When they want to find the best in contemporary fiction writing, people often think of The New Yorker, Granta, or any number of small circulation literary magazines. When the subject is foreign policy, however, I'll take the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Apart from maybe running a spell-check program on submissions, it's hard to see any sign that the editors there care about factual accuracy, provided that the piece in question satisfies their hawkish proclivities and other litmus tests.
So here's a little game you can play with one of their recent entries: Andrew Roberts' May 1 piece that invokes various historical examples to justify a preemptive strike by Israel on Iran. Your challenge: How many bald-faced errors can you spot in a single short piece?
First, let's start with the title: "The Case for Preemptive War." In fact, what Roberts is advocating in this piece is not pre-emptive but preventive war, and there is a big difference. A preemptive war is a military campaign launched in anticipation of an imminent enemy attack: You strike first because you know the opponent is getting ready to attack and you want to seize the advantage of striking first. Preventive war, by contrast, is a war launched to take advantage of favorable conditions (such as a favorable balance of power), even though the intended target is not in fact preparing an attack of its own. Preemptive war is sometimes permissible in international law; preventive war is not.
There is of course no serious evidence that Iran is about to attack Israel, and experts even disagree over whether Iran is actively trying to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community still believes there is no active nuclear weapons program underway. So Roberts' entire piece is based on a category mistake, which is not an auspicious way to begin.
Second, Roberts refers to Israel's "successful pre-emptive attacks on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981." These attacks were a tactical success (i.e., the reactor was destroyed) but a strategic failure, as they convinced Saddam Hussein to get serious about developing WMD and to accelerate a covert nuclear weapons program whose full extent we didn't discover until after the 1991 Gulf War. The real lesson for today is that an Israeli preventive attack on Iran might be just the thing to convince the clerical regime that it really does need a genuine nuclear deterrent. That's the policy that Israel adopted back in the late 1950s, when it began its own nuclear program, and that's the lesson Saddam drew in 1981. Why wouldn't the mullahs see it the same way?
Third, Roberts declares that Israel's "preemptive strike" on Egypt in 1967 "saved the Jewish state." This is nonsense. Although Nasser's decision to order the U.N. peacekeepers out of the Sinai and to send part of his army back in was both provocative and foolish, he was not preparing to attack Israel and Egypt's forces in the Sinai were not deployed for offensive action. Strictly speaking, the Six Day War wasn't preemption, though some Israeli leaders may have seen it that way. Israel had more troops arrayed against the Egyptian forces, and U.S. military intelligence correctly predicted that Israel would win easily even if the Egyptians attacked first. No less an Israeli patriot than Menachem Begin described it accurately when he said: "The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him." That attack might have been justified on other grounds -- such as not allowing Nasser to alter the status quo in the Sinai -- but it was not a case of preemption and thus does not support Roberts' case.
(By the way, readers interested in understanding the origins of 1967 war would do well to avoid Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's highly imaginative reconstruction, and rely on more serious scholarly accounts, such as Tom Segev's 1967 or Roland Popp's 2006 article "Stumbling Decidedly into the Six Day War.")
Fourth, most of Roberts' other examples are misleading or inapt, because they are not the "bolt-from-the-blue" acts of preventive war that he is advocating. Instead, the actions he describes -- such as the "Copenhagening" of the Danish fleet by the British in 1807 or the scuttling of the French fleet in Oran in 1940 -- were simply acts of strategic initiative undertaken in the midst of active and open hostilities. As such, they tell us nothing about the wisdom of launching an unprovoked preventive war with Iran today.
Finally, Roberts' entire case rests on the dubious belief that Israel has the military capability to inflict a decisive blow against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. There's little doubt that Israel could damage Iran's enrichment and reprocessing capability. But it cannot destroy the underground facility at Fordow, and it can at best delay Iran's nuclear potential by a few months or years. The fact of the matter is that Iran already knows how to get a nuclear bomb if it ever decides it really wants one, and repeatedly threatening it with regime change and possibly conducting a preventive (not preemptive) strike would be the single best way to convince them to go all-out for a full-fledged nuclear capacity. The only way to prevent an Iranian bomb is to convince the regime that it doesn't need one, but the strategy Roberts recommends would have the opposite effect.
The Wall Street Journal is a distinguished newspaper with an enormous and influential readership, and its reportage is often impressive and fair. But its op-ed page has been off the deep end for as long as I can remember. It should not be forgotten that the Journal's editors and commentators were among the most fervent advocates of invading Iraq, a modest little adventure that didn't turn out so well. All of which suggests that the paper really ought to come with a warning label, or perhaps a color-coding scheme that tells readers when they've left the world of facts and logic and entered into the realm of fiction. Or if that is asking too much, how about a bit of fact-checking?
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On several occasions I've commented on how I thought the U.S. approach to Iran was difficult to fathom at best. For some reason, U.S. leaders seem to believe that constantly threatening Iran and ratcheting up economic sanctions will eventually force Tehran to say "Uncle" and give us everything we want, or it will lead the Iranian people to rise up and overthrow the clerics, dismantle their nuclear program, and jump warmly into the embrace of a grateful world.
Never mind that this approach is contradictory (how does threatening someone make them less interested in a deterrent?) and imposes enormous human suffering on innocent Iranians. Never mind that the scholarly literature on economic sanctions shows that they are not a very effective instrument of coercion. Pay no attention to the fact that we've been trying this policy for over a decade, without any apparent success.
It is hard to know if Washington really thinks that some day this is going to work or if this just a politically expedient process of kicking the can down the road. You know: the same sort of brilliant statecraft that has led the mighty United States to maintain an economic embargo on Cuba for over fifty years. Really brought ol' Fidel to his knees, didn't it?
But you don't have to take my word for it. In a recent speech at a Carnegie Endowment conference, Swedish Foreign Minsiter Carl Bildt offered up some wise words about the role that sanctions should (and should not) play in our policies toward Iran and other difficult regimes. Money quotation:
"There is no doubt that sanctions are and should be part of our toolbox. Preferably and primarily decided upon by the Security Council -- for reasons of legality as well as efficiency.
But sanctions can only work if they are part of an overall policy where the different instruments are clearly geared towards specified objectives.
Sanctions can be part of such a policy. But sanctions must never be a substitute for a policy.
Sometimes I fear that this rather fundamental distinction is lost."
And as Paul Pillar noted earlier this week, it's not even clear what the United States and its allies are actually trying to accomplish with their Iran policy, which is why Iranians often wonder if we actually want an agreement at all. He recommends the following approach:
"The P5 +1 should reformulate their stance to make two sorts of interim agreements possible. One would be a partial and balanced trade of some sanctions relief for some restrictions on the Iranian program. The other would be a statement of principles that describes in general terms, with the details to be negotiated later, what a final agreement about the program should look like. Arriving at mutually acceptable language for such a declaration, even without details, would still require some hard bargaining, but the effort would be worth it."
Assuming, of course, that we really do want a deal. But if you don't really know what your objective is and you are misusing the various diplomatic and other tools at your disposal, then it is hard to see how you could ever achieve anything that might look like "success." Sadly, neither Bildt nor Pillar are likely to be in a position to implement a more promising approach.
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When historians of American foreign policy look back a few decades from now, they will shake their heads in wonder at the incompetence of the U.S. effort to deal with Iran. They will be baffled that the United States spent years trying to convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program by making repeated threats of war, passing Congressional resolutions demanding regime change, waging a covert action campaign against the clerical regime, and imposing ever harsher economic sanctions. They will spend a lot of time exploring why U.S. leaders mindlessly stuck to this approach and never noticed that it wasn't working at all. Even as the sanctions bit harder, Iran kept moving closer to a nuclear "break-out" capability. Indeed, some analysts now believe it already has one.
Over the past month I've devoted several blog posts to explaining why the current U.S. approach was unlikely to achieve its stated objectives. The short version is that we are trying to blackmail Iran, and states don't like to give in to threats because they worry it will only invite more pressure. We are also trying to get Iran to give up the potential to acquire a nuclear deterrent by threatening them, which merely reinforces their desire for the very thing we don't want them to get. The conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are mostly lacking, and we've been incredibly niggardly in offering Iran any tangible carrots. As a result, it has been easy for Iranian hardliners to dismiss our professed interest in diplomacy as empty talk.
If you don't believe me, you should take a look at a new report from the National Iranian-American Council, available here. It is based on an extensive series of interviews with senior Iranian officials, analysts, and members of Iran's business community. It confirms that U.S.-led sanctions campaign -- "the most comprehensive in history" -- have indeed hit hard. But it also concludes that sanctions have failed to slow the nuclear program or alter Iran's commitment to maintaining it. According to the report:
"The [nuclear] program appears at best entirely unaffected by the sanctions or at worst partly driven by them, in the sense that escalating sanctions as a bargaining chip also gives Iran the incentive to advance its program for the same reason."
The authors also conclude that the U.S. negotiating strategy has failed to provide Iranian moderates with an alternative narrative to use against hardliners like Ayatollah Khamenei. In particular, although Iran's business community is suffering under the pressure of sanctions, it has "focused on seeking economic concessions from the regime rather than lobbying for a shift in Iran's nuclear stance." Why? Because it cannot present a convincing case that an alternative Iranian posture would in fact produce a rapid lifting of sanctions or other benefits from the West.
If the United States and the rest of the P5+1 want to reach a deal, in short, they need to offer a much clearer and more convincing picture of the benefits Iran might gain from a deal, and they need to work harder to convey these brighter possibilities to the Iranian people. Instead of endlessly tightening sanctions, rejecting deterrence and containment, and repeatedly proclaiming that the option of preventive war is "on the table," the U.S. could start by explicitly rejecting the use of force and spelling out in some detail what it is willing to do for Iran. In other words, we ought to be making it harder for Khameini & co. to convince their colleagues not to compromise with us, instead of making it easy.
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One of the sillier things that U.S. leaders have done over the past year or so is to formally reject a policy of "containment" or deterrence with respect to Iran. AIPAC pushed this position last year (in the form of a non-binding resolution sponsored by Senator Lindsay Graham), but even President Obama eventually had to go along. And then he sent Vice President Joe Biden to tell AIPAC that the U.S. wasn't bluffing.
Apart from pandering to the bomb Iran crowd, the apparent purpose behind such statements is to convince Iran that the United States simply couldn't live with an Iranian nuclear weapons capability and that they had better make damn sure they don't try to get one. Such rhetoric might make sense as a negotiating tactic -- though it's hardly guaranteed to work -- but it tells you exactly nothing about what the United States would or should do in the event that Iran one day crosses the nuclear weapons threshold. To see this, consider the following hypothetical.
Suppose there were a massive intelligence failure on the part of the IAEA and all of America's intelligence agencies and that Iran had a totally secret nuclear weapons development program. (This is precisely the scenario that hawks routinely warn about, by the way, especially whenever National Intelligence Estimates reach more optimistic conclusions). Suppose further that we got up one morning next week and discovered that Iran had successfully tested a nuclear bomb. And then suppose Iran provided us with additional information demonstrating that they had already manufactured a dozen more and that we had no idea where they were hidden. In short, imagine that the hawks' worst fears had all come true and that the Islamic Republic had become a nuclear weapons state overnight.
What do you suppose we would do? Would President Obama (or anyone else) immediately order a preventive war? Not on your life, because he could not be sure that Iran wouldn't find some way to get a bomb on American soil or use it against some close U.S. ally. Would Obama immediately announce a blockade or threaten an invasion, in order to persuade Iran to voluntarily give up its weapons? Hardly, because we couldn't put enough pressure on them to force compliance. Would the U.S. decide to abandon its regional allies and let Iran dominate the Persian Gulf? Of course not -- for the same reasons that it didn't abandon NATO when the Soviets tested a bomb in 1949 and it didn't abandon Japan and South Korea when China and North Korea tested nuclear weapons.
No, if Iran ever did cross the nuclear weapons threshold, the United States would do what it has always done when an adversary went nuclear: It would fall back on containment and deterrence. We would extend our far more potent nuclear umbrella over key regional allies, and we would send clear and unmistakable messages to Tehran about the dire consequences that would befall them if their new arsenal were ever used by anyone. Getting a bomb wouldn't transform Iran into a global superpower, and it certainly wouldn't allow them to blackmail their neighbors or launch a war of conquest. The only thing this situation would prevent the United States from doing is forcible regime change, which is something we shouldn't be contemplating in any case.
This situation would not be ideal, which is why I favor intelligent diplomacy that reduces Iran's incentive to acquire a deterrent. There are a number of good reasons why Tehran would prefer to stay on the safe side of the nuclear threshold, and there are a number of obvious ways that the United States could make that choice even more attractive, such as taking the threat of regime change "off-the-table." But declaring that Washington will never use containment or deterrence isn't credible, because these options are always there if we need them, and they make a lot more sense than the alternatives. In this regard the United States is bluffing, and the main risk is that they will feel compelled to follow through if the bluff gets called.
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Will the U.S. effort to coerce Iran succeed? For the past ten years or more, the United States has been engaged in coercive diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. Specifically, it has imposed increasingly punitive economic sanctions, repeatedly threatened to use force, and engaged in various covert acts of pressure, such as the Stuxnet virus attack. The campaign of escalating pressure has been accompanied by the demand that Iran end its nuclear enrichment program or, at a minimum, restrict it in ways that would make it impossible for Iran to even contemplate building a nuclear weapon.
This is precisely the sort of question that the late Alexander George and his colleagues examined in the book The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, first published back in 1971. George defined "coercive diplomacy" as the use of military force or military threats "to persuade the opponent to do something, or to stop doing something, instead of bludgeoning him into doing it or physically preventing him from doing it." The book examined three cases of this approach -- the Laos crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in Vietnam -- and identified eight conditions that are associated with successful coercive diplomacy by the United States.
I studied with George as an undergraduate at Stanford and wrote my senior thesis on the same subject (my cases, if you're curious, were the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, the seizure of the Pueblo, and the seizure of the Mayaguez.). So I thought I'd go back and look at George's eight conditions and see what they might predict about the success/failure of U.S. efforts to coerce Iran today. Here goes:
1. Strength of U.S. motivation. Coercion is more likely to succeed when the coercer is highly motivated and resolved. It's clear that the United States is pretty serious about this issue, even though Iran's nuclear enrichment program doesn't pose a direct threat to the United States itself (i.e., it's not like Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962). And while the U.S. might be highly motivated to prevent Iranian development of an actual weapon, it is not clear how much the U.S. really cares about Iran having the theoretical potential to acquire a bomb as opposed to a real weapon. Among other things, denying them the theoretical capacity in perpetuity would be almost impossible. Washington would like Tehran to be as far away from a "breakout" capability as possible, but just how far is that? A month away? A year? In short, the actual strength of U.S. motivation here isn't entirely clear, despite the tough talk we've heard from Obama and Biden in recent weeks. But let's be conservative and score this in the plus column.
2. Asymmetry of motivation favoring the United States. Even assuming we care a lot, it is hard to believe that we care more about this issue than Tehran does. Iranian politicians of all kinds have expressed support for their nuclear energy program, and the history of bad blood between our two countries makes them especially reluctant to cave in to U.S. pressure. Moreover, as I argued a week ago, they have the additional incentive of proving to us (and others) that they can't be blackmailed, because they don't want to invite additional pressure by showing that blackmail works. Lastly, repeated U.S. threats (and the presence of nuclear arms in Israel, Pakistan, India, and Russia) gives Iran ample reason to seek at least a latent capability. Bottom line: This condition is not satisfied in this case.
