end to the Jewish state. She posed no direct threat to Israel's security at all. Instead, along with other courageous Israeli and Palestinian activists, she was merely protesting the illegal construction of Israel's "security fence" (aka "apartheid wall") near the village of Bilin. According to the New York Times, Israel's High Court declared in 2007 that "the barrier at Bilin should be rerouted to take in less of the village's agricultural land. That work has still not been completed." It is also worth noting that she was the second member of her family to die in this way; her brother Bassem was hit in the chest and killed by an Israeli tear-gas canister in 2009. (The tear gas, by the way, is manufactured right here in the United States).
Meanwhile, back in America, a number of prominent commentators are beginning to figure out that the Zionist dream is becoming a nightmare. First came Peter Beinart's important piece in the New York Review of Books a few months ago. Then, in the past couple of weeks, New Yorker editor David Remnick has given several interviews condemning the occupation in unusually blunt terms. Even die-hard defenders like Marty Peretz and Jeffrey Goldberg have expressed concerns about Israel's trajectory, wondering if it will remain a democracy.
These are hopeful signs because progress is only possible if we take an unsentimental look at the situation there. And the central point is that Israel's problems are not due to a handful of extremist rabbis, authoritarian tendencies among the recent Russian immigrants, or even the growing percentage of haredim. The core problem remains the occupation itself, which is a project that every Israeli government since 1967 has endorsed and supported. It is by now deeply embedded in the Israeli political establishment, which is why it will be so hard -- and maybe impossible -- to end. Among other things, that is why I have so much admiration for those courageous Israelis who understand where this course is leading and who are doing what they can to save their country from itself. (And yes, this unhappy situation affects America too, as even the Weekly Standard seemed to acknowledge indirectly last week).
Finally, in a bizarre bit of CYA diplomacy, the Israeli press is reporting that unnamed U.S. officials are now blaming the failure of the latest peace negotiations on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. According to the reports, Barak "charmed" U.S. officials into thinking that he could persuade Netanyahu to agree to a settlement freeze and other compromises, but then Barak failed to deliver as promised. "See: It's not really our fault; we just got hoodwinked by that wily fellow Barak."
In fact, if this report is even remotely accurate, it is yet another display of diplomatic incompetence on the part of Obama's Middle East team. Ehud Barak is hardly an unknown figure, and nobody who dealt with him during his earlier tenure as prime minister should have accepted his blandishments at face value now. When it comes to the peace process, in fact, Barak is a serial blunderer who repeatedly drove Bill Clinton and his Middle East team crazy with his high-handed and mercurial tactics. Even Dennis Ross, who is rarely critical of Israeli officials, expressed considerable exasperation with Barak in his memoir of those years. So what does it say when these same people get taken in by him yet again?
All of which leads me to the following suggestion for U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Given the sorry track record of the past two decades, we ought to establish a simple litmus test for future members of any presidential Middle East team. We just ask if they have any prior government service on this issue, and if the answer is yes, then they are automatically disqualified from serving again. I don't care if you're Protestant, Muslim, Coptic, Catholic, Quaker, Jewish, or Zoroastrian, or if you're a Republican, a Democrat, a realist, a neoconservative, or for that matter a La Follette Progressive. I don't care if you worked for AIPAC, for WINEP, for ATFP, or even for JVP. The rule is simple and clear: If you were directly associated with any of our past (failed) efforts, we thank you for your prior service, but we aren't going to use you again. None of us would go back to the same orthopedist after he or she bungled a knee operation, and we shouldn't keep reusing the same diplomats who have conspicuously failed to deliver in the past.
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Keeping up with Jeffrey Goldberg's errors is like trying to dam the Gulf Stream, and responding to his repeated smears is a mug's game. I suppose I could quote a bunch of snarky comments about him too, and we could have a nasty blogosopheric food fight for the entertainment of our readers. But I prefer to focus on the issues, instead of the name-calling that is J.G.'s stock-in-trade.
His latest silly sally is to chide me for my saying that there is no meaningful "Arab lobby" in Washington. As evidence, he points out that various Arab states have paid a lot of money to various public relations firms, in a rather transparent attempt to gain some influence in Washington. The question to ask is whether these activities produce "meaningful" influence on key foreign policy issues, especially when you compare them with the lobbying groups on the other side.
Once you ask that question, of course, his case collapses. Let's look at the vast influence that the "Arab lobby" has wielded in recent years.
1. It is undoubtedly the all-powerful Arab lobby that ensures that Israel gets $3-4 billion in economic and military aid each year, even when it does things that the United States opposes, like building settlements. And were it not for the Arab lobby, the United States would be putting a lot of pressure on Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and come clean about its nuclear arsenal.
2. It was the vaunted Arab lobby that convinced President Bush to delay a U.N. ceasefire resolution during the Lebanon War of 2006, so that Israel could try to finish off Hezbollah and continue bombing civilian areas in Lebanon. Pressure from the Arab lobby also convinced Congress to pass a resolution backing Israel to the hilt, and to remove language from the original draft that called for both sides to "protect civilian life and infrastructure."
3. When Ambassador Charles Freeman was nominated to chair the National Intelligence Council in 2009, the vast Arab lobby promptly launched a successful smear campaign to deny him the post, running roughshod over his outnumbered and powerless defenders at the New Republic, Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly, and Washington Post.
4. When Obama asked Israel to implement a settlement freeze in 2009, the Arab lobby promptly swung into action and drafted open letters warning the President not to put any pressure on Israel. These resolutions passed overwhelmingly in both Houses, another sign of the Arab lobby's political clout.
5. When Israel attacked Gaza in December 2008, the Arab lobby was there to prevent the U.S. from interfering. And when the Goldstone Report raised the issue of possible Israeli war crimes in that war, the Arab Lobby no doubt called the Obama administration and told it to condemn the report, which it promptly did.
The good news is that the Obama administration has withdrawn its humiliating attempt to bribe Israel into accepting a 90-day extension of the (partial) settlement freeze. Not only was this negotiating ploy one of the more degrading moments in the annals of U.S. diplomacy, it also had scant chance of success. To their credit, Obama's Middle East teams finally figured this out -- a few weeks later than most observers -- and pulled the plug on the deal.
The bad news, however, is that it's not clear what their next move is. Everyone now realizes that the United States cannot play the role of a fair-minded mediator in this conflict, and the early hopes that Obama would adopt a smarter approach have been repeatedly dashed.
This situation isn't good for anyone -- not the United States, not Israel, and not the Palestinians. It is increasingly likely that a genuine two-state solution isn't going to be reached, and as I've noted before, the United States will be in a very awkward position once mainstream writers and politicians begin to recognize that fact. Once it becomes clear that "two states for two people" just ain't gonna happen, the United States will have to choose between backing a one-state, binational democracy, embracing ethnic cleansing, or supporting permanent apartheid. Those are the only alternatives to a two-state solution, and no future president will relish having to choose between them. But once the two-state solution is off the table, that is precisely the choice a future President would face.
This failure will further complicate our efforts elsewhere in the region. As former President Bill Clinton remarked a few weeks ago, solving the Israel-Palestine problem "will take about half the impetus in the whole world -- not just the region, the whole world -- for terror away. . . It would have more impact by far than anything else that could be done." It is also clear from the recent WikiLeaks releases that our Arab partners want the United States to do something about Iran, but they remain deeply concerned by the Palestinian issue and they recognize that progress on Israel-Palestine would go a long way to reducing Iran's regional influence.
Unfortunately, there's little reason to expect any sort of breakthrough, which means that local forces and dynamics are going to be exerting greater weight. When others believe that the United States is in charge of the "peace process" and leading it in a positive direction, they sit back and let Uncle Sam do the work. But now that Obama's team has failed, local actors will take matters into their own hands and U.S. influence is likely to diminish further. Why wait for Washington to deliver a deal when it is obvious that it can't?
The silver lining, if there is one, is that the events of the past two years have done a lot to clarify both where we are and where we are headed. One can take no joy from that, because the current path is bound to produce more needless suffering in the short to medium term, and maybe beyond. But dispelling the myths and illusions that have obscured our vision is of some value, and in this case, one didn't even need WikiLeaks to figure out what's going on.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
I never cease to be amazed at how virtually any criticism of Israel can cause Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic to go bananas and make all sorts of wild charges. This tendency is especially evident when someone writes about the Israel lobby. It is usually best to ignore him, because he seems incapable of getting the simplest facts right. But occasionally I feel the need to set the record straight.
