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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Where is the Middle East headed? Where will it be a decade or two hence? Although most commentary tends to obsess about recent events (Will Assad fall? Was Hezbollah for the bombing in Bulgaria? Will there be war with Iran? Is the two-state solution really dead? etc.) today, I want to step back and ask what the larger implications of these various events might be. Here are three scenarios for the Middle East, judged largely from the perspective of U.S. interests:
1. The Good: The optimistic scenario for the Middle East runs something like this: Although the road may be bumpy for awhile, the various upheavals now subsumed under the heading “Arab spring” mark the end of a long period of regional stagnation. In this view, the Arab world has languished for decades under the bankrupt leadership of a series of autocrats who were better at clinging to power than in developing their societies. Education, scientific competence, economic development and human rights have all suffered as a result. These circumstances have also fueled anti-Americanism and intensified regional tensions, as various entrenched elites have used the bogeyman of “Western imperialism,” Israel’s presence and occupation, and the sufferings of the Palestinians to distract their populations from their own failings.
But in this scenario, that era is coming to an end. Assad will fall the same way Qaddafi did, and his departure will deal a body blow to the “axis of resistance” (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas), which is the last stubborn remnant of anti-Western opposition in the region. Weak and isolated, Iran will have no choice but to bow before the West’s demands, and the clerical regime itself will be living on borrowed time. As political change ushers in more responsive and accountable governments throughout the region, the long pent-up energies of these societies will be unleashed and broad-based economic development will begin.
Equally important, the flowering of democracy (or something closer to it) will reduce the current frictions between the United States and some of these societies, as citizens focus on getting educated and getting rich, instead of worrying about red herrings like the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza, or the U.S. military presence in the region. Islam may play a somewhat larger role in political life, but it will be mostly moderate and benign.
This view is consistent with the traditional liberal view of international relations, which tends to dominate how U.S. policymakers think about foreign policy. Liberal theories of IR argue that foreign policy behavior is heavily influenced by societal preferences and regime type, by economic interdependence, and by the creation of powerful global institutions. They tend to assume that human beings mostly care about material prosperity. As Middle East countries become more like us, so the argument runs, conflicts of interest will diminish, anti-Americanism will fade, and interest in obtaining WMD will decline. And once these states become more democratic and fully enmeshed in the world economy, they will drop their outdated objections to Israel and all will be well.
Notice also that this view implies that neoconservatives’ program for “regional transformation” was the right idea all along; the problem was that the people who tried to implement it were incompetent and their chosen instrument -- military power and direct U.S. intervention -- was simply the wrong tool. Obama’s embrace of the “Arab spring” has been cautious and not always consistent (see under: Bahrain), but it was directed at essentially the same goal and his approach has proven to be far more effective. On balance, he has positioned the United States on the progressive side of change and confined the U.S. role to helping local forces win their battles.
In effect, the administration is betting that the arc of history will bend in a direction that leads to more participatory politics, to greater gender equality and human rights, and to a dramatic reduction in both regional tensions and anti-Americanism over time. It may take a couple of decades for this hopeful vision to be realized, and because massive social change is always messy, there are bound to be some rocky moments along the way. But all Americans need to do is stay the course, use their still-considerable power to nudge these societies in the right direction, and manage the inevitable turbulence for a little while longer.
In many ways, it would be nice if this hopeful future came to fruition, although it would probably consign the Palestinians to another generation or two of impoverished statelessness. Alas, this is not the only scenario one can envision.
2. The Bad: In this version of the future, the political changes unleashed by the “Arab spring” continue to roll forward, and attempts to reimpose the old order (as Egypt’s military seems to be attempting) ultimately fail. Moreover, the emergence of more participatory politics and greater openness do in fact generate many of the positive features described above: education expands, economic development accelerates, and national unity is ultimately strengthened in many of these societies. In short, social and political mobilization continues and deepens, and governments manage to create more open and effective institutions.
But in this scenario, these shifts do not transform the Middle East into a region of calm Kantian liberals, or some Middle Eastern version of the EU. As political dynamism returns to the region, this scenario envisions more and more governments that are both increasingly responsive to popular sentiment and increasingly capable of advancing their national interests (as defined by popular beliefs) on the world stage. And because some of those sentiments are at odds with long-standing U.S. policies, the emergence of a more politically mobilized and capable Arab world might turn out to be a real headache for Washington.
Recent history offers several cautionary warnings. Turkey under the AKP has enjoyed impressive economic growth in recent years -- in sharp contrast to the military governments that preceded it -- but it has also become a less compliant ally of the United States and increasingly an independent force in the region. U.S. and Turkish interests are often compatible but not always, and that is likely to be true of a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Or consider what has happened to China. If Mao had lived forever, China would still be saddled with a dysfunctional command economy. Embracing capitalism has lifted millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty, but it has also given Beijing the capacity to challenge U.S. leadership on a host of issues, and may one day make it a true “peer competitor.” From a selfishly American perspective, therefore, it might have been better of the “four modernizations” had never occurred and China had remained weak and economically backward. By the same logic, Arab inefficiency is one of the main reasons why the United States and Israel have been able to dominate the Middle East for the past four decades, and we should not blindly assume that a more capable and competent Arab world would also be a more compliant one.
The “good” scenario assumes that the emergence of more participatory, quasi-democratic politics will eventually eliminate the existing conflicts of interest within the region and with the United States. But there are good reasons to question that optimistic belief. Sunni vs. Shiite divisions have been around for centuries and are likely to persist. Palestinians will still press for statehood (or for full voting rights), and politically mobilized Arab publics will continue to back them, in part because this might be an issue that democratic politicians exploit to make themselves more popular at home, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was done. A democratic Syrian government will still want the Golan Heights back, and a fully democratic Iran might want nuclear weapons as much as the Shah did or as much as democratic (and nuclear-armed) Israel does.
In this view, in short, we ought to be careful what we wish for. Autocrats like Hosni Mubarak and monarchs like King Hussein or King Abdullah of Jordan could ignore popular sentiment and align closely with Washington, but this may not be so easy for governments that have to depend on popular support. The assumption that progressive political change in the Arab world is a good thing for the United States rests on the belief that “all good things go together": political change will eventually foster economic development and attenuate existing political disputes. Unfortunately, history also reminds us that as states grow richer and stronger, they often grow more assertive and they start defining their interests in broader terms. This could be big trouble for Washington, given how unpopular U.S. policies have been and how deeply rooted these attitudes seem to be.
3. The Ugly: There is a third scenario, and it is the one we have already seen in Iraq and Lebanon and may now be seeing in Syria. In this version of the future, the Arab spring succeeds in overturning a number of bankrupt orders but does not lead to stable and progressive governance in some of them. Instead, we get weak and divided orders where sectarian quarrels are rife, extremism is rewarded, al Qaeda finds new followers, and those who are adept at violence are advantaged.
Needless to say, this bleak forecast implies that the region will remain messy and divided for many years to come. An economic renaissance will not occur, because political instability will discourage investment and tourism and force local populations to squander time and resources on fighting rather than building. Outside powers will be tempted to intervene in various ways, which will lead to tit-for-tat retaliations and raise the risk of broader regional conflicts. Given that the Gulf region will remain a key source of global energy supplies (no matter how much natural gas the U.S. eventually obtains from hydraulic fracking), continued regional instability could have far-reaching and harmful effects on the world economy.
This scenario isn’t good news for the United States either. It might be smart for the United States to remain aloof from the carnage, but that will be difficult given our interventionist tendencies and the pressure we’ll face from regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. And if the past is any guide, we can’t expect Russia or China or the Europeans to help us quiet things down; they’d rather hand Uncle Sam the burden of managing yet another regional cauldron. So not only would this scenario mean lots of trouble for people in the Middle East, it's bound to be a big headache for the United States too.