3. Clarity of American objectives. Having clear and well-understood goals aids coercion, because it lets the target know exactly what is being demanded and tells them what is not being sought. This condition is clearly absent in this case, although in theory it could be clarified through active diplomacy. If you were in Tehran, however, you'd probably be confused about what the U.S. really wants. Is the U.S. seeking to prevent an Iranian bomb? Certainly, but what else? Does Washington secretly share the Israeli goal of denying Iran a theoretical "weapons potential? Is the U.S. not-so-secretly interested in regime change, as some Congressional resolutions clearly state and as many Iranians suspect? And despite the tough talk about rejecting containment, etc., might the U.S. actually be willing to live with some Iranian enrichment, and might the US fall back on containment and deterrence if it had to? Nobody really knows. For the moment, therefore, this condition for successful coercive diplomacy is not met.
4. Sense of urgency to achieve the American objective. Coercion can be aided if the target becomes convinced time is running out and that it had better cut a deal. The Obama administration has explicitly sought to strengthen this condition by rejecting containment and saying that there is a "finite time limit" for negotiations. And Tehran may believe them. But that effort is undercut by the fact that there is no imminent "red line" (assuming Iran is not actively working on weaponization). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to impose red lines of his own, but he's cried wolf so often on this issue that his warnings may not be believed and his redlines aren't the same as Obama's in any case. Plus, the IDF cannot destroy Iran's nuclear potential on its own. So there are reasons to question whether the requisite urgency is present here. But let's be conservative here too and say that it is.
5. Adequate domestic political support. President Obama clearly has support for his policy of coercive diplomacy. Most Americans don't object to our squeezing Iran, don't mind talking about military force, and overwhelmingly favor diplomacy over war. And that's the rub: There's hardly any serious support for going to war, except among die-hard neoconservatives and the hardline wing of the Israel lobby. The U.S. military isn't pushing it and neither is the State Department, the intelligence services, the oil industry, or anyone else.
In his book, George argued that strong domestic support was especially necessary when pursuing the "strong form" of coercive diplomacy: i.e., the issuing of explicit demands or ultimatums. When domestic support is lacking, presidents have to rely on what he called the "try-and-see" approach: ratcheting up pressure but refraining from making demands with strict time limits. That's why you haven't seen him issue explicit ultimatums: Nobody really wants to have to carry out the implied threat when the deadline is up.
Bottom line: There's "adequate" support here, but barely.
6. Usable military options. Obviously, trying to coerce someone with threats of force won't work if there aren't genuine options that the opponent recognizes. In this case, I'd score it positively but with some important caveats. If we want to, the United States can certainly do a lot of damage to Iran's nuclear facilities (and other assets). In this narrow sense, therefore, Washington has "usable options." But those options come with significant risks, including the very real possibility that it will convince Iran that it has no choice but to go full-bore for a deterrent. And even extensive American air strikes cannot eliminate Iran's ability to build a nuclear weapon. It can always rebuild its enrichment capacity, bury the machinery deeper, etc. Moreover, a preventive war would keep U.S.-Iranian relations in the deep freeze for at least another decade and could easily give the clerical regime a new lease on life. So one might conclude that the U.S. does have "usable" options, but they're aren't especially attractive ones. And Iran knows that.
7. Opponent's fear of unacceptable escalation. Thomas Schelling theorized the coercion (or what he called "compellence") works primarily by playing on the target's fear of what might happen if they do not comply. This criterion is difficult to gauge in advance, however, because opponents are obviously not going to admit publicly that they are worried about what the U.S. might do. On the contrary, they will claim not to fear escalation even if they are secretly quaking in their boots.
One might argue that Iran's infamous 2003 offer to negotiate a settlement -- made shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- shows that Tehran was deeply worried and eager to avoid the same fate that befell Saddam. Maybe so, but the subsequent debacle in Iraq and the U.S. failure in Afghanistan have almost certainly alleviated any fears they might have had back then. Iran's leaders know we aren't going to invade the country and they probably know that air strikes can't bring down their regime. I'm sure they don't want the U.S. to attack, but I doubt their fear is great enough to convince them to run up the white flag and comply with all of our present demands. Score this one on the "minus" side.
8. Clarity concerning the precise terms of settlement. It is hard to coerce someone if they don't know what sort of concessions on their part will bring the pressure to an end. And the more ambiguity there is, the more they will fear a series of open-ended demands or an "agreement" that quickly breaks down amid mutual recriminations. Successful coercive diplomacy requires each side to be confident that there is a deal within sight, one that gives each at least something of what they want and in which each side understands exactly what is expected of the other.
This condition is presently lacking. As my colleague Nicholas Burns likes to emphasize, this gap exists in good part because we haven't had any real contact with Iran for more than thirty years, and we don't have any good sense of what their bottom lines might be. At the same time, it is hard for Iran's negotiators to know what the U.S. (or the P5+1) would be willing to accept either. Among other things, the fact that AIPAC and its lackeys in Congress keep trying to tie Obama's hands in the negotiations actually cripples our ability to conduct serious diplomacy, because Iran can't be sure that Obama could deliver on any offer he might make. If domestic politics here at home make it impossible to offer Iran any meaningful carrots (such as lifting sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions) and turns the de facto U.S. position into one of demanding complete Iranian capitulation, then there obviously won't be a deal.
So where does this leave us? By my scoring, only four of George's conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are presently met (and remember, I was pretty conservative in evaluating the criteria). Assuming his framework is a useful guide, therefore, it is hard to be confident that military pressure on Iran will yield a positive diplomatic outcome. Which is yet another reason why I think we would be better off taking the threat of force off the table (thereby making it look less like blackmail and reducing Iran's interest in a latent or breakout capacity) and making the acceptable terms of a deal more explicit.
Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images
If someone threatened to punish you unless you did something you didn't want to do, how would you respond? Unless the threatened punishment was really horrible you'd refuse, because giving into threats encourages the threatener to make more demands. But what if someone offered to pay you to do something you didn't want to do? If the price were right you'd agree, because that act of cooperation on your part sends a very different message. Instead of showing that you can be intimidated over and over, it simply lets people know that you're willing to cooperate if you are adequately compensated.
This simple logic has thus far escaped most of the people involved with U.S. policy towards Iran. Today, the conventional wisdom is that the only way to elicit cooperation from Iran is to keep making more and more potent threats, what Vice-President Joe Biden recently called "diplomacy backed by pressure." Even wise practitioners of diplomacy like my colleague Nicholas Burns maintain that the U.S. and its allies must combine engagement with sanctions and more credible threats to use force, even though the United States and its allies have been threatening Iran for over a decade without success.
As my opening paragraph suggests, this approach ignores some important scholarly work on how states can most easily elicit cooperation. Way back in the 1970s, MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye identified a crucial distinction between blackmail and what he called "backscratching" and showed why the latter approach is more likely to elicit cooperation. States (and people) tend to resist a blackmailer, because once you pay them off the first time, they can keep making more and more demands. And in international politics, giving in to one state's threats might convey weakness and invite demands by others. By contrast, states (and people) routinely engage in acts of "backscratching," where each adjusts its behavior to give the other something that it wants in exchange for getting something that it wants. Backscratching -- which is the essence of trade agreements, commercial transactions, and many other types of cooperation -- establishes a valuable precedent: it shows that if you'll do something for me, then I'll do something for you.
Not surprisingly, this is precisely what Iran's government has been trying to tell us. Their bottom line for years has been that they were not going to negotiate with a gun to their heads. Or as Supreme Leader Khameini said in rejecting the most recent proposals for direct talks:
"The ball, in fact, is in your court. Does it make sense to offer negotiations while issuing threats and putting pressure? You are holding a gun against Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."
Such statements are normally interpreted as just another sign of Iranian intransigence, but as just discussed, there is a sound strategic basis for Iran's position. It is, in fact, precisely the position we would take if somebody were threatening us in the same way.
The other problem with the Western approach, of course, is that threatening Iran reinforces their interest in having a latent nuclear weapons capability, and might eventually convince them that they need to get an actual bomb. Therefore, if our goal is to keep Iran as far away from the nuclear threshold as possible, imposing ever-harsher sanctions, constantly reiterating that "all options are on the table," and warning darkly of war should diplomacy fail is not a smart way to proceed.
And it's worked really, really well thus far, hasn't it?
It is also worth noting that the closest the US and Iran have come to deal was the aborted attempt to arrange a fuel swap of enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor in 2009. The proposed deal nearly succeeded because it was a backscratching arrangement that didn't require Iran to capitulate to threats. (And by the way, the Turkish and Brazilian officials who helped mediate the arrangement blame its failure mostly on the United States, not Iran).
So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade? I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect it has a lot to do with maintaining credibility inside Washington. Because Iran has been demonized for so long, and absurdly cast as the Greatest National Security Threat we face, it has become largely impossible for anyone to speak openly of a different approach without becoming marginalized. Instead, you have to sound tough and hawkish even if you are in favor of negotiations, because that's the only way to be taken seriously in the funhouse world of official Washington (see under: the Armed Services Committee hearings on Chuck Hagel).
Finally, nothing I've written above should be interpreted as evidence of sympathy for Iran's current government. The Islamic Republic has done some pretty objectionable things at home and abroad, but then again, so have plenty of countries that we routinely think of as friends and allies. And it's not as though the United States is innocent of wrongdoing, as plenty of Iraqis, Pakistanis, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, and others would be quick to tell us. My concern is simply with figuring out how to achieve a diplomatic outcome that would secure our primary objectives and avoid another pointless war in the Middle East.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will break out of the stale consensus that has hamstrung our approach to Iran thus far. For evidence that more sensible views can be found, see UK diplomat Peter Jenkins' views here and the informative exchange between former US diplomat Thomas Pickering and Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammed Khazaee here. The only question is whether the Obama administration can come up with a strategy that will convince Iran to remain on this side of the nuclear threshold and that will eventually open the door to a more positive relationship with that country. More than anything else, it will require tossing aside the confrontational approach that has been a consistent failure for more than a decade.
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George Packer of the New Yorker is always worth reading, and he has a thoughtful reflection in the latest issue on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state and what it tells us about the Obama administration's successes and failures during the first term. His basic thesis is that the White House didn't give Hillary much to do (though she stayed plenty busy doing it) and downplayed diplomacy in favor of drone strikes, special forces, and other military instruments. These tools were deployed without an excess of zeal and there were no big catastrophes, but also not a lot of big wins either.
So far so good. But Packer's real complaint is that things are deteriorating in some key places, and that Obama is going to have to shoulder the burden of global leadership in his second term. There's trouble throughout the greater Middle East, he warns, and that region "will remain an American problem." And so he concludes his piece with a recommendation that ought to send your "uh-oh" meter tingling. In his words, "[Obama] will need to give his next Secretary of State, John Kerry, the authority that he denied his last one, to put the country's prestige on the line by wading deep into the morass."
I don't know about you, but I've always thought that when you see a morass, the last thing you want to do is "wade deeply into it." Ditto quagmires, bogs, and the "Big Muddy." Indeed, most of the problems U.S. foreign policy has faced in recent years have occurred when we poured vast sums into ambitious social engineering projects in societies we didn't understand and where our prospects for success were never bright.
Packer is surely correct that the greater Middle East is in turmoil, but it does not follow that deep American engagement there -- even if purely diplomatic -- will solve that problem. For starters, there is little affection for the United States in many of these societies, either because they rightly blame us for turning a blind eye to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians or because they rightly blame us for backing various brutal dictatorships for our own strategic reasons. Nor does the United States have a lot of credibility as a diplomatic actor, having screwed up the Oslo peace process (with plenty of help, to be sure) and having bungled the occupation of Iraq.
Instead of wading deeper into the morass, in short, the United States would be far better served with a more distant and hands-off strategy. This doesn't mean writing off the region entirely, as we still have a strategic interest in keeping oil flowing to world markets and in discouraging the spread of WMD or the emergence of more anti-American jihadis. But getting deeply involved in the excruciatingly complex problems of internal governance and institution-building that are going to be taking place in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere is probably something America is not that well-suited for, no matter how noble our intentions. Moreover, in some cases greater U.S. involvement fuels jihadism or gives some states greater incentive to think about getting WMD. Regrettably, we are equally incapable of making a positive contribution to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is neither the source of all the region's troubles nor irrelevant to our diminished capacity there.
I don't like admitting that there are problems that Uncle Sam can't solve, and I wish I could share Packer's enthusiasm for another round of energetic U.S. engagement. But given our track record of late, the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm" strikes me as the wiser course. And I'm pretty sure Obama agrees, although he's unlikely to admit it too loudly or too often.
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In The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007) John Mearsheimer and I wrote:
The bottom line is that AIPAC, which bills itself as ‘America's Pro-Israel lobby' has an almost unchallenged hold on Congress ... Open debate about U.S. policy toward Israel does not occur there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world. (p. 162)
After discussing the lobby's efforts to influence the executive branch, we noted:
There is an even more obvious way to shape an administration's policy: the lobby's goals are served when individuals who share its perspective occupy important positions in the executive branch. . . .[G]roups in the lobby also try to make sure that people who are seen as critical of Israel do not get important foreign policy jobs. (pp. 165-66)
And after a lengthy discussion of the lobby's efforts to police public discourse and smear those who disagree with them with the charge of anti-semitism, we concluded:
The various strategies that groups in the lobby employ ... are mutually reinforcing. If politicians know that it is risky to question Israeli policy or the United States' unyielding support for Israel, then it will be harder for the mainstream media to locate authoritative voices that are willing to disagree with the lobby's views. If public discourse about Israel can be shaped so that most American have generally positive impressions of the Jewish state, then politicians will have even more reason to follow the lobby's lead. Playing the anti-Semitism card stifles discussion even more and allows myths about Israel to survive unchallenged. Although other interest groups employ similar strategies in varying form. most of them can only dream of having the political muscle that pro-Israel organizations have amassed. (p. 196)
I want to thank the Emergency Committee for Israel, Sheldon Adelson, and the Senate Armed Service Committee for providing such a compelling vindication of our views. As Rosie Gray amd Andrew Kaczynski of Buzzfeed noted, at yesterday's hearing on Chuck Hagel Israel was mentioned 166 times, and Iran (a problem closely linked to Israel) 144 times. Afghanistan was mentioned only 20 times, and the problem of suicides of U.S. troops only twice. Glad to see that those Senators have their priorities straight. No wonder Mark Twain referred to Congress as "the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes."
I am sometimes asked if I have any regrets about publishing our book. As of today, my only regret is that it isn't being published now. After the humiliations that Obama has endured at the hands of the lobby and now the Hagel circus, we'd sell even more copies and we wouldn't face nearly as much ill-informed criticism.
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Back when Barack Obama began his first term, I argued that we shouldn't expect much from his handling of foreign policy. I was pretty sure he'd do a better job than his predecessor, but that's hardly saying much. Given the economic mess he inherited from George W. Bush, I thought he'd have to focus primarily on the domestic side and play for time on the international front.
Equally important, I didn't think there were any low-hanging fruit in the foreign-policy arena; In other words, there were hardly any significant issues where it would be possible to make a meaningful breakthrough in four years. I was also concerned that Obama's team was pursuing too many big initiatives at once -- on Middle East peace, Afghanistan, nuclear security, climate change, etc. -- and that they wouldn't be able to follow through on any of them. And that's exactly what happened.