Goldberg's forte is character assassination, and his main weapons are name-calling and misrepresenting his opponents' arguments. Instead of calling me a "Jew-baiter" (a despicable accusation for which he has no grounds), as he has in the past, his latest sally calls me a "neo-Lindberghian," again implying that I am an anti-Semite. This is a serious charge -- the political equivalent of calling someone a racist or child molester -- and you'd think a respectable journalist would go to some effort to document the label before using it. You'd think he'd supply a lengthy array of quotations from my writings and speeches to prove his point. Goldberg cannot do this, however, because no such evidence exists.
Goldberg doesn't know me; doesn't know my history, relatives, friends, students, and close associates, and has no idea what I really think about any of these questions. Judging by what he writes about my work, he doesn't even know what I've written. For example, he claims that the book that John Mearsheimer and I wrote on the Israel lobby describes a "nefarious, all-powerful Jewish lobby." and that we "love to capitalize the word 'Lobby.'" Both statements are demonstrably false, as he would know if he had bothered to examine the issue.
We portray the lobby as a legitimate interest group like many others and emphasize that its activities are a normal part of democratic politics in America (pp. 13-14, 112, 150). We explicitly reject the term "Jewish lobby" (p. 115) and we don't capitalize the word lobby anywhere in the 484-page book. Indeed, the only place we ever capitalized that word was in our original London Review article; but we openly acknowledged in our subsequent response to critics that this usage was misleading and have not done so in any of our subsequent writings.
Journalists are supposed to be concerned with truth and accuracy. But Goldberg is clearly incapable of being objective or open-minded when the subject is Israel, which is why he quickly descends to innuendo and fabrication when dealing with anyone who criticizes that country's policies, questions America's special relationship with the Jewish state, or raises doubts the activities of the Israel lobby. He invents false charges for a simple reason: It would be impossible to smear us if he had to rely on what we actually said. So he has to make things up.
Goldberg is also wrong when he says the latest WikiLeaks revelations discredit our arguments about the lobby's role in encouraging a war with Iran. We argued that if the United States were foolish enough to start a war against Iran, it would be largely due to the influence of Israel and especially the lobby. Both Israel and its hardline supporters here in the United States have been relentless in their efforts to push the United States to confront Iran, and to keep the military option at the ready. There is nothing in WikiLeaks that changes that assessment. Yes, there has also been pressure from some Arab leaders, such as the king of Saudi Arabia, to use force against Iran. There are also prominent voices in the Arab world warning that this step would be disastrous. But the key point is that these Arab leaders have much less influence on the United States than Israel does.
First, Arab leaders cannot make the case for war in public, because their publics oppose this course of action. Israel, on the other hand, is constantly making the case for war directly and overtly. Second, Israel has a powerful lobby in the United States that has been working overtime to push the United States to strike Iran. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states have no meaningful lobby in Washington, which is why their repeated requests that the United States do something to end Israel's illegal occupation and harsh treatment of the Palestinians have fallen on deaf ears for decades.
It is Israel and the lobby, not the Arabs, that are shaping the discourse on Iran, and it is disingenuous for Goldberg to suggest otherwise. Does he not know about the origins of "dual containment," as recounted in recent books by Kenneth Pollack and Trita Parsi? Is he unaware of AIPAC's successful effort to kill the CONOCO oil deal with Iran in 1995, or the lobby's role in pushing the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 1996, not to mention the 2010 version of unilateral U.S. sanctions? Has he forgotten his own recent writings, which warned that top Israeli leaders were contemplating war with Iran in early 2011?
Bear in mind that we still do not know if Iran is actively seeking an overt nuclear weapons capability or not. The December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which has not been superseded by a new estimate, said that Tehran was not trying to build nuclear weapons. And the evidence we have in the public record about Iran's nuclear program does not show in any conclusive way that Iran is developing a nuclear arsenal. One can hardly rule out the possibility, of course, but neither should we simply assume that Tehran is hell-bent on building an actual weapon. It is even possible that these Arab leaders are so concerned that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons in part because they have been influenced by the efforts of Israel and the lobby to hype the Iran threat, just as they hyped the WMD threat from Iraq in the earlier part of this decade.
Perhaps I take Goldberg too seriously, and I should just ignore his regrettable tendency to distort the views of those with whom he disagrees. If Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly get to spout dangerous nonsense, why can't Goldberg? Yet it is important to point out what he is doing, because he is a textbook case of the lengths to which many defenders of Israel will go in order to convince Americans that they must support it no matter what. Like the Cuban-American lobby, the gun lobby, and other narrow interest groups, the Likudnik wing of the Israel lobby isn't really interested in truth or even a fair-minded discussion of the issues. They just smear their targets with made-up accusations, knowing that if you throw enough mud, some of it is bound to stick.
I suspect that what really ticks Goldberg off is this: My co-author and I (and a few others) have had the temerity to write critically about the political role of "pro-Israel" forces (both Jewish and non-Jewish) in America today. This is a topic that the goyim aren't supposed to talk about openly. It's fine for Goldberg to write at length about this topic, or for former Forward editor J. J. Goldberg, to devote an entire book (which is well worth reading) to it. But when a non-Jew writes about this issue, and suggests that these groups are advocating foolish and self-defeating policies, then that person must of course be an anti-Semite. If Jews express similar doubts, they must be labeled as "self-hating" and marginalized as well.
Please. I really do understand this sort of tribalism and up to a point, I'm sympathetic to it. Given Jewish history -- and especially the dark legacy of genuine anti-Semitism -- it is unsurprising that some people are quick to assume that any gentile who criticizes the present "special relationship" must have sinister motives, even when there's no actual basis for the suspicion. But that sensitivity doesn't make the elephant in the room disappear, and given that America's Middle East policy affects all of us, the various factors that shape that policy ought to open to fair-minded discussion devoid of name-calling and character assassination.
So yes, Jeffrey, there is a powerful "Israel lobby" (though it's not "all-powerful"). Yes, many individuals in the lobby think the United States should do whatever it takes--including the use of military force -- to eliminate Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities. They aren't the only people who think this, but they have been among the loudest and most persistent voices advocating this course of action. And yes, like most (all?) lobbies, some of the policies that it promotes are not in the best interests of the country as a whole. These facts are so obvious and so easy to document that it's no wonder that a zealot like Goldberg prefers to throw mud whenever somebody points them out.
Yesterday the Israeli Knesset voted 65-33 to approve the so-called referendum law, which requires a national referendum on any subsequent withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. According to Israeli journalist Dimi Reider, the new law:
Conditions any Israeli withdrawal from any of its territory -- into which Israel, alone in the world, includes the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem -- on passing a nation-wide referendum. To overrule the law, the Knesset would need a privileged majority of 80 out of 120 parliamentarians."
In other words, you can kiss the two-state solution good-bye. (For a similar appraisal of the new law, see Mitchell Plitnick here.) Given the current (and likely future) state of politics within Israel, this law in effect gives a veto to the hard-line settler faction. Even in the unlikely event that Netanyahu agreed to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state and a capital in East Jerusalem, the deal would probably be killed by the referendum or just die in the Knesset. Needless to say, the bill was fully supported by Netanyahu and his Likud Party.
Wake up and smell the coffee, folks. "Two states for two peoples" is dead. I say that with genuine regret, because I've long thought it was the best solution to a long and tragic conflict. If Obama's Middle East team had any backbone -- and it's been clear for some time that they don't -- they would pull their demeaning offer to give Israel extra $3 billion in weapons and a bunch of diplomatic concessions in exchange for a partial 90-day settlement freeze off the table immediately, and keep it off until the Israeli government voted to rescind this law.
But don't hold your breath. Instead, those courageous folks in the State Department offered up the following comment at yesterday's press briefing (HT Jim Lobe):
Question: Is the U.S. concerned about legislation passed by the Israeli parliament requiring a two-thirds vote by the Knesset or a referendum to withdraw from annexed east Jerusalem or the Golan Heights?
Answer: This is an internal Israeli issue and the Israeli government is in the best position to address inquiries related to its process."
The U.S. spokesman couldn't even bring himself to say this latest action was "regrettable." Isn't it great to be the world's only superpower? Don't you just swell with national pride at moments like this?
I've been trying to figure what I think of the latest attempt to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For the most part I agree with FP colleague Marc Lynch -- it's hard to see how this is going to lead anywhere. Even if you get a 90-day extension of the partial freeze on settlement building, nobody thinks you can get a viable final-status agreement in that time period. The best you could hope for is some sort of agreement on borders, but even there I'd be pretty pessimistic.
But let me put aside my usual skepticism and ask a different question: What can the Obama team do to maximize the chances of tangible progress? They've already given Israel a lot of carrots up front: a promise of F-35 aircraft, a pledge to never, ever, ever raise the issue of a settlement freeze again, and a guarantee that we will keep defending Israel in the United Nations, and probably a bunch of other goodies too. Plus, we agreed to leave East Jerusalem out of the deal, even though this is a major irritant on the Palestinian side. All told, Netanyahu got a pretty big reward for being recalcitrant. At first glance, there's not much to stop him for halting some (but not all) settlement building, digging in his heels for 90 days, and then going back to business-as-usual.
Here's the rub: given the power of the Israel lobby, it's unrealistic to think that the Obama administration would be able to put any overt pressure on Israel. Congress will make sure that Israel gets its annual aid package, and die-hard defenders like Representative Eric Cantor (R-Va) will make it impossible for Obama to use the leverage that is potentially at his disposal. And as noted above, those same forces will make sure that the United States continues veto any unfavorable resolutions in the U.N. Security Council and deflects international efforts to raise question about Israel's nuclear program.
So what's a president to do? Obama and his team have a huge incentive to make this latest gamble pay off. Obama has been backtracking ever since his Cairo speech (which can't be pleasant), George Mitchell is probably worried his long career as a public servant will end in abject failure, and I'll bet Middle East advisor Dennis Ross would like to prove that he's not really "Israel's lawyer" after all. And surely everybody on the team knows that another cave-in will completely derail any hope of improving U.S. relations in the Arab and Islamic world. But given that overt pressure is out, what cards do Mitchell, Ross, Clinton, and Obama have to play?
Here's my suggestion: assuming direct talks do resume under U.S. auspices, tell the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority that the United States is going to keep a very careful record of who did and said what, and the United States will not hesitate to go public in the event that anybody starts making ridiculous demands, indulging in delaying tactics, or refusing to make reasonable concessions. Unlike Camp David 2000, where nothing was written down and no maps were exchanged (at Israel's insistence), this time we are going to prevent anybody from doing a lot of spin-control after the fact. In other words, the United States tells everyone we are going to act like an honest broker for a change, and if either side refuses to play ball, we are going to expose their recalcitrance in the eyes of the international community. Most importantly, this declaration can't be a bluff: if the talks bog down, the administration has to be prepared to go public.
And remember: The goal here is a viable Palestinian state, not a bunch of disarmed and disconnected Bantustans. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all made it clear a viable state for the Palestinians is the only alternative that the United States can get behind. It is what the original U.N. partition plan in 1947 called for, and all the other alternatives (binational democracy, ethnic cleansing, or permanent apartheid) are either impractical or directly at odds with U.S. values.
This approach might actually work, because public discourse on this subject has begun to open up and it is increasingly difficult to spin a one-sided story. (See here for a recent example.) Moreover, many Israelis are growing worried about what they see as a growing international campaign to "delegitimize" their country. The best way to counter that alleged campaign is to end the occupation and establish internationally recognized borders. By contrast, if Israel is seen as the main obstacle to peace, international criticism is bound to increase. Given these concerns, a threat to make the negotiating process public might actually have some bite to it.
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I wouldn't call it a "shellacking," but President Barack Obama's trip to Asia wasn't a stunning triumph either. He got a positive reception in India -- mostly because he was giving Indians things they wanted and not asking for much in return -- and his personal history and still-evident charisma played well in Indonesia. But then he went off to the G-20 summit in Seoul, and got stiffed by a diverse coalition of foreign economic powers. Plus, an anticipated trade deal with South Korea didn't get done, depriving him of any tangible achievements to bring back home.
What lessons should we draw from this? The first and most obvious is that when your own economy is performing poorly, and when you are still saddled by costly burdens like the war in Afghanistan, you aren't going to have as much clout on the world stage. After half a century or more of global dominance, some Americans may still expect the president to waltz into global summits and get others to do what he wants (or at least most of it). But that is harder to do when you've spent the past ten years wasting trillions (yes, trillions) in Iraq and Afghanistan while other states were building their futures, and have dug yourself into a deep economic hole.
Second, the geopolitics of the trip are important, as Robert Kaplan lays out in a good New York Times op-ed this morning. I don't agree with everything he says (in particular, I think getting out of Afghanistan would reduce the need to accommodate Pakistan and simplify efforts to forge a closer relationship with India) but most of his points ring true to me.
Third, the other event this week was yet another flap between the United States and Israel, and it's not as unrelated to the situation in Asia as you might think. At about the same time that Obama was making yet another eloquent speech about the need to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world, Israel was announcing still more construction in East Jerusalem. Just what Obama needed, right?
When Obama said this step was "counterproductive" (now there's tough language!), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retorted that "Jerusalem is not a settlement; it is the capital of Israel." In fact, Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is no different than a settlement in the eyes of the rest of the world, because no other government recognizes Israel's illegal annexation of these lands.
And then what happened? Netanyahu sat down for nearly a full day of talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who proceeded to say (for the zillionth time), that the U.S. commitment to Israel's security was "unshakeable." She then declared that the U.S. position on future talks will seek to "reconcile the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements" (my emphasis).
Translation: the Obama administration is back in business as "Israel's lawyer," and the man who first coined that phrase -- former U.S. negotiator Aaron Miller -- said as much, referring to Clinton's statement as "the beginning of a common U.S.-Israeli approach to the peace negotiations." Given that Netanyahu has made it clear that East Jerusalem is not negotiable and that his own vision of a two-state solution is a set of disconnected Palestinian statelets under de facto Israel control, this is not an approach that is going to lead anywhere positive. And like his Cairo speech, Obama's remarks in Indonesia will soon be dismissed as more empty phrases.
So where's the connection between this issue and our strategic position in Asia? Indonesia is a potentially crucial partner for the United States (if you want to see why, take a look at the sea lanes in Southeast Asia), and it is also a moderate Muslim country with history of toleration. Yet the Palestinian issue resonates there too, and makes it harder for the Indonesian government to openly embrace the United States. As Kaplan notes in his Times op-ed, "China also plays on the tension between the West and global Islam in order to limit American influence there. That is why President Obama's mission to rebrand America in the eyes of Muslims carries benefits that go far beyond Indonesia and the Middle East."
What Kaplan doesn't say is that the United States' one-sided support for Israel against the Palestinians is an important source of the "tension" that China is exploiting. As the deputy chairman of Indonesia's largest Islamic group, Masdar Mas'udi, put it last week: "The solution of the Palestine problem is key to many problems between the West and the Muslim world… Our hope as Muslims to Obama and the U.S. is not unreasonable: If the Palestine problem could be resolved, it would be more than enough."
So the next time you read about some senator or congressperson denouncing any attempt to use U.S. leverage on both sides to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, ask yourself why they are trying to undermine the U.S. effort to bolster its strategic position in a region that ultimately matters far more to U.S. security and prosperity. And by making it harder to achieve a workable two-state solution that would preserve its democratic and Jewish character and enhance its international legitimacy, they aren't doing Israel any favors either. Indeed, the remarkable thing about these zealots is that they are managing to undermine the United States' security and Israel's long-term future at the same time.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
It's Election Day, and I'm about to go out and vote, but first a few belated comments on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's failed attempt to blow up cargo planes by shipping fairly sophisticated bombs to fictitious locations in the United States. What lessons did I draw from last week's event?
First, this incident reminds us about the perils of instant analysis. Initial news reports suggested that the targets were synagogues or Jewish community centers in Chicago, leading various pundits to speculate that this was either another sign of al Qaeda's deeply rooted anti-Semitism, or perhaps a bizarre attempt to send a message about the influence of Chicago-based politicos like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. But The New York Times reports today that the addresses on the bombs were outdated and that investigators now believe that the bombs were intended to destroy the planes, not targets on the ground.
Whatever the target may have been, the more obvious point is that these groups are still hoping to make Americans pay a price for our policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are angry about our close ties with Saudi Arabia, by the drone attacks the United States is conducting in Yemen and Pakistan, and by our unstinting support for Israel. And even though AQAP's main target appears to be the Saudi regime, America's unpopularity throughout the region makes attacking the United States a useful recruiting tool.
Second, this latest episode reinforced my belief that winning in Afghanistan is neither necessary nor sufficient for eliminating the terrorist threat in general and al Qaeda or its clones in particular. There is little or no al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, and in the unlikely event that we defeated the Taliban completely, it wouldn't eliminate the groups that already exist in Pakistan, Yemen and assorted other places. At this point, in fact, our costly attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan may be a distraction from the broader global effort to deal with terrorism itself. And if that's the case, then what are we doing there?
Third, the big lesson is that this plot was thwarted not by drones or airstrikes or special operations forces, but by good old-fashioned intelligence and police work, largely conducted by the Saudi intelligence services. Because AQAP seeks to overthrow the Saudi regime, the Saudis are highly motivated, and they also seem to have done a good job of infiltrating the organization and passing the information on to us in time to thwart the attack.
One might also infer that responding to 9/11 with a "global war on terror" was a bad idea all along, because wars and occupations create conditions in which terrorist organizations can more easily thrive. Osama and his imitators are not heroic warriors and don't deserve to be treated as such, even rhetorically. Instead, they are criminals who believe the murder of innocents is justified in order to advance a fanciful fundamentalist cause. They are best defeated by intelligence sharing and patient police work, and where appropriate, by addressing some of the underlying conditions and grievances that give rise to such movements in the first place. Toppling individual governments or waging costly counterinsurgency campaigns in one or two countries cannot eliminate a global phenomenon like this one; indeed, such actions are likely to make it worse.
Lastly, although we can all be glad that this latest attack was foiled, it is hard for me to believe that one of them won't eventually succeed. It is impossible to inspect every single package in the global shipping system, and terrorist organizations are bound to learn more about how to exploit vulnerabilities in existing (or future) security procedures. We should take all reasonable measures to prevent them from succeeding, but we also ought to recognize that perfect security is probably not achievable. And remaining resolute in the face of that reality ought to be part of our counter-terrorist response too.
In short, although the bomb plots remind us that the terrorist danger is still with us, it also says a lot about the best way to deal with it. And one obvious step is not to go into conniptions every time a plot like this gets exposed. On that score, kudos to Jewish community figures in Chicago, who responded to the initial (and false) reports that synagogues had been targeted with an admirable degree of aplomb.
If you want to see just how ill informed and morally bankrupt an "establishment" political voice can be, check out David Broder's op-ed column in this Sunday's Washington Post. Broder argues that President Obama's prospects will remain bleak if the economy doesn't improve, and that the President cannot count on the business cycle to do that for him. So after reminding his readers that World War II helped end the Great Depression, Broder offers Obama the following advice:
With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.
I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history."
I haven't read such an ill informed and morally bankrupt piece of "analysis" in quite some time (which is saying something). For starters, on what basis does Broder believe that "Iran is the greatest threat to the world?" The United States spends over $700 billion on defense each year; Iran spends a mere $10 billion. That amount is less than Greece, the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, or Taiwan. As I've noted previously, Iran has no meaningful power-projection capabilities, and its main "weapon" is the ability to modest amounts of money and arms to groups like Hezbollah. This behavior is clearly a problem, but Iran is not an existential threat to anyone. And if Iran were to get a few nuclear weapons at some point in the future -- which is by no means a certainty -- it could neither use them nor give them to terrorists without inviting devastating U.S. or Israeli retaliation.
One of the silliest things ever written was F. Scott Fitzgerald's statement that, "There are no second acts in American lives." Fitzgerald obviously wasn't around to witness the lives of Oliver North, Elliot Spitzer, G. Gordon Liddy, Elliott Abrams, or Madonna's entire career. I'm even betting Tiger Woods manages a pretty successful second act after his own embarrassing melodrama.
If Fitzgerald were alive today and studying the United States' Middle East policy, he'd never have written such a silly line. I refer to Laura Rozen's latest Politico column, entitled "On the Mideast: Waiting for Superman." Rozen suggests that the Obama administration is thinking about bringing former Clinton-era official Martin Indyk into the government to jump-start the moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks. She also speculates about the possibility of using former president Bill Clinton as some sort of a special envoy, an idea that has been recently advanced by New America Foundation's Steve Clemons.
Waiting for Superman? More like Waiting for Godot.
There's little doubt that the Obama's administration's handling of Mideast affairs has been an embarrassing failure, but it is hard to see how these personnel moves would help. Nothing personal, but didn't these guys have the chance to produce an Israel-Palestinian peace in the 1990s -- when conditions were a lot more favorable -- and didn't their efforts end in near-total failure? (That goes for Dennis Ross too, who is already a key player on this issue in the current administration, and who seems to be repeating his past mistakes.) Clinton, Indyk, and Ross were handed a golden opportunity with the Oslo Peace Accords back in 1993, and they spent the rest of the 1990s squandering it. They had plenty of help from the Israelis and Palestinians, but the U.S. record during that decade is hardly one that inspires confidence.
Let's also not forget that Indyk was the chief architect of "dual containment," a remarkably foolish policy that achieved the neat trick of putting the United States at odds with two countries (Iran and Iraq) that also hated each other. It also forced the United States to keep large air and ground forces in the Persian Gulf, thereby contributing to the rise of al Qaeda. And as both Ken Pollock and Trita Parsi have shown, a primary motive for dual containment was reassuring Israel about Iran, so that it would be more forthcoming in the peace discussions. Gee, that worked out great, didn't it?
As for the former president, it's clear he recognizes the value that a peace deal would bring, and I don't question his sincerity on this issue. But his own track record isn't encouraging either. The number of Israeli settlers more than doubled during his eight years as president, and he didn't lift a finger to stop it. Moreover, he persuaded Yasser Arafat to go to the hastily-prepared Camp David summit by promising Arafat that he would not be blamed if the talks didn't succeed. But when the talks collapsed, Clinton walked out to the microphones and put all the blame squarely on Arafat, in violation of his earlier promise and contrary to the available evidence. (Arafat was partly to blame for Camp David's failure, but so were the United States and Israel.) That act of political vengeance contributed greatly to the myth that Israel has "no partner" for peace, a belief that has undermined all subsequent efforts to end this tragic conflict.
When it comes to the United States' Middle East policy, in short, there are an infinite number of "second acts." In a country of 300 million people, you'd think we could find a few fresh faces to handle these issues, instead of retreads who have been tried and found wanting. Instead, we keep recycling the same people (mostly for domestic political reasons), who adopt more-or-less the same negotiating strategy, yet somehow we expect a different, happier ending. And so we get the same familiar melodrama, and like any tragedy, the play always ends badly.
RALPH ALSWANG/AFP/Getty Images
Last week, Laura Rozen of Politico reported that Mideast envoy George Mitchell's chief of staff, Mara Rudman, was resigning to take a job with USAID. Her article suggested that it was a sign of friction in Clinton's Middle East team, and for all I know that's correct. But the real problem isn't "friction" inside Obama's team; the problem is that nobody there seems to have any idea what they are doing.
I used to think that the 2000 Camp David Summit was the most ill-prepared and mishandled peace discussion in Middle East history -- which is saying something -- but I'm beginning to think that Obama and his team are making a serious try at breaking that dubious record. First they raise expectations sky-high in the Cairo speech, then undercut their own credibility by retreating steadiliy in the face of Israeli intransigence, until they end up literally begging and bribing Netanyahu to continue a settlement slowdown (not freeze) for a mere two months.
Question: Is this how a smart great power behaves?
Answer: Not if it wants to get anything done or be taken seriously.
Rudman's departure, however, is essentially meaningless. There is no evidence that anyone in the Obama team is committed to doing what it takes to actually get a meaningful deal, and so there won't be one. Full stop. You'd have to fire the whole lot of them and start over, and appoint people who were willing to get really mad when they were repeatedly diddled by a client state, and who didn't think that the best way to negotiate was to give one side a lot of goodies up front (in exchange for very little), while expecting the other side to accept a lot of promises to be redeemed at some unspecified point down the road (and maybe never).
Unfortunately, the odds that Obama will clean house and bring in a new team are about the same as the odds of my sprouting wings and flying to the moon. And the result, as I've said before, will be not "two states" but one, with all the attendant difficulties that this outcome will produce for all concerned. So I guess Rudman should be congratulated for having the good sense to abandon this charade. My question remains: Why hasn't George Mitchell done the same?
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.