Consider the ability of the U.S. to enact multilateral economic sanctions. The Bush administration, at the depths of its unpopularity, was still able to get the U.N. Security Council to pass three rounds of sanctions against Iran, as well as measures against North Korea. The Obama administration, despite a serious effort to open a dialogue with Iran, is encountering resistance from China, Brazil, and Turkey in its efforts to craft another round of sanctions."
Dan knows more than I do about the intricacies of economic sanctions, but I can think of two obvious explanations for this apparent paradox. First, as I noted a few days ago, countries like China have little interest in sanctioning Iran, no interest in war, and some interest in prolonging the U.S.-Iranian imbroglio. So they'll drag their feet no matter how popular or unpopular the United States is. Second, we've been down the sanctions road for some time now, and (as one would expect), it's not having any appreciable effect on Iranian behavior. Maybe other states are figuring this out: Why take some costly and inconvenient action when it won't do much good? Obama and the United States may be more popular, but that doesn't make sanctions more effective and therefore international enthusiasm for more of them isn't forthcoming.
NOTE: I will be on the road for the rest of the week, giving a guest lecture at Wesleyan University and attending a conference at Notre Dame, so posting will be dependent on the vagaries of travel and internet access.
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Back when I started writing this blog, I warned that the idea of preventive war against Iran wasn't going to go away just because Barack Obama was president. The topic got another little burst of oxygen over the past few days, in response to what seems to have been an over-hyped memorandum from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and some remarks by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, following a speech at Columbia University. In particular, Mullen noted that military action against Iran could "go a long way" toward delaying Iran's acquisition of a weapons capability, though he also noted this could only be a "last resort" and made it clear it was not an option he favored.
One of the more remarkable features about the endless drumbeat of alarm about Iran is that it pays virtually no attention to Iran's actual capabilities, and rests on all sorts of worst case assumptions about Iranian behavior. Consider the following facts, most of them courtesy of the 2010 edition of The Military Balance, published annually by the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies in London:
States -- 13.8 trillion
Iran --$ 359 billion (U.S. GDP is roughly 38 times greater than Iran's)
U.S. -- $692 billion
Iran -- $9.6 billion (U.S. defense budget is over 70 times larger than Iran)
U.S.--1,580,255 active; 864,547 reserves (very well trained)
Iran-- 525,000 active; 350,000 reserves (poorly trained)
U.S. -- 4,090 (includes USAF, USN, USMC and reserves)
Iran -- 312 (serviceability questionable)
Main battle tanks:
U.S. -- 6,251 (Army + Marine Corps)
Iran -- 1,613 (serviceability questionable)
U.S. -- 11 aircraft carriers, 99 principal surface combatants, 71 submarines, 160 patrol boats, plus large auxiliary fleet
Iran -- 6 principal surface combatants, 10 submarines, 146 patrol boats
U.S. -- 2,702 deployed, >6,000 in reserve
Iran -- Zero
One might add that Iran hasn't invaded anyone since the Islamic revolution, although it has supported a number of terrorist organizations and engaged in various forms of covert action. The United States has also backed terrorist groups and conducted covert ops during this same period, and attacked a number of other countries, including Panama, Grenada, Serbia, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan.
By any objective measure, therefore, Iran isn't even on the same page with the United States in terms of latent power, deployed capabilities, or the willingness to use them. Indeed, Iran is significantly weaker than Israel, which has roughly the same toal of regular plus reserve military personnel and vastly superior training. Israel also has more numerous and modern armored and air capabilities and a sizeable nuclear weapons stockpile of its own. Iran has no powerful allies, scant power-projection capability, and little ideological appeal. Despite what some alarmists think, Iran is not the reincarnation of Nazi Germany and not about to unleash some new Holocaust against anyone.
The more one thinks about it, the odder our obsession with Iran appears. It's a pretty unloveable regime, to be sure, but given Iran's actual capabilities, why do U.S. leaders devote so much time and effort trying to corral support for more economic sanctions (which aren't going to work) or devising strategies to "contain" an Iran that shows no sign of being able to expand in any meaningful way? Even the danger that a future Iranian bomb might set off some sort of regional arms race seems exaggerated, according to an unpublished dissertation by Philipp Bleek of Georgetown University. Bleek's thesis examines the history of nuclear acquisition since 1945 and finds little evidence for so-called "reactive proliferation." If he's right, it suggests that Iran's neighbors might not follow suit even if Iran did "go nuclear" at some point in the future).
Obviously, simple bean counts like the one presented above do not tell you everything about the two countries, or the political challenges that Iran might pose to its neighbors. Iran has engaged in a number of actions that are cause for concern (such as its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon), and it has some capacity to influence events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, as we have learned in both of these countries, objectively weaker adversaries can still mount serious counterinsurgency operations against a foreign occupier. And if attacked, Iran does have various retaliatory options that we would find unpleasant, such as attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf. So Iran's present weakness does not imply that the United States can go ahead and bomb it with impunity.
What it does mean is that we ought to keep this relatively minor "threat" in perspective, and not allow the usual threat-inflators to stampede us into another unnecessary war. My impression is that Admiral Mullen and SecDef Gates understand this. I hope I'm right. But I'm still puzzled as to why the Obama administration hasn't tried the one strategy that might actually get somewhere: take the threat of force off the table, tell Tehran that we are willing to talk seriously about the issues that bother them (as well as the items that bother us), and try to cut a deal whereby Iran ratifies and implements the NPT Additional Protocol and is then permitted to enrich uranium for legitimate purposes (but not to weapons-grade levels). It might not work, of course, but neither will our present course of action or the "last resort" that Mullen referred to last weekend.
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According to Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, I have "for some time been carrying on a running dialogue with almost anyone to make the point that supporting Israel is not in America's best interest." His characterization of my views is false, and it suggests that Cohen hasn't read me very carefully. To demonstrate the point, what would Cohen make of the following statements from our book, assertions that my co-author and I have repeated in public on numerous occasions?
Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of each of these statements, but the first two should make it clear I have no problem with the United States "supporting Israel." The last two statements reveal the critical distinction that Cohen has missed. It is the difference between strong support for Israel's existence, on the one hand, and the unconditional support that AIPAC et al encourage, on the other. It is the difference between a "special relationship" that pretends the two states always have identical interests, and a normal relationship that acknowledges that sometimes those interests will diverge.
In short, I argue that providing Israel with generous economic, military and diplomatic support no matter what it does is not in America's strategic interest, because it makes us complicit in the illegal effort to colonize the West Bank and it helps fuel anti-Americanism and extremism throughout the Arab and Islamic world. It also means we are tacitly supporting repressive and discriminatory actions that are contrary to U.S. values. Cohen believes "shared values" are the real reason the United States should back Israel, but he admits that uprooting olive trees on Palestinian lands isn't what America really stands for. I might add that unconditional U.S. support has also encouraged Israel to continue policies that may be jeopardizing the long-term future of the Jewish state, and I suspect Cohen might agree. Indeed, the United States would have been a far better friend to Israel had it used its considerable influence to curb some of Israel's worst excesses.
Bottom line: I favor the United States "supporting Israel" when it acts in ways that are consistent with U.S. interests and values. But the United States ought to distance itself when Israel acts otherwise, and use its leverage to try to get Israel to change its behavior in those cases. In other words, we should treat it the same way we would treat any other democracy. Is that really such a controversial notion?
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The New York Times and other news agencies are now reporting that China is preparing to get behind the U.S.-led effort to toughen economic sanctions on Iran. The Times's headline (in the print version) reads "China Supports Iran Sanctions," but the actual story tells a rather different tale. It says that President Hu Jintao agreed yesterday to "join negotiations" for a new sanctions package, but reminds readers that China has a well-established pattern of using negotiations to delay and deflect stiffer measures. In particular, the article reports that former President George W. Bush tried three times to "corral Chinese support " for tougher penalties on Iran, only to have China use its participation to "water down" the resulting resolutions.
This pattern should not surprise us, because China has every reason to drag its feet on meaningful economic sanctions. To begin with, China wants to safeguard its access to Iranian oil and gas and protect its ability to invest in Iran. Iran is now China's second largest source of oil and gas (providing about 15 percen of its consumption), and China is Iran's second largest customer. China has also become a substantial investor in Iran's economy. With demand for oil likely to grow in the future, this is not a relationship Beijing is likely to jeopardize.
Second, China is sanguine about the prospects of an Iranian bomb because it has a more realistic view of what that development would mean. China's leaders know that they didn't gain a lot of geopolitical clout when they tested their own nuclear weapon in 1964, and being a nuclear power didn't enable them to dictate or blackmail Taiwan, Vietnam, the Koreas, or anyone else. China's rise to great power status was driven by its economic development, not its modest nuclear arsenal, and Bejing knows that same would be true for a nuclear Iran. While China would probably prefer that Iran not develop nuclear weapons, it hasn't succumbed to worst-case paranoia and isn't willing to pay a large price to prevent that from happening.
Furthermore, keeping the U.S.-Iranian pot simmering (but not boiling) is in Bejing's long-term interest. America's ham-handed involvement in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia has been a tremendous strategic boon for Beijing, and they undoubtedly feel a profound schadenfreude as they watch the Uncle Sam expend trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously maintaining an icy confrontation with Iran. After all, the more time, money, attention and political capital we devote to Iran, the less we can focus on China's long-term efforts to build influence in Asia and eventually supplant the U.S. role there. Plus, bad relations between Washington and Teheran creates diplomatic and investment opportunities for China. The last thing Bejing wants is a prompt resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue, because it might pave the way for a more substantial détente between Washington and Teheran, thereby diminishing Beijing's value and allowing U.S. strategists to shift their attention elsewhere.
At the same time, China doesn't want a war to break out in the Gulf, which could send oil prices soaring (at least temporarily), put the world economy back in recession, and lead to other unpredictable consequences. So it would like the United States and its allies to keep confronting Iran via economic sanctions, but slowly, so that the dispute with Iran never goes away and the use of force stays off the table.
For China, therefore, the optimal strategy is to drag its heels and play for time. This approach means never quite refusing to go along with stiffer sanctions but never saying "yes" either. They'll probably agree to some additional penalties eventually (maybe after a desperate United States agrees to guarantee China's oil supplies against an Iranian cutoff!), but they won't back anything severe enough to convince Iran to forego nuclear enrichment altogether. The dispute will continue, U.S. leaders will devote lots of time and attention to it, and China's long-term interests will be advanced.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is Realism 101. Too bad that Washington seems to have forgotten how to play it.
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If you would like to read a textbook example of a dust-kicking operation, please look at Robert Satloff's heated response to my recent post explaining the problems that can arise when top-level foreign policy officials have strong attachments to a foreign country. I seem to have struck a nerve.
There are only two important issues here, and Satloff ignores both of them. First, do some top U.S. officials -- and here we are obviously talking about Dennis Ross -- have a strong attachment to Israel? Second, might this situation be detrimental to the conduct of U.S. Middle East policy?
Regarding the first question, there is abundant evidence that Ross has a strong -- some might even say ardent -- attachment to Israel. These feelings are clearly on display in his memoir of the Oslo peace process, and they are confirmed by his decision to accept a top position at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy (WINEP) -- an influential organization in the Israel lobby-upon leaving government service in 2000. As Middle East historian Avi Shlaim put it in his own review of Ross's book:
Ross belongs fairly and squarely in the pro-Israel camp. His premises, position on the Middle East and policy preferences are identical to those of the Israel-first school. Indeed, it is difficult to think of an American official who is more quintessentially Israel-first in his outlook than Dennis Ross."
Furthermore, Ross served in recent years as chairman of the board of the Jewish People's Policy Planning Institute, a think-tank established by the Jewish Agency, which is headquartered in Jerusalem. Satloff does not mention this key fact, but the implications are unmistakable. Why would anyone take such a job if they did not have a deep-seated commitment to Israel?
There is nothing wrong with Ross (or any other American) working for WINEP or chairing the board of an organization like JPPPI. As I've emphasized in my previous writings on this topic, I also see nothing wrong with Ross or Satloff, or anyone else for that matter, working to promote America's "special relationship" with Israel. The same is true for those individuals who support the Cuban-American National Foundation, the American Farm Bureau, the National Rifle Association, or the Indian-American Center for Political Awareness (IACPA). Others may disagree with the policies that these interest groups push, but so be it; that's how the American political system works. Thus, Satloff's claim that I am engaged in some sort of McCarthyite witch-hunt is false.
This brings us to the second question: While all Americans certainly have the right to hold different attachments and to express them openly, is it a good idea for someone with a strong attachment to a foreign country -- in this case, Israel -- to be given responsibility for making and executing U.S. Middle East policy?
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According to the New York Times, that viral video of a U.S. Apache helicopter attacking a group of people in a Baghdad suburb -- an attack that killed two Reuters reporters -- has now been viewed at least two million times on YouTube. I was one of those two million viewers, and it's pretty horrifying, especially when you know as you watch that the targets were in fact innocent victims.
But you should watch it anyway, if you want to understand why many Iraqis now want us out of their country and why the United States is less popular than its citizens and leaders think it ought to be. For me, the most remarkable thing about the video is the business-as-usual dialogue between the pilots and crew of the Apache and the ground controllers that are guiding their actions. Although they clearly perceive this as a combat situation -- and there were insurgents operating in their vicinity -- nothing in their exchange suggests that the situation is unusual or that they were in imminent danger themselves. The tone is calm, with occasional moments of frustration at not having a clear shot and elation after the targets are hit.
It is the "banality of combat." The crew followed normal procedures, obtained authorization to shoot before firing, maneuvered to get a clean line of fire, and then unleashed a devastating fusillade. (If you're unfamiliar with the firepower of modern weaponry, the video is graphic and revealing). The self-congratulatory banter and occasional laughter following the attack -- after the violent death of fellow human beings -- is downright chilling.
This tells me that this incident wasn't unusual, which is of course why no disciplinary action was taken against the personnel involved. What is different in this case is that two Reuters journalists got killed, and eventually a video got leaked and put on the internet. And if this particular episode is just one among many, there must be plenty of Iraqis who lost relatives to American firepower or at least had reason to fear and resent it. Not too hard to figure out why pressing for a rapid U.S. withdrawal now wins votes there.
Notice that I am not suggesting that the personnel involved failed to observe the proper "rules of engagement," or did not genuinely think that the individuals they were attacking were in fact armed. Rather, what bothers me is that they were clearly trying to operate within the rules, and still made a tragic error. It reminds us that this sort of mistake is inevitable in this sort of war, especially when we rely on overwhelming firepower to wage it. When we intervene in other countries, this is what we should expect.
One last point: one of the fundamental problems for a country with an interventionist foreign policy is that it frequently does things that others don't like and sometimes resist. If U.S. citizens do not know what their own government is doing, however, they won't understand exactly where that hostility is coming from. Instead of recognizing it as a reaction to their own policies, they will tend to assume that foreign opposition is irrational, a reflection of deep ideological antipathies, or based on some sort of weird hostility to our "values." Believing ourselves to be blameless, and motivated only by noble aims, we will misread the sources of anti-Americanism and overlook opportunities to reduce it by adjusting our own behavior.
It is therefore vital for American citizens to know about the various things that are being done in the name of our national security. We need to know about drone strikes, targeted assassinations, civilians killed by mistake, support for corrupt or vicious warlords, "covert" actions against foreign regimes, etc., as well as similar activities undertaken by allies with whom we are closely identified. Whether those various policies are still justifiable and/or effective is a separate issue (i.e., the benefits may be worth the price of greater hostility, though I am personally skeptical) but at least we won't be surprised when those who have experienced the sharp end of American power are angry at us, and we won't be as likely to misinterpret it.
And that means that organizations like Wikileaks are performing a public service, by exposing incidents and activities that the government would rather you didn't know about. The administration and the Pentagon are very good at telling us about the positive things that they do (and don't get me wrong, there are plenty of them), but an intelligent republic needs independent, tough-minded journalists (and bloggers) to tell us the rest. Because it is more difficult for entrenched interests to control or manipulate, the Internet and the blogosphere is a major asset in the fight for greater public awareness. For more on this latter point, I find Glenn Greenwald convincing.
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Last week, the online journal Politico published a story by reporter Laura Rozen on certain divisions within the Obama administration on Middle East policy. What made the story especially explosive was a quotation from an unnamed administration source describing senior White House aide Dennis Ross as being "far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests."
As one might expect, this statement raised the old specter of "dual loyalty," and from several directions. Critics of Ross suggested that he was guilty of it, while defenders complained that he was being tarred with a familiar anti-Semitic slur. Indeed, Rozen subsequently updated her story with a statement by NSC chief of staff Denis McDonough defending Ross and underscoring "his commitment to this country and to our vital interests," an obvious attempt by the administration to head off the issue before it gained traction.
How should we think about the "dual loyalty" question, either in this context or in many others? To me this is a tricky issue that ought to be handled with some delicacy, and we ought to employ a different vocabulary to discuss it.
One might start by remembering that the phrase "dual loyalty" has a regrettable and sordid history, given its origins as a nasty anti-Semitic canard in old Europe. Accusing anyone -- and especially someone who is Jewish -- of "dual loyalty" is bound to trigger a heated reaction, and for good reason. Furthermore many people believe patriotism (i.e., love of one's country) is a profoundly important value, so any behavior that seems to be at odds with that principle carries powerful negative connotations. In a world where nationalism remains a potent doctrine, casting doubt on anyone's loyalty is a serious charge.
More recently, however, scholars have used the term "dual loyalty" in more analytical and neutral fashion, based on the obvious fact that all human beings have multiple loyalties or attachments. Most of us feel a strong attachment to our own country, for example, but we also feel a sense of loyalty to family, friends, religion, ethnic groups, sports teams, etc.). Patriotism is only one of these competing loyalties, and does not necessarily trump the others. The novelist E. M. Forster famously remarked that if forced to choose between betraying a friend or betraying his country, he hoped he would have the guts to betray the latter, and a 2006 Pew survey of Christians in thirteen countries found that 42 percent of U.S. respondents saw themselves "as Christians first and Americans second." All this is just to remind us that "loyalty" to a country is just one of the many attachments that we all feel.
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Interesting news from ABC (h/t Andrew Sullivan), that the CIA reportedly convinced an Iranian nuclear physicist named Shahram Amiri to defect to the United States about a year ago. Amiri was reportedly part of Iran’s nuclear research program and has now been relocated in the United States.
Three quick thoughts: First, even if he was a very talented physicist, a single defection like this isn't going to stop Iran’s nuclear research program in its tracks, or even slow it down very much.
Second, assuming he was intimately involved in Iran's nuclear program, this ought to increase our confidence in its current state of development. There's been lots of disagreement about when Iran might actually be able to assemble a nuclear weapon -- if in fact they intend to do so -- and if this guy's information is any good, then some of that uncertainty ought to be reduced. Is it time for a new National Intelligence Estimate?
Third, I wonder what Americans would think if other intelligence services engaged in energetic efforts to get leading scientists in our nuclear weapons labs to defect? Based on our reaction to prior cases of nuclear espionage (going back to the Rosenbergs), my guess is that we'd regard it as an act of considerable hostility. I'm not saying we were wrong to recruit this guy, but doesn’t it undercut that "open hand" that we've supposedly been extending to Iran? I'll bet that's how Tehran sees it.
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One apparent area of agreement among virtually all public participants in the recent debate over U.S.-Israeli relations is the importance of confronting Iran. Secretary of State Clinton made it a theme of her remarks to the AIPAC policy conference, as did PM Netanyahu, and interestingly enough, it's implicit in General David Petraeus's comment to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict complicates U.S. efforts to forge effective alliances with other Middle East states.
Add to that a recent column by Michael Hirsh of Newsweek, who quotes an unnamed U.S. official saying that the real reason Obama went ballistic over the continued Israeli intransigence regarding settlement building is that this policy is undermining U.S. efforts to deal with Iran.
In short, what you see here is an emerging consensus that Iran is the problem, and we've got to address Israel-Palestine in order to focus everyone’s attention on that. For the record, some of the things I've written are consistent with that view too.
But one word of caution, courtesy of Trita Parsi. Trying to push Israeli-Palestinian peace in order to then go after Iran has one obvious downside: it gives Tehran an enormous incentive to do whatever it can to derail the admittedly fragile peace process. As Parsi shows in his prize-winning book Treacherous Alliance, this is what happened during the 1990s, after the Bush administration excluded Iran from the Madrid Conference and after the Clinton administration had adopted the policy of "dual containment." Iran had never paid that much attention to the Palestinian issue before then, but it started ramping up support for Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups as a way to pay the United States back and to undermine U.S. efforts to isolate them.
So instead of announcing (or hinting) that we are interested in Israeli-Palestinian peace primarily so we can go after Iran, we ought to emphasize that we are interested in peace there because it’s the right thing to do (i.e., better for us, better for Israel, and obviously better for the Palestinians). At the same time, we should continue patient, realistic (and maybe even more imaginative) efforts to improve relations with Iran, so that they don’t have greater incentives to play the spoiler. Ditto Syria.
If we play our cards right, we might even generate something of a virtuous circle; where various parties with whom we now have disagreements begin to realize that they ought to deal now, lest we mend fences elsewhere and leave them with a weaker bargaining position down the road. But notice that will require a far-sighted, patient, and coherent approach to the region, and not just a single-minded focus on one particular problem.
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Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, U.S. CentCom commander General David Petraeus made the obvious point that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a strategic problem for the United States. Among other things, he said "the conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world."
Numerous scholarly studies and government panels-including the 9/11 Commission and the State Department's Advisory Committee on Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World-have reached similar conclusions. It doesn't mean the U.S. should sever its ties with Israel, of course, and Petraeus never suggested that it did. But that didn't stop Abe Foxman, reality-denying head of the Anti-Defamation League, from misrepresenting and denouncing Petraeus' remarks, without offering a shred of evidence to show that Petraeus was wrong.