Obama did get us out of Iraq, of course, but this merely involved following through on the timetable that Bush had already put in place and it hardly amounts to a foreign-policy "success." He also "got" Osama bin Laden, which is a gratifying achievement but not a game-changer in any meaningful sense. And devoting greater attention to Asia was an obvious move, although trying to forge a more cohesive coalition of Asian allies while avoiding rising tensions with China is proving to be as difficult as one would expect and it's by no means clear that they will pull it off.
The other big issues -- Iran, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, climate change -- weren't going to be easy to solve in the best of circumstances, and a good case can be made that Obama mishandled every one of them. Certainly the situation has gotten worse in all four arenas, and none of them are likely to yield a strategic victory in the next four years.
On Iran, Obama will face relentless pressure to resolve the nuclear issue once and for all. But because for years, Iran has been falsely portrayed as the Greatest Menace since Nazi Germany, etc., Obama has to demand concessions that Tehran is virtually certain to reject. There is an obvious deal to be had -- Iran would be allowed limited enrichment if it implemented the NPT Additional Protocol and the West would then lift economic sanctions -- but any deal that does not involve abject Iranian capitulation would be attacked as "appeasement" by Israel, its lobby here in the United States, and by other hawks. Assuming Obama resists pressure to launch a preventive war, this problem will still be in the in-box when he leaves the Oval Office in January 2017.
Some people think the second term is Obama's opportunity to make another serious push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. They are living in a dream world. It's true that Obama doesn't have to worry about being re-elected, but political conditions in Israel, among the Palestinians, and within the region are hardly propitious. Obama won't be willing or able to exert the kind of pressure that might produce a deal, so why waste any time or political capital on it? We might see a faux initiative akin to the Bush administration's meaningless second-term summit in Annapolis, but nobody with a triple-digit IQ takes this sort of thing seriously anymore. We're headed rapidly towards a one-state solution, and it will be up to one of Obama's successors to figure out what U.S. policy is going to be once the death of the two-state solution is apparent to all.
The United States will get out of Afghanistan more or less on schedule, and Obama & Co. will do their best to spin it as a great achievement. Which it isn't. Once we leave, Afghanistan's fate will be determined by the Afghans -- with lots of "help" from interested neighbors -- and my guess is that it won't be pretty. But that was likely to be the case no matter what we did, given the inherent difficulty of large-scale social engineering in deeply divided societies that we do not understand. This is not good news for the Afghans themselves, but most Americans simply won't care.
And don't expect any big moves or major progress on the environment, despite the accumulating evidence that climate change is real and could have fearsome consequences over the next 50 to 100 years. Obama has paid little attention to the issue since the Copenhagen Summit, and his own environment chief just resigned. It is also a massively difficult problem, given the costs of any serious solution, the number of relevant actors, the different perspectives of key countries like China and India, and the fact that today's leaders can always punt the whole problem to future generations. It is therefore hard to imagine a significant deal between now and 2016.
What do I conclude from all this? That Obama is going to pursue a minimalist foreign policy during his second term. It won't be entirely passive, of course, and we certainly won't see a retreat to isolationism or the abrupt severing of any long-standing security ties. Drone strikes and semi-covert operations will undoubtedly continue (despite the growing evidence that they are counter-productive), but most Americans won't know what's going on and won't really care. In short, expect to see a largely reactive policy that eschews bold initiatives and mostly tries to keep things from going downhill too rapidly in any place that matters.
If President Obama is looking for a legacy -- and what two-term president doesn't? -- it will be on the domestic side. He'll hope to end his second term with his health care plan firmly institutionalized, an economy in robust recovery, and with budget and tax reforms that reassure the markets about America's long-term fiscal solvency. Given where things stood in 2009, that's a legacy Obama would be happy to accept. And the lofty international goals with which he took office, and which won him the world's least deserved Nobel Prize? Well, a lot of them were smart and sensible, but thinking he could achieve them all just wasn't that realistic.
Important caveat: the realm of foreign policy is one of constant surprises, and most presidents end up facing challenges they never anticipated (e.g., 9/11 for Bush, the Arab Spring for Obama, etc.) So it's possible -- even likely -- that Obama and his team will face some unexpected crisis between now and 2016. Maybe it will be a third intifada, or a military clash in the South China Sea, or the collapse of the Euro, or something none of us can yet foresee or imagine. If an event like that comes along, then Obama and his foreign-policy team may be forced to be more active than they'd like. But barring an event of that sort, I expect the next four years to be "stasis you can believe in."
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I don't have much to add to my earlier comments on the manufactured controversy about Senator Chuck Hagel's fitness for the post of secretary of defense. But I do encourage you to read the more recent comments by Andrew Sullivan, Robert Wright, Thomas Friedman, and Bernard Avishai, all of whom make clear that Hagel is perfectly qualified for the position and that the people who are now trying to smear him deserve the same contempt with which former Senator Joseph McCarthy and other narrow-minded bullies are now viewed.
Three aspects of the affair do merit brief comment, however. First, I'm baffled by the Obama administration's handling of the whole business. What in God's name were they trying to accomplish by floating Hagel's name as the leading candidate without either a formal nomination or a vigorous defense? This lame-brained strategy gave Hagel's enemies in the Israel lobby time to rally their forces and turn what would have been a routine appointment into a cause célèbre. If Obama backs down to these smear artists now, he'll confirm the widespread suspicion that he's got no backbone and he'll lose clout both at home and abroad. If he goes ahead with the appointment (as he should), he'll have to spend a bit of political capital and it will be a distraction from other pressing issues. And all this could have been avoided had the White House just kept quiet until it was ready to announce its nominee. So whatever the outcome, this episode hardly reflects well on the political savvy of Obama's inner circle.
Second, let's not lose sight of what is at stake here. Contrary to what some suggest, the choice of SecDef isn't going to make any difference in U.S. policy toward Israel or the "peace process." Policy on those issues will be set by the White House and Congress, with AIPAC et al. breathing down both their necks. The Israeli government has no interest in a two-state solution, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to persuade Israel to rethink its present course, and the United States is incapable of mounting the sort of sustained pressure that might force both sides to compromise. Which means the two-state solution is dead, and it won't matter whether Hagel gets the nod or not. The $3-4 billion annual aid package won't be affected, and I'll bet the United States continues to wield its U.N. Security Council veto whenever it is asked.
This appointment could affect U.S. policy toward Iran, insofar as Hagel's been skeptical about the wisdom of using military force in the past. He's hardly a dove or an appeaser, of course; he just recognizes that military force may not be a very good way to deal with this problem. (Well, duh.) If Obama wants to pursue diplomacy instead of preventive war -- and he should -- the combination of Hagel at Defense and Kerry at State would give him two respected, articulate, and persuasive voices to help him make that case. But if Obama were to decide that force was a good idea, neither Kerry nor Hagel would stand in his way. So in terms of overall Middle East policy in the next couple of years, this appointment may matter less than most people think.
The real meaning of the Hagel affair is what it says about the climate inside Washington. Simply put, the question is whether supine and reflexive support for all things Israeli remains a prerequisite for important policy positions here in the Land of the Free. Given America's track record in the region in recent decades, you'd think a more open debate on U.S. policy would be just what the country needs, both for its own sake and for Israel's. But because the case for the current "special relationship" of unconditional support is so weak, the last thing that hardliners like Bill Kristol or Elliot Abrams want is an open debate on that subject. If Hagel gets appointed, it means other people in Washington might realize they could say what they really think without fear that their careers will be destroyed. And once that happens, who knows where it might lead? It might even lead to a Middle East policy that actually worked! We wouldn't want that now, would we?
At this point, if Obama picks someone other than Hagel, he won't just be sticking a knife in the back of a dedicated public servant who was wounded twice in the service of his country. Obama will also be sending an unmistakable signal to future politicians, to young foreign policy wonks eager to rise in the Establishment, and to anyone who might hope to get appointed to an important position after 2016. He will be telling them that they either have to remain completely silent on the subject of U.S. Middle East policy or mouth whatever talking points they get from AIPAC, the Weekly Standard, or the rest of the Israel lobby, even though it is palpably obvious that the policies these groups have defended for years have been a disaster for the United States and Israel alike.
Instead of having a robust and open discourse about U.S. Middle East policy inside official Washington, we will continue to have the current stilted, one-sided, and deeply dishonest discussion of our actions and interests in the region. And the long list of U.S. failures -- the Oslo process, the settlements, the Iraq War, the rise of al Qaeda, etc. -- will get longer still.
Over to you, Mr. President.
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We are often told that Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are deeply worried about Iran, and eager for the United States to take care of the problem. This is usually framed as a reflection of the Sunni-Shiite divide, and linked to concerns about Iranian subversion, the role of Hezbollah, and of course the omnipresent fretting about Iran's nuclear energy program.
I have heard senior Saudi officials voice such worries on more than one occasion, and I don't doubt that their fears are sincere. But there may be another motive at work here, and Americans would do well to keep that possibility in mind.
That motive is the Gulf states' interest in keeping oil prices high enough to balance their own budgets, in a period where heightened social spending and other measures are being used to insulate these regimes from the impact of the Arab Spring. According to the IMF, these states need crude prices to remain upwards of $80 a barrel in order to keep their fiscal house in order.
Which in turn means that Saudi Arabia et al also have an interest in keeping Iran in the doghouse, so that Iran can't attract foreign companies to refurbish and expand its oil and gas fields and so that it has even more trouble marketing its petroleum on global markets. If UN and other sanctions were lifted and energy companies could operate freely in Iran, its oil and gas production would boom, overall supplies would increase, and the global price would drop.
Not only might this new wealth make Iran a more formidable power in the Gulf region--as it was under the Shah -- but lower oil and gas prices would make it much harder for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to stave off demands for political reform through social spending. Saudi Arabia could cut production to try to keep prices up, but that would still mean lower overall revenues and a budget shortfall.
So when you hear people telling you how worried the Gulf states are about Iran, and how they support our efforts to keep tightening the screws, remember that it's not just about geopolitics, or the historical divide between Sunnis and Shiites or between Arabs and Persians. It's also about enabling certain ruling families to keep writing checks. Keep that in mind the next time you fill your gas tank or pay your home heating bill, or the next time somebody tells you the United States ought to think seriously about a preemptive war.
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The debate on Iran and its nuclear program does little credit to the U.S. foreign policy community, because much of it rests on dubious assumptions that do not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Lots of ink, pixels, and air-time has been devoted to discussing whether Iran truly wants a bomb, how close it might be to getting one, how well sanctions are working, whether the mullahs in charge are "rational," and whether a new diplomatic initiative is advisable. Similarly, journalists, politicians and policy wonks spend endless hours asking if and when Israel might attack and whether the United States should help. But we hardly ever ask ourselves if this issue is being blown wildly out of proportion.
At bottom, the whole debate on Iran rests on the assumption that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon would be an event of shattering geopolitical significance: On a par with Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933, the fall of France in 1940, the Sino-Soviet split, or the breakup of the former Soviet Union. In this spirit, Henry Kissinger recently argued that a latent Iranian capability (that is, the capacity to obtain a bomb fairly quickly) would have fearsome consequences all by itself. Even if Iran stopped short of some red line, Kissinger claims this would: 1) cause "uncontrollable military nuclear proliferation throughout [the] region," 2) "lead many of Iran's neighbors to reorient their political alignment toward Tehran" 3) "submerge the reformist tendencies in the Arab Spring," and 4) deliver a "potentially fatal blow" to hopes for reducing global nuclear arsenals. Wow. And that's just if Iran has nuclear potential and not even an actual weapon! It follows that the United States must either persuade them to give up most of their enrichment capacity or go to war to destroy it.
Yet this "mother of all assumptions" is simply asserted and rarely examined. The obvious question to ask is this: did prior acts of nuclear proliferation have the same fearsome consequences that Iran hawks now forecast? The answer is no. In fact, the spread of nuclear weapons has had remarkably little impact on the basic nature of world politics and the ranking of major powers. The main effect of the nuclear revolution has been to induce greater caution in the behavior of both those who possessed the bomb and anyone who had to deal with a nuclear-armed adversary. Proliferation has not transformed weak states into influential global actors, has not given nuclear-armed states the ability to blackmail their neighbors or force them to kowtow, and it has not triggered far-reaching regional arms races. In short, fears that an Iranian bomb would transform regional or global politics have been greatly exaggerated; one might even say that they are just a lot of hooey.
Consider the historical record.
Did the world turn on its axis when the mighty Soviet Union tested its first bomb in 1949? Although alarmist documents like NSC-68 warned of a vast increase in Soviet influence and aggressiveness, Soviet nuclear development simply reinforced the caution that both superpowers were already displaying towards each other. The United States already saw the USSR as an enemy, and the basic principles of containment were already in place. NATO was being formed before the Soviet test and Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe was already a fait accompli. Having sole possession of the bomb hadn't enabled Truman to simply dictate to Stalin, and getting the bomb didn't enable Stalin or his successors to blackmail any of their neighbors or key U.S. allies. It certainly didn't lead any countries to "reorient their political alignment toward Moscow." Nikita Khrushchev's subsequent missile rattling merely strengthened the cohesion of NATO and other U.S.-led alliances, and we now know that much of his bluster was intended to conceal Soviet strategic inferiority. Having a large nuclear arsenal didn't stop the anti-commnist uprisings in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Poland, and didn't allow the Soviet Union to win in Afghanistan. Nor did it prevent the USSR from eventually collapsing entirely.
Did British and French acquisition of nuclear weapons slow their decline as great powers? Not in the slightest. Having the force de frappe may have made De Gaulle feel better about French prestige and having their own deterrent made both states less dependent on America's security umbrella, but it didn't give either state a louder voice in world affairs or win them new influence anywhere. And you might recall that Britain couldn't get Argentina to give back the Falklands by issuing nuclear threats -- even though Argentina had no bomb of its own and no nuclear guarantee -- they had to go retake the islands with conventional forces.
Did China's detonation of a bomb in 1964 suddenly make them a superpower? Hardly. China remained a minor actor on the world stage until it adopted market principles, and its rising global influence is due to three decades of economic growth, not a pile of nukes. And by the way, did getting a bomb enable Mao Zedong--a cruel megalomaniac who launched the disastrous Great Leap Forward in 1957 and the destructive Cultural Revolution in the 1960s -- to start threatening and blackmailing his neighbors? Nope. In fact, China's foreign policy behavior after 1964 was generally quite restrained.
What about Israel? Does Israel's nuclear arsenal allow it to coerce its neighbors or impose its will on Hezbollah or the Palestinians? No. Israel uses its conventional military superiority to try to do these things, not its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, Israel's bomb didn't even prevent Egypt and Syria from attacking it in October 1973, although it did help convince them to limit their aims to regaining the territory they had lost in 1967. It is also worth noting that Israel's nuclear program did not trigger a rapid arms race either. Although states like Iraq and Libya did establish their own WMD programs after Israel got the bomb, none of their nuclear efforts moved very rapidly or made it across the finish line.
But wait, there's more. The white government in South Africa eventually produced a handful of bombs, but nobody noticed and apartheid ended anyway. Then the new government gave up its nuclear arsenal to much acclaim. If anything, South Africa was more secure without an arsenal than it was before.
What about India and Pakistan? India's "peaceful nuclear explosion" in 1974 didn't turn it into a global superpower, and its only real effect was to spur Pakistan -- which was already an avowed rival -- to get one too. And it's worth noting that there hasn't been a large-scale war between the two countries since, despite considerable grievances on both sides and occasional skirmishes and other provocations.
Finally, North Korea is as annoying and weird as it has always been, but getting nuclear weapons didn't transform it from an economic basket case into a mighty regional power and didn't make it more inclined to misbehave. In fact, what is most remarkable about North Korea's nuclear program is how little impact it has had on its neighbors. States like Japan and South Korea could go nuclear very quickly if they wanted to, but neither has done so in the six years since North Korea's first nuclear test.
In short, both theory and history teach us that getting a nuclear weapon has less impact on a country's power and influence than many believe, and the slow spread of nuclear weapons has only modest effects on global and regional politics. Nuclear weapons are good for deterring direct attacks on one's homeland, and they induce greater caution in the minds of national leaders of all kinds. What they don't do is turn weak states into great powers, they are useless as tools of blackmail, and they cost a lot of money. They also lead other states to worry more about one's intentions and to band together for self-protection. For these reasons, most potential nuclear states have concluded that getting the bomb isn't worth it.
But a few states-and usually those who are worried about being attacked-decide to go ahead. The good news is that when they do, it has remarkably little impact on world affairs.
For some strange reason, however, the U.S. national security community seems to think that both logic and all this prior history does not apply to Iran. They forget that similarly dire warnings were uttered before many of these others states got the bomb, yet none of these fearsome forecasts took place. Ironically, by repeatedly offering doom-and-gloom scenarios about the vast geopolitical consequences of an Iranian bomb, they may be strengthening the hands of Iranian hardliners who might be interested in actually obtaining a working weapon. After all, if getting a bomb would give Iran all the influence that Kissinger and others fear, why wouldn't Tehran want one?
In fact, the smart way to discourage Iran from going nuclear is both to take the threat of force off the table (thereby reducing Iran's perceived need for a deterrent) and to make it clear that getting a bomb won't bring Iran big strategic benefits and won't affect global or regional politics very much if at all. And in this case, the smart strategy has the additional merit of being true.
Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday, even though its origins can be traced back to Old World harvest festivals. It is based in part on a romanticized story of the Pilgrims, which took on new life after Abraham Lincoln's proclamation of a day of thanks intended to help reconcile North and South after the Civil War. It is also celebrated in Canada, however, so Americans don't have a monopoly on gratitude.
Still, if you're an American citizen or a green card holder, you've probably got a lot to be thankful for, especially compared to citizens of a lot of other countries. But of course, we Americans often forget to be properly thankful for many of our blessings; instead, we seem to think we deserve them because we are So Darn Exceptional. With that thought in mind, here's a slightly contrarian Top Ten List of Things Americans Should be Thankful For (But Often Aren't).
1. We have a state of our own. Americans could start by being thankful that the rebellious colonists won their war of independence, straightened out the Articles of Confederation, and built a strong state of our own. Having your own state means that you can protect yourself against enemies and there's a government to go to bat for you if you get in trouble. By contrast, stateless peoples like the Kurds, Chechens, Palestinians, Romany, Tamils, Jews before 1948, and many others live at the mercy of others. Given our own revolutionary past, you'd think we'd have a bit more sympathy for peoples trying to escape oppressive foreign rule, but never mind. In any case, in the dog-eat-dog world of global politics, having a state of our own is clearly something to be thankful for.
2. There are no great powers nearby. Given our propensity to exaggerate global dangers, Americans often forget that they are remarkably secure. We haven't had any powerful states near us since the 19th century, and we haven't had to worry seriously about defending our own territory against invasion. (This is what makes movies like Red Dawn so laughable). Or as the French Ambassador to the United States said back around 1910: "America is the most favored of the nations. To the north, a weak neighbor. To the south, a weak neighbor. To the east, fish. To the West, more fish. " This extraordinary level of territorial security explains why Americans are free to go gallivanting all around the world "searching for monsters to destroy" and trying to tell the world how to live. We've forgotten what it is like to face a real threat to our independence, and that sort of amnesia is a luxury for which we should be very thankful indeed.
3. We didn't adopt the same austerity programs that Britain, Europe, and Japan did. A lot of Americans are still hurting from the after-effects of the Great Recession, and those who are still unemployed may not feel especially appreciative tomorrow. And it's clear with hindsight that the governmental response to the financial crisis could have been more effective. But compared with the other industrial democracies, the United States has done much better to eschew austerity and focus more attention on stimulus. So let's give thanks for that.
4. We got lucky when they handed out the natural resources. Americans like to attribute their rise to wealth and power to their virtuous and hardworking nature, embrace of capitalism, novel Constitution, and commitment to liberty. But just as important was the fact that the country happened to be founded on a continent with fertile soils, navigable rivers, abundant wildlife, and a temperate climate. It had lots of iron ore and other minerals, plenty of oil, and it turns out we've got more natural gas than we know what to do with. (Good for us, if not necessarily so great for the atmosphere). This Thanksgiving, Americans ought to silently acknowledge that our privileged status today owes as much to good fortune as it does to any unique American virtues.
And while we're at it, let's not forget that realizing our "Manifest Destiny" involved the deaths of millions of native Americans and taking vast territories from other countries by force. Recalling the uglier side of America's rise to world power is a good way to keep overweening national pride in check.
5. In (many) Gods we trust. I don't know about you, but I for one am thankful that the Founding Fathers didn't try to establish a state religion and instead celebrated theological diversity, including the freedom not to believe. Over the past two centuries, the idea that free men and women could worship whatever gods they choose has protected this country from a powerful cause of civil strife in many other parts of the world. We can give thanks that anti-Semitism has been discredited and marginalized and Islamophobia confined mostly to far-right whack jobs and a few desperate politicians.
Just look at the last presidential election: a Christian with a Muslim name got 70 percent of the Jewish vote, while his opponent -- the first Mormon to be nominated -- didn't lose by that much (i.e., he had over 48 percent of the popular vote). That's America.
And maybe one of these days we'll have a serious presidential candidate who openly proclaims her or his faith in science and reason and rejects allegience to any unseen superhuman entity. Amen.
6. Another successful election. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you should give thanks that this country has once again conducted an election where peace prevailed, citizens voted, and the losers conceded, mostly with good grace. Some GOP leaders may be baffled by the results, but they didn't take up arms or hire a lot of lawyers to try to reverse them. Who knows? They may even start pondering why they lost in a serious way, and beging move their party away from some of its antideluvian notions. That would be something to be grateful for too.
7. Tolerance of diversity. In addition to religious freedom, Americans can be grateful for the progress we have made in embracing those who at first seem different. This includes immigrants, who are often viewed with suspicion yet consistently become some of our most ambitious, energetic, hardworking, and accomplished citizens. Consistent with our liberal ideals of individual human liberty, our country is gradually ending discrimination against gays. We continue to work to reduce the long legacy of racial discrimination. Our reward is a country whose cultural life has been enriched by diverse currents and whose society has managed to take advantage of the best the world has to offer. We are far from perfect, but the American melting pot remains a phenomenon that richly deserves our thanks.
8. No war with Iran. Having wound down one losing war and positioned us to end another, at least President Obama has had the good sense not to start a third war with Iran. Keep your fingers crossed that he remains as wise in his second term, but be grateful that he didn't succumb to all the fear-mongering, even in an election year.
9. Health care for all Americans. I don't want to go all partisan on you, but unless you're one of the One Percent (and maybe even if you are), you ought to be grateful that we've finally taken steps to insure that all citizens get basic medical care. True, most of the industrialized world got there long before we did, but better late than never. It's not a perfect system and it's bound to need improvements over time, but we all ought to feel good about helping our fellow citizens feel good. And say a word of thanks, too.
10. What about the rest of you? Here's a suggestion: if you're not an American, this Thanksgiving you might give thanks if you haven't gotten a lot of attention from Uncle Sam lately. You might not want to be totally ignored (especially if the South China Sea laps your shores) but getting a lot of attention from the United States hasn't been such a good thing in recent years (see under: Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc.) So if you're citizen of one of the many countries that Americans like to visit but American troops and drones don't, you can be thankful, too.
I'm in Dubai for meetings of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Councils, which provide some of the background information and agenda setting for Davos and other WEF activities. I've been assigned to the group assessing "geopolitical risks" for 2013, so I'll be spending the next two days trying to figure out where dire things might happen in the next year (and where they won't).
Dubai itself is sort of like Disneyland-on-steroids, and I won't try to embellish on all the other descriptions of the place. But as I rode in my taxi to the hotel last night, I was also struck by the thought that the UAE (of which Dubai is a part) and other states like Qatar and Brunei, might be something of a realist anomaly. The puzzle is this: How is it possible for very small, very rich, yet militarily weak countries to retain their independence? Why haven't rapacious great powers or greedy neighbors gobbled these countries up long ago, and seized all that valuable oil and gas for themselves? If the world is as dog-eat-dog as realists depict, why are these states still in business?
There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that these states have enjoyed great power protection for a long time, originally from Great Britain and subsequently from the United States. Their rulers have accommodated their protectors in most ways, in exchange for implicit or explicit security guarantees. In short, realism does explain a lot of why these states have survived: It was in the interests of some powerful countries to keep them safe and secure.
But why didn't Britain or the United States take these places over and keep all that oil wealth for themselves? Simple. It turned out to be easier to let local elites run these societies, instead of turning them into sullen and resentful colonies. In the British case, moreover, the emergence of the Gulf as a major oil-producing center coincided with Britain's imperial decline, signified by the Suez debacle in 1956 and the decision to withdraw military forces east of Suez in 1967. So Britain was in no position to take these places over anyway.
The United States has never been a very enthusiastic colonial power, and U.S. leaders wisely preferred to exercise influence indirectly and keep U.S. ground forces out of the region. As the experiments with "dual containment" in the 1990s (which helped fuel the rise of al Qaeda) and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed, getting too heavily engaged trying to run the region directly is not something the United States is very good at. Nor was it necessary.
A second reason for the peculiar stability of the Gulf is the absence of a regional great power with the capacity to absorb the others, which in turn makes it possible for balance-of-power politics to work. The Shah of Iran did some minor muscle-flexing and territorial expansion in his day, but he never made a grab for any of his oil-rich neighbors. Saddam Hussein is the exception that proves the rule, and look what happened to him. Moreover, the militarily weak but oil-rich Gulf states all understand that trying to gain more wealth at someone else's expense was both unnecessary and bad for business.
The third reason why these states retain their independence is the norm of sovereignty. It may be an accident of geology that the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and others ended up with so much wealth underneath their soil, but once a country's government and borders have been recognized by others, the status quo takes on a life of its own and efforts to overturn it face an uphill fight. Saddam Hussein tried to convince the world that Kuwait was Iraq's "19th province" in order to make his invasion seem more legitimate, but nobody bought the argument and his invasion was seen as naked aggression. Because altering borders via force has become less and less legitimate over time, states can be really rich and really vulnerable and still be somewhat protected.
Finally, small countries like Dubai enhance their security by making themselves more valuable to others as independent entities than they would be as colonies. Dubai has established itself is a financial center, entrepot, cultural oasis, and diplomatic hub, which is precisely why the WEF is here this week. It has close ties with the West, but still has formal and informal dealings with others, including states such as Iran. In the broadest sense, the global community is probably better off with a few countries occupying this sort of niche, just as Switzerland did for decades, and that means that most countries would rather have it be independent than out of business.
Which is not to say that security in the Gulf is guaranteed, or that realism can't account for these states' survival (see #s 1 and 2 above). Given the diplomatic stalemate with Iran, in fact, it's easy to imagine scenarios where the present Gulf order would come under significant strain. But I'm betting it won't, if only because hardly anybody really has much interest in that happening. Now if only one could be confident that sensible self-interest would always prevail....
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Is it too early to talk about the foreign policy and national security agenda that will face the next president? No matter who wins on November 6, the feature that is going to dominate U.S. national security planning over the next four years is constraint. Even if we avoid going off the sequestration cliff, there is going to be considerable pressure on the defense budget. Forget all those promises that Romney made about ramping up defense spending, expanding the Navy, etc. If he does beat Obama and has to face reality (as opposed to his Etch-a-Sketch approach to campaigning) he'll figure out that budget math is real and unforgiving. And given the budget picture these days, that means limits.
Of course, foreign policy and national security tends to produce a lot of surprises; it's probably the least predictable part of a president's agenda. Remember that George W. Bush was totally blindsided by 9/11, an event that shaped almost everything he subsequently did in foreign and defense policy. Barack Obama didn't see the Arab spring coming, yet he's had to devote a lot of time and attention to figuring out what to do (or not to do) in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere. No list of agenda items will cover all the possible topics, and it's a safe bet the next president will get to deal with something that hardly anybody anticipated.
That said, what do I see as some obvious items that the next president will have to address? Obviously, he'll have to manage the withdrawal from Afghanistan, keep relations with China on an even keel, cultivate reasonable ties with Mexico and other neighbors in the western hemisphere, and hope that the Eurozone mess doesn't get worse. But here's my list of the items that might take up even more of his time.
#1: Managing America's Asian Alliances
No matter how much you hear about the importance of cooperating with China, a serious rivalry is almost inevitable. I don't expect a shooting war -- and certainly not in the next four years -- instead, the key element of that rivalry will be a competition for influence in Asia. The United States is already trying to shore up ties with Japan, Korea, India, and various Southeast Asian nations, and China is going to try to limit with this process where it can.
As I've noted before, leading this alliance is going to be much harder than managing NATO was during the Cold War. The geographic distances are much larger, which makes it easier for allies to shirk responsibilities when trouble occurs a long ways away. Relations among some of our Asian partners aren't that good, as the collapse of a South Korean-Japanese agreement on intelligence sharing earlier this year illustrated. Furthermore, our NATO partners had minimal economic ties to the former Soviet Union, while our Asian allies are tightly linked to China's economy and are going to want to keep those ties intact if they can. We can also expect big debates on burden-sharing: the United States will want the allies to bear as much of the burden as possible, while they will want to keep free-riding as much as they have in the past.
In short, maintaining a secure position in Asia will require a lot of expertise and adroit diplomacy, which is not always America's long suit. The next president will need a good team, and will have to devote some of his own time, attention, and political capital to the problem.
#2: Dealing with the Arab Spring.
The Arab world is in midst of vast and unpredictable upheaval, which is likely to produce governments that are more responsive to popular sentiment than their predecessors were. They may not be perfect democracies, but rulers will worry a lot more about popular opinion than their predecessors did. But this process will take time -- measured in years, not months. As we've already seen in Libya and Syria, these events raise vexing national security questions for the United States. Are these events an opportunity to diminish Iran's influence, strike a blow for democracy, and further marginalize anti-American forces? Or is the collapse of the old order undermining traditional U.S. friends and allowing anti-American sentiment (and Islamic extremists) a greater voice in the region's politics? What if Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the Kurds get drawn into the vortex?
Given what is already occurring, Obama or Romney will have to spend a lot of time worrying about this part of the world. But as Obama has already discovered (and Romney would quickly learn) they won't have a lot of leverage over these events, and not a lot of appealing policy options. What they'll have instead is a serious headache.
#3: Beyond the Two-State Solution.
The next president may also have to face up to the fact that there isn't going to be a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and begin to think seriously about what an alternative U.S. policy should be. Obama has already learned that trying to pursue the 2SS is "just really hard," and Romney famously told a group of fat cat GOP donors that he didn't think that goal was achievable.