Which of these scenarios do I think is most likely? I lean towards the second, because I don’t think the Arab spring is reversible and because I don’t think that protracted instability in places like Syria will prove all that contagious. But that’s really no more than a hunch.
Of course, these three scenarios are not the only ones one can imagine. But they do help put the current turmoil into perspective, and they help us identify the underlying logic on which current U.S. policy is based. Needless to say, I’ll be delighted if the first scenario is the one we get. I’ll also be more than a little surprised.
I am pleased to offer the following guest post by Nasser Rabbat of MIT:
Nasser Rabbat writes:
The euphoria sparked by the 2011 Arab uprisings has settled into realpolitik. The youth who initiated the protest movements split into myriad organizations or withdrew in despair. The Islamists, disciplined through decades of clandestine political action, took over in Tunisia and Libya, and are poised to wrestle power from a recalcitrant army in Egypt. The secularists, assumed to be the natural allies of the West, are weak and divided. In Tunisia and Egypt, they garnered fewer votes in the elections than predicted. In Libya, they retreated from the National Transitional Council, leaving the Islamists to occupy its most powerful positions. In Syria, still struggling against a belligerent and criminal regime that is proving hard to nudge, the secularists in the opposition are constantly bickering, whereas the Islamists are organized and goal-oriented. Arab secularism, the events seem to suggest, is a spent force. The United States and other Western governments, claiming to be responding to the realities on the ground, are engaging the Islamic parties as the defining new paradigm of Arab politics.
Is this a new turn for the West? Did the West support the secularists before the revolutions? And has Arab secularism really become irrelevant? My answer to all three questions is an emphatic no. To begin with, the record of the West in the Arab world is patently not pro-secularist. Indeed, if we are to limit our assessment to the regimes that have been consistently backed by the U.S. in the last fifty years, we will find on the top of the list Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Morocco, all avowedly Islamic regimes, at least in their claims to legitimacy or their application of Islamic law. Conversely, some of the most ardent opponents of the U.S. have been the secular regimes of the Baath party in Syria and Iraq, though their secularism proved skin-deep and opportunistic. Moreover, when the United States decided to avenge the attacks of 9/11, perpetrated as they were by an extremist Islamist militancy, its most decisive act was to destroy the secular regime of Iraq. Eight years later, when the Americans finally withdrew from Iraq, they left behind not only a flagrantly sectarian regime, but also a political class composed largely of religious movements umbilically linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Nor does history show much Western support for the budding secular tendencies in the early twentieth century, which coincided with the colonization of most of the Arab world. Pragmatism may explain why colonial powers, Britain and France in particular, preferred to deal with traditional leaders. They had political influence, economic clout, and a wide base of clients. That they adhered to conservative forms of piety added to their usefulness: They understood the mechanisms of religious authority and could manipulate them to appease potential popular unrest. The few Arab secularists, on the other hand, even though thoroughly westernized and belonging to the social elite, were seen as troublemakers. Having been profoundly influenced by the principles of the Enlightenment, they formulated strong demands for liberation, democratization, and modernization. Many clashed with the colonial authorities and paid a heavy price of imprisonment or exile.
Independence, when it finally came, fell smack at the height of the Cold War. The West, which was eventually reduced to the United States, was seeking to build alliances of nations committed to countering the Communist threat. Conservative regimes, such as those of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, were obviously the most promising allies. So the West supported them regardless of their religious agendas. When military regimes came to power in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq after the defeat of these countries in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, they first toyed with accepting Western tutelage. Their subsequent turning to the USSR as a patron more sympathetic to their national causes, however, did not translate into espousing communism or rejecting religion. Ungodly these military regimes certainly were, but they were not secular. They neither believed in nor practiced the separation of religion and politics. They in fact heavily relied on religious symbolism to frame the image of their one inspired despot and his family or clan. This was the case of Anwar al-Sadat after Camp David and his successor Hosni Mubarak, as well as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad. Fundamentalism and its defiant social expressions actually grew under their watch, even if they had been relentlessly suppressing all Islamic political organizations, or any other political activism for that matter.
Secularists had no place in such a system. Those who dared to speak out against it found themselves dismissed from their jobs, jailed, or forced to leave their countries. Some, who persisted in their criticism of the dictators or of the rigid views of the growing Islamist extremists, like the journalists Salim al-Lawzi and Samir Kassir in Lebanon, Hidaya Sultan Al-Salem in Kuwait, Farag Foda in Egypt, and Mohammed Taha in Sudan, were assassinated. Others, unable to cobble together a political structure to unite them like the Islamists had, channeled their political activism into more intellectual and artistic pursuits. Secularism, already accused of elitism because of the social background of its proponents, became even more rarefied as it migrated either away from the pulse of the street and into the confines of academia and art or out of the country altogether.
The 2011 uprisings seemed at first to bring secularism back to the forefront as a vociferous political force. Fueled by a new breed of activists -- young, globally networked, and unbothered by considerations of class, religion or gender -- the uprisings wielded the same principles that earlier Arab secularists have advocated. But like those earlier Arab secularists, the youth did not translate their secularist rallying cries into framers of political parties able to compete for the post-revolutionary governments. Some movements, notably the 6th of April Movement in Egypt, simply declared after the fall of Mubarak's regime that it had no plan to become a political party, then lived to regret that impulsive decision. The prominent and reasonably popular candidate for the presidency in Egypt, Mohammad el-Baradei, withdrew from the race before it began, citing as a reason the reprehensible way politics was conducted by his detractors. The few attempts to register a secularist political presence in the elections in Tunis and Egypt were swept aside by the eminently more organized Islamist parties and by their shrewd appeal to the basic religiosity of the people, especially the poor and the illiterate.
Arab secularism, however, remains on the street and online. Though outdone in the current rush to power by the Islamists, it still has the ability to reassert itself in the political arena, if not as the ruling party, at least as lawful opposition and guardian of the principles of civic freedoms. The culture of lawful opposition, long absent under the totalitarian regimes, needs to be reinserted into the political discourse. This is as important a function as good governance for the well-being of the nascent Arab democracies. To that end, the efforts of the discontented revolutionary youth and the seasoned secular intellectuals should be united under the umbrella of political parties. The West should help them by recognizing their crucial political role and by treating them as long-term partners not just as recipients of training and aid.
In February 2011, after the victory of the Egyptian revolution in which they played no significant role, some of the most famous Islamic preachers gloated that the next government will be Islamic. Secularism, they contended, should be put to rest because it reigned for fifty years and failed. But true secularism has never had a chance to rule in the modern Arab world, except perhaps in Tunisia under al-Habib Bourguiba (1957-87). Otherwise, religion was always enshrined in the fiat constitutions of all the Arab kingdoms and republics, even those that were ferociously hunting down Islamists. Moreover, Arab rulers who hid behind secular masks, whether they were civilian or military, never separated religion from their politics. Many enlisted docile forms of religion and compliant sheiks as parts of their arsenal of control. In that, they were following in the footsteps of a long tradition of inglorious religion-based rule in the Arab world, which did not really end until the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923. It is thus more accurate to question what Islamic rule of the kind imagined by the vocal Islamist organizations will bring that was not tried before during the long centuries of what they themselves believe was an Arab decline.
Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of the History of Islamic Architecture at MIT.
The Libyan revolution celebrated its first anniversary last week, and though there were a few news stories and blog posts about it, the milestone didn't attract as much attention as one might have expected. Instead, the focus of debate has moved on to the grim tragedy unfolding in Syria, and the perpetual sabre-rattling over Iran, not to mention vital issues such as whether 1) Santorum or Romney will win Michigan, 2) Jeremy Lin is a fluke or a phenom, and 3) Bobby Brown was treated badly by the security team at ex-wife Whitney Houston's funeral.
Meanwhile, what about Libya? There's no question that efforts to build a stable, legitimate, and effective post-Qaddafi government haven't gone all that well, belying the confident proclamations that rebel leaders made during the fighting itself. The National Transitional Council is increasingly seen as weak and ineffective, dozens of armed militias continue to hold sway throughout the country, and radical Islamists are openly contending for power. Amnesty International reports that human rights abuses are widespread, including acts of torture, extra-judicial executions, and acts of retribution against ethnic minorities. Thousands of man-portable surface-to-air missiles remain unaccounted for, and some of the weapons may be helping fuel conflicts in neighboring countries and maybe even getting into the hands of terrorists.
Does this mean the effort to topple Qaddafi was a mistake? Those of us who were skeptical about the wisdom of the operation might be tempted to declare our view vindicated, but to do so would be just as foolhardy as George W. Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq. Fixing a country as screwed up as Libya was is going to take time, and I still believe we won't really know the answer for another year or two at least.
What is more troubling to me is the short attention span we seem to have about these events. The foreign policy community is like a kid with ADD: A crisis erupts, and there's a sudden flurry of interest and activity. Advisors huddle and plan, spokespersons proclaim, diplomats confer, pundits opine, and yes, bloggers like me type our hearts out for awhile. And then the moment passes (often as soon as the former ruler does), and attention moves on to the next set of headlines. A year ago, Libya; today, Syria, tomorrow, who?
And in the meantime, Libyans are more-or-less left to their fate. Yes, there is a UN mission there, and yes, the United States has pledged a modest amount of aid. In particular, we are funding a program to buy up the remnants of Qaddafi's arsenal of weapons, which tells you that we care more about that issue than we do about the condition of the Libyan people. As you can read about in this very useful Congressional Research Service study, a few Congressmen have inserted various Libya-oriented programs into various authorization bills, which suggests that a few people in Washington are still engaged by the issue. But overall, one doesn't get the sense that Libya is taking up much bandwidth in the foreign policy establishment anymore.
Mind you, I'm not saying that the United States should be offering Libya a new Marshall Plan, or trying to conduct an ambitious "state-building" operation there. We've tried that in some other places and our track record isn't encouraging. But I worry that while we may have lost our appetite for state-building, we haven't lost our appetite for state-destroying (otherwise known as regime change). Call it a policy of "drive-by interventionism": We'll help take out this month's bad guy (and let's be clear, the leaders we've gone after lately have been pretty despicable), but then we'll leave it to others to sort out the bodies and rebuild the institutions. If they do. And if things go south later, well, by then we'll have moved on.
In some ways, this is the central tension in America's current global posture. Despite some largely rhetorical efforts to emphasize diplomacy, development, and other forms of "civilian power," our approach to contemporary security problems continues to privilege the sharp end of the stick. Outside powers cannot build functioning states on the ashes of the old without committing massive resources to the task -- and it may not work even if you do -- and the United States and its allies have neither the resources nor the motivation to do that anymore. Instead, we send drones and planes and Special Forces to topple governments who have fallen from favor. These policy instruments are cheap and sometimes effective, but they are of little or no value when it's time to rebuild.
Again: it's too soon to say whether the Libyan adventure will turn out well or not. But thus far, it is a cautionary tale for those who are now eager to do something similar in Syria. I share the widespread desire to see Assad give up power and accede to the demands for reform, but we have no way of knowing whether aid to the rebels will hasten that shared goal or simply ignite an even more punishing civil war. In other words, be careful what you wish for: There's hardly any situation that is so bad that it couldn't get worse.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
One of the distinctive features of American democracy is the permeability of our political institutions. It's an incredibly wide-open system, given First Amendment freedoms, the flood of money that corrupts the electoral process, and a wide array of media organizations and political journals that can be used to disseminate and amplify various views, even when they have no basis in fact.
This situation allows small groups of people to have a profound impact on public attitudes and policy discourse, provided that they are well-organized, well-funded, and stay on message. And if you don't believe me, then take a look at the Center for American Progress's new report Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America. It's a remarkable piece of investigative work, showing how small set of right-wing foundations and individuals have bankrolled the most vocal Islamophobes in contemporary U.S. politics, such as Frank Gaffney, Daniel Pipes, Daniel Horowitz, and Robert Spencer.
Here's an excerpt from the press release:
Following a six-month long investigative research project, the Center for American Progress released a 130-page report today which reveals that more than $42 million from seven foundations over the past decade have helped fan the flames of anti-Muslim hate in America…
Over the past few years, the Islamophobia network (the funders, scholars, grassroots activists, media amplifiers, and political validators) have worked hard to push narratives that Obama might be a Muslim, that mosques are incubators of radicalization, and that "radical Islam" has infiltrated all aspects of American society -- including the conservative movement.
The irony in all this that the extremists examined in this report have gone to great lengths to convince Americans that there is a vast Islamic conspiracy to subvert American democracy, impose sharia law, and destroy the American way of life. Instead, what we are really facing is a well-funded right-wing collaboration to scare the American people with a bogeyman of their own creation, largely to justify more ill-advised policies in the Middle East.
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I was in New York City the past two days and left my laptop in my bag for a change. The main purpose of the trip was to pick up my daughter (who was flying home from a language immersion program), but we did manage to sneak in a benefit concert at the Beacon Theater. Go here for a peek at The Life I Could Have Had if I Had Talent.
Along the way I've been reflecting more on the shooting/bombing in Norway and the debates that have surfaced since last weekend. One of the striking features of Anders Breivik's worldview (which is shared by some of the Islamophobe ideologues who influenced his thinking) is the idea that he is defending some fixed and sacred notion of the "Christian West," which is supposedly under siege by an aggressive alien culture.
There are plenty of problems with this worldview (among other things, it greatly overstates the actual size of the immigrant influx in places like Norway, whose Muslim minority is less than 4 percent of the population). In addition, such paranoia also rests on a wholly romanticized vision of what the "Christian West" really is, and it ignores the fact that what we now think of as "Western civilization" has changed dramatically over time, partly in response to influences from abroad. For starters, Christianity itself is an import to Europe -- it was invented by dissident Jews in Roman Palestine and eventually spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. I'll bet there were Norse pagans who were just as upset when the Christians showed up as Breivik is today.
Moreover, even Christian Europe is hardly a fixed cultural or political entity. The history of Western Europe (itself an artificial geographic construct) featured bitter religious wars, the Inquisition, patriarchy of the worst sort, slavery, the divine right of kings, the goofy idea of "noble birth," colonialism, and a whole lot of other dubious baggage. Fundamentalists like Breivik pick and choose among the many different elements of Western culture in order to construct a romanticized vision that they now believe is under "threat." This approach is not that different from Osama bin Laden's desire to restore the old Muslim Caliphate; each of these extremists is trying to preserve (or restore) an idealized vision of some pure and sacred past, based on a remarkably narrow reading of history.
In fact, any living, breathing society is driven partly by its "inner life," but also inevitably shaped by outside forces. Indeed, as Juan Cole notes in a recent post, most societies benefit greatly from immigration, especially if they have strong social institutions (as Norway does) and the confidence to assimilate new arrivals into the existing order while allowing that order to itself be shaped over time. What is even more striking about conservative extremists like Breivik is their utter lack of confidence in the very society that they commit heinous acts trying to defend. On the one hand, they think their idealized society is far, far better than any alternative, which is why extreme acts are justified in its supposed defense. Yet at the same time they see that society as inherently weak, fragile, brittle, and incapable of defending itself against its cruder antagonists.
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As soon as the shocking and tragic news from Norway hit the airwaves, it was entirely predictable that various right-wing Islamophobes would type first and think later. They were so eager to exploit the tragedy to peddle their pre-existing policy preferences that they blindly assumed the acts had to have been perpetrated by al Qaeda, by its various clones, or by some other radical Muslim group.
This is the sort of bias one expects from an ideologue like Jennifer Rubin (who gets taken to task for her rush-to-judgment by James Fallows here). Sadly, it is also not out of character for the supposedly respectable Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page has been a reliable source of threat-mongering and distortion for years. Even as Norwegian officials were cautioning that they had no reason to suspect Islamist groups, the Journal was plunging ahead with an editorial entitled "Terror in Oslo," which drew the following utterly bogus conclusion:
Norway certainly did not buy itself much grace from the jihadis for staying out of the Iraq war, or for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's demand that Israel open its borders with Gaza, or for his calls for a Palestinian unity government between Fatah and its terrorist cousin Hamas.
Norway can do all this and more, but in jihadist eyes it will forever remain guilty of being what it is: a liberal nation committed to freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, representative democracy and every other freedom that still defines the West. For being true to these ideals Norwegians have now been made to pay a terrible price."
Given that remarkable statement, the Journal's editors must have been deeply disappointed to learn that the person who was actually charged in the case, Anders Behring Breivik, was not in fact a jihadi, a critic of Israel, or even a Muslim. Instead, he is a right-wing Norwegian Islamophobe who is reportedly obsessed with the dangers of multi-culturalism and a contributor to extremist websites like Jihad Watch and Atlas Shrugs. In other words, he's the sort of person who might well subscribe to the Wall Street Journal not for its coverage of the business world, but for its predictably hardline editorial "insight."
As I write this (Saturday noon EDT), the editorial has still not been removed from the WSJ website and no apology or retraction has been issued. The Journal and its editors are obviously free to continue to sow the seeds of hatred and paranoia, but the rest of us are equally free to view them with appropriate contempt. And let us also take time to reflect on Norway's sorrow, and to remember that hatred and violence can erupt from many directions.
UPDATE: Obviously aware of the egg on its face, the Journal has posted a rewritten version of the editorial on its website here. Note the marked absence of any apology for its initial rush-to-judgment. You can find a fascimile of the original editorial here. And for an interesting commentary suggesting that right-wing hate-mongering websites might have contributed to the murderous mind-set behind the attack, see Paul Woodward's War in Context here.
There's some second-guessing going on in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, mostly having to do with whether he actually "resisted" or whether the SEAL team that took him out did so deliberately. Although it would be better if the Obama administration's original story had been more complete from the start, I'm inclined to cut them a bit of slack on this one. To me, it's not that surprising that some details were wrong in the initial accounts, and to their credit the administration has been forthcoming about amending the basic account.
Did the Obama administration deliberately send the team in to take him out? I don't know. But I'm sure the SEALs were given very loose "rules of engagement," such that even a minimal degree of "resistance" could be met (as it was) with deadly force. At the same time, I suspect that one reason Obama decided to send a team in rather than simply bomb the compound was a desire to use discriminate force, and to minimize the danger to bystanders. Killing bin Laden during the raid is one thing; killing his wives or the children present there would have played far worse in the eyes of much of the world. Sending a team in was also a way to ensure that we could prove we had got him; leveling the compound would have given even more fodder to conspiracy theorists to argue that he had actually escaped (presumably to join Elvis and Hitler somewhere in South America).
There are two reasons to suspect that we were more interested in killing him than capturing him. The first is the obvious point that having him in custody would have been a major policy challenge. How many terror threats or hostage takings might have accompanied his trial and incarceration? In the abstract, I'd prefer to have put him on trial for his crimes, to draw the sharpest possible contrast between his lawless behavior and the principles of the rule of law that we like to proclaim. But the practical obstacles to that course would have been daunting, and I can understand why the U.S. government might have preferred just taking him out.
The second reason, of course, is that targeted assassinations have become an increasingly favorite tool of U.S. security policy. And it's not just drone attacks on suspected terrorists in Pakistan or Yemen, targeted killings by special forces are one of the key ways that we are prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. And there's certainly some reason to believe that this is how NATO is trying to resolve the civil war in Libya, though of course we will never say so openly. Given our current practice in these contexts, it would hardly be a stretch to imagine Obama sending in the SEALs not with deliberate orders to kill bin Laden, but with instructions that made his death very, very likely.
Lastly, what about the decision to dispose of his body at sea? Somebody clearly thought about this issue in advance, and this step was supposedly done because 1) there was no country that would want to accept his remains, 2) the United States had no interest in keeping them ourselves, and 3) U.S. officials were worried that a gravesite might become some sort of inspirational shrine for like-minded extremists.
I get all that, but I'm not totally convinced. For one thing, some Muslims are likely to see the burial at sea as disrespectful or callous, and Muslim religious experts seem to be divided on this issue. Second, while it's possible that his body/grave might have emerged as some sort of shrine, that's hardly a certainty. Mussolini's place in the family crypt isn't a big pilgrimage site for proto-fascists, and the site of the bunker where Hitler died hasn't become a big rallying place for neo-Nazis. Revolutionary states like the Soviet Union, Iran, and Vietnam have built enormous shrines to their founding leaders, but do these pretentious attempts at immortality really inspire many followers? And needless to say, no government or charitable foundation was going to pour any money into a shrine for bin Laden. If his body had ended up buried in some remote corner of Saudi Arabia, I rather doubt it would attract a lot of visitors. And even if it did, as Yglesias points out, it would be a nice way to get their pictures on file.
It seems somewhat superfluous of me to join the feeding frenzy of commentary on the killing of Osama bin Laden, but it is also an event that I can't quite ignore. I caught the announcement late last night, along with some rather breathless initial commentary. Here are a few initial reactions.
For starters, I think it's important to keep his killing in perspective. By all accounts bin Laden was no longer playing an operational role for al Qaeda, and his main value to the movement he founded was largely symbolic. It was the fact that he was still at large and still defiant that made him significant, and his death takes that symbolic value away. He may serve as an inspirational martyr for a few people, but I doubt that lots of new recruits will rally to al Qaeda's banner merely to avenge his death.
In fact, one could argue that the movement he founded has already failed. He hoped to inspire a broad fundamentalist revolution that would topple existing Arab governments and usher in a unified Islamic caliphate, but that goal has failed to resonate among Arab and Muslim populations and his own popularity has declined steadily since 9/11. Instead, the upheavals that have swept the Arab world in 2011 have drawn their inspiration not from bin Laden but from more universal ideals of democracy, human rights, and open discourse. And the more that these movements succeed, the more discredited his entire approach to politics will be.
Which is not to say that bin Laden was a complete failure. One of his main goals was to lure the United States into costly and protracted wars in the Muslim world, and with our help, he succeeded. Had 9/11 never occurred, the United States would not have squandered trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly accelerated the end of the "unipolar moment." But this "achievement" was not solely his doing. Had the Bush administration been smarter, and focused on counter-terrorism rather than a misguided campaign of "regional transformation," we might have found him sooner and at less financial, human, and reputational cost.
Going forward, focusing too much attention on bin Laden threatens to distract us from the broader social and political challenges that the United States still faces in the Arab and Islamic world. Bin Laden is gone, but anger at various aspects of U.S. policy continues to drive anti-Americanism and makes it more difficult to protect our core interests in that part of the world. Al Qaeda isn't the real reason we having a hard time in Afghanistan, and it has nothing to do with our difficulties with Iran. Indeed, even it it were disappear entirely, we'd still face plenty of other foreign policy challenges in the Middle East (and elsewhere).
Furthermore, there's a tendency for both presidents and the media to exaggerate the long-term significance of events like this. Whenever we are successful, we assume our credibility will soar, our opponents will be disheartened and confused, and our allies will once again be impressed by our prowess and inclined to do our bidding. Maybe so, but the effect usually wears off quickly. In the long run, what really matters is not our ability to catch a single bad guy after ten years of trying, but rather the long-term health of the U.S. economy and our ability to devise foreign and defense policies that other powerful states will welcome and/or respect.
Perhaps the best thing to hope for, therefore, is that Obama will use this event as an opportunity to "declare victory and get out." Not that he will do this overtly, but the United States can now claim -- as Obama did last night -- that the primary perpetrator of 9/11 has been "brought to justice," and that our long campaign in Central Asia has finally achieved its primary goal. (That's not quite true, of course, but politics often involves a bit of sophistry and rhetorical sleight-of-hand). So if Obama can exploit this triumph to justify an accelerated disengagement, he'll reap the maximum benefits from this otherwise modest victory.
But don't count on it. For one thing, we've spent that past ten years creating a pretty massive set of organizations designed to prosecute the "war on terror," and government bureaucracies (like other organizations) tend not to put themselves out of business without a fight. It will take a sustained political effort (and continued fiscal pressure) to unwind the post-9/11 version of the national security state, which means we'll be standing in TSA lines, conducting drone attacks, and having our emails and phone calls scanned for a long time to come. And I suppose bin Laden would take posthumous credit for that too.
Lastly, although President Obama and his team are undoubtedly (and deservedly) gratified by this achievement, I wouldn't rest on these laurels if I were them. President George H. W. Bush won a smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War, and then he was turned out of office by a disgruntled electorate eighteen months later. Americans will be exchanging high-fives for a few days and Obama will no doubt get a bump in the polls, but memories are short and other issues (e.g., employment) are likely to loom much larger come 2012. As the winner of the 1992 election, Bill Clinton, might have put it: "It's the economy, stupid."
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Yesterday I learned that one of my posts-to be specific, my thoughts on the Cordoba House/Park 51 controversy -- is a finalist for 2010 Prize in Politics from the internet aggregator website 3Quarks Daily.
The winners will be chosen by journalist and writer Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper's, and announced on Dec. 21. I'm grateful to anyone who mentioned me during the nomination period and I feel honored to be among the finalists. I will now start preparing my "concession" post for Dec. 22.
See 3Quarks Daily nominations here.
I've been in Kuwait since Monday morning, attending a conference celebrating a ten-year collaboration between Harvard and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science. In addition to giving a talk on the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East, I've been listening to various Harvard colleagues give talks on the situation in Iraq, public health in the Gulf region, urban planning in Kuwait, educational development, the future of global energy markets, Kuwaiti politics, and the prospects for democracy in the Arab world. There's an obvious irony here: I flew halfway around the world for the opportunity to find out what my colleagues have been up to.
Despite a sandstorm that made fogbound London seem transparent, it's been an interesting trip. It coincided with an interesting kerfuffle within Kuwaiti politics, revolving around parliamentary opposition criticisms of the current prime minister, the removal of parliamentary immunity for at least one MP, and various charges and counter-charges from the opposition and the government itself. I don't pretend to be an expert on Kuwait's domestic politics, so I won't try to provide a full analysis of the situation. But as others have documented at length, Kuwait's political system is an unusual fusion of a traditional monarchy with various participatory institutions, including a parliament that on certain issues and on some occasions exerts real influence. It is also a traditional Arab society where women occupy increasingly prominent roles, belying the usual stereotypes.
The Kuwaitis with whom I've spoken have been well-informed, eager to discuss a variety of issues, and quite open to talking about just about any subject. I haven't done a random survey and for all I know the views I heard were atypical, but several themes from my conversations were particularly striking.
First, America may be unpopular in much of the Arab and Islamic world, but not in Kuwait. The United States is very popular here, for two obvious reasons. First, we liberated the country from Saddam Hussein in 1991, and then we got rid of Saddam for good in 2003. People can't say enough good things about the elder President Bush, and I even think that Dubya would get reasonably high marks here. Kuwaitis are not happy with how the occupation of Iraq was handled (who is?), and they remain worried about political developments in Iraq, but on the whole, the United States is regarded with favor and even affection here. At least that's the clear impression I got, and I don't think my associates here were just being polite or trying to snow me.
Second, despite what I just said, the Israel-Palestine issue resonates here much as it does elsewhere. As one Kuwaiti official explained to me, it's not due to any deep affinity for the Palestinians themselves -- most of whom were expelled from Kuwait after Yasser Arafat foolishly backed Saddam in the Gulf War -- but rather reflects both a broader Arab concern about what they regard as unjust Western interference in the Arab world and a realistic sense of how that issue fuels extremism and gives states like Iran an issue they can exploit. Everyone I spoke with emphasized the importance of the issue, with no prompting from me.
Third, although Iran was and is a concern, it's not a particularly pressing one. They aren't naive about Iran, and one official expressed support for the current sanctions regime and said he thought it was having a significant impact. In short, I heard nothing from Kuwaitis that would have raised any eyebrows, even if it had appeared on Wikileaks.
Given Kuwait's history and location, in fact, Iraq continues to be a more looming worry. As one Kuwaiti remarked at one of our sessions, the central problem is that Iraq is a large country with long borders and it needs to be militarily strong in order to protect itself. Unfortunately, a strong Iraq is inevitably a potential threat to Kuwait, which is right next door and far smaller. History reminds them of how unpleasant it can be to share a border with a much stronger neighbor. They would like to think that Iraq will stabilize and establish tranquil relations with Kuwait, but there is no guarantee that this will happen.
Let me repeat that these deep and profound insights are based on a relatively small number of conversations; you should regard them as my impressions and not much more than that. But I did find them interesting, and all in all, the trip has been worth the various aggravations that I discussed in my last post.
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I wouldn't call it a "shellacking," but President Barack Obama's trip to Asia wasn't a stunning triumph either. He got a positive reception in India -- mostly because he was giving Indians things they wanted and not asking for much in return -- and his personal history and still-evident charisma played well in Indonesia. But then he went off to the G-20 summit in Seoul, and got stiffed by a diverse coalition of foreign economic powers. Plus, an anticipated trade deal with South Korea didn't get done, depriving him of any tangible achievements to bring back home.
What lessons should we draw from this? The first and most obvious is that when your own economy is performing poorly, and when you are still saddled by costly burdens like the war in Afghanistan, you aren't going to have as much clout on the world stage. After half a century or more of global dominance, some Americans may still expect the president to waltz into global summits and get others to do what he wants (or at least most of it). But that is harder to do when you've spent the past ten years wasting trillions (yes, trillions) in Iraq and Afghanistan while other states were building their futures, and have dug yourself into a deep economic hole.
Second, the geopolitics of the trip are important, as Robert Kaplan lays out in a good New York Times op-ed this morning. I don't agree with everything he says (in particular, I think getting out of Afghanistan would reduce the need to accommodate Pakistan and simplify efforts to forge a closer relationship with India) but most of his points ring true to me.
Third, the other event this week was yet another flap between the United States and Israel, and it's not as unrelated to the situation in Asia as you might think. At about the same time that Obama was making yet another eloquent speech about the need to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world, Israel was announcing still more construction in East Jerusalem. Just what Obama needed, right?
When Obama said this step was "counterproductive" (now there's tough language!), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retorted that "Jerusalem is not a settlement; it is the capital of Israel." In fact, Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is no different than a settlement in the eyes of the rest of the world, because no other government recognizes Israel's illegal annexation of these lands.
And then what happened? Netanyahu sat down for nearly a full day of talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who proceeded to say (for the zillionth time), that the U.S. commitment to Israel's security was "unshakeable." She then declared that the U.S. position on future talks will seek to "reconcile the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements" (my emphasis).
Translation: the Obama administration is back in business as "Israel's lawyer," and the man who first coined that phrase -- former U.S. negotiator Aaron Miller -- said as much, referring to Clinton's statement as "the beginning of a common U.S.-Israeli approach to the peace negotiations." Given that Netanyahu has made it clear that East Jerusalem is not negotiable and that his own vision of a two-state solution is a set of disconnected Palestinian statelets under de facto Israel control, this is not an approach that is going to lead anywhere positive. And like his Cairo speech, Obama's remarks in Indonesia will soon be dismissed as more empty phrases.
So where's the connection between this issue and our strategic position in Asia? Indonesia is a potentially crucial partner for the United States (if you want to see why, take a look at the sea lanes in Southeast Asia), and it is also a moderate Muslim country with history of toleration. Yet the Palestinian issue resonates there too, and makes it harder for the Indonesian government to openly embrace the United States. As Kaplan notes in his Times op-ed, "China also plays on the tension between the West and global Islam in order to limit American influence there. That is why President Obama's mission to rebrand America in the eyes of Muslims carries benefits that go far beyond Indonesia and the Middle East."
What Kaplan doesn't say is that the United States' one-sided support for Israel against the Palestinians is an important source of the "tension" that China is exploiting. As the deputy chairman of Indonesia's largest Islamic group, Masdar Mas'udi, put it last week: "The solution of the Palestine problem is key to many problems between the West and the Muslim world… Our hope as Muslims to Obama and the U.S. is not unreasonable: If the Palestine problem could be resolved, it would be more than enough."
So the next time you read about some senator or congressperson denouncing any attempt to use U.S. leverage on both sides to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, ask yourself why they are trying to undermine the U.S. effort to bolster its strategic position in a region that ultimately matters far more to U.S. security and prosperity. And by making it harder to achieve a workable two-state solution that would preserve its democratic and Jewish character and enhance its international legitimacy, they aren't doing Israel any favors either. Indeed, the remarkable thing about these zealots is that they are managing to undermine the United States' security and Israel's long-term future at the same time.
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I hadn't intended to say anything further about the shameful Martin Peretz affair, and lord knows there are plenty of good reasons for me not to poke my finger in the eye of Harvard's current leadership. But seriously: You'd think after nearly 400 years the leaders of the university would have figured out what the principles of academic freedom and free speech really mean -- and also what they don't mean. But judging from the official university response to the furor, the people I work for appear to be somewhat confused about these issues.
To recap: A couple of weeks ago, Peretz made some offensive and racist statements about Muslims on his blog. Specifically, he wrote that "Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims," and then went on to say that he didn't think American Muslims deserved the protections of the First Amendment, because he suspected they would only abuse them.
These statements were not an isolated incident or just a lamentably poor choice of words. On the contrary, they were the latest in a long series of statements displaying hatred and contempt for Muslims, Arabs, and other minorities. Peretz retracted part of his latest remarks after they were exposed and challenged by Nicholas Kristof (Harvard '82) in his column in the New York Times, but in his "apology," Peretz nonetheless reaffirmed his belief that "Muslim life is cheap." Indeed, he declared that "this is a statement of fact, not value."
A number of people then began to question whether it was appropriate for Harvard to establish an undergraduate research fund in Peretz's name and to give him a prominent role in the festivities commemorating the 50th anniversary of its storied Social Studies program. A University spokesman defended the decision to accept the money for the research fund and to have Peretz speak at a luncheon by saying:
As an institution of research and teaching, we are dedicated to the proposition that all people, regardless of color or creed, deserve equal opportunities, equal respect, and equal protection under the law. The recent assertions by Dr. Peretz are therefore distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so. It is central to the mission of a university to protect and affirm free speech, including the rights of Dr. Peretz, as well as those who disagree with him, to express their views."
In a masterful display of understatement, the Atlantic's James Fallows (Harvard '70) termed this response "not one of the university's better efforts." As he (and others) pointed out, nobody was questioning Peretz's right to write or say whatever he wants. For that matter, nobody has even questioned whether Harvard ought to give him a platform to expound his views on this or any other subject. (For my own part, if the Kennedy School invited him to speak on any subject he chose, I wouldn't object.
As should be obvious, this issue isn't a question of free speech or academic freedom. Rather, the issue is whether it is appropriate or desirable for a great university to honor someone who has repeatedly uttered or written despicable words about a community of people numbering in the hundreds of millions. And isn't it obvious that if Peretz had said something similar about African-Americans, Catholics, Jews, Asians, or gays, the outcry would have been loud, fierce, and relentless and some of his current defenders would have distanced themselves from him with alacrity.
And let's also not lose sight of the double standards at work here. After a long and distinguished career, journalist Helen Thomas makes one regrettable and offensive statement and she loses her job, even though she offered a quick and genuine apology. By contrast, Peretz makes offensive remarks over many years, reaffirms some of them when challenged, and gets a luncheon in his honor and his name on a research fund at Harvard.
And why? Because Peretz has a lot of wealthy and well-connected friends. Bear in mind that in 2003 Harvard suspended and eventually returned a $2.5 million dollar gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates, after it learned that he was connected to a think tank that had sponsored talks featuring anti-Semitic and anti-American themes. As the Harvard Crimson said at the time, "no donation is worth indebting the university to practitioners of hate and bigotry." So the University clearly has some standards, it just doesn't apply them consistently.
For more on this unequivocally depressing business, you can read:
2. James Fallows' summary of recent developments.
3. A powerful statement by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, examining Peretz's achievements as an editor and questioning his liberal bona fides.
4. A comment by Alan Gilbert of the University of Denver, a former tutor in the same Social Studies program.
5. And while you're at it, you might read the Boston Globe's editorial whitewashing Peretz, and compare it with their reaction to the Helen Thomas affair.
And no, this isn't just a matter of Ivy League academic politics, unrelated to issues of foreign policy. As everyone knows, U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world are especially delicate these days. You can read this or this to understand why, but it certainly doesn't help when one of the nation's premier academic institutions decides to honor someone with such deplorable views, even after they have been widely exposed. This is obviously not the main reason why the America's image in the Arab and Muslim world is so negative, but it surely adds fuel to the fires of bigotry.
To take this matter a step further, Islamophobia is on the rise here in the United States. Efforts to combat this pernicious and dangerous trend would be furthered if institutions like Harvard took a principled stand on this issue, and declined to honor anyone who has made bigoted remarks about Muslims (or any other group). This has not happened with Peretz, and history will not treat Harvard well for its behavior in this case.
Update: As I write this, I've received a couple of emails suggesting that Peretz was not going to be speaking at the Social Studies event after all. I don't know if that's true or not, but to me the issue is less about his being one of the speakers, and more about having his name permanently attached to an undergraduate research fund.
Update 2: James Fallows reports on the reported resolution of the dispute (i.e., Peretz won't have a speaking role at the event), and suggests that Harvard could address the controversy by creating a scholarship fund for students of Muslim background.
Writing in yesterday's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof called attention to a recent blog post by New Republic editor Martin Peretz. Here's what Peretz had to say about American Muslims, in the context of the current debate over the Park 51 project and the rising tide of Islamophobia here in the United States:
But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.
As Kristof rightly observes: "Is it possible to imagine the same kind of casual slur tossed off about blacks or Jews?" And as Salon's Glenn Greenwald shows here, Peretz' bigotry was not a careless choice of words or an isolated incident. On the contrary, he has a long history of similarly racist or bigoted remarks about Arabs, Muslims, and especially Palestinians.
Here's where it gets interesting. As M.J. Rosenberg of Media Matters for America reported last week, on September 25th Peretz is due to be honored by a group of long-time friends -- including a number of Harvard faculty -- who have raised funds to endow an undergraduate research fund in his name. (The event is apparently tied to the 50th anniversary of Harvard's social studies program, where Peretz used to teach).
Does Harvard University really want to have an undergraduate research fund named after someone who would espouse such hateful views? Would all those people who contributed money and who will presumably show up for the event have done so if Peretz made a similarly grotesque statement about blacks or Catholics?
Please note that this isn't an issue of academic freedom or free speech, as nobody is questioning Peretz's right to say whatever hateful things he wants. But at a moment in our nation's history when religious tolerance is being openly challenged, one would hope that premier academic institutions would be setting a positive example. It will be a sad day for Harvard if it turns a blind eye to Peretz' reprehensible attitudes and pockets the money. And in the absence of a heartfelt public apology by Peretz himself, you'd think all those admirers would be having second thoughts.
Update: No doubt stung by the publicity, Peretz has now issued an apology here. He says he doesn't actually believe the sentence he wrote about American Muslims being ineligible for Constitutional protections, but repeats his belief that "Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims." Readers can judge for themselves how "heartfelt" this apology is.
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Apart from a brief post praising New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's forthright stance on the Muslim community center controversy, I haven't said much about this issue. I had naively assumed that Bloomberg's eloquent remarks defending the project -- and reaffirming the indispensable principle of religious freedom -- would pretty much end the controversy, but I underestimated the willingness of various right-wing politicians to exploit our worst xenophobic instincts, and some key Democrats' congenital inability to fight for the principles in which they claim to believe. Silly me.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out what is going on here: All you really need to do is look at how the critics of the community center project keep describing it. In their rhetoric it is always the "Mosque at Ground Zero," a label that conjures up mental images of a soaring minaret on the site of the 9/11 attacks. Never mind that the building in question isn't primarily a mosque (it's a community center that will house an array of activities, including a gym, pool, auditorium, and oh yes, a prayer room). Never mind that it isn't at "Ground Zero": it's two blocks away and will not even be visible from the site. (And exactly why does it matter if it was?) You know that someone is engaged in demagoguery when they keep using demonstrably false but alarmist phrases over and over again.
What I don't understand is why critics of this project don't realize where this form of intolerance can lead. As a host of commentators have already noted, critics of the project are in effect holding American Muslims -- and in this particular case, a moderate Muslim cleric who has been a noted advocate of interfaith tolerance -- responsible for a heinous act that they did not commit and that they have repeatedly condemned. It is a view of surpassing ignorance, and precisely the same sort of prejudice that was once practiced against Catholics, against Jews, and against any number of other religious minorities. Virtually all religious traditions have committed violent and unseemly acts in recent memory, and we would not hold Protestants, Catholics, or Jews responsible for the heinous acts of a few of their adherents.
And don't these critics realize that religious intolerance is a monster that, once unleashed, may be impossible to control? If you can rally the mob against any religious minority now, then you may make it easier for someone else to rally a different mob against you should the balance of political power change at some point down the road.
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It couldn't be more predictable. Back when Israel and Turkey were strategic allies with extensive military-to-military ties, prominent neoconservatives were vocal defenders of the Turkish government and groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and AIPAC encouraged Congress not to pass resolutions that would have labeled what happened to the Armenians at the hands of the Turks during World War I a "genocide." (The "Armenian lobby" is no slouch, but it's no match for AIPAC and its allies in the Israel lobby). The fact that the ADL was in effect protecting another country against the charge of genocide is more than a little ironic, but who ever said that political organizations had to be ethically consistent? Once relations between Israel and Turkey began to fray, however -- fueled primarily by Turkish anger over Israel's treatment of the Palestinians -- the ADL and AIPAC withdrew their protection and Congressional defenders of Israel began switching sides, too.
Last week Jim Lobe published a terrific piece at InterPress Service, detailing how prominent neoconservatives have switched from being strong supporters (and in some cases well-paid consultants) of the Turkish government to being vehement critics. He lays out the story better than I could, but I have a few comments to add.
First, if this doesn't convince you that virtually all neoconservatives are deeply Israeli-centric, then nothing will. This affinity is hardly a secret; indeed, neocon pundit Max Boot once declared that support for Israel was a "key tenet" of neoconservatism. But the extent of their attachment to Israel is sometimes disguised by the claim that what they really care about is freedom and democracy, and therefore they support Israel simply because it is "the only democracy in the Middle East."
But now we see the neoconservatives turning on Turkey, even though it is a well-functioning democracy, a member of NATO, and a strong ally of the United States. Of course,Turkey's democracy isn't perfect, but show me one that is. The neocons have turned from friends of Turkey to foes for one simple reason: Israel. Specifically, the Turkish government has been openly critical of Israel's conduct toward the Palestinians, beginning with the blockade of Gaza, ramping up after the brutal bombardment of Gaza in 2008-2009, and culminating in the lethal IDF attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. As Lobe shows, a flock of prominent neoconservatives are now busily demonizing Turkey, and in some cases calling for its expulsion from NATO.
Thus, whether a state is democratic or not matters little for the neocons; what matters for them is whether a state backs Israel or not. So if you're still wondering why so many neoconservatives worked overtime to get the U.S. to invade Iraq -- even though Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan or Pakistan -- and why they are now pushing for war with Iran, well, there's your answer.
As I've said repeatedly, there's nothing wrong with any American feeling a deep attachment to a foreign country and expressing it in politics, provided that they are open and honest about it and provided that other people can raise the issue without being accused of some sort of bigotry. The neocons' recent volte-face over Turkey is important because it reveals their policy priorities with particular clarity, and Lobe deserves full points for documenting it for us.
One last comment. Neoconservatives usually portray American and Israeli interests as essentially identical: In their eyes, what is good for Israel is good for the United States and vice versa. This claim makes unconditional U.S. support seem like a good idea, and it also insulates them from the charge that they are promoting Israel's interests over America's. After all, if the interests of the two states are really one and the same, then by definition there can be no conflict of interest, which means that the "dual loyalty" issue (a term I still don't like) doesn't arise.
I hold the opposite view. I believe that the "special relationship" has become harmful to both countries, and that a more normal relationship would be better for both. Right now, the special relationship hurts the United States by fueling anti-Americanism throughout the region and making us look deeply hypocritical in the eyes of billions -- yes, billions -- of people. It also distorts our policy on a host of issues, such as non-proliferation, and makes it extremely difficult to use our influence to advance the cause of Middle East peace. President Obama's failures on this front -- despite his repeated pledges to do better--make this all-too-obvious. At the same time, this unusual relationship harms Israel by underwriting policies that have increased its isolation and that threaten its long-term future. It also makes it nearly impossible for U.S. leaders to voice even the mildest of criticisms when Israel acts foolishly, because to do so casts doubts about the merits of the special relationship and risks incurring the wrath of the various groups that exist to defend it.
Although the United States and Israel do share certain common interests, it is becoming increasingly clear that their interests are not identical. This situation puts die-hard neoconservatives in a tough spot, as it could force them to choose between promoting what is good for America or defending what they think (usually wrongly) will be good for Israel. And insofar as prominent neocons continue to beat the drums for war, it behooves us to remember both their abysmal track record and their underlying motivations.
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Despite the seemingly damning evidence against him, none of us actually knows for certain if Faisal Shahzad really did try to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. He has reportedly told authorities that he did it (which is pretty convincing), the car involved apparently belonged to him (ditto), and he tried to flee the country immediately afterwards (hmm...). If I were an attorney I wouldn’t look forward to defending him, but his guilt or innocence is ultimately for a jury to decide.
But let’s assume he did, which doesn’t seem to be a very daring assumption. Obviously, the good news here is that he was an incompetent bungler: he didn’t know how to build a workable bomb and he didn’t know how to cover his tracks. And this seems to be the case even though he says he received some training from jihadists in Waziristan. Unfortunately, we can’t assume that all like-minded individuals will be equally befuddled. Timothy McVeigh and his associates were hardly world-class master criminals, and look at what they managed to do in Oklahoma City.
And then there's the question of why he tried to do this. Based on the still-sketchy information I’ve read so far, it seems likely that he wanted to kill Americans in New York City because he didn’t like our killing people in Central Asia. (Most of our victims are suspected terrorists, but we sometimes kill innocent civilians by mistake). Whether he was acting alone or in cahoots with Pakistani extremists, his abortive attack was probably a response to our efforts to eradicate terrorist groups in Pakistan via drone strikes and other special operations. In short, he decided to enlist in the "war on terror," but not on America's side.
If this is correct (and I'm prepared to revise my views as we learn more about his alleged motives), it would remind us that illegitimate violence directed at innocent Americans is mostly about what we do and less about "who we are." (This was also true of the suicide bomber who killed a cadre of CIA agents in Afghanistan earlier this year). To say this is not to argue that what the US is doing is necessarily wrong, however, or to sign up for the "blame America first" crowd. Whether the current drone war in Pakistan is a good idea is a separate question that involves both cost-benefit analysis (i.e., on balance, is it weakening al Qaeda or not?) and moral judgment. And yes, even realists can worry about morality.
Instead, recognizing "why they hate us" is critical to understanding the overall price tag associated with America's global military presence and interventionist foreign policy. When the United States is waging war in some far corner of the world, some people aren’t going to like it and will try to make us pay. It's a very good thing that this guy failed, but it would be naïve to believe that we can maintain our present global posture and be wholly immune from attacks here at home.
It also means that we should continue to analyze and debate whether our current counter-terror strategy is the right one. On the one hand, one could argue (as this BBC report does), that drone strikes are disrupting militant leadership and organization in places like Waziristan, and thus making these organizations less lethal or effective. The fact that Shahzad seems to have been poorly trained and forced to act more-or-less on his own could be seen as a sign that this aspect of our strategy is working.
But on the other hand, our continuing military engagement there also reinforces the accusation that the United States is engaged in illegitimate interference in foreign (i.e., Muslim) lands, an argument that Osama bin Laden has repeatedly emphasized and that appears to resonate with people like Shahzad. Our ultimate goal, therefore, ought to be to lower our footprint (including the shadow cast by Predator and Reaper strikes) as soon as we possibly can.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
I don’t know where the latest unrest in Iran will lead -- and neither does anyone else -- but it seems like the regime is losing whatever legitimacy it had left and may also be losing its capacity to squelch dissent with displays of force. (As before, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish has lots of videos and commentary on events there.) The outcome of this sort of challenge is inherently difficult to forecast, as it is nearly impossible to know ex ante when a critical “tipping point” might be reached. At a minimum, the regime has clearly gotten significantly weaker since the contested election last summer.
Here are some cautionary lessons to bear in mind. First, we do not know enough about internal dynamics in Iran to intervene intelligently, and trying to reinforce or support the Green Movement is as likely to hurt them as to help them. So our official position needs to measured and temperate, and to scrupulously avoid any suggestion that we are egging the Greens on or actively backing them with material aid.
Second, this is an especially foolish time to be rattling sabers and threatening military action. Threatening or using force is precisely the sort of external interference that might give the current regime a new lease on life. If you’d like to see a new government in Tehran, in short, we should say relatively little and do almost nothing. I don’t object to making it clear how much the U.S. government deplores the regime’s repressive measures, but this is one of those moment where we ought to say less than we feel.
If you’re looking for a useful historical analogy, think back to the "velvet revolutions" in Eastern Europe. Neoconservatives used to argue that the rapid and mostly peaceful collapse of communism proved that rapid democratic transformations were possible in unlikely settings, and they used that argument to justify trying the same thing in Iraq. (We all know how well that turned out.) In fact, the velvet revolutions were a triumph of slow and patient engagement from a position of strength. The upheavals in Eastern Europe were an indigenous phenomenon and the product of containment, diplomatic engagement, and the slow-but-steady spread of democratic ideals through the Helsinki process and other mechanisms. And the first Bush administration was smart enough to keep its hands off until the demise of communism was irreversible, which is precisely the approach we ought to take toward Iran today.
Finally, as I mentioned a few days ago, we should not assume that a Green triumph in Iran would eliminate all sources of friction between Iran and the West. A new government would probably seek to continue Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and will certainly want a secure (read: superior) position in its own neighborhood. In practice, that means trying to achieve an imbalance of power in its favor, which will make the U.S. uncomfortable. If the clerical regime falls and we continue to insist that Iran stop enriching uranium and conform to our policy preferences, that will convince many Iranians that the United States is irrevocably hostile to their country and not just to the current regime. So I hope somebody in the Obama administration is starting to think about a) what we do if the Green Movement succeeds, b) what we do if it fails, and c) how to keep hawks in the United States and Israel from making things worse.
Tom Friedman had an especially fatuous column in Sunday's New York Times, which is saying something given his well-established capacity for smug self-assurance. According to Friedman, the big challenge we face in the Arab and Islamic world is "the Narrative" -- his patronizing term for Muslim views about America's supposedly negative role in the region. If Muslims weren't so irrational, he thinks, they would recognize that "U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny." He concedes that we made a few mistakes here and there (such as at Abu Ghraib), but the real problem is all those anti-American fairy tales that Muslims tell each other to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions.
I heard a different take on this subject at a recent conference on U.S. relations with the Islamic world. In addition to hearing a diverse set of views from different Islamic countries, one of the other participants (a prominent English journalist) put it quite simply. "If the United States wants to improve its image in the Islamic world," he said, "it should stop killing Muslims."
Now I don't think the issue is quite that simple, but the comment got me thinking: How many Muslims has the United States killed in the past thirty years, and how many Americans have been killed by Muslims? Coming up with a precise answer to this question is probably impossible, but it is also not necessary, because the rough numbers are so clearly lopsided.
Here's my back-of-the-envelope analysis, based on estimates deliberately chosen to favor the United States. Specifically, I have taken the low estimates of Muslim fatalities, along with much more reliable figures for U.S. deaths.
To repeat: I have deliberately selected "low-end" estimates for Muslim fatalities, so these figures present the "best case" for the United States. Even so, the United States has killed nearly 30 Muslims for every American lost. The real ratio is probably much higher, and a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities (based mostly on higher estimates of "excess deaths" in Iraq due to the sanctions regime and the post-2003 occupation) is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.
Figures like these should be used with caution, of course, and several obvious caveats apply. To begin with, the United States is not solely responsible for some of those fatalities, most notably in the case of the "excess deaths" attributable to the U.N. sanctions regime against Iraq. Saddam Hussein clearly deserves much of the blame for these "excess deaths," insofar as he could have complied with Security Council resolutions and gotten the sanctions lifted or used the "oil for food" problem properly. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the United States (and the other SC members) knew that keeping the sanctions in place would cause tens of thousands of innocent people to die and we went ahead anyway.
Similarly, the United States is not solely to blame for the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq after the 2003 invasion. U.S. forces killed many Iraqis, to be sure, but plenty of Shiites, Kurds, Sunnis, and foreign infiltrators were pulling triggers and planting bombs too. Yet it is still the case that the United States invaded a country that had not attacked us, dismantled its regime, and took hardly any precautions to prevent the (predictable) outbreak of violence. Having uncapped the volcano, we are hardly blameless, and that goes for pundits like Friedman who enthusiastically endorsed the original invasion.
Third, the fact that people died as a result of certain U.S. actions does not by itself mean that those policy decisions were wrong. I'm a realist, and I accept the unfortunate fact that international politics is a rough business and sometimes innocent people die as a result of actions that may in fact be justifiable. For example, I don't think it was wrong to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 or to topple the Taliban in 2001. Nor do I think it was wrong to try to catch Bin Laden -- even though people died in the attempt -- and I would support similar efforts to capture him today even if it placed more people at risk. In other words, a full assessment of U.S. policy would have to weigh these regrettable costs against the alleged benefits to the United States itself or the international community as a whole.
Yet if you really want to know "why they hate us," the numbers presented above cannot be ignored. Even if we view these figures with skepticism and discount the numbