The Obama administration is reportedly rethinking its previous reluctance to send arms to the Syrian rebels. With violence continuing to rise and Assad refusing to blow town, the apparent aim is to ensure that the United States has some influence or leverage over at least some of the parties who will be competing for power in a post-Assad Syria.
This is the logic presented by former State Department official Frederick C. Hof, who told the New York Times that "the odds are very high that, for better or worse, armed men will determine Syria's course for the foreseeable future ... For the U.S. not to have close, supportive relationships with armed elements, carefully vetted, is very risky."
FP's Marc Lynch has already provided a comprehensive set of reasons why arming the rebels is not a good idea. Here I just want to challenge the idea implicit in Hof's statement above -- that providing arms to a warring group earns you lasting gratitude, leverage, or long-term influence. The issue isn't whether you can "carefully vet" the recipients or not; the issue is whether giving arms today has any lasting effects on what even well-vetted recipients might think, feel, or do in the future.
Indeed, isn't this a movie we've seen many, many times? The United States poured billions of dollars of aid into South Vietnam, but we could never get that government to behave the way we wanted. We sent vast piles of weaponry -- including sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles -- to the Afghan mujaheddin, and ended up helping create Al Qaeda. We bankrolled Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and listened to his advice about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, only to watch him go rogue after Hussein was toppled. We've given hundreds of billions of dollars to the Karzai government in Afghanistan, but that hasn't made it any less corrupt or any more compliant with U.S. wishes. Needless to say, it's easy to think of lots of other recipients of American largesse who take the money and the arms and then do whatever they think is right, even if it is sharply at odds with Washington's wishes.
And it's not just us, of course. The Soviet Union gave its own clients lots of money and arms over the years, but it rarely bought them a lot of lasting influence. Remember when Anwar Sadat kicked them out of Egypt and realigned with us instead?
This situation should not surprise us in the slightest. Politics can be a brutal and nasty business, especially during a civil war and certainly in conflict zones like the Middle East. In such circumstances, gratitude to a foreign patron is a luxury that few actors can afford, and especially not to a country whose reputation in the region is less than stellar. The question isn't even "what have you done for me lately?"; it is always "what will you do for me now?"
Assad's opponents would undoubtedly love to get lots of lethal weaponry from the United States (along with anything else we're willing to provide), and it might help them oust the Syrian dictator more swiftly. But what giving arms won't do is provide Washington with much influence over what these groups do afterwards.
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Juan Cole had a nice piece over the weekend on the paltry Western offers of support for the Arab Spring. Helping the Arab economies recover and securing a moderate and democratic outcome in Egypt and Tunisia (and maybe elsewhere) is arguably one of the more significant priorities in contemporary international affairs, yet pledges of outside help have been pretty meager.
This isn't surprising, of course, because the United States is in deep fiscal trouble and some of our European allies are in even worse shape. So we're trying to get the Arab oil exporters to pony up a lot of the money, or we're making vague commitments of support that may not even be implemented.
If you want a comparison that reveals how our recent profligacy has undermined our ability to make bold moves in cases like this, consider that the European Recovery Program (aka the "Marshall Plan") cost about $13 billion in 1948 dollars, which would the equivalent of about $113 billion today. The U.S. economy was only about $270 billion back then, so Marshall Plan aid amounted to roughly 5 percent of U.S. GDP. If Washington were to pledge a similar percentage today, it would be about $700 billion. Of course, Egypt and Tunisia are just two countries, not a whole continent, but even a tenth of that amount would be some $70 billion (which is less than we spend each year fighting in Afghanistan). Yet nobody seems to be thinking in these terms. After all, what did Obama offer Egypt in his speech at the State Department? A couple of billion in loan guarantees and debt relief, and that's all. And I'm not saying he should've have pledged more, because I've no idea where he could find it or how he'd get Congress to authorize it.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why the United States and its allies aren't going to have much influence over how the Arab spring evolves.
P.S. I'll be appearing at a conference session in Washington today (Tuesday), co-sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative. Other speakers include Nathan Brown, Marina Ottaway, Tarek Masoud, Nicholas Burns, Marwan Muasher, and Christopher Boucek. I don't know if it will be live-streamed or not, but you can find out more about it here.
I know I'm supposed to get excited about the "major policy address" on Middle East policy that President Obama is going to deliver today, and you can be sure that plenty of people will be standing by to parse and spin every syllable. And then they'll do the same thing to his speech at the AIPAC policy conference on Sunday, and will hover with equal intensity over Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to Congress next week.
But I'm finding it hard to get motivated this time around, because I don't think all this blather means anything. The advance word on Obama's speech says he's going to try to position the United States as a supporter of the "Arab spring" (except, of course, where it might be inconvenient), he'll make the usual ritual condemnations of Iran, and he'll offer up a modest package of economic support for Egypt (reportedly $2 billion worth of loan guarantees and debt restructuring which mostly just reallocates some existing funds).
Is your pulse racing with excitement? Didn't think so. For starters, Egypt's foreign debt is already more than $30 billion, so a bit of restructuring and increased loan guarantees (which just let Egypt borrow money at lower interest), isn't exactly a "Marshall Plan for the Mideast." For Obama to condemn Iran isn't exactly headline news either, and while it might make the Saudis happy to hear him say it, the bigger problem is that it does nothing to reduce Iran's ability to exploit popular discontent with the situation in the region itself. And reports are that Obama's team has ruled out saying anything interesting on the Israel-Palestine issue, which is hardly surprising given how badly they've bungled that part of their portfolio.
But the big problem is that nobody cares what U.S. presidents say anymore -- and especially not Obama -- because he hasn't delivered. As surveys of popular opinion in the Arab world have repeatedly shown, what his audience in the Middle East wants is not more elegant phrases beautifully delivered -- but actual policy change. Obama gave a wonderful speech in Cairo in June 2009 -- which was well-received -- but since then we've seen him backing down on Israel's settlements, helping trash the Goldstone Report, vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution on the settlements, and adopting a decidedly inconsistent attitude towards the Arab spring (we like it in Egypt and Libya; not so much in Bahrain).
Words do matter, but only when they are backed up by appropriate action. Obama gave some pretty good speeches on our terrorism problem, for example, but it was the decision to redouble the search for bin Laden and then the bold choice to send a team after him in Pakistan that is the potential game-changer there. Without significant policy change, in short, the speeches we're going to hear over the next week will just be a lot of eloquent irrelevance.
Like nearly everyone-including, I assume, Hosni Mubarak himself -- I've been surprised by the speed, scope and intensity of the upheaval in Egypt. As I write this, it's still not clear whether Mubarak will remain in power. Nor do we know how far-reaching the changes might be if he were to leave. We should all be somewhat humble about our ability to forecast where things are headed, or what the future implications might be.
That caveat notwithstanding, I want to offer a realist interpretation of what these events mean for the United States, along with the basic prescription that follows from that analysis. And though it may surprise some of you, I think realism dictates that the United States encourage Mubarak to leave, and openly endorse the creation of a democratic government in Egypt.
Realists are often caricatured as being uninterested in democracy or human rights, and concerned solely with the distribution of power and a narrowly defined national interest. It is true that realists tend to see calculations about power as the most important factor shaping international politics, and they often see sharp tradeoffs between strategic interests and moral preferences. Yet domestic considerations-including human rights-can be relevant for realists, particularly when thinking about one's allies.
To maximize their own security, states want allies that are strong, stable, and that do not cause major strategic problems for them (i.e., by getting into counterproductive quarrels with others). Other things being equal, states are better off if they don't have to worry about their allies' internal stability, and if an allied government enjoys considerable support among its population. An ally that is internally divided, whose government is corrupt or illegitimate, or that is disliked by lots of other countries is ipso facto less valuable than one whose population is unified, whose government is legitimate, and that enjoys lots of international support. For this reason, even a staunch realist would prefer allies that were neither internally fragile nor international pariahs, while recognizing that sometimes you have to work with what you have.
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The good news is that the Obama administration has withdrawn its humiliating attempt to bribe Israel into accepting a 90-day extension of the (partial) settlement freeze. Not only was this negotiating ploy one of the more degrading moments in the annals of U.S. diplomacy, it also had scant chance of success. To their credit, Obama's Middle East teams finally figured this out -- a few weeks later than most observers -- and pulled the plug on the deal.
The bad news, however, is that it's not clear what their next move is. Everyone now realizes that the United States cannot play the role of a fair-minded mediator in this conflict, and the early hopes that Obama would adopt a smarter approach have been repeatedly dashed.
This situation isn't good for anyone -- not the United States, not Israel, and not the Palestinians. It is increasingly likely that a genuine two-state solution isn't going to be reached, and as I've noted before, the United States will be in a very awkward position once mainstream writers and politicians begin to recognize that fact. Once it becomes clear that "two states for two people" just ain't gonna happen, the United States will have to choose between backing a one-state, binational democracy, embracing ethnic cleansing, or supporting permanent apartheid. Those are the only alternatives to a two-state solution, and no future president will relish having to choose between them. But once the two-state solution is off the table, that is precisely the choice a future President would face.
This failure will further complicate our efforts elsewhere in the region. As former President Bill Clinton remarked a few weeks ago, solving the Israel-Palestine problem "will take about half the impetus in the whole world -- not just the region, the whole world -- for terror away. . . It would have more impact by far than anything else that could be done." It is also clear from the recent WikiLeaks releases that our Arab partners want the United States to do something about Iran, but they remain deeply concerned by the Palestinian issue and they recognize that progress on Israel-Palestine would go a long way to reducing Iran's regional influence.
Unfortunately, there's little reason to expect any sort of breakthrough, which means that local forces and dynamics are going to be exerting greater weight. When others believe that the United States is in charge of the "peace process" and leading it in a positive direction, they sit back and let Uncle Sam do the work. But now that Obama's team has failed, local actors will take matters into their own hands and U.S. influence is likely to diminish further. Why wait for Washington to deliver a deal when it is obvious that it can't?
The silver lining, if there is one, is that the events of the past two years have done a lot to clarify both where we are and where we are headed. One can take no joy from that, because the current path is bound to produce more needless suffering in the short to medium term, and maybe beyond. But dispelling the myths and illusions that have obscured our vision is of some value, and in this case, one didn't even need WikiLeaks to figure out what's going on.
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Back in 2007, a couple of political scientists wrote the following:
One might think that U.S. generosity would give Washington considerable leverage over Israel's conduct, but this has not been the case. When dealing with Israel, in fact, U.S. leaders can usually elicit cooperation only by offering additional carrots (increased assistance) rather than employing sticks (threats to withhold aid)." (pp. 37-38)
They offered several examples to illustrate this phenomenon, and quoted Israeli leader Shimon Peres saying that: "As to the question of U.S. pressure on Israel, I would say they handled us more with a carrot than with a stick."
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Yesterday the Jerusalem Post reported that the Obama administration has offered Israel a generous package of new benefits if it will just extend the settlement freeze for another two months. The source for the report was David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a key organization in the Israel lobby. Makovsky is also a co-author with Obama Middle East advisor Dennis Ross, so presumably he has accurate knowledge about this latest initiative, which is said to take the form of a personal letter from Obama to Netanyahu.
Assuming this report is true, it marks a new low in U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Just consider the message that Obama's team is sending the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu has been giving Obama the finger ever since the Cairo speech in June 2009, but instead of being punished for it, he's getting rewarded for being so difficult. So why should any rational person expect Bibi's position to change if this is what happens when he digs in his heels?
Although failure to achieve a two-state solution is ultimately much more of a problem for Israel than for the United States, we have been reduced to begging them and bribing to stop building settlements -- please ... please ... pretty please? ... and then only for a mere 60 days.
Not only is the United States acting in a remarkably craven fashion, it's just plain stupid. How will this latest bribe change anything for the better? What do we think will have changed in two months? Remember that there isn't even a genuine freeze right now, only a slowdown, which means that a deal will be just a little bit harder in two months than it is today. Does Obama think his bargaining position will be stronger after the midterm elections? And if construction resumes, what then?
Back when direct talks were announced, I said they wouldn't go anywhere, and I've made it clear in the past that I think this situation is a brewing tragedy for all concerned. And then I said I hoped the Obama administration would prove me wrong. Looks like there's little danger of that, alas.
P.S. Haaretz has reported that Netanyahu is not inclined to accept the administration's offer, which leaves us right where we started. That is to say, with little hope that this latest round of talks will lead anywhere. The real question is: When will the United States try a different approach?
UPDATE: Ha'aretz now reports that the White House is denying that any letter was sent outlining the conditions originally identified by Makovsky, thought it does not say that the information was not conveyed in some other way. If the entire report is bogus then new puzzles arise: where did Makovsky get these ideas? Was it a trial balloon? An attempt to make policy via leaks? An attempt to show that Netanyahu was being really stubborn? I have no idea, but unless the whole thing was just a hallucination on Makovsky's part (and that's hard to believe), then it reinforces the idea that the Obama Middle East team is improvising wildly and/or not on the same page.
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At the New Yorker blog, Steve Coll reports that the U.S. Congress is preparing a five-year $1.5 billion per annum non-military aid package for Pakistan, with full support from the Obama administration. (You can read the text of the legislation, entitled the "Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act," here.)
This step sounds impressive, until one remembers that Pakistan's population is nearly 180 million and its GDP in 2006 was about $144 billion. So the aid package amounts to around a 1 percent increase in Pakistani GDP, which works out to about $8 for each Pakistani. In other words, the U.S. Congress is going to increase their per capita income from $850 per year to about $858. (It's actually less than that, because some of the money goes to administrative expenses, auditing, and the like.)
This act might have some symbolic value, and I'm willing to assume that a few good things might get done with the money. But let's not forget that Pakistan has already received about $45 billion of U.S. economic and military aid since 1946 (measured in constant 2007 dollars), so it’s not like $1.5 billion today is going to work miracles. Moreover, because money is fungible, even careful accounting can't prevent Pakistan from shifting some of its own resources to other areas, which means the areas we are trying to help (such as education and public health) may not get that much better.
Overall, it's hard for me to believe it will have much effect on the lives of ordinary Pakistanis or do much to erode the endemic anti-Americanism there. Pakistan actually got a big influx of money after 9/11 (due in part to increased U.S. aid and also to a lot of reverse capital flight), yet the increased cash either went to the army or tended to fuel financial and real estate speculation instead of genuine economic growth. Moreover, even with the best of intentions, big aid initiatives like this one are bound to reinforce perceptions that the United States is perennially interfering in Pakistani society, which probably reinforces hostility and suspicion.
Instead of another aid package, we could probably do more to help Pakistan by removing U.S. tariffs on Pakistani exports (e.g., textiles), which would benefit Pakistani producers and American consumers alike. But that would trigger opposition from domestic interests here, so Congress will just adopt the politically convenient but less helpful step of appropriating more money.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.