Meanwhile, a few bloggers have discovered that I was a member of the committee that supervised Petraeus' 1987 doctoral dissertation on the U.S. army and counterinsurgency in Vietnam. Before anyone tries to concoct a Glenn Beck style guilt-by-assocation theory linking Petraeus and me, here's the skinny:
I knew Petraeus when he was a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton and I was a young Assistant Professor there. His original dissertation committee members were Professors Richard Ullman and Barry Posen, but Posen left Princeton for MIT before the thesis was completed and I was asked to step in and serve as second reader. Petraeus and I had a number of conversations about his work as he wrapped it up and I hope I gave him good advice, but that was the extent of my involvement in his education.
I've had no contact with General Petraeus in over twenty years. He did visit the Kennedy School last April, but I was unable to attend his talk. In any case, he hardly needed my help to reach the conclusions he offered the Armed Services Committee. All you need for that is an open mind.
I've been fighting the temptation to weigh in on the current "crisis" between the United States and Israel -- Lord knows I've already said a lot on this issue over the past few years -- but a few comments are in order.
As one would expect, hard-line groups in the Israel lobby like AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, JINSA and WINEP are now trying to pin the blame for the rift on the Obama administration. They want to portray Obama as insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state, in order to force him to back off the same way he did during last summer's confrontation with Netanyahu over a settlement freeze.
This view has it exactly backwards. Whatever you might think of its strategy or its tactics, the Obama administration has been genuinely committed to achieving a two-state solution before it is too late. This polichy is not an act of hostility toward Israel; on the contrary, it is an act of extraordinary friendship for Obama to keep this difficult item on an already overcrowded agenda. As former prime minister Ehud Olmert and current defense minister Ehud Barak have warned: If the two-state solution fails, the Palestinians will be occupied forever and Israel will become an apartheid state. Instead of helping Israel drive itself off a cliff -- as George W. Bush did -- the Obama administration is trying to prevent that disastrous outcome. And because Obama's team understands that the relentless expansion of Israel's illegal settlements is making a two-state solution increasingly difficult to realize, they believe that a halt to settlement building is a key part of a successful peace process. That includes East Jerusalem, by the way, whose annexation by Israel in 1967 is regarded as illegal by the rest of the world, including the United States.
Achieving a two-state solution is obviously in America's strategic interest as well, because it would remove one of the major sources of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim world. The vast majority of Muslims reject al Qaeda and its murderous methods, for example, but they share its harsh views about U.S. policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A two-state solution won't solve all of our problems in the region, of course, but it would make a lot of them easier to address. It's clear that the U.S. military, which now has a lot of experience in the region, thinks so too. As Centcom commander General David Petraeus told the Armed Services Committee earlier today:
The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [area of operational responsibility]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
A two state solution is also the best guarantee of Israel's long-term future. By showing real backbone this time and explaining to the American people why his approach is right, Obama could be a true friend to the Jewish state.
Netanyahu, AIPAC and the rest of the "status quo" lobby don't get that, and neither do narrow-minded politicians like Joe Lieberman or John McCain. They seem to think it is okay for Israel to keep expanding its control over Palestinian lands and that the United States should back Israel's actions no matter what it does. When disputes arise they should be handled privately, because, as Lieberman put it, the U.S. and Israel are "family." Not true, of course: the United States and Israel are separate countries whose interests are not always identical, and sometimes it makes sense to air those differences in public. The "Christian Zionists" are even worse: They think Israel should control these lands forever in order to fulfill their wacky interpretation of Old Testament prophecy and bring the "end-times" closer. Never mind what happens to Israel itself in the process.
In fact, these people are false friends of Israel, because their recommended course of action will keep it on its current dangerous path. So when you hear them defend the special relationship, or when they accuse Obama or Mitchell or Biden or Clinton of putting unwarranted pressure on Israel, ask them what their long-term solution is. Do they think Israel should control all the territory that once was Mandate Palestine? If so, do they favor a one-party democracy in which Jews and Arabs get equal voting rights, or an apartheid state in which Jews rule over stateless Palestinians? Or are they in favor of ethnic cleansing, the same way that former House Speaker Dick Armey was? Or perhaps they support Netanyahu's bizarre version of "two-states," where Israel keeps all of Jerusalem and confines the Palestinians to a handful of dismembered Bantustans under Israeli control? Those are the only alternatives to a viable two-state solution, and if you don't like them, then you should give Obama credit for his efforts and hope that he holds his ground this time. Because time really is running out.
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It's been a eventful week for those of us who care about Israeli-Palestinian issues, and especially those who would like the United States to exert a more positive role in resolving this seemingly intractable conflict. (If you haven't done so already, be sure to read Mark Perry's remarkable piece on another part of the FP website.)
I'll be posting a comment on recent events later today, but first I wanted to alert you to the official release of a joint product in which I am grateful to have been involved. For the past several years, I've been fortunate to participate in an informal study group on Middle East politics here in Boston, which met on a regular basis to discuss events in the region and ponder what might be done about them. The other members of the "Boston Study Group" were Prof. Lenore Martin of Emmanuel College, Prof. Herbert Kelman of Harvard's Department of Psychology and Social Relations, Prof. Henry Steiner from Harvard Law School, Prof. Harvey Cox from the Harvard Divinity School, Prof. Everett Mendelsohn from Harvard's History of Science department, Alan Berger of the Boston Globe, and Prof. Augustus Richard Norton from Boston University. Each member of the group has been studying these issues for many years, and several have been intimately involved in peace efforts for decades.
Although we didn't agree on every issue, every member of the group has been a strong proponent of a two-state solution and that conviction gave our efforts a certain unity of purpose. I learned an enormous amount from our discussions, and the camaraderie that developed within the group was wonderful. I'm grateful to the other members for including me in their deliberations, and for the many nuggets of wisdom that I gained from each of them.
Of course, given that this was a group of academics or professional writers, it was probably inevitable that we would eventually try to publish something. Our original idea was to produce a short primer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and each of us drafted short papers on different aspects of the issue. We discussed each paper extensively and each author revised their original drafts in light of the group's comments.
In the end, however, we decided it would be more helpful to draft a joint statement reaffirming the need for "two states for two peoples." Our hope was to lend additional support for President Obama's efforts to promote a two-state solution before it is too late, and events of the past week merely underscore the need for decisive action. I'm pleased to report that both the joint statement and the supporting background papers have now been posted on the website of the Foreign Policy Association, under the title "Israel and Palestine: Two States for Two Peoples -- If Not Now, When?" You can download it here.
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Given his loquacious style, it's probably not a good idea to parse Joe Biden's words too closely. Nonetheless, one comment he made during a speech in Tel Aviv yesterday caught my eye. Among other things, Biden told his audience "The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons" (my emphasis).
The interesting word in that otherwise unsurprising sentence is the verb "prevent." No, I don't think the vice president was signaling that the United States is going to take military action (i.e., to engage in a preventive military strike). Rather, I thought the use of that word revealed the underlying mindset that still pervades a lot of national-security thinking. If there's something undesirable happening out there, U.S. foreign policy mavens immediately assume that Washington must to take action to prevent, halt, reverse, negate or stop it. Implicit in that choice of words is the assumption that it is our responsibility to do this and that our actions are the essential ingredient to success. We are the "indispensable nation," to use Madeleine Albright's infamous phrase, and nothing good can happen if we don't will it.
This is a rhetoric that takes American exceptionalism for granted, and it conveys a sense of unilateralism that one normally associates with Bush and the neoconservatives. This formulation also marginalizes and discounts Iran's own motivations and decisions: it is up to us to prevent them from getting the bomb and they have no say in the matter.
To see this more clearly, consider the other verbs that Biden might have used. He could have said "the United States is determined to persuade Iran not to acquire nuclear weapons." This formulation doesn't deny the United States an active role or preclude the use of carrots and sticks to achieve the desired outcome. But instead of declaring that we are determined to decide this outcome more-or-less on our own, it leaves open the possibility of convincing Iran that it would be better off forgoing weaponization. (I can make a pretty good case for that option, although I obviously don't know if Tehran would be convinced by it). Plenty of other potential nuclear powers have ultimately decided not to join the nuclear club, and we ought to be exploring ways to encourage similar thinking in Tehran.
And it's not simply a matter of ramping up pressure, because tightening the screws just increases Tehran's desire to have a more reliable deterrent.
This slightly different formulation acknowledges that whether Iran eventually gets nuclear weapons or not is at least partly up to them, and it treats diplomacy not as a step we have to take in order to persuade others to support sanctions (or to lay the groundwork for "kinetic action" later on), but as a genuine option that may not work but deserves to be pursued with real purpose. Bottom line: I wish the vice president had used a different verb.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images)
I was out-of-town giving a guest lecture when Vice-President Biden arrived in Israel, so I didn’t have a chance to blog about the interesting reception he received. Biden is well-known as a great friend of Israel, and his objective was to smooth over the recent frictions between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government and to jump-start indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. So Biden began his visit by reaffirming America’s “absolute total unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.”
His reward was to get blind-sided by the announcement that Israel's Interior Ministry had authorized the construction of another 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem. (Israel annexed E. Jerusalem after the 1967 Six Day War, but this seizure is not recognized by the international community -- including the United States). Given that the Palestinians hope to locate their capital there if a two-state solution is ever reached, this announcment was -- to put it mildly -- not a friendly gesture.
Aides to Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu have claimed that this announcement was an oversight and that Bibi was not aware that his own Interior Minister was going to make it. I don’t believe that -- and neither does Biden’s staff -- but even if it's true, it's really a secondary issue. Netanyahu did not disavow the announcement or reverse the decision (which is not surprising, given that he has long supported continued Israeli expansion in E. Jerusalem). Moreover, Ha’aretz reported today that the 1,600 homes are just a drop in the bucket, and that the Israel government is planning to build 50,000 (!) homes there over the next few years. In short, the announcement was either an attempt to derail the talks before they get started or a blatant gesture of contempt for the Obama administration itself.
You can read various reactions to the brouhaha here, here, and here. I'll confine myself to three comments.
First, why should anyone be surprised by this sort of "in-your-face" reception? The Netanyahu government has been stonewalling Obama ever since the Cairo speech, and so far the only price they have paid was some tut-tutting that they were being "unhelpful." Some observers used to maintain that Israeli prime ministers got in trouble at home if they didn’t get along with the U.S. president, but Bibi's popularity seems to have been enhanced by his spats with Obama and Mitchell. If Biden was expecting a love-fest when he arrived, he just hasn’t been paying attention.
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In the run-up to the war in Iraq, a critical moment came when moderates and liberals joined forces with the neoconservatives who had been pushing for war since the late 1990s. The poster child for this process was Kenneth Pollack, whose pro-war book The Threatening Storm (written under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations) gave reluctant hawks a respectable fig-leaf for backing the invasion.
Is a similar process occurring today with respect to Iran? A possible sign of slippage is a recent Foreign Affairs article (and accompanying Washington Post op-ed) by James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh (also of the CFR). Lindsay and Takeyh are well-known centrists who now seem at least partly infected by some of the alarmism about Iran that the neoconservatives have been trumpeting for years. Although their two articles sound a somewhat skeptical note about preventive war-they admit that "a preventive attack might not end Iran's nuclear ambitions"-they recommend keeping all options "on the table" and in general depict the Islamic Republic as a looming threat to all that is Right and Proper. Their central lesson: the United States had better get serious about preparing for a military response to a wide array of possible Iranian actions.
Lindsay and Takeyh reach this conclusion by incorporating a series of worst-case assumptions and by employing the familiar alarmist rhetoric that has been a staple of hawkish commentary for decades. Despite some significant qualifications (some of which contradict their central point), the overall impression is ominous, and likely to strengthen the hand of those who are in favor of an ever-tougher approach to Tehran.
For starters, the very first line of their WaPo op-ed describes Iran as "relentlessly moving toward acquiring a nuclear weapons capability." They offer no concrete evidence that this is the case, however, and it is worth remembering that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which concluded Iran had no active nuclear weapons program has yet to be rescinded. Iran may be trying to build a working nuclear weapon, but there is as yet no clear sign that a definitive decision to go nuclear has been made. Of course, so long as Iran has the capacity to enrich uranium, it is by definition "moving toward" having the potential to build a weapon at some point in the future. Insofar as its nuclear program goes back decades, however, it doesn't seem to be moving very fast. Unfortunately, using words like "relentlessly" and portraying the decision to get a bomb as a done deal makes Tehran sound especially dangerous and further devalues any possibility of a diplomatic deal that might head off weaponization.
Next, they argue that Iran "views nuclear weapons as the means to regional preeminence" and warn that a nuclear shield "would give Iran freedom to project its power in the Middle East." They believe Iran "would not be subtle about brandishing the nuclear card" and predict it "would probably test U.S. resolve early." Indeed, they think America will face a "momentous credibility crisis" if it fails to stop Iran from getting the bomb, warning that "even close US allies would doubt Washington's security guarantees."
Are you scared yet? All these ominous claims might be true, but neither the Foreign Affairs article or the WaPo op-ed contain any evidence to back them up. But Lindsay and Takeyh are just getting started. They also think Iran might increase its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, do more to subvert the Gulf sheikhdoms, demand that these states evict U.S. troops, and maybe even give nuclear technology to other countries. And if that isn't enough, they invoke the old nightmare that Iran might "give fissile material to a terrorist group."
Of course, alert readers with good memories will notice that these are the same arguments that pro-war hawks made about Iraq. And though each of the warnings is hedged in various ways-i.e., they don't say Iran will do these things, only that it might-the cumulative effect of all these scary scenarios is to suggest that an Iranian bomb would be major turning point in world history (and not in a good way).
So what should the U.S. do in response? According to Lindsay and Takeyh, the United States needs to draw several lines in the sand: 1) no initiation of conventional warfare, 2) no use or transfer of nuclear weapons, material, or technologies, and 3) no stepped-up support for terrorist or subversive activities. If Iran does any of these things, the United States should be ready to respond "by any and all means necessary." If we aren't ready to retaliate, they write, "the damage created by Iran's going nuclear could become catastrophic.
Time to chill, guys. Iran is an important security issue, and the United States should take appropriate steps to maintain a balance of power in the region. Unfortunately, the drum-beat of alarmism that pervades their article-and even more in the op-ed version-is both misleading and possibly counterproductive.
First, their depiction of a swaggering Iran armed with nuclear weapons grossly overstates Iran's actual capabilities. According to the IISS Military Balance, Iran's military budget in 2008 was around $9.5 billion dollars (less than 2 percent of U.S. defense outlays) and Iran's actual capabilities reflects this paltry investment. It has no conventional power-projection capabilities, outdated air, naval and armored forces, and primitive electronic warfare capabilities. Iran's population and economic potential raise the possibility that it might one day be the dominant power in the Gulf, but it is nowhere near that capacity now. Getting a nuclear weapon won't change that fact, because nuclear weapons are only useful for deterrence and confer little positive leverage over others. (Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge this latter point in the Foreign Affairs version, but if they genuinely believe this, then many of their other arguments are irrelevant).
Second, Lindsey and Takeyh misunderstand the sources of U.S. credibility. The United States has been actively engaged in Persian Gulf security for decades, because Persian Gulf oil is a vital U.S. national interest. That vital interest won't change no matter what happens in Iran, which is why our local allies can count on us to back them up. The reason is simple: it is in our own self-interest. And the good news is that Iran almost certainly knows this too.
Third, they overstate Iran's capacity to subvert or blackmail its neighbors. Iran's capacity to export its version of Islamic fundamentalism has declined steadily since the 1979 revolution (and it wasn't very great back then), and the regime is a far less attractive model today than it was under the more charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini. The brutal crackdown following the elections last summer has undoubtedly tarnished Tehran's appeal even more. Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge this point as well in the long version of their article, but they fail to draw the obvious conclusion: if Iran cannot subvert its neighbors, then the danger it poses is modest and their article didn't need to be written.
Furthermore, a nuclear Iran could not blackmail its neighbors (or compel them to expel U.S. forces), because it could not carry out a nuclear threat without facing devastating U.S. or Israeli retaliation. The mighty Soviet Union could not blackmail any US allies during in the Cold War; indeed, it wasn't even able to blackmail weak and neutral countries. American leaders have found it equally difficult to translate our vast nuclear arsenal into meaningful political leverage. Yet Lindsay and Takeyh imply that Iran could perform this miracle today, even though it is far weaker. They never explain why or how, however; it's just another convenient bogeyman.
Fourth, fears that Iran will give weapons or technology to terrorists are even more far-fetched. One cannot rule out the possibility that Iran might share nuclear technology with a few other governments (much as Pakistan did), but there are good reasons to doubt it. Among other things, it is hard to believe that Iran would want to see more countries get nuclear weapons, especially in its own region.
More importantly, Iran is not going to give fissile material to terrorists. Having labored long and hard to acquire an enrichment capability, would any regime just hand weapons-grade uranium over to extremists over whom it had no control? Giving fissile material to terrorists is a potentially suicidal act, and Iran's leaders show every sign of wanting to retain power permanently and to live as long as they can. They could never be sure the hand-off would not be detected and that they would not be blamed (and punished) for whatever the terrorists did. There's no sign that any of Iran's leaders has a death wish, which is why they won't be giving any bombs away.
Fifth, Lindsay and Takeyh's redlines are too vague and elastic. The United States is already committed to opposing conventional aggression in the Gulf region (unless we're the ones doing it, of course), and U.S. leaders have already made it clear that they will respond to blackmail or nuclear use as well. As Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge, the United State remains a powerful presence in the Gulf region today and will stay there long after the withdrawal from Iraq is completed. In short, the essential ingredients of containment are already in place.
In particular, threatening retaliation against "subversive activities" risks either an unnecessary war or a further challenge to US credibility. For example, many well-informed observers believe Iran has substantial influence in Iraq today, and may be actively trying to affect the outcome of the March 7 elections. Is this the sort of "subversive activity" that should trigger a US response? How about a single shipment of mortars to Hezbollah, or the capture of an Iranian intelligence agent operating in Bahrain or Dubai? In a world where the United States, Israel, and plenty of other states are conducting covert, "subversive" operations in assorted foreign countries-including targeted killings and assassinations-this item hardly seems like a redline we can or should try to enforce.
It is also worth remembering that the U.S. and its allies didn't threaten to retaliate against the USSR for the "subversive activities" that were a central part of Soviet communism's international agenda from 1917 to 1986. The United States and NATO made it clear they'd respond to traditional acts of aggression, but we knew better than to make "subversion" a key "redline" in our overall strategy of containment. The goal was prevent Soviet expansion and to out-perform the USSR over time, so that communist subversion failed to find root in any countries that mattered. As 1989 proved, that strategy was a smashing success.
Sixth, a hair-trigger, forward-leaning approach to containment will give Iran an obvious incentive to acquire a deterrent of its own. No matter how much they hedge, Lindsay and Takeyh are announcing to the world that Iran's acquisition of a small nuclear capability at some point in the future would have significant positive effects on its regional position. I certainly hope Iran isn't listening to them, because it's hard to think of a better way to convince its leaders to go ahead. Moreover, overheated talk about the need for a more robust containment strategy is likely to reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent shield that can take the threat of regime change (an option Washington has never renounced) "off the table." But if we don't much like the idea of an Iranian bomb (and I don't), shouldn't we doing everything we can to convince Tehran that a bomb would be of little value? Perhaps unintentionally, Lindsay and Takeyh are sending precisely the opposite message.
Seventh, like most Americans writing about Iran these days, Lindsay and Takeyh never consider the one approach that might actually have some small chance of heading off an Iranian bomb. That approach would be to take the threat of regime change and preventive war off the table and accept Iran's enrichment program-on the strict condition that it ratifies and implements all elements of the NPT Additional Protocol. At the same time, the United States would engage in serious and sincere discussions about a range of regional security matters, including a public U.S. guarantee to forego regime change.
This is the sort of "grand bargain" that others have proposed in the past, and there is of course no guarantee that it will work. Moreover, many people would find any dealings with the current regime objectionable, for understandable reasons. But if an Iranian bomb is such a scary prospect, shouldn't we be pulling out all the stops to see if an acceptable diplomatic solution is possible? As near as I can tell, the sort of grand bargain sketched in the previous paragraph has never been tried; instead, we've made rhetorical gestures and incremental take-it-or-leave-it offers-all of which predictably fail-and we falsely conclude from these half-hearted efforts that more ambitious diplomacy is unworkable.
Finally, it's possible that I'm being too hard on Lindsay and Takeyh. Perhaps they are sheep in wolves' clothing, and their article is in fact a plea for a moderate and sensible strategy of containment dressed up in a lot of tough rhetoric intended to make it more convincing. If so, I fear their approach is too clever by half. Despite their apparent rejection of preventive war and assorted other qualifications, the Lindsay/Takeyh articles unintentionally reinforce an alarmist view of Iran that has been the neoconservatives' bread-and-butter for many years.
Don't forget: between 1998 and 2003, the pro-war party took an extreme position on Iraq and stuck to its guns (literally), looking for every opportunity to advance its program. 9/11 opened the door, and they were quick to seize the moment. Over time, both liberals and moderates were dragged rightward, adopting hawkish rhetoric and tortured rationales in order to show how "serious" they were. Former doves jumped on the bandwagon, the center of gravity swung inexorably to the hard-line position, and the results were disastrous. Something similar seems to be happening again; to paraphrase Yeats, "the centre cannot hold."
Why? Yeats also gives us the answer: because "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
There has been an interesting flap in Cambridge this past week regarding some appalling remarks made by one Martin Kramer. As some of you undoubtedly know, Kramer is a hard-line Israeli-American commentator who has made something of a name for himself attacking the Middle East studies profession, and just about anyone who is remotely critical of Israel’s actions or the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship.” (Full disclosure: he’s taken various ill-aimed swipes at me in the past few years). He was an early supporter of Campus Watch (the organization Daniel Pipes founded to blacklist scholars it disapproved of), and Kramer has also sought to convince Congress to curtail or at least closely monitor the Title VI funding it provides to support Middle East studies and other area studies programs at American universities. He is affiliated with a number of right-of-center organizations in the United States and Israel, and for the past few years, he’s also been a research fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs here at Harvard, under the auspices of its National Security Studies program.
In any case, the ruckus started when it was revealed that Kramer had given a speech at the recent Herzliya Conference in Israel, where he advocated eliminating outside aid to Gazans (which he termed “pro-natal subsidies”) because -- according to him -- it encouraged them to reproduce, which led to the creation of what he termed “superfluous young males,” which, in turn, contributed to terrorism. He also suggested that Israel’s siege of Gaza was intended to deal with this problem. You can watch his remarks here, but the money quote is the following:
“Aging populations reject radical agenda and the Middle East is no different. Now eventually, this will happen among the Palestinians, too. But it will happen faster if the West stops providing pro-natal subsidies for Palestinians with refugee status. Those subsidies are one reason why in the ten years, from 1997 to 2007, Gaza's population grew by an astonishing 40%. At that rate, Gaza's population will double by 2030 to three million. Israel's present sanctions on Gaza have a political aim, undermine the Hamas regime, but they also break Gaza's runaway population growth and there is some evidence that they have. That may begin to crack the culture of martyrdom, which demands a constant supply of superfluous young men."
In other words, if Israel and the West can just keep those pesky Palestinians on a subsistence diet and stop them from having all those babies, the population will get increasingly older and smaller and the terrorism problem will eventually go away.
One rarely hears anyone make such horrific remarks in polite company here in the United States, especially someone associated with a college or university. Not surprisingly, Kramer’s remarks have stirred up a major controversy. Several prominent bloggers -- notably Ali Abunimah (who broke the story) and M.J. Rosenberg -- accused Kramer of advocating genocide. Juan Cole at Informed Comment referred to Kramer’s ideas as a form of eugenics, Richard Silverstein called it anti-Muslim racism, and a number of people complained to the leadership of the Weatherhead Center. I know that because I am on the center’s executive committee and I received several irate emails demanding that Harvard dismiss Kramer or least distance itself from him. In response, the center’s directors issued a statement saying, “It would be inappropriate for the Weatherhead Center to pass judgment on the personal political views of any of its affiliates, or to make affiliation contingent upon some political criterion. Exception may be made for statements that go beyond the boundaries of protected speech, but there is no sense in which Kramer's remarks could be considered to fall into this category.” They also said the charge that he was advocating genocide was “baseless.” The Harvard Crimson took a similar line, which you can read here.
I have three points to make about this matter.
First, although a good case can be made that Kramer’s remarks were tantamount to advocating genocide, I would not use that word to characterize them. The 1948 U.N. definition of genocide does include “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” and Kramer’s call for an end to ‘pro-natal subsidies” is very close to that part of the definition. But despite my respect for Abunimah and Rosenberg, I think the word “genocide” has become a loaded term that gets tossed around too loosely, which makes it easy for Kramer and his defenders to portray legitimate criticism of his extreme views as over the top.
What word you use to describe his comments is actually not that important, because their substance is so offensive to any decent person that you don’t need to worry much about getting the right label for them. To illustrate this point, just imagine how Kramer would react if the Iranian government announced that it was worried its Jewish population (some 25,000 or so) was a potential “fifth column,” and that it was therefore imposing measures intended to discourage Iranian Jews from having more children? Or what if a prominent academic at Harvard declared that the United States had to make food scarcer for Hispanics so that they would have fewer children? Or what if someone at a prominent think tank noted that black Americans have higher crime rates than some other groups, and therefore it made good sense to put an end to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and other welfare programs, because that would discourage African-Americans from reproducing and thus constitute an effective anti-crime program? Americans of all persuasions would appropriately denounce such views as barbaric and racist, and that’s precisely how Kramer’s chilling remarks should be viewed.
Second, I take the issue of academic freedom very seriously and believe that the principle applies to Kramer, even though I found his remarks appalling. Thus, I believe that the Weatherhead administrators were correct in deflecting calls to dismiss him. (Some of you may recall that I thought that the head of Ben Gurion University of the Negev was wrong when she tried to censure Professor Neve Gordon, who is on her faculty and who called for a boycott of Israel. By the same logic, it would be wrong for Harvard officials to cut off Kramer because they disagreed with what he said or even found it offensive.)
But notice that the Weatherhead directors did not quite “refrain from passing judgment” on what Kramer said. The appropriate stance to adopt whenever a faculty member or affiliated researcher takes a controversial or unpopular position is strict neutrality; the institution, or its official representatives, should take no position at all about the validity of the person’s views. Therefore, they should have defended Kramer’s right to say what he did but refrained from commenting on whether the accusations against him were “baseless” or not.
It is also more than a little ironic that Kramer and his defenders are using the principle of “academic freedom” as a means of defense, given Kramer’s past efforts to bring external pressure to bear on academics who made arguments about the Middle East that he found objectionable.
Third, the principle of academic freedom does not prevent scholars from challenging Kramer’s racist ideas, and pointing out just how offensive they are. Nor does it prevent any of us -- and that includes academic administrators -- from questioning Kramer’s judgment on matters relating to U.S. Middle East policy or from questioning the judgment of anyone who thought that having him affiliate with Harvard was a good idea.
One final point. It is important to emphasize that many Israelis and most American Jews would undoubtedly find Kramer’s views offensive. At the same, however, he is hardly an isolated extremist, or some messianic settler sitting in a trailer in an illegal outpost in the West Bank. On the contrary, he is an especially well-connected individual, with appointments at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and of course Harvard. Moreover, he is not the only Israeli who has expressed such hateful views about the Palestinians. Of course, one can find equally hateful sentiments about Israeli Jews coming from Palestinians and Arabs. But the key difference is that they don’t hold appointments at prestigious institutions like Harvard.
John Judis at The New Republic has taken issue with a post of mine from last week, in which I suggested that former Prime Minister Tony Blair's testimony to Britain's Iraq War investigation was consistent with the interpretation that John Mearsheimer and I advanced in our book on the Israel lobby. To his credit, Judis is mostly interested in evidence and he doesn't stoop to the same level of character assassination that some of our critics do. He does accuse me of not having read the Blair transcript, which is not true; at the same time, it appears he has not read our book or my post very carefully.
First, I made it clear in my post that Blair's comments were not a "smoking gun" that proved we were right, and I neither suggested nor implied that Blair's testimony demonstrated that Bush went to war at Israel's urging or to accommodate the Israel lobby. I merely noted that Blair had said that concerns about Israel were part of the discussion, and that Israeli officials were consulted as part of the conversation. Indeed, after summarizing Blair's testimony, I wrote:
Notice that Blair is not saying that Israel dreamed up the idea of attacking Iraq or that Bush was bent on war solely to benefit Israel or even to appease the Israel lobby here at home. But Blair is acknowledging that concerns about Israel were part of the equation, and that the Israeli government was being actively consulted in the planning for the war."
In short, Judis is attacking me for claims I did not make. He suggests that perhaps the Bush administration was just informing Israel of its plans, which is certainly possible, but we have other evidence-including several Israeli accounts-suggesting that Israeli intelligence was also providing Washington with information that reinforced the case for war. (See here, pp. 235-36).
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If you find the news from inside Iran somewhat bewildering, and if you don’t know whether to believe those who think the clerical regime is on its last legs or those who think it will easily contain the opposition, don’t feel bad. The reality is that nobody -- including the leaders of the Iranian government, the opposition, and all of us watching from outside -- knows where they are headed or what the timetable for change might be. We'll know who guessed (yes, guessed) right some weeks, months, years, or decades from now, but right now trying to handicap events there is a mug’s game. Here’s why:
First, we don’t have very reliable information coming from inside Iran itself, partly because the regime is doing its best to limit it. That’s not to say that we have no information -- in the form of emails, journalists' accounts, twitter feeds, viral videos, and even some surveys of public opinion -- the problem is that it is very hard to know how representative it is, what the larger context is, or what any of it actually means.
Second, the information we do have is tainted by what economist Timur Kuran termed "preference falsification." An individual’s true beliefs are a form of private information, and there’s no way of knowing whether someone who is expressing support for the regime is revealing their true beliefs or not. Even a large anti-government rally doesn’t reveal very much about what the people who stayed home are thinking, or how participants or bystanders would react in the event of either a crackdown or concessions by the ruling party. You might be willing to demonstrate if you think it's safe to do so, but your anti-regime feelings might not be so intense that you're willing to take big risks to express them. If enough Iranians feel this way, then the regime is probably safe; the key is that it is essentially impossible to figure this out ex ante.
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Regular readers here know that I think a military attack on Iran would be a huge mistake, and I was sharply critical of a recent NYT op-ed by Alan Kuperman that advocated this course. This morning, the Times's pendulum swung nearly as far the other way, offering up an equally unconvincing op-ed suggesting that there might be hidden strategic benefits for the United States if Iran did in fact cross the threshold to a nuclear weapons capability.
To be specific, the author of the piece, a defense analyst named Adam B. Lawther, suggests that Iran's acquisition of a bomb would 1) encourage threatened Arab governments to get serious about the al Qaeda threat, 2) allow the United States to "break OPEC," 3) cause Israelis and Palestinians to get serious about peace and bury the hatchet, 4) boost the U.S. defense industry (thereby enabling us to get ready for a rising China), and 5) enable the U.S. to "stem the flow of dollars" to Arab petro-states, get them to ante up for the war on terror, and allow us to save the money we are now spending on counterinsurgency operations.
Well, gee, if an Iranian bomb would produce all these benefits, maybe we ought to just skip the whole dispute over enrichment and just give them a few warheads from our own arsenal. But the more you look at these arguments, the less convincing they are. Arab governments like Saudi Arabia are already serious about al Qaeda, because it is a direct threat to their rule. Iran's bomb won't help us "break OPEC," because oil exporters need the revenue. It's not going to lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace, both because the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel have been overblown and because the obstacles to a workable piece have little to do with Iran. The U.S. defense budget doesn't need a further boost right now, and we are already spending at least five times more than China anyway. Finally, the way to stem the flow of money to Arab petrostates and to get out of the counterinsurgency business is to consume less oil and gas and wean ourselves from our futile efforts at social engineering in societies we do not understand. The answer is not to encourage an Iranian bomb.
More generally, this piece makes the same sort of error that advocates of preventive war routinely make, but in the opposite direction. In particular, it assumes that acquisition of a nuclear weapon by Iran (or anybody else) will have enormous, far-reaching, and maybe even revolutionary effects on that state's global position and international influence. Hawks claim that an Iranian bomb would lead to all sorts of horrible bad things; now Lawther is suggesting that it will actually produce an equally impressive number of pretty good results.
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Probably the most controversial claim in my work with John Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby is our argument that it played a key role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Even some readers who were generally sympathetic to our overall position found that claim hard to accept, and some left-wing critics accused us of letting Bush and Cheney off the hook or of ignoring the importance of other interests, especially oil. Of course, Israel's defenders in the lobby took issue even more strenuously, usually by mischaracterizing our arguments and ignoring most (if not all) of the evidence we presented.
So I hope readers will forgive me if I indulge today in a bit of self-promotion, or more precisely, self-defense. This week, yet another piece of evidence surfaced that suggests we were right all along (HT to Mehdi Hasan at the New Statesman and J. Glatzer at Mondoweiss). In his testimony to the Iraq war commission in the U.K., former Prime Minister Tony Blair offered the following account of his discussions with Bush in Crawford, Texas in April 2002. Blair reveals that concerns about Israel were part of the equation and that Israel officials were involved in those discussions.
Take it away, Tony:
As I recall that discussion, it was less to do with specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle East, because the Israel issue was a big, big issue at the time. I think, in fact, I remember, actually, there may have been conversations that we had even with Israelis, the two of us, whilst we were there. So that was a major part of all this."
Notice that Blair is not saying that Israel dreamed up the idea of attacking Iraq or that Bush was bent on war solely to benefit Israel or even to appease the Israel lobby here at home. But Blair is acknowledging that concerns about Israel were part of the equation, and that the Israeli government was being actively consulted in the planning for the war.
Blair's comments fit neatly with the argument we make about the lobby and Iraq. Specifically, Professor Mearsheimer and I made it clear in our article and especially in our book that the idea of invading Iraq originated in the United States with the neoconservatives, and not with the Israeli government. But as the neoconservative pundit Max Boot once put it, steadfast support for Israel is "a key tenet of neoconservatism." Prominent neo-conservatives occupied important positions in the Bush administration, and in the aftermath of 9/11, they played a major role in persuading Bush and Cheney to back a war against Iraq, which they had been advocating since the late 1990s. We also pointed out that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Israeli officials were initially skeptical of this scheme, because they wanted the U.S. to focus on Iran, not Iraq. However, they became enthusiastic supporters of the idea of invading Iraq once the Bush administration made it clear to them that Iraq was just the first step in a broader campaign of "regional transformation" that would eventually include Iran.
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Apropos my earlier arguments against those who think the Islamic Republic is teetering on the brink of collapse, comes the following report from the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. Their analysis of numerous surveys suggests that Ahmadinejad really did win the election, even though there were probably irregularities and his reported margin may have been inflated. Money quote:
[N]one of the polls found indications of support for regime change. Large majorities, including majorities of Mousavi supporters, endorse the Islamist character of the regime such as having a body of Islamic scholars with the power to veto laws they see as contrary to sharia.”
This result hardly means that there isn't serious opposition within Iran; nor does it absolve the clerical regime from having dealt with the protesters in an harsh and brutal fashion. But it ought to give those who think the Iranian people are panting for U.S.-led "liberation" a moment of pause (though I doubt it will lead the hawks to revise their views).
The poll also found that supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi remain interested in rapprochement with the United States and “were ready to make a deal whereby Iran would preclude developing nuclear weapons through intrusive international inspections in exchange for the removal of sanctions. However, this was equally true of the majority of all Iranians.”
Notice also that they are not saying they are willing to give up enrichment, but they are willing to forego weaponization. That’s the only possible deal that I can imagine anytime soon, and wouldn’t it be nice if we tried it?
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens adds his voice to the growing chorus eager for a heightened confrontation with Iran. Right now they just want more sanctions -- though he seems to think airstrikes would be just dandy too -- and he quotes a few like-minded pundits claiming that the government is really fragile and that sanctions or airstrikes might tip it over the edge. Never mind that there is a wealth of scholarly literature suggesting that airstrikes don’t have that effect (especially when the regime in question didn’t start the war) and that economic sanctions are not a very powerful coercive tool against most adversaries, unless one is very, very patient. (And remember that we aren't going to get tougher multilateral sanctions at this point, especially after the decision to sell more arms to Taiwan.) Stephens also assumes that Iran is dead-set on getting an actual nuclear weapon (it might be, but it might also just want to get close), and that if it does, its neighbors will inevitably follow (they might, but there are also good reasons why they might not).
But rest assured that if sanctions don’t work, Stephens will be calling for military action. Stephens is the former editor of the Jerusalem Post, a well-connected neo-conservative, and one of the many pundits who helped cheerlead us into the disastrous war in Iraq. Is he really someone whose advice we ought to be paying attention to now? It would be one thing if he were offering a new set of prescriptions, but learning from past mistakes doesn’t seem to be part of the neocon playbook.
But for now, his piece is really just one more data point we should put in our files and remember. As somebody wrote a few years ago (see page 305):
The [Israel] lobby is also likely to make sure that the United States continues to threaten Iran with military strikes unless it abandons its nuclear enrichment program. Given that this threat has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future, some of Israel’s American backers, especially the neoconservatives, will continue to call for the United States to carry out the threat. ... There is also some possibility ... that [Bush’s successor] will do so, particularly if Iran gets closer to developing weapons and if hardliners there continue to predominate. If the United States does launch an attack, it will be doing so in part on Israel’s behalf, and the lobby would bear significant responsibility for having pushed this dangerous policy.”
Caveat: Because no lobby "controls" U.S. foreign policy (a point we've made repeatedly and that critics routinely ignore), military action of the sort that Stephens & Co. are pushing isn't inevitable. But if it does happen, you'll know who played a key role in bringing it about.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Back in 2002, the Council on Foreign Relations sponsored a book by Kenneth Pollack (subsequently director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at Brookings), entitled The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. The book argued that Saddam Hussein was irrational and undeterrable and that the United States had no choice but to remove him from power. Part of the book’s effectiveness derived from Pollack’s portrayal of himself as a belated convert to preventive war: he had opposed using force in the past, he said, but was now convinced—oh so reluctantly—that no other course was prudent. The book provided intellectual cover for all those liberal hawks who were looking for some way to justify supporting the war, and thus played an important role in a great national disaster.
Last week, CFR president Richard Haass appeared to be channeling his inner Pollack in a Newsweek column calling for regime change in Iran. Describing himself as a “card-carrying realist,” he sounded Pollackian notes of reluctance and resignation. He says that he normally thinks that “ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done,” and adds that he previously backed the Obama administration’s decision to try diplomacy first.
But now, he says, he’s “changed his mind.” He’s convinced that Iran is trying to acquire the capacity to build a nuclear weapon (a carefully worded phrase, by the way, as having the capacity to build a nuke is not the same as actually building one and Iran may merely be seeking a latent capacity akin to Japan rather than an actual nuclear arsenal). He also thinks -- from his lofty perch in New York City -- that Iran “may be closer to profound political change than at any other time since the revolution that ousted the Shah thirty years ago.” Although he doesn’t call for a U.S. invasion (which we don’t have the forces for anyway), he wants the U.S. and its allies to be more vocal about Iranian human rights violations and advocates slapping targeted sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Meanwhile, neither senior U.S. officials nor congressmen should have any dealings with the Iranian regime, and we ought to push hard for sanctions on refined petroleum products at the U.N. (where they won’t be approved). Somewhat inconsistently, he thinks “working-level negotiations on the nuclear question should continue,” even though he must know that there’s hardly any chance that they will succeed while we are doing all the other things he advocates.
While there is no question that Haass’ piece will help fuel America’s sense of self-righteousness -- look, we’re defending freedom! -- the course of action he lays out is foolish. No one in the United States can be confident that Iran is close to “profound political change”; we simply don’t have enough information to know what is happening in Tehran, and authoritarian regimes often hold on to power for decades despite widespread domestic discontent.
Moreover, as I’ve noted before, key members of the current opposition are strongly supportive of Iran’s nuclear program, which means that there is little reason to think that Iran will abandon its nuclear program even if there is some sort of regime change. So if that's what's really bugging him -- and it appears to be -- then his prescribed course of action will just reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Acting as Haass prescribes could also weaken the opposition rather than strengthen it, by allowing the regime to discredit their adversaries as foreign puppets. He says the clerics and Revolutionary Guards are doing that already, but why give them more ammunition for the fight?
There are at least three other reasons why Haass’ new position is misguided.
First, after acknowledging that “ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done,” he assumes that anything would be preferable to what we have now. Maybe so, but our track record in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America, and elsewhere suggests that U.S. meddling often makes things worse. Like the liberal interventionists he has sometimes sparred with in the past, Haass simply cannot imagine leaving well enough alone, and letting Iran’s own people determine their own political future. A hands-off approach is not an endorsement of the clerics or the brutal behavior of the Revolutionary Guards; it is merely recognition that further meddling on our part might be counterproductive.
Second, as Richard Silverstein points out on his blog, Haass’ approach lacks patience. Repairing the troubled U.S.-Iran relationship cannot be accomplished in a month or even a year, and the kind of posturing and pressure that Haass is calling for is more likely to retard progress than advance it. Ordinary Iranians are already convinced that the United States has long interfered in their affairs for various nefarious purposes -- and with some reason -- and putting on the full-court press isn’t going to reduce those concerns. Indeed, it will surely exacerbate them.
Third, a policy of “regime change-lite” puts us one step closer to actual war. Haass is saying in effect that Iran’s government has no legitimacy or standing and that we ought to help bring it down. Attacking Iran is not a practical goal right now, but getting rid of the regime ought to be. So what happens when sanctions and speeches and ostracism don’t work, and Iran continues to develop its enrichment program? Wait another year or two, and Haass will find himself sounding even more like Kenneth Pollack, telling us that he has ever so reluctantly concluded that we have no choice but to bomb.
One would hope to see better analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations, especially in light of the fiasco in Iraq. And if it is a harbinger of things to come, look out.
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 10: (AFP OUT) Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass speaks during a taping of a roundtable discussion of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios December 10, 2006 in Washington, DC. Haass discussed the findings of the Iraq Study Group report on the evaluation of the war in Iraq. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)
If Mideast special envoy George Mitchell wants to end his career with his reputation intact, it is time for him to resign. He had a distinguished tenure in the U.S. Senate -- including a stint as majority leader -- and his post-Senate career has been equally accomplished. He was an effective mediator of the conflict in Northern Ireland, helped shepherd the Disney Corporation through a turbulent period, and led an effective investigation of the steroids scandal afflicting major league baseball. Nobody can expect to be universally admired in the United States, but Mitchell may have come as close as any politician in recent memory.
Why should Mitchell step down now? Because he is wasting his time. The administration's early commitment to an Israeli-Palestinian peace was either a naïve bit of bravado or a cynical charade, and if Mitchell continues to pile up frequent-flyer miles in a fruitless effort, he will be remembered as one of a long series of U.S. "mediators" who ended up complicit in Israel's self-destructive land grab on the West Bank. Mitchell will turn 77 in August, he has already undergone treatment for prostate cancer, and he's gotten exactly nowhere (or worse) since his mission began. However noble the goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace might be, surely he's got better things to do.
In an interview earlier this week with Time's Joe Klein, President Obama acknowledged that his early commitment to achieving "two states for two peoples" had failed. In his words, "this is as intractable a problem as you get ... Both sides-the Israelis and the Palestinians-have found that the political environments, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that" (my emphasis).
This admission raises an obvious question: who was responsible for this gross miscalculation? It's not as if the dysfunctional condition of Israeli and Palestinian internal politics was a dark mystery when Obama took office, or when Netanyahu formed the most hard-line government in Israeli history. Which advisors told Obama and Mitchell to proceed as they did, raising expectations sky-high in the Cairo speech, publicly insisting on a settlement freeze, and then engaging in a humiliating retreat? Did they ever ask themselves what they would do if Netanyahu dug in his heels, as anyone with a triple-digit IQ should have expected? And if Obama now realizes how badly they screwed up, why do the people who recommended this approach still have their jobs?
As for Mitchell himself, he should resign because it should be clear to him that he was hired under false pretenses. He undoubtedly believed Obama when the president said he was genuinely committed to achieving Israel-Palestinian peace in his first term. Obama probably promised to back him up, and his actions up to the Cairo speech made it look like he meant it. But his performance ever since has exposed him as another U.S. president who is unwilling to do what everyone knows it will take to achieve a just peace. Mitchell has been reduced to the same hapless role that Condoleezza Rice played in the latter stages of the Bush administration -- engaged in endless "talks" and inconclusive haggling over trivialities-and he ought to be furious at having been hung out to dry in this fashion.
The point is not that Obama's initial peace effort in the Middle East has failed; the real lesson is that he didn't really try. The objective was admirably clear from the start -- "two states for two peoples" -- what was missing was a clear strategy for getting there and the political will to push it through. And notwithstanding the various difficulties on the Palestinian side, the main obstacle has been the Netanyahu government's all-too obvious rejection of anything that might look like a viable Palestinian state, combined with its relentless effort to gobble up more land. Unless the U.S. president is willing and able to push Israel as hard as it is pushing the Palestinians (and probably harder), peace will simply not happen. Pressure on Israel is also the best way to defang Hamas, because genuine progress towards a Palestinian state in the one thing that could strengthen Abbas and other Palestinian moderates and force Hamas to move beyond its talk about a long-term hudna (truce) and accept the idea of permanent peace.
It's not as if Obama and Co. don't realize that this is important. National Security Advisor James Jones has made it clear that he sees the Israel-Palestinian issue as absolutely central; it's not our only problem in the Middle East, but it tends to affect most of the others and resolving it would be an enormous boon. And there's every sign that the president is aware of the need to do more than just talk.
Yet U.S. diplomacy in this area remains all talk and no action. When a great power identifies a key interest and is strongly committed to achieving it, it uses all the tools at its disposal to try to bring that outcome about. Needless to say, the use of U.S. leverage has been conspicuously absent over the past year, which means that Mitchell has been operating with both hands tied firmly behind his back. Thus far, the only instrument of influence that Obama has used has been presidential rhetoric, and even that weapon has been used rather sparingly.
And please don't blame this on Congress. Yes, Congress will pander to the lobby, oppose a tougher U.S. stance, and continue to supply Israel with generous economic and military handouts, but a determined president still has many ways of bringing pressure to bear on recalcitrant clients. The problem is that Obama refused to use any of them.
When Netanyahu dug in his heels and refused a complete settlement freeze -- itself a rather innocuous demand if Israel preferred peace to land -- did Obama describe the settlements as "illegal" and contrary to international law? Of course not. Did he fire a warning shot by instructing the Department of Justice to crack down on tax-deductible contributions to settler organizations? Nope. Did he tell Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to signal his irritation by curtailing U.S. purchases of Israeli arms, downgrading various forms of "strategic cooperation," or canceling a military exchange or two? Not a chance. When Israel continued to evict Palestinians from their homes and announced new settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in August, did Obama remind Netanyahu of his dependence on U.S. support by telling U.S. officials to say a few positive things about the Goldstone Report and to use its release as an opportunity to underscore the need for a genuine peace? Hardly; instead, the administration rewarded Netanyau's intransigence by condemning Goldstone and praising Netanyahu for "unprecedented" concessions. (The "concessions," by the way, was an announcement that Israel would freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank "temporarily" while continuing it in East Jerusalem. In other words, they'll just take the land a bit more slowly).
Like the Clinton and Bush administrations, in short, the idea that the United States ought to use its leverage and exert genuine pressure on Israel remains anathema to Obama, to Mitchell and his advisors, and to all those pundits who are trapped in the Washington consensus on this issue. The main organizations in the Israel lobby are of course dead-set against it -- and that goes for J Street as well -- even though there is no reason to expect Israel to change course in the absence of countervailing pressure.
Obama blinked -- leaving Mitchell with nothing to do-because he needed to keep sixty senators on board with his health care initiative (that worked out well, didn't it?), because he didn't want to jeopardize the campaign coffers of the Democratic Party, and because he knew he'd be excoriated by Israel's false friends in the U.S. media if he did the right thing. I suppose I ought to be grateful to have my thesis vindicated in such striking fashion, but there's too much human misery involved on both sides to take any consolation in that.
So what will happen now? Israel has made it clear that it is going to keep building settlements -- including the large blocs (like Ma'ale Adumim) that were consciously designed to carve up the West Bank and make creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority, and other moderate forces will be increasingly discredited as collaborators or dupes. As Israel increasingly becomes an apartheid state, its international legitimacy will face a growing challenge. Iran's ability to exploit the Palestinian cause will be strengthened, and pro-American regimes in Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere will be further weakened by their impotence and by their intimate association with the United States. It might even help give al Qaeda a new lease on life, at least in some places. Jews in other countries will continue to distance themselves from an Israel that they see as a poor embodiment of their own values, and one that can no longer portray itself convincingly as "a light unto the nations." And the real tragedy is that all this might have been avoided, had the leaders of the world's most powerful country been willing to use their influence on both sides more directly.
Looking ahead, one can see two radically different possibilities. The first option is that Israel retains control of the West Bank and Gaza and continues to deny the Palestinians full political rights or economic opportunities. (Netanyahu likes to talk about a long-term "economic peace," but his vision of Palestinian bantustans under complete Israeli control is both a denial of the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations and a severe obstacle to their ability to fully develop their own society. Over time, there may be another intifada, which the IDF will crush as ruthlessly as it did the last one. Perhaps the millions of remaining Palestinians will gradually leave -- as hardline Israelis hope and as former House speaker Dick Armey once proposed. If so, then a country founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust -- one of history's greatest crimes-will have completed a dispossession begun in 1948 -- a great crime of its own.
Alternatively, the Palestinians may remain where they are, and begin to demand equal rights in the state under whose authority they have been forced to dwell. If Israel denies them these rights, its claim to being the "only democracy in the Middle East" will be exposed as hollow. If it grants them, it will eventually cease to be a Jewish-majority state (though its culture would undoubtedly retain a heavily Jewish/Israeli character). As a long-time supporter of Israel's existence, I would take no joy in that outcome. Moreover, transforming Israel into a post-Zionist and multinational society would be a wrenching and quite possibly violent experience for all concerned. For both reasons, I've continued to favor "two states for two peoples" instead.
But with the two-state solution looking less and less likely, these other possibilities begin to loom large. Through fear and fecklessness, the United States has been an active enabler of an emerging tragedy. Israelis have no one to blame but themselves for the occupation, but Americans -- who like to think of themselves as a country whose foreign policy reflects deep moral commitments-will be judged harshly for our own role in this endeavor.
The United States will suffer certain consequences as a result-decreased international influence, a somewhat greater risk of anti-American terrorism, tarnished moral reputation, etc.-but it will survive. But Israel may be in the process of drafting its own suicide pact, and its false friends here in the United States have been supplying the paper and ink. By offering his resignation-and insisting that Obama accept it-George Mitchell can escape the onus of complicity in this latest sad chapter of an all-too-familiar story. Small comfort, perhaps, but better than nothing.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
If memory serves, it was the distinguished political scientist Sidney Verba who once wryly advised that "one should never write about a country that you haven't flown over." It's a sardonic comment on the tendency for social scientists to pontificate about countries they barely know, and it sprang to mind during the last leg of my trip last week.
The final item on my itinerary was thirty-six hours in Tripoli, Libya. I was invited to give a lecture to its Economic Development Board, following in the footsteps of a number of other recent American visitors, including Frank Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, Joseph Nye, Robert Putnam, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Richard Perle (!). I'd never been to Libya before, and was looking forward to hearing what the audience had to say.
Unfortunately, my plane from London was five hours late (thanks again, British Airways!), so the scheduled lecture never took place. But I did get to meet with several Libyan officials and spent a few hours touring Tripoli itself. Mindful of Verba's warning, however, I can't offer anything like an informed assessment, so what follows are just a few quick and provisional impressions.
First, although Libya is far from a democracy, it also doesn't feel like other police states that I have visited. I caught no whiff of an omnipresent security service -- which is not to say that they aren't there -- and there were fewer police or military personnel on the streets than one saw in Franco's Spain. The Libyans with whom I spoke were open and candid and gave no sign of being worried about being overheard or reported or anything like that. The TV in my hotel room featured 50+ channels, including all the normal news services (BBC World Service, CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, etc.) along with contemporary U.S. sitcoms like "2-1/2 Men," shows like "Desperate Housewives," assorted movies, and one of the various "CSI" clones. A colleague on the trip told me that many ordinary Libyans have satellite dishes and that the government doesn't interfere with transmissions. I tried visiting various political websites from my hotel room and had no problems, although other human rights groups report that Libya does engage in selective filtering of some political websites critical of the regime. It is also a crime to criticize Qaddafihimself, the government's past human rights record is disturbing at best, and the press in Libya is almost entirely government-controlled. Nonetheless, Libya appears to be more open than contemporary Iran or China and the overall atmosphere seemed far less oppressive than most places I visited in the old Warsaw Pact.
THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
I was going to blog this morning about the Times's story that Dr. Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian double agent who killed 8 U.S. operatives in a suicide bomb attack last week, was reportedly motivated by his anger at Israel's pummeling of Gaza last year (you know, the war that President Bush didn't try to prevent, that President-elect Obama didn't talk about, and that the U.S. Congress apparently thinks was just fine.) Talk about blowback. But Phil Weiss and Glenn Greenwald are on the case, and you can just read them instead of me.
Instead, I want to share an invitation I was forwarded by a friend (for some inexplicable reason, I didn't get one myself). The email invited him to attend "Spotlight Iran," a special workshop sponsored by The Israel Project. Here's what it said:
From: The Israel Project [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Tuesday, January 05, 2010 5:11 PM
Subject: You Are Invited to an Iran Conference in Washington, DC
Please join us for a community-wide grass-roots advocacy training program:
Israel Advocacy Training Institute: Spotlight Iran
Don't miss this hands-on training institute for Israel activists with special briefings by high level American and Israeli officials on the vital issues of Iran and grass roots advocacy. Gain new tools and learn how to effectively and efficiently make use of your time and resources to advocate for Israel in the halls of government, pages of newspaper print, radio airwaves, and internet sites of the new media.
Sunday, January 17, 12 noon- 4:30 p.m.
Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy
13300 Arctic Avenue, Rockville, MD
-Dan Arbell, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Israel
-Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, President of The Israel Project
Workshop Sessions featuring:
*Congressional and Legislative Advocacy with AIPAC Mid-Atlantic Political Director Arie Lipnik and Congressional Legislative Assistants
*Online Advocacy: Blogging, Twitter and Social Media with "Press Guru" and Jewish Communications Expert Aaron Keyak
*How to Get Published and Write a Letter to the Editor with journalist and Reuters Editor Alan Elsner
*Israel Advocacy in the Synagogue with Rabbi Jonah Layman of Shaare Tefilah Congregation and President of Congregation B'nai Tzedek Helane Goldstein
*Advocacy and Radio strategy with Former White House Radio Director Richard Strauss
*Understanding Christian Perspectives on Israel: The Keys to Effective Advocacy with Ethan Felson and Josh Protas, Vice President and Washington Director of the JCPA
*Special Teen Track Workshops
Book signing featuring authors: Ilan Berman, Alan Elsner,
Michael Ledeen and Jonathan Schanzer
$18 standard track ? $10 teen track (includes lunch)
[followed by the usual contact info for those seeking additional information]
A few quick comments:
First, if anyone still doubts that groups in the Israel lobby work hard to shape public discourse about Middle East affairs...well, time to cast those doubts aside. Apart from hyping the threat from Iran, the clear purpose of this workshop is to train people on how to write op-eds, twitter posts, blogs, etc., that can push TIP's supposedly "pro-Israel" agenda.(Needless to say, its agenda on Iran is about pushing the United States to do whatever it takes to keep Iran from mastering the full fuel cycle, including the use of force.)
Second, there's nothing wrong with a group of Americans getting together to push their policy views; that's how our system of government works. This is in principle no different than Cuban-Americans organizing to preserve the misguided embargo on Castro's regime, NRA members meeting to figure out new ways to thwart gun control, farmers organizing to push for more crop subsidies, tea partyers getting together to sound off on their pet peeves, or birthers meeting to spread more goofy notions about Obama's heritage. Just good old-fashioned American interest group politics in all its glory.
But notice that this event advertises an AIPAC representative, an Israeli diplomat and apparently several unnamed congressional legislative assistants. The latter are supposed to be public servants; we understand that they will be the objects of a lobbying groups efforts but here they seem to be actively helping one. Given the prominent role given to an official representative of a foreign government and the participation of several congressional aides, this event does seem to blur the line between being a purely domestic lobbying group and being something else. Isn't it a bit over-the-line to have an officially accredited diplomat give the plenary address to a workshop whose declared purpose is to teach Americans how to advocate on behalf of that same diplomat's country?
Third, my main point is to be clear about who is pushing for war with Iran and who isn't. The Israel Project and other like-minded groups want the U.S. to confront Iran, and the main reason they want this is to protect Israel from what they believe (mistakenly, in my view) is a dire threat. (I think Iran's activities are a legitimate concern, but not the apocalyptic danger that many Israelis seem to think.) They are entirely within their rights to hold those views, however, and to work within the American political system to try to advance their hard line agenda. If they want to organize seminars to build support for that position, and train people on how to advocate for it, fine by me. And if other folks with similar views and agendas want to chime in, that's ok too.
And let's be clear about one other thing. War with Iran is not a project that is backed by all Jewish-Americans, or only by Jewish-Americans. The same was true about the war in Iraq, which was dreamed up by the neocons and backed by key groups in the Israel lobby, but not by many American Jews. Indeed, by the time the United States went to war in 2003, surveys showed that American Jews were less supportive of war with Iraq than the U.S. population as a whole.
But as in the run-up to Iraq, many of the most persistent advocates of a "kinetic response" to Iran are individuals or organization in the Israel lobby (including those bizarrely bellicose Christian Zionists), and as this invitation suggests, they aren't being especially bashful about making their policy preferences known. So if the United States does end up at war with Iran in the not-too-distant future, and if it turns out to leave us worse off than before, I hope these same people won't spend the aftermath denying that they had anything to do with it, or accusing people who discuss their role of being somehow bigoted.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
A few recent items that I thought I'd call your attention to, mostly about the Middle East.
1. Jerome Slater -- a distinguished professor emeritus from SUNY-Buffalo -- has started a new blog at www.jeromeslater.com. I've been reading Jerry's excellent scholarship for years, and have learned a great deal from him on a number of subjects, Israel-Palestine included. His opening entry is a sober discussion of the Goldstone Report, in which he demolishes the recent piece of hasbara by Prof. Moshe Halbertal in (surprise, surprise) The New Republic. Halbertal's analysis was sufficiently slanted to earn a "Sidney" award from the Times' David Brooks, but Slater's critique is quietly devastating. (For another telling critique of Halbertal's dust-kicking operation, see Jeremiah Haber's response at The Magnes Zionist, here and here.)
2. Tony Karon ("Rootless Cosmopolitan") has an excellent short analysis of Obama's foreign policy out at Time. His opening metaphor is dead on the mark: "the presidency is more like taking over the controls of a train than getting behind the wheel of a car. That's because you can't steer a train; you can only determine its speed." One might add that when most of the train's crew are enthusiastic liberal imperialists -- ooops, I mean "liberal internationalists" -- and when political operators are as important to your decisions as people with genuine foreign policy expertise, then you're not going to get much help if you try to switch to another track.
3. Over at Truthout.org, Tom Englehart and Nick Turse ask a lot of good questions about the direction of U.S. national security policy.
4. Gershom Gorenberg has a fine article in The American Prospect on the bogus "settlement freeze." Highly recommended for those who still believe the Netanyahu government wants peace more than it wants land.
5. My interview with The Browser on "five books on U.S.-Israeli relations" is available here. I couldn't resist plugging our own, but I do feel a bit sheepish about it. Frankly, I could easily have added five or ten more -- including a few books I have some disagreements with -- so don't view my list as even close to comprehensive.
6. Foreign Affairs is not the first place I look for analysis that breaks a lot of new ground, but the latest issue has a fine article by sociologist Jack A. Goldstone on the demographic changes that are going to remake global politics over the next several decades. Money quote:
"Four historic shifts . . . will fundamentally alter the world's population over the next four decades: the relative demographic weight of the world's developed countries will drop by nearly 25 percent, shifting economic power to the developing nations; the developed countries' labor forces will substantially age and decline, constraining economic growth in the developed world and raising the demand for immigrant workers; most of the world's expected population growth will increasingly be concentrated in today's poorest, youngest, and most heavily Muslim countries, which have a dangerous lack of quality education, capital, and employment opportunities; and, for the first time in history, most of the world's population will become urbanized, with the largest urban centers being in the world's poorest countries, where policing, sanitation, and health care are often scarce. . . . Coping with them will require nothing less than a major reconsideration of the world's basic global governance structures."
Goldstone is not the first person to discover these trends and one can quibble with some of his arguments, but his summary is rich and insightful and some of his prescriptions -- such as encouraging out-migration to the developing world by retirees in the developed world -- are intriguingly outside-the-box. Well worth a read.
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday I pointed out that neither the New York Times nor Washington Post had yet covered the story of the "Gaza Freedom March," a group of 1300 or so peace activists who were trying to travel to Gaza to protest the continued blockade of this beleaguered region. I am pleased to report that today the Times ran a pretty good story on the march. As near as I could tell from its website, the Post has yet to do so.
Over at Mondoweiss, Adam Horowitz reports that the Egyptian government has now agreed to let 100 Freedom Marchers enter Gaza. One of the organizers of the March, Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin, called it a "partial victory," that shows that "mass pressure has an an effect." I hope she's right, both in that context and in some others.
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Did you know that the Gaza Freedom March -- a group of over 1300 peace activists from 43 countries -- is protesting the continued siege of Gaza, on the anniversary of the brutal Israeli assault that killed over a thousand people last year? (There is also a separate effort to bring a convoy of relief aid to the Gazans, under the auspices of the group Viva Palestina).
Did you know that the Freedom March is now stuck in Cairo, because the Egyptian government has denied them permission to travel to Gaza? The Mubarak regime has its own issues with Hamas, and it is also dependent on U.S. economic and military aid. Israel and the United States don't want the adverse publicity that the Freedom March might generate and are perfectly content to let the Gazans suffer, so needless to say Washington isn't putting any pressure on Egypt to let the convoy through.
Did you know that this event is being extensively covered in the Arab world, and may be causing problems for Mubarak & Co., as the Egyptians are once again being exposed as complicit in the collective punishment that Israel is inflicting on the population of Gaza?
Did you know that one of the participants in the convoy is an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor (Hedy Epstein), and that she recently began a hunger strike to protest the refusal to let the convoy go to Gaza?
You probably didn't know about any of this, but it's not really your fault. You probably get your news from mainstream outlets like the New York Times or Washington Post, and neither of these illustrious newspapers has bothered to cover this story. What do they consider important? Well, in the case of the Times, their idea of a big Mideast story right now is the heart-warming saga of a little shwarma shop in Amman.
If you do want to learn a bit more about this worthy effort to help the Gazans, you can go to the group's website, here. Or you can follow it on Mondoweiss, here. Or even read about it in Ha'aretz, here. And then you might have a better idea why the Mubarak government isn't very popular, why Israel faces growing censure for its conduct, why the United States continues to be despised in much of the Arab and Islamic world, and why the blogosphere is so important.
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I don’t know where the latest unrest in Iran will lead -- and neither does anyone else -- but it seems like the regime is losing whatever legitimacy it had left and may also be losing its capacity to squelch dissent with displays of force. (As before, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish has lots of videos and commentary on events there.) The outcome of this sort of challenge is inherently difficult to forecast, as it is nearly impossible to know ex ante when a critical “tipping point” might be reached. At a minimum, the regime has clearly gotten significantly weaker since the contested election last summer.
Here are some cautionary lessons to bear in mind. First, we do not know enough about internal dynamics in Iran to intervene intelligently, and trying to reinforce or support the Green Movement is as likely to hurt them as to help them. So our official position needs to measured and temperate, and to scrupulously avoid any suggestion that we are egging the Greens on or actively backing them with material aid.
Second, this is an especially foolish time to be rattling sabers and threatening military action. Threatening or using force is precisely the sort of external interference that might give the current regime a new lease on life. If you’d like to see a new government in Tehran, in short, we should say relatively little and do almost nothing. I don’t object to making it clear how much the U.S. government deplores the regime’s repressive measures, but this is one of those moment where we ought to say less than we feel.
If you’re looking for a useful historical analogy, think back to the "velvet revolutions" in Eastern Europe. Neoconservatives used to argue that the rapid and mostly peaceful collapse of communism proved that rapid democratic transformations were possible in unlikely settings, and they used that argument to justify trying the same thing in Iraq. (We all know how well that turned out.) In fact, the velvet revolutions were a triumph of slow and patient engagement from a position of strength. The upheavals in Eastern Europe were an indigenous phenomenon and the product of containment, diplomatic engagement, and the slow-but-steady spread of democratic ideals through the Helsinki process and other mechanisms. And the first Bush administration was smart enough to keep its hands off until the demise of communism was irreversible, which is precisely the approach we ought to take toward Iran today.
Finally, as I mentioned a few days ago, we should not assume that a Green triumph in Iran would eliminate all sources of friction between Iran and the West. A new government would probably seek to continue Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and will certainly want a secure (read: superior) position in its own neighborhood. In practice, that means trying to achieve an imbalance of power in its favor, which will make the U.S. uncomfortable. If the clerical regime falls and we continue to insist that Iran stop enriching uranium and conform to our policy preferences, that will convince many Iranians that the United States is irrevocably hostile to their country and not just to the current regime. So I hope somebody in the Obama administration is starting to think about a) what we do if the Green Movement succeeds, b) what we do if it fails, and c) how to keep hawks in the United States and Israel from making things worse.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.