I've always seen the 2SS as the best outcome given where we were, but it is no longer realistic to expect it to happen. The Israeli right has no interest in it, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to put meaningful pressure on them, and the United States is too compromised by the Israel lobby to be an effective mediator. The "two-state solution" has become a fig leaf for politicians to hide behind, while realities on the ground make it less and less likely by the day.
But sooner or later, it will be obvious to everyone that it simply isn't going to happen. As I've argued before, that epiphany raises all sorts of awkward questions: In particular, what outcome should a liberal democracy like the United States favor if "two states for two peoples" is impossible? Do we abandon our commitment to "one person, one vote" and endorse permanent apartheid? Do we abandon our deep commitment to a Jewish state and support a one-state democracy for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine? Or do we quietly encourage ethnic cleansing?
No matter who the next president is, I'm sure they will try to avoid those awkward questions for as long as they can. But they may not be able to do so forever without looking like they are living in fantasyland.
#4: Living with a Nuclear-Capable Iran:
No matter who wins, I suspect we'll see a new push for some sort of diplomatic deal with Iran. It's been reported (and denied) that Obama intends to do this after the election, and I wouldn't be surprised if a Romney administration made at least a gesture in this direction. But my guess that the United States is going to gradually adjust itself to a nuclear-capable (but not nuclear armed) Iran.
Here's why. I don't think Iran will cross any overt "red lines" in the next four years, meaning that it isn't going to try to fabricate or test a nuclear weapon or start enriching uranium to 90%. They won't do this because that is the one step that might trigger a U.S. attack. Absent such a move by Iran, I don't think either Israel or the United States will conduct a preventive strike. Israel doesn't have the capability to conduct a strategically meaningful attack, and most of the U.S. national security establishment thinks an attack would be foolish. I can't rule out war, however, because countries sometimes do stupid things and there are prominent voices who are still pushing it, but I'm betting that cooler heads prevail.
So the next president will be facing an Iran that is nuclear capable (meaning it has the theoretical capacity to build a bomb if it chooses to do so). Even if we don't reach a formal diplomatic deal (i.e., one that permitted Iran to enrich uranium to low levels and gradually reduced economic sanctions), he'll probably deal with it exactly the same way we dealt with other nuclear powers: i.e., via containment and deterrence. Note: this step will also mean negotiating security arrangements with key U.S. allies in a period where regional politics are going to be quite volatile (see #2 above). In short, plenty for the next president to do on this issue, too.
#5: What sort of country are we becoming?
Finally, the next president needs to do some hard thinking about the kind of country the United States is becoming. The United States has fought four wars since 1990, and is currently conducting drone strikes and special operations in a half a dozen countries. We are deeply worried about cyber-war and cyber-security, but we are also using these weapons for offensive purposes in ways that we would regard as wholly illegitimate if someone did it to us.
In the same way, American experts now discuss "preventive war" in remarkably casual terms, as if it were just one of many strategic options. They seem to forget that by definition, preventive war means attacking countries that have not attacked us and are not about to do so. "Preventive war" was what Japan did to us at Pearl Harbor, and ambitious young policy wonks now prescribe it without much self-reflection and seemingly unaware that real human lives are at stake.
Instead of the citizen army that we relied upon in World War I, World War II, and Korea, we now have a professional military that receives enormous deference from politicians, pundits, academics, and the public. U.S. politicians rarely have military experience -- Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, and Romney never served, and neither have any of their children -- and this fact inevitably affects their relations with the military establishment. Neither Obama nor Romney said a critical word about the military during any of their debates, even though the quality of military leadership and advice in both Iraq and Afghanistan has been deficient. U.S. politicians rarely talk about peace anymore; instead, they try to sound tough-minded and ever-willing to use force.
Since 9/11, we have created a vast array of intelligence and counter-terrorist organizations whose activities are largely hidden from the citizens who are paying for them and who will bear the consequences if their actions are misguided. Both common sense and much history teaches us that lack of transparency and accountability usually breeds bad behavior, and we may one day be shocked when we find out what's been done in our country's name over the past decade.
Who will play watchdog? Not most academics, who are too busy with ivory-tower exercises and for the most part discomfited by national security issues. Not the mainstream media, which depends on cozy relations with those in power. Not the DC think tanks funded by the defense industry and employing would-be or former officials eager to preserve their career options (and consulting businesses).
So, in addition to all those other challenges, I hope the next president will start unwinding some of the practices we adopted in the aftermath of 9/11, and move us back to being a country that is slower to anger, more interested in diplomacy, and not quite as trigger happy. But I wouldn't bet on it, becuase he'll be too busy dealing with the rest of his agenda, plus the inevitable surprises that will rise up to bite him.
Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images
What if our current policy towards Iran actually works, and Tehran gives in to every one of our demands? You'd think that would be a crowning diplomatic success, wouldn't you? Think again. In fact, a one-sided triumph over Iran might solve little, because a deal dictated by Washington probably wouldn't last.
Given where U.S. policy is today, there are two paths to a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. Both are inherently coercive. The first path is the one we are currently on: The United States and its allies keep ratcheting up economic sanctions until the Iranian economy collapses, accompanied by a fair amount of human suffering and untold deaths due to economic hardship. At that point, the clerical regime either says "uncle" or gets overthrown. In either case, whoever is in charge in Iran subsequently agrees to abandon all nuclear enrichment, get rid of all their current stockpile of enriched uranium, and dismantle all their centrifuges, with compliance to be verified by the United States and the IAEA.
In this scenario, a tightening vise of economic pressure will convince Iran to do what the late Muammar Qaddafi did in Libya in 2003 and abandon any interest in a nuclear capability. Unfortunately for us, Tehran has probably noticed what happened to him, which makes it less likely that they'd ever surrender in quite the same way.
The second path is the military option: The United States attacks Iran and destroys as much of its nuclear infrastructure as it can find. We also manage to convince Iran that we'll keep coming back to repeat the job if they try to rebuild. In response, the clerical regime ignores the popular outrage that our attack would provoke and agrees to remain a non-nuclear power in perpetuity.
Let's ignore for the moment the fact that U.S. intelligence services still believe that Iran is not actively seeking nuclear weapons at all, a view that our allies in Great Britain apparently share. Let's also leave aside the question of whether either of these two paths is likely to succeed. Instead, let's suppose one of them did, and Iran capitulated to our current demands. Would that be a good thing? I'm not so sure.
The problem with these two paths to a non-nuclear Iran is that each will leave a lot of Iranians really pissed off and resentful. Even if they were forced to grant all our demands, they will have done so under extreme duress, either because the U.S.-led coalition had twisted their arms out of their sockets with "crippling sanctions" or because the Great Satan had launched an unprovoked military attack. In the unlikely event that either policy convinced Iran's leaders to completely abandon nuclear enrichment -- a goal that the government, key opposition figures, and much of the Iranian public have long supported -- that concession will have been screwed out of them.
The obvious danger, of course, is that this outcome will provide ammunition for Iranian nationalists and hardliners, and strengthen the hands of those who favor Iran have an overt nuclear weapons capability. They will ask why India and Pakistan can have nuclear weapons but Iran cannot. They will point out that other Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories are permitted to have enrichment capabilities but Iran is barred. They will remind the world and their fellow citizens that Japan has vast quantities of plutonium and is probably only a few months from a bomb if it ever wanted one, while Iran is treated as an international leper. And they will surely wonder why Israel gets U.S. protection and unconditional aid even though it is not signed the NPT and has a large nuclear weapons arsenal of its own.
As a result, there will be plenty of Iranians eager to abandon any agreement they might reach with us, just as soon as they thought they could get away with it. In other words, an agreement that is reached solely through coercion will only endure as long as the same level of coercive pressure remains credible. At best, such an agreement would last only as long as the balance of power and resolve continued to favor us. The more one-sided the deal, in short, the more likely Iran is to renege and the more the U.S. and Israel will have to watch it like hawks for any sign of slippage. What better way to ensure that relations never improve?
By contrast, a nuclear deal that gave something to both sides and promised both sides a significant stream of future benefits would give both actors an incentive to stick to the terms. It would also tend to silence the hawks in both camps who push for hardline solutions (i.e., those Americans who favor military force and those Iranians who might favor actually getting a bomb). The problem here, as my colleague Matt Bunn reminded me yesterday, is that the current level of mistrust makes it hard for either side to convince the other that it will actually deliver the stream of benefits that will have to be part of the deal.
The late negotiation expert Roger Fisher famously recommended giving opponents "yes-sable" propositions: If you want a deal, you have to offer something that the opponent might actually want to accept. In the same vein, Chinese strategic sage Sun Tzu advised "building a golden bridge" for your enemies to retreat across.
Translation: If we want a lasting nuclear deal with Iran, it can't be completely one-sided. Paradoxically, we don't want to strong-arm Iran into accepting a deal they hate, but which they are taking because we've left them no choice. A completely one-sided deal might be easier to sell here at home, but that sort of deal is also less likely to endure. In order to last, there has to be something in it for them, both in terms of tangible benefits but also in terms of acknowledging Iranian interests and national pride. Otherwise, the deal won't stick and we'll be back to the current situation of threat-mongering, suspicion, and strategic distraction. That might be an outcome that a few neo-cons want, but hardly anyone else.
We are often warned about the dangers of appeasement and the "lessons" of Munich. But we often forget the equally important lesson of Versailles: when victors impose a harsh and one-sided settlement on a country -- even if it deserves it -- it sometimes backfires. Assuming we eventually get serious about negotiating with Tehran, we will need to look for a deal that satisfies our core interests. But we won't get everything we might want, and if we want it to stick, Iran will have to believe that it got something out of it too.
VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP/Getty Images
As expected, the debate on Monday night was long on posturing and short on specifics. I thought Romney did a good job of sounding like a less well-informed Obama, while trying to suggest that he'd implement Obama's foreign policy better than Obama has. For his part, Obama showed a command of the issues worthy of a commander-in-chief, and worthy of someone who has done a good job of implementing President George W. Bush's second term foreign policy agenda.
But Romney's sudden lunge toward moderation raises the following obvious question, which Bob Schieffer (and the president) didn't ask:
"Governor, you maintain that you're a tough-minded, smart manager who knows how to pick good people. If so, why are you taking foreign policy advice from all those discredited neoconservative retreads? There are some sensible voices in your foreign policy brain trust, but also an awful lot of people who played key roles getting us into Iraq and generally screwing up our entire international position. Why in God's name are you listening to them?"
To be fair, an awful lot of supposedly sensible Democrats supported the war too, including a lot of senior officials in the Obama administration. But they didn't dream up the war or work overtime to sell it from 1998 onward. They just went along with the idea because they thought it was politically expedient, they couldn't imagine how it might go south, or they were convinced that Saddam was a Very Bad Man and that it was our duty to "liberate" the Iraqi people from him. They were right about Saddam's character, of course, but occupying the entire country turned out to be a pretty stupid way of dealing with him.
Nonetheless, the unsinkable resiliency of the neoconservative movement remains impressive. Indeed, there is a certain genius to neoconservatism, which one must grant a certain grudging respect. Unlike their liberal interventionist counterparts, who are always looking for consensus and eager to compromise, the neocons are both remarkably uncompromising and notoriously unrepentant. They don't look back, if only because staring at their record of consistent failure would be depressing. So they always look forward, confident that their fellow citizens won't remember the past and can be bamboozled into heeding their advice once again.
The success of neoconservatism can be traced to three key strategems. The first and most obvious element is their relentless championing of America as the model for the entire world, from which our duty to export democracy supposedly follows. Never mind that neocons aren't very consistent in applying that principle (e.g., you don't hear many of them talking about using American power to advance the democratic rights of Palestinians), and they routinely forget that their favorite tool -- military force -- is usually a very bad way to spread democracy. But their brand of jingoistic rhetoric resonates with America's deep political traditions and helps them portray their critics as insufficiently devoted to America's liberal/Wilsonian ideals.
Second, and more importantly, neoconservatives understand the efficacy of taking extreme positions and sticking to them. By recommending policies that are at the very edge of what is acceptable (and sometimes a bit beyond it), neoconservatives seek to gradually drag the consensus in their direction. Just look at the slow-motion march toward preventive war against Iran, where constant pressure from the right (and the Israel lobby) has forced even a sensible leader like President Obama to constantly reiterate his willingness to use military force if it becomes necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Such threats merely increase Iran's interest in some sort of deterrent, of course, but strategic consistency is less important than making sure Washington takes a tough line.
Interestingly enough, this tactic has some grounding in behavioral economics. In a justifiably famous experiment reported in the Journal of Marketing Research, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky showed that consumer choices were powerfully influenced by "framing effects," and in particular, by the set of choices that the test subjects were given. When the subjects were offered a choice between a cheap camera with relatively few features and a more expensive camera with lots of them, their choices divided more-or-less evenly between the two. But when a similar group was given the same two options plus a third -- an even more expensive camera with even more features -- the percentage that preferred the middle choice rose dramatically. Why? Because being presented with the option of a really expensive camera made choosing the second most expensive seem less extravagant: It became the sensible "compromise" choice.
And that's the genius of neoconservatism's frequently outlandish policy recommendations. They are always calling for the United States to spend excessive amounts of money on defense, to threaten potential enemies with dire consequences if they don't bend to our will, and to use force against just about anyone that the neocons don't like (and it's a long list). No president -- not even George W. Bush -- has done everything the neocons wanted, but by constantly pushing for more, it makes doing at least part of what they want seem like a sensible, moderate course. And as we saw after 9/11, every now and then the stars may line up and the neocons will get what they're pushing for (See under: Iraq). Too bad it never works out well when they do.
Neoconservatism's final strand of twisted genius is its imperviousness to contrary evidence. Because most of their prescriptions are so extreme, they can explain away failure by claiming that the country just didn't follow their advice with sufficient enthusiasm. If we lost in Iraq, that's because Bush didn't attack Iran and Syria too, or it's because Obama decided to withdraw before the job was really done. (Such claims are mostly nonsense, of course, but who cares?) If Afghanistan turned into a costly quagmire on Bush's watch, it's because Clinton and Bush refused to ramp up defense spending as much as the neocons wanted. If we now headed for the exit with little show for our effort, it's because we didn't send a big enough Afghan surge in 2009-2010. For neocons, policy failure can always be explained by saying that feckless politicians just didn't go as far as the neocons demanded, which means their advice can never be fully discredited.
To be sure, neoconservatives are not the only people who employ the latter tactic. Liberal economist Paul Krugman famously argues that Obama's stimulus package failed to produce the desired results because wasn't big or bold enough; the difference between Krugman and most neocons is that Krugman may well be right. By contrast, there's hardly any evidence to suggest that the United States would be better off if it had done all of the things that neoconservatives advised; all we can say with confidence is that the country would now be poorer, less popular around the world, and more American soldiers would now be dead or grievously wounded.
In this sense, neoconservatives are like someone who is constantly telling you to jump off a twenty story building, and promising that if you do, you'll fly. If you decide to be prudent and jump from the 10th floor instead, and find yourself plummeting toward earth, they'll just say you failed because you didn't follow their advice to the letter.
In the end, one can only admire the esprit de corps and resolve that has kept neoconservatism alive and well despite its manifold failures. Of course, it helps to have lots of supporters with deep pockets who are willing to pay to keep them ensconced in safe sinecures at AEI or the Council on Foreign Relations. And I suppose it also helps that presidential candidates often know very little about foreign policy, and thus can't tell the difference between a smart strategist and a snake oil salesman.
Which brings us back where we started. If Mitt Romney is such a good judge of character and policy advice, and really a moderate at heart, what's he doing with all those neocons?
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
What would I like to ask Obama and Romney at tonight's debate? Before I get to that question, let's start with the rather revealing list of selected topics. They are:
1. America's role in the world
2. Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan?*
3. Red lines -- Israel and Iran?*
4. The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism
5. The rise of China and tomorrow's world
Well, if I were European or Latin American I'd be feeling mighty dissed. No discussion of the Euro crisis? Europe was the focus of U.S. strategy for most of our history, and now it doesn't even rate a mention in the presidential debates? NATO or Greece might make a cameo appearance here and there, but what's striking is how the Greater Middle East and Asia dominate the list of issues.
Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa aren't going to get much attention either, unless someone brings up Sudan or the "new face of terrorism" includes the drug war. Maybe Brazil will come up as a "rising power," but I'll bet it doesn't rate more than a sentence or two. Instead, Obama and Romney will be trading sound-bites over some very well-trodden ground. There's no shortage of vexing problems to discuss, however, because the debate will center around the region that we've been busily screwing up ever since World War II. In a sense, it's not really fair to ask either candidate how they would fix problems that are the work of multiple administrations and both political parties. When Marx wrote "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living," he might have been describing the situation Obama inherited in 2009, or the problems that one of these two men will face in 2013. But since candidates always promise to be miracle workers, the intractability of these problems is not reason not to spent 90 minutes explaining how each will (not) solve them.
In any case, my crystal ball tells me this last debate will be the most rancorous and the least edifying of the three. Obama has run a rather hawkish foreign policy: intensifying the drone war against Al Qaeda and its allies, getting the United States and other key nations to tighten sanctions on Iran, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and giving Israel even more military aid and diplomatic support than his predecessors did. He even let Benjamin Netanyahu humiliate him repeatedly on the settlement issue, and just about the only thing he didn't do was promise to attack Iran on Israel's behalf. So Romney doesn't have much he can really criticize, unless he just starts making things up again (which he will).
Indeed, when it comes to substance, what's Romney going to argue? That he would have fought longer in Iraq, bombed Iran already, or killed Bin Laden deader? Hardly. The left in America might be genuinely disappointed in Obama (and with good reason), but it's hard to attack Obama from the right without without sounding like you want to take the country into a few more wars. And that is not what most of the electorate wants to hear these days.
Given that he doesn't have many tangible things to complain about, Romney is left trying to portray Obama either as 1) someone who doesn't love America as much as he (Romney) does); or 2) as someone who has been too tough on U.S. allies and too soft on U.S. adversaries. But when asked to spell out specifics, Romney's actual policy positions turn out to be close to carbon-copies of Obama's. And the one genuine difference -- Romney's pledge to ramp up defense spending -- can't be squared with his pledge to cut taxes and balance the budget too. So instead of a wonkish discussion of real issues, we'll got a lot of rhetorical posturing at tonight's debate, complete with pious references to America's special role, its glorious past, its bright future, its noble spirit, etc., etc. But if we're lucky, neither of them will try to sing.
Second, it won't be an edifying debate because neither candidate is going to say what they might really think about the key issues shaping policy in the Greater Middle East. Like almost all American politicians, they will try to outdo each other in affirming their "unshakeable" support for Israel (yawn), but they aren't going to be any more candid about the other issues currently afflicting that troubled region. Will Romney argue that Obama should have tried to keep Ghaddafi and Mubarak in power, against the wishes of their people? Of course not. Can Obama explain that he supported the democracy movement in Egypt but not in Bahrain because he didn't want to tick off Saudi Arabia? Will either candidate openly discuss the bipartisan debacle in Afghanistan, and point out that our military leaders gave very bad advice when they recommended a "surge" in 2009? I don't think so.
Be prepared for some pretty silly conversations on China, too. According to the latest survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, U.S. citizens think the most important foreign policy issue facing the country is "protecting the jobs of American workers." Indeed, 84 percent of respondents in both parties identified this issue as important. So Romney will talk a lot about getting tough with China on trade, currency, and intellectual property, even though there's not a snowball's chance that he'd really launch a trade war once in office. Obama, for his part, will talk about his "pivot" to Asia, and try to convince listeners that he can somehow be China's best friend and China's main rival at the same time.
Bottom line: This is a debate that will tell you more about the warped nature of American politics than it will tell you about the true foreign policy challenges facing the nation.
So if I were moderator Bob Schieffer, what questions might I ask? Here's my top-ten list of questions that I don't expect to hear tomorrow night.
Mr. President, Governor Romney:
1. You have both pledged to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. But the Taliban has not been defeated, there are no peace negotiations underway, the Afghan army remains unreliable, attacks on U.S. and NATO forces by Afghan soldiers have been increasing, and the Karzai government is still corrupt and ineffective. Given these realities, was the decision to send nearly 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009 a mistake? What could we have done instead, to avoid the current situation?
2. Gentlemen: Neither of you ever served in the U.S. military. Governor Romney, you have five grown sons, and none of them has ever served either. President Obama, you have two daughters, one of whom will be eligible to enlist in four years. Have either of you ever encouraged your children to serve our nation by enlisting in the armed forces? If not, why not?
3. Both of you claim to support a "two-state" solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But since the last election, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased by more than 25,000 and now exceeds half-million people. If continued settlement growth makes a two-state solution impossible, what should United States do? Would you encourage Israel to allow "one-person, one-vote" without regard to religion or ethnicity -- as we do here in the United States -- or would you support denying Palestinians under Israeli control in Gaza and the West Bank full political rights?
4. Gentlemen: Is the United States doing enough, too little, or too much to address the threat of climate change? If you are the next president, what specific actions will you take to deal with this problem?
(Follow up: Both of you favor increased domestic energy production through new technologies such as hydraulic fracking. But won't lower energy prices just encourage greater reliance on fossil fuels and make the climate change problem worse?)
5. Governor Romney, President Obama: Do you agree with former president George W. Bush's claim that terrorists want to attack America because they "hate our values?" Do you think some terrorists hate us because they angered by what they see as illegitimate U.S. interference in their own countries?
6. Do you believe Japan has a valid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? If the current dispute between China and Japan leads to a military confrontation, what would you do?
7. Both of you are men of faith, and your religions both teach that all humans are fallible. If so, then U.S. leaders must have made mistakes in their handling of foreign policy, and maybe even committed acts that were unjustifiable and wrong. Are there any other societies who have valid reason to be angry about what we have done to them? If so, how should we try to make amends?
8. The United States has the world's strongest conventional forces and no powerful enemies near its shores. It has allies all over the world, and military bases on every continent. Yet the United States also keeps thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready to deter hostile attack.
Iran is much weaker than we are, and it has many rivals near its borders. Many U.S. politicians have called for the overthrow of its government. Three close neighbors have nuclear weapons: Pakistan, India, and Israel. If having nuclear weapons makes sense for the United States, doesn't it make sense for Iran too? And won't threatening Iran with an attack just make them want a deterrent even more?
(Follow up: You both believe all options should be "on the table" with Iran, including the use of military force. Would you order an attack on Iran without U.N. Security Council authorization? How would this decision to launch an unprovoked attack be different from Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941?
And finally, an individual question for each candidate:
9. Governor Romney, when you visited Great Britain last summer, you were criticized for saying that there were a number of "disconcerting things" about Britain's management of the Games. Yet the Games turned out to be a splendid success. How did you get this one so wrong?
10. President Obama: if you could go back to 2009 and begin your term over, what one foreign policy decision would you like to take back?
I think a few questions like that would liven things up considerably, don't you?
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If you're one of those people who still thinks it would be a good idea to attack Iran, you might spend a moment or two reflecting on the past week of events in the Middle East. If a stupid and amateurish video can ignite violent anti-American protests from Tunisia to Pakistan, just imagine what a joint U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran would do.
And don't be misled by the fact that a few Arab leaders are also worried about Iran's nuclear program. Some of them are, though they aren't going on the American airwaves to demand "red lines" and set the stage for preventive war. More importantly, surveys of Arab opinion suggest that these publics aren't that worried about Iran's nuclear potential, which they rightly see as a counter to America's military dominance and to Israel's already-existing stockpile of nuclear weapons. If the United States and/or Israel decides to launch an unprovoked attack on Iran, it's going to be seen in the region as the latest manifestation of Western hostility to Islam, as well as another sign that we are actively trying to dominate the region. Public sentiment will be overwhelmingly against us, and current governments will have little choice but to go along with it.
There are big problems throughout the Middle East these days: civil war in Syria, low-level violence in Iraq, pervasive instability in Yemen, armed militias in Libya, uncertainty in Egypt, slow-motion ethnic cleansing on the West Bank, and a host of others. But no set of problems is so great that we couldn't make them a lot worse.
Today we learn that Iran is resupplying the Assad regime in Syria via Iraqi airspace. Hardly surprising, for two reasons. First, Syria is a key Iranian ally, so naturally Iran is doing what it can to keep Assad in power. Second, the al-Maliki government is not nearly as anti-Iranian as Saddam Hussein was, and in some ways is sympathetic to Tehran's position.
All of which reminds us what dunderheads the neocons were when they dreamed up the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein. Of course, all those liberal hawks who eventually went along with the idea were nearly as foolish.
No, this is not nostalgia for Saddam Hussein. He was a thug and tyrant with as much blood on his hands as Assad, and I don't mourn either his ouster or his passing. But the negative consequences have been enormous, in lives and money and in geopolitical position, as this latest revelation makes clear.
Effective strategy requires thinking more than one move ahead, and not basing momentous decisions on worst-case assumptions about the risks of inaction and best-case forecasts about the benefits that war will bring. It was obvious at the time that destroying Iraq would tilt the balance of power in the Gulf in Iran's favor, and there was no good reason to expect it to produce the pro-American tilt that the neocons promised. So America ended up replacing an anti-Iranian government in Baghdad with one that is at least partially attuned to Tehran's wishes, with the bill for the operation being footed by the U.S. taxpayer.
This issue might not matter that much had we really learned from the experience, and if the people who got us into that foolish war had been put out to pasture. But as I've noted before, failure doesn't have any real consequences in America's foreign policy community, which is why the architects of the Iraq war still have safe sinecures at D.C. think-tanks, still have prominent platforms on FOX News and other major media outlets, and still have trusted positions advising the Romney campaign. Of course, the Democrats who backed the war haven't suffered any career penalties either, which may help you understand why things haven't improved as much as some of us hoped they would back in 2008.
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One of the nice things about being a superpower is you get to run around telling the rest of the world what to do. Other countries don't always listen, of course, but once you've defined yourself as the "leader of the Free World," or the "indispensable nation," you've given yourself a license to preach. There's no requirement to be consistent, of course: You can denounce an adversary's human rights record while remaining studiously silent about an ally's similar transgressions, just as you can tell other states not to even think about getting weapons of mass destruction while maintaining thousands of nuclear warheads yourself.
This same tendency rubs off on American commentators (including, on occasion, yours truly), but none more than Tom Friedman of the New York Times. Today's column offers some unsolicited advice to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, explaining why it was a huge mistake for Morsy to visit Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement meeting, on the heels of a visit to (horrors!) China. I agree with some of Friedman's points (such as the importance of reassuring potential investors and tourists that Egypt is stable and a good destination for capital or your next vacation), but what I question is the idea that Friedman has a better sense of Morsy's political needs and strategic objectives than Morsy himself does.
For starters, Friedman misunderstands Tehran's motivation in seeking to head the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). He tells Morsy that Iran's "only goal" in having all these world leaders attend the meeting is "to signal to Iran's people that the world approves of their country's clerical leadership and therefore they should never, ever, ever again think about launching a democracy movement." Here Friedman is mostly trying to shame Morsy, by accusing him of giving succor to a regime that opposes the sort of democracy Morsy is trying to build in Egypt.
In fact, Tehran's main goal in hosting the NAM isn't to enhance its domestic legitimacy -- I suspect most Iranians don't care about the NAM one way or the other. Rather, the goal is to demonstrate that Iran is not as isolated as Washington would like it to be. The Non-Aligned Movement doesn't have the symbolic clout that it possessed during the heyday of the Cold War, but it is still a prominent forum for the so-called global South. By hosting the meeting and taking over the rotating chairmanship, Tehran is reminding its adversaries that it is not a pariah state. It is also sending the not-so-subtle reminder that a lot of countries would regard an unprovoked attack on it as an illegitimate act of aggression.
Second, Friedman misses what's really driving Morsy. The Egyptian leader is not anti-American; he's just not the same sort of tame client that Hosni Mubarak was. Recall that one of the key themes of the Egyptian revolution was the desire to restore a sense of "dignity," both with respect to how individual Egyptians were treated but also with respect to Egypt's posture vis-à-vis the United States and other states. As I read it, Morsy is working to rebuild Egypt's ties in several directions, in order to maximize Egypt's freedom of movement and diplomatic options. Not only will this enhance Egypt's regional clout, it will encourage others to do more to keep Cairo happy. This approach is also likely to be popular with a lot of Egyptians, who weren't wild about their country being a supine patsy of the United States.
For Morsy, therefore, visiting Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement is a perfect opportunity, because he can rightly argue that he's there as part of a broad global movement that just happens to be meeting in Iran and that he's not endorsing Iran's leadership per se. This is basically the same line that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has used to justify his own attendance, by the way. Similarly, visiting Beijing might bring Egypt some tangible benefits and reminds the United States not to take Cairo for granted.
The bottom line: Friedman is just angry that Morsy wasn't willing to stick it to Tehran on behalf of Washington's regional agenda, even if doing so wasn't really in Egypt's interest. I like democracy as much as anyone, but if we can overlook it when our strategic interests dictate otherwise (see under: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia), why can't President Morsy pay a brief visit to Tehran without being lectured by Mr. Friedman?
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My colleague Nicholas Burns has a smart column in today's Boston Globe, where he makes the obvious but important point that "the United States should do all it can to avoid war" with Iran. His central theme is that war is not in the U.S. national interest, and that Washington should seize the diplomatic initiative and not allow itself to get buffaloed into a war by Israel. In his words: "The United States needs to take the reins of this crisis from Israel to give use more independence and to protect Israel's core interests at the same time." To do this, he calls for the United States to open a direct bilateral negotiating channel with Iran and to offer "imaginative proposals that would permit Iran civil nuclear power but deny it a nuclear weapon."
This position makes so much sense that you can be sure it will be rejected by AIPAC and the other hardliners who believe that Iran cannot be permitted even the theoretical capacity to produce a weapon at some unspecified time down the road. Together with the Netyanyahu government, these groups want to keep ramping up the war talk in order to slowly paint the United States into a corner. The reason is simple: Israel does not have a strategically meaningful military option of its own, because the IAF cannot do enough damage to Iran's nuclear facilities to end its program once and for all. To prevent any sort of Iranian nuclear capacity, therefore, requires the United States to take the lead in enforcing sanctions and if necessary, to fight another war.
And as Jodi Rudoren reveals in an important New York Times piece today, Israel's leaders understand that fact perfectly well. Based on interviews with a former national security advisor Uzi Dayan, she reports that PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak "had not yet decided to attack Iran's nuclear facilities and could be dissuaded from a strike if President Obama approved stricter sanctions and publicly confirmed his willingness to use military force" (my emphasis). She continues: "Mr. Dayan's assessment seems to buttress the theory that the collective saber rattling is part of a campaign to pressure the Obama administration and the international community, rather than an indication of the imminence of an Israeli strike."
In short, as I noted last week, the recurring talk of "closing windows," "red lines," "zones of immunity," and the like is a political ploy, designed to stifle diplomacy, strengthen sanctions, and gradually inch the United States closer and closer to a commitment to use force. The Israelis know that they cannot do the job themselves, and their larger aim is to keep attention riveted on Tehran (and not on settlement expansion) and to make sure that if war does come, the United States does the heavy lifting.
In short, all this war talk is a bluff, but one can scarcely blame Israel for employing a tactic that keeps working so well. It's our fault we keep falling for it.
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You may have noticed that there is an active campaign underway to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In fact, the real goal is to prevent Iran from having even the latent capacity to build a weapon if at some point it decided it wanted one. This is why the United States and other countries have imposed increasingly draconian economic sanctions on Iran, launched covert actions such as the Stuxnet virus, and made repeated threats to use military force.
One of the background elements in this campaign has been repeated warnings that Israel's leaders believed "time was running out" and that they were getting ready to launch a preventive strike on their own. This recurring theme has depended heavily on cooperation from sympathetic journalists and compliant media organizations, who have provided a platform to disseminate these various dark prophecies.
In September 2010, for example, The Atlantic published a cover story by Jeffrey Goldberg ("The Point of No Return") based on interviews with dozens of Israeli officials. Goldberg concluded that the odds of an Israeli attack by July 2011 were greater than 50 percent. Fortunately, this forecast proved to be as accurate as most of Goldberg's other writings about the Middle East.
Then, in January of this year, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Israeli journalist Ronan Bergman entitled "Will Israel Attack Iran?" The piece essentially replicated Goldberg's earlier article: once again, various Israeli officials were quoted as saying that Iran's nuclear program was nearing a critical stage and that Israel was going to take action if Iran did not agree to end all enrichment. Despite a few caveats about the risks of an attack and the possibility that it wouldn't halt Iran's progress for very long, the overall tenor of the piece made it clear that Bergman thought war was very likely.
Even Foreign Policy has gotten into the act, publishing a similar report from former Cheney aide John Hannah a few days ago. According to Hannah, his recent conversations with Israeli officials convinced him that "Israel's resolve to deal with the Iranian nuclear program on its own is no mere bluster." His conclusion: "an attack on Iran was significantly more likely than I had believed before."
Then yesterday Ha'aretz published an article by Barak Ravid -- based on interviews with an unnamed Israeli official -- claiming that U.S. intelligence had now concluded that Iran was making rapid progress toward a bomb. The information in the article was subsequently "confirmed" by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak (who for all we know was the source of the original leak), but quickly denied by American officials. (Side note: shouldn't someone ask Ravid and his editors if they now want to retract the story?) And as Noam Sheizaf describes here, newspapers in Israel are now filled with stories suggesting that the danger is growing and that Netanyahu and Barak are determined to hit Iran sometime this fall.
Last but not least, yesterday's New York Times featured a one-sided story on the "shadow war" between Israel and Iran that placed virtually all the blame for the trouble on Tehran. On the front page, it described a "continuing offensive" by Iran, without mentioning that there has been a long cycle of tit-for-tat between these two countries. Only after the jump came any mention of the assassination of Iranian civilian scientists (almost certainly by the Mossad), or any acknowledgement that Iran might be acting defensively rather than conducting a totally unprovoked campaign of aggression. I'm not defending what Iran is doing, by the way, only suggesting that it's deeply misleading to portray what the U.S. and Israel are doing as purely defensive and to suggest that it is Iran that has launched some sort of ambitious "offensive.")
As I noted a few months back, it's virtually impossible to know how much credence to place in the repeated predictions that Israel is about to attack. It does prove that there is no shortage of journalists or pundits who are willing to serve as sympathetic stenographers for government officials, but it doesn't tell you very much about what is going to happen or what these officials really believe. Why? Because the various officials whose alarming testimony forms the basis for these articles have lots of different reasons for stirring the pot in this fashion.
In this case, those prophesying war may be trying to reinforce the global sanctions effort and keep Iran isolated. They know that the U.S. and the EU see sanctions as preferable to war, so constantly threatening to slip the leash is a good way to stiffen others' resolve and get them to ramp up demands and pressure. It's also a good way to blackmail the United States into providing additional military assistance, and it helps distract everyone from annoying issues like settlement expansion and the nearly-dead-and-buried "peace process." Given these various motivations, one should take all these forecasts of an imminent Israeli attack with many grains of salt.
Although I believe war with Iran would be folly, one cannot rule it out. All countries commit blunders, and neither the United States nor Israel is immune to this sort of miscalculation (see under: Iraq, Lebanon, etc.). But I am remain skeptical that Israel will attack, for the simple reason that it does not have the military capability to inflict strategically significant damage on Iran's nuclear facilities. As the Congressional Research Service reported earlier this year, "Israeli officials and analysts generally agree that a strike would not completely destroy the [Iranian nuclear] program." The CRS report also suggested that an Israeli strike could not delay the program for long, and that long-term success would depend either on repeated follow-up strikes or on subsequent diplomatic activity (e.g., more sanctions).
All of which suggests that all this talk of Israeli "red lines" and some sort of imminent attack (including the possibility of an "October surprise") is just talk. Indeed, those prophesying war are starting to sound like those wacky cult leaders who keep predicting the End of the World, and then keep moving the date when the world doesn't end on schedule. At what point are we going to stop paying attention?
Like I said, I can't be completely sure that reason will prevail and that a war won't happen, although there do seem to be a lot of sensible voices inside the Israeli security establishment who are counseling against it. What worries me most is that the people who have been sounding all these alarmist warnings will start to worry that their credibility is evaporating, and they will feel compelled to go to war because they've talked about it for so long. That's just about the dumbest reason I can think of, but sometimes even pretty smart people do dumb things.
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I'm just back from a brief trip to Maine, to give a lecture at the Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations. As I have in a couple of other venues, I spoke on the similarities and differences between the earlier campaign for war with Iraq and the current debate over war with Iran. The main similarity, of course, is that the same groups and individuals who pushed hardest for war with Iraq are also in the vanguard of the groups pusshing for war with Iran today. But there are also some critical differences, most notably the fact that the Obama administration isn't staffed by die-hard neoconservatives and Obama isn't as gullible as Bush and Cheney turned out to be. For those of us who believe that war with Iran is neither necessary nor wise, this is good news.
My hosts were exceptionally welcoming, and the attendees asked a lot of smart questions, so I had an excellent time. A fair number of the people I met have backgrounds in international affairs (in business, academia, government, intelligence, etc.), and all are obviously engaged by the subject. I didn't hand out a questionnaire so I don't know what everyone in attendance thought, but I was struck by two themes in both the Q & A at my talk and in my private conversations with various members.
First, I detected no support for any sort of war with Iran. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Not by us, not by Israel, and not by anybody else. It's possible that some people in the audience would use force as a last resort, but no one in the audience or in private spoke in favor of that option or even asked a question that leaned in that direction. (One retired government official said he believed there would eventually be a war, but he made it clear that he thought that it was a terrible idea). Instead, they were mostly interested in what could be done to prevent a war, and several questions centered on what could be done to improve U.S.-Iranian relations over the longer term. That view, by the way, is more-or-less consistent with recent surveys showing relatively little support for the "military option." This result is especially telling given that Americans also seem to hold quite alarmist views about Iran's nuclear intentions, and given that the war party has been working overtime to hype the threat for years.
Second, I was also struck by the intelligent skepticism that several attendees expressed regarding America's global role. This was a sophisticated group, and most of the people with whom I spoke would be considered "internationalist" in orientation. Yet several also spoke against what they perceived as excessive U.S. interventionism, and one openly complained about the U.S. serving as the "world's policeman." Statements such as these reinforce my sense that a lot of well-informed Americans recognize that trying to run most of the world isn't in America's interest or the world's interest, and that a smarter and more selective approach to global engagement would be easy to sell.
In fact, because the United States is in reality amazingly secure (relative to most other nations) it takes a lot of effort to get us to shoulder all these international burdens. Our leaders and other interested parties have to do a lot of threat-mongering, usually by treating minor powers as if they were looming international dangers. And these minor powers can't be portrayed merely as regimes with whom we have differences; they have to be given scary labels like the "Axis of Evil" or demonized as the Greatest Threat to Human Decency since Hitler (or Stalin, or Saddam, or Genghis Khan or whomever). Advocates of endless intervention also rely on elaborate domino-theory scenarios whereby some obscure setback somewhere eventually leads to a snafu, which triggers a defeat, which in turn provokes a crisis, which then undermines our credibility, which leads allies to defect, and eventually leaves us isolated and vulnerable. Via this sort of logic, victory is necessary in Afghanistan or else someday North Korea will invade and conquer all of North America.
As I said, these impressions aren't based on a scientific survey, and the views expressed above are my own. But the whole trip made me wish that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could spend less time with their advisors and less time cuddling up to fat cat donors with bellicose agendas, and more time talking about foreign policy with well-informed regular citizens. I'll bet they'd discover that what passes for unquestioned truth inside-the-Beltway is much less widely accepted in a lot of other places.
Mitt Romney gave a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention yesterday. To no one's surprise, he accused President Obama of leaking secrets, betraying U.S. allies, coddling dictators, and generally endangering America. The speech was long on rhetoric and innuendo but rather short on policy specifics, and it left me with a bunch of questions that I'd love to ask the GOP candidate. Because I doubt the campaign is going to offer me a one-on-one interview, I thought I'd serve up my top ten questions for Candidate Romney here.
#1. How dangerous is the modern world? Governor Romney: at the beginning of your speech, you said that "the world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic." But an impressive array of social science research shows that the overall level of global violence has been declining steadily. Moreover, the United States spends more on national security than the next twenty countries combined, and most of those states are close U.S. allies. What are the dangers that you are so worried about, and how do they threaten vital American interests?
#2. How will you pay for increased defense spending? In your speech, you said "we are just months away from an arbitrary, across the board reduction [in defense spending]." You referred to this possibility as "the president's radical cuts," but surely you know that it is the result of the sequestration deal that Congress passed last year, in which the GOP was fully complicit. More importantly, you have previously stated that you would increase U.S. defense spending, keep all the Bush-era tax cuts, and simultaneously reduce the federal budget deficit. Can you explain how you will perform this magic, without invoking discredited concepts like the "Laffer Curve"?
#3. In your opinion, why is President Obama still so popular overseas, including most American allies? In your speech, you said the United States must "nurture our alliances," and you asserted that "the president has moved in the opposite direction." To illustrate this, you accused him of the "sudden abandonment of friends in Poland and the Czech republic," based on Obama's decision to deploy missile defenses in a different configuration. Yet sixty percent of the Polish population opposed having missile defenses on their territory, and the percentage of Poles with a "favorable" view of the United States is higher in 2012 than it was in 2008 (under Bush) or in 2009 (right after Obama's election). For that matter, Obama remains a remarkably popular leader around the world. How do you explain this?
#4. Are there any circumstances when you would criticize Israel's actions or use U.S. influence to persuade it to change its policies? You claimed that President Obama has undermined Israel, even though the administration's first U.N. Security Council veto was cast on Israel's behalf and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says "he can hardly remember a better period" of U.S. support. More importantly, do you believe that American presidents should support Israel no matter what it does, including when it expands settlements and evicts Palestinians from more and more territory in the West Bank? Do you think that policies such as these make a two-state solution less likely, and is that outcome in Israel's long-term interest?
#5. What would you do differently about Iran? You said there is "no greater danger in the world today than the prospect of the Ayatollahs in Tehran possessing nuclear weapons capability." As you undoubtedly know, the Obama administration has implemented stiffer sanctions than the Bush administration did, gotten more countries to go along with this effort, and continued to insist that Iran give up its enrichment capability. Obama and his aides have repeatedly declared that "all options were on the table," and the administration conducted a successful covert action program that damaged Iran's enrichment efforts significantly. To repeat: what would you do differently? In particular, at what point, if any, would you order a military strike against Iran?
#6. Will you impose trade sanctions on China? You told the VFW that "we face another continuing challenge in a rising China," and you accused Beijing of permitting "flagrant patent and copyright violations" and manipulating its currency to our detriment. You said President Obama hasn't stopped them, but you will. How will you get China to change its policies? Wouldn't a trade war just damage the fragile U.S. economy?
#7. Is there any real difference between you and President Obama on Afghanistan? President Obama has pledged to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. In your speech to the VFW, you said "my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces in 2014." Maybe I'm missing something, but that sounds identical to Obama's plan. You also said you would "evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders." What conditions would lead you to keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014?
#8. Is American power always a force for good in the world? According to your speech, you believe "our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known," and you said that "you are not ashamed of American power." Neither am I, but all humans make mistakes and no country has a blameless record. So I'm wondering if you think there are any moments in American history where our power was misused. For example, do you think the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a good idea? What about the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953? Was it a good idea for Lyndon Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam in 1965? Or do you think our track record is perfect?
#9. What specific steps would you take to prevent leaks from the Romney White House? Your VFW speech says that leaks of classified information are a "national security crisis," and you said that your White House would not do such things. Given how secretive you are about your tax returns and your on-again off-again status as CEO of Bain Capital, I'm inclined to believe that you mean this. But leaks have been a common practice of every White House in modern memory, and Obama has been far more aggressive about prosecuting leakers than all of his predecessors. Will you pledge today to prosecute any member of your administration-including your closest aides in the White House, if they are suspected leaking classified information?
#10. Now I'd like to ask you a hypothetical question. Suppose your good friend John McCain had been elected in 2008, and that he had followed the same foreign and defense policy that President Obama has pursued. Would you still be so critical? To be a bit more specific, imagine that McCain had expanded the use of drone strikes in several places, increased U.S. military strength in the Far East to balance China, located and killed Osama bin Laden, increased military cooperation with Israel and protected it from international censure after Operation Cast Lead and the raid on the Mavi Marmara, orchestrated the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi, ended the war in Iraq according to the terms negotiated by President Bush, tightened global sanctions against Iran, and launched an accelerated global effort to improve nuclear security. If McCain had done all that, wouldn't you be defending his actions, and boasting about how it showed that the GOP was much better on national security issues?
(Oh, never mind.... I don't really expect you to answer that one.)
Like I said, I doubt Romney will agree sit down for an interview with me, and if his campaign to date is any indication, he's going to try dodge tough foreign policy questions for as long as he can. But if he really aspires to lead the country, he's going to have to tell us more about what he would actually do as president. Or as he told the VFW, "the time for stonewalling is over."
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Imagine my surprise. I went to my office mailbox last Friday, and there was the new issue of Foreign Affairs. I was expecting the usual distillations of conventional wisdom, but there on the front cover was the name "Kenneth Waltz," along with the eye-grabbing title "Why Iran Should Get the Bomb."
For those of you who don't know, Waltz is arguably the preeminent IR theorist of the post-World War II generation, and certainly the preeminent postwar realist. (Full disclosure, he was also the chair of my dissertation committee back in graduate school). In addition to landmark works such as Man, the State, and War and Theory of International Politics, he is also well-known for a controversial Adelphi Paper arguing that the slow spread of nuclear weapons might not be so bad, and might even be desirable.
Waltz's brief article on Iran echoes this logic. He argues that nuclear asymmetry is inherently destabilizing, because it makes the unarmed side (Iran) feel weak and vulnerable and thus encourages it to look for ways to make itself more secure. At the same time, rival states who already have the bomb (in this case, Israel and the United States), will spend a lot of time contemplating preventive war (as indeed we have). If Iran gets the bomb, however, then the logic of deterrence will kick in and relations between these countries will be more stable, not less.
Waltz maintains that this pattern has generally applied in other nuclear contexts, whether one looks at U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, China's acquisition of the bomb in the 1960s, or the troubled relationship between India and Pakistan, which fought major wars before each got the bomb but have fought only relatively minor skirmishes since. He also reminds his readers that there is no evidence that Iran's leaders are irrational (and certainly no more irrational than ours), and no good reason to think they would ever use a nuclear weapon for offensive purposes or give one away to terrorists. (This latter possibility is especially absurd: Why would any country devote millions of dollars and decades of effort to get a few bombs, and then blithely give them away to people over whom they had little control?)
You should definitely read this important and well-argued article, which makes a lot more sense than the so-called "analysis" that others have dreamed up to make the case for war. I happen to think Waltz is too sanguine about the pacifying effects of nuclear weapons in this context, and that he discounts the other risks associated with nuclear spread (including questions of custody and authority). For these reasons, I think it would be better for us and for the region if Iran did not get the bomb. After all, taken to its logical conclusion, Waltz's argument implies that the United States ought to simply give Iran a few nuclear weapons (along with appropriate safeguards against unauthorized use), as a way of making the region more stable. Pretty hard to imagine that happening.
My other concern is that Waltz's article might convince more Iranians to restart an active weapons program, a step that might easily provoke trigger-happy Americans or Israelis into military action. The logic of nuclear deterrence may work well once both sides have reliably survivable forces, but the transition period where one side has them and another is getting close almost inevitably invites consideration of preventive war, with all the attendant costs and risks.
But Waltz's central point -- that we vastly overstate the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran -- is surely right. And remember: At this point the United States is trying to prevent not an Iran that is actually armed with nuclear weapons, but an Iran that would in theory be physically capable of building a nuclear weapon at some point down the road. This latter objective is a fool's errand, because Iran already has the knowledge and the technology to become "nuclear capable" if its leaders decide they want to be, and there's no way for us to prevent that without occupying the country. If we want to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, our best course is to try to convince them to forego that objective by taking the threat of force off the table and diminishing their perceived need for a deterrent, and by offering up a diplomatic deal that preserves their right to enrich. Unfortunately, that's not the position that we have taken so far, which is why the slow-motion standoff continues.
Back in 2002, a group of influential neoconservatives convinced President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that it was a really smart idea to invade Iraq. With help from AIPAC and other groups in the Israel lobby, and an assist from Israeli politicians like Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the neocons and the Bush administration then persuaded the U.S. Congress to authorize the use of force by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Most of the top figures in the Obama administration (including then-Senators Joseph Biden and Hillary Clinton) supported the war.
Given how that foolish adventure turned out (4,500 dead Americans, $1-2 trillion down the drain, etc.), you'd think the last thing the United States would be contemplating is another preventive war in the Middle East. You'd think that the architects of that earlier debacle would have been as badly discredited as George Custer, Neville Chamberlain, or Charles Lindberg, and that only certifiable war-mongers would be paying attention to their strategic advice. And you'd certainly think that Congress would have learned its lesson, and would be subjecting calls for a new war to careful scrutiny and wide-ranging debate.
How wrong you'd be. Case in point: the recent letter that a bipartisan group of 44 senators recently sent President Obama, declaring that, "Iran must come into full cooperation with the IAEA and full compliance with all relevant United National Security Council resolutions, including verifiable suspension of nuclear enrichment." The senators also insist that the "absolute minimum steps that Iran must take immediately are shutting down of the Fordow facility, freezing enrichment above 5 percent, and shipping all uranium enriched above 5 percent out of the country. And if Iran does not capitulate to our demands, the senators urge Obama "to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists" (my emphasis).
If you ever wondered why so few Americans have any respect for Congress, here's part of your answer. (To be sure, disrespect for Congress is by now over-determined, given our representatives' dysfunctional behavior on a wide range of issues. But still ... ) As Glenn Greenwald notes, in this case those beating the drums of war include a number of prominent "liberal" Senators, including progressives like Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. And as I pointed out earlier this week, the terms the senators are insisting upon are almost certainly a deal-breaker from Iran's point of view. I'm still convinced that the Obama administration understands war is foolish -- you can go here if you'd like to watch a fuller presentation of my views on this topic -- but as Robert Wright noted a few days ago, he is being boxed in by the pro-war faction -- the usual alliance of Israel, AIPAC, the neocons, and a few Christian Zionists -- and he isn't getting any cover from the supine members of Congress. The result: Negotiations that go nowhere as a "drift" toward war continues.
So what can you do? As it happens, there is an online petition at the Credo/Working Assets website opposing war with Iran. It has garnered over 100,000 signatures so far, including mine. You can sign it yourself by clicking on this link and following the instructions. I'm not saying your signature will stop another foolish war all by itself, but it can't hurt.
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I'm back from Japan after a very enjoyable trip, and catching up on developments elsewhere. A few quick comments on recent events elsewhere.
On Syria: As many have feared, the violence continues to intensify and prospects for a negotiated solution appear increasingly bleak. The stalemate between the regime and the opposition will increase pressure for a more forceful international response, but the case for military intervention remains weak. Not because anybody condones the Assad regime's behavior, but simply because outside intervention could easily make things worse. Regrettably, not every foreign policy challenge has a ready solution, and sometimes "standing there" is still better than "doing something."
Russia continues to be Assad's primary protector, and it will be interesting to see if Obama and Putin can make any progress toward agreement during their meeting at the G20 summit. As I've written previously, Russia is the key to a political settlement, but only if a way can be found to preserve Russian interests and give them lots of credit for helping resolve the crisis. Russia's amoral stance has elicited a lot of condemnation thus far, but we shouldn't be surprised or overly outraged by what Moscow is doing. Syria is Russia's only remaining Middle East client and Russia is simply trying to protect its own position there. More broadly, Russia has long sought to prevent the emergence of a world order dominated by the United States and its allies -- i.e., one where Washington gets to decide who governs in key regions -- and backing Assad is one way for Russia to remind everyone that Washington isn't all-powerful. I suspect Putin isn't happy about what Assad is doing, just as the Obama administration wasn't happy about the Saudi-backed crackdown in Bahrain. But when strategic interests are involved, moral niceties tend to be overlooked.
On Egypt: I'm not that surprised that Egypt's military leaders are trying to reverse the revolution/reform movement that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak. Step 1 was getting Egyptian courts to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated legislature; step 2 was the announcement that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would supervise the drafting of a new constitution. There are reports that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi has won the presidential election; if so, you can count on the SCAF to write a constitution that diminishes the president's powers. But I will be surprised if this effort to roll back the clock succeeds, because the SCAF has no solution for Egypt's debilitating economic and political stagnation and younger Egyptians aren't going to acquiesce in this reversal for long. And as Juan Cole notes on his own blog, once free and fair elections become the norm, it becomes increasingly difficult for unelected military rulers to retain the same level of influence. If we take a longer view, the Egyptian revolution is likely to continue.
Speaking of which, I wonder how American neoconservatives will react to SCAF's efforts to reverse or retard Egypt's move toward democracy? Neocons have long portrayed themselves as vigorous proponents of liberty and democracy, and they are usually quick to demand forceful U.S. action against any non-democratic regimes they don't like. So presumably they will now call for the United States to use cut off all aid to Egypt until the Egyptian generals allow full democracy to re-emerge. But don't hold your breath.
On Iran: Negotiations resume tomorrow between Iran and the P5+1. We may see some progress, but I don't expect a breakthrough. The key questions are: 1) are the P5+1 are willing to concede Iran's right to enrich uranium at low levels and under strict safeguards? and 2) will the United States continue to demand that Iran dismantle its underground enrichment plant at Fordow? These two demands are deal-breakers: Iran has made it clear for years that it won't give up the right to enrich, and insisting that they dismantle Fordow is asking them to leave their program vulnerable so that we (or the Israelis) can attack it whenever we want.
Think about this for a second. What sensible government would ever agree to something like that? Imagine how the United States would have reacted if the Soviet Union had demanded that we leave our ICBMs above ground and completely exposed to a surprise attack, and had further demanded that we give them the locations of all our ballistic missile submarines, so that the USSR could attack them too if they ever felt they needed to. We would have rejected such a silly request in a nanosecond. Demanding that Iran dismantle Fordow is similar; would any government spend a lot of money hardening its enrichment capability only to give it up, especially when the United States and others have already done various things to try to damage or destroy their other nuclear facilities? If the P5+1 aren't willing to compromise on those two issues, it shows we're not serious about a genuine diplomatic deal.
The Obama administration is caught between two fires: They understand that military action is foolish and counterproductive (i.e., such action will just convince Iran to redouble its efforts to gain an effective deterrent), but they also understand that a realistic compromise would expose Obama to (bogus) charges of appeasement from Israel and from hardliners in the Israel lobby. That's not an appealing prospect in an election year, especially when the election promises to be close. So they can't go to war, but they can't make a deal either, at least not between now and November. And that means that the real issue is whether the various parties can find enough common ground to keep the negotiations limping along until then.
Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I've been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.
This past week, the New York Times has published two important articles on how the Obama administration is using American power in ways that remain poorly understood by most Americans. The first described Obama's targeted assassination policy against suspected terrorists, and the second describes the U.S. cyber-warfare campaign against Iran. Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It's not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I've noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn't know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.
Remember back in 2009, when Obama supposedly extended the "hand of friendship" to Iran? At the same time that he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran. When Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reacted coolly to Obama's initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president. We are observing, watching, and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago," U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer of friendship. With hindsight, of course, it's clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now, he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I'm no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail. As it did.
We keep wondering: "Why do they hate us?" Well, maybe some people are mad because we are doing things that we would regard as unjustified and heinous acts of war if anyone dared to do them to us. I'm not really surprised that the U.S. is using its power so freely -- that is what great powers tend to do. I'm certainly not surprised that government officials prefer to keep quiet about it, or only leak information about their super-secret policies when they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so. But I also don't think Americans should be so surprised or so outraged when others are angered by actions that we would find equally objectionable if we were the victims instead of the perpetrators.
And if we keep doing unto others in this way, it's only a matter of time before someone does it unto us in return.
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Will the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 manage to turn a potential diplomatic breakthrough with Iran into another counterproductive failure? It's too soon to tell, but betting on failure has been the smart wager in the past.
The Baghdad talks between Iran and the P5+1 apparently got a lot of serious issues on the table, but didn't achieve a breakthrough, let alone an agreement. The main reason is the hardline position adopted by the United States and its partners, and especially our refusal to grant any sort of sanctions relief. The parties will resume discussions in Moscow in June.
From a purely strategic point of view, this situation is pretty simple. Iran is not going to give up its right to enrich uranium. Period. If the West insists on a full suspension, there won't be a deal. It's that simple. At the same time, the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 would like to maximize the amount of time it would take Iran to "break out" and assemble a weapon. The best way to do that is to limit Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium to concentrations of less than 5 percent. If Iran insists on keeping a large supply of 20 percent enriched uranium on hand, we'll walk too.
So there you have the outline of the deal--we accept low-level enrichment and lift sanctions, and Iran gives up the 20% stuff--although there are other details what will have to be worked out too. Frankly, given where we are today, it's surprising the U.S. isn't grabbing that deal with both hands. Why? Because unless the U.S. is willing to invade and occupy Iran (and we aren't) or unless we are willing to bomb its facilities over and over (i.e., every time Iran rebuilds them), there is no way to prevent Iran from having the potential to obtain nuclear weapons if it decides it wants to. They know how to build centrifuges, folks, and the rest of the technology isn't that hard to master. So the potential is there, and there's no realistic way to eliminate it.
The smart strategy, therefore, is to keep them as far away from the bomb as possible, and to reduce Iran's incentive to go all the way to an actual weapon. And the best way to do that -- duh! -- is to take the threat of military force off the table and to stop babbling about the need for regime change. Also bear in mind that Iran's leaders have repeatedly said they don't want to build a bomb, and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini has repeatedly declared nuclear weapons to be "haram" -- forbidden by Islam. Maybe that's just empty or deceitful talk, but violating a statement like that is a tricky move for a theocratic regime. And maybe he's saying exactly what he really thinks.
While we're being realistic, let's keep a few other bedrock realities in mind.
Right now, the United States has thousands of sophisticated nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Israel has a couple of hundred. Four other members of the P5+1 have nuclear weapons as well, and the fifth member -- Germany -- has had access to nuclear weapons through "dual key" arrangements with the United States.
Right now, the United States is far and away the world's greatest military power, with no enemies nearby. Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. We spend close to a trillion dollars on various national security programs each year; Iran spends maybe $15 billion, tops. Iran is a minor military threat at best.
Right now, the United States and Israel are actively engaged in a variety of covert actions directed against Iran, and the United States still have military forces and bases all around that country. Top U.S. officials, Senators and Congressmen have openly called for "regime change" in Iran. And then we wonder why, oh why, Iran might be wary of us, and why some Iranians might think that having an effective deterrent to counter our vast military superiority might be a good idea.
Right now, the United States and its allies have imposed increasingly punishing economic sanctions against Iran. Iran has no way to retaliate in kind, no matter how its leaders may bluster about oil and gas embargoes.
Since World War II, the United States has fought at least eight wars (Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Iraq War I, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Gulf War II), and we've intervened in other countries countless times. Israel has fought at least six wars since independence (the 1956 Suez War, 1967 Six Day War, 1969-70 War of Attrition, 1973 October War, 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and 2006 war in Lebanon), and it started the wars in 1956, 1967, 1982, and 2006. It has also conducted innumerable cross-border raids and covert actions. Iran has fought one war during that same period -- against Iraq -- and only because Saddam Hussein attacked. It has also provided material support to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but its overseas activities are paltry compared with ours.
Yet it is these two comparatively powerful and nuclear-armed nations are insisting that Iran cannot under any circumstances have its own nuclear weapons -- which Iran has repeatedly said it does not seek -- and Israel's leaders are declaring that Iran must give up even the potential to acquire them. I have no trouble understanding why the P5+1 and Israel might prefer such a world, but what I don't understand is why they think Iran will ever agree to it. I mean, I'd like to live in a world where anyone making more than a $1 million per year had to send me ten percent of their income, but it would be foolish for me to plan my life on that basis.
For the past decade, the US and its allies have been insisting that Iran suspend enrichment. Back when we started making that demand (in 2001 or so), Iran had no centrifuges in operation. We've continued to issue these ultimatums for more than a decade, and Iran now has thousands of centrifuges in operation and a stockpile of enriched uranium that we're now trying to get them to give up. In short, our take-it-or-leave-it approach to this problem has been a complete failure, and you'd think those in charge of U.S. policy would have recognized this by now.
As I noted awhile back, the current impasse reflects a significant shift in our approach to arms control. In the past, we understood that arms control was a diplomatic process of mutual compromise, designed to produce a situation that was ultimately better for both sides. Arms control agreements didn't get the participants everything they might want, but they worked if each side understood that they'd be better off striking a reasonable deal. Today, "arms control" consists of our making unilateral demands, and insisting that other side give us what we want before we'll seriously consider what they want. It reflects what late Senator J. William Fulbright called the "arrogance of power," the tendency for powerful states to think they can dictate to others with near-impunity. This approach hasn't worked yet with Iran, and it's not likely to work in the future.
So why do we persist in such a dubious course of action? Gareth Porter has a pretty good idea.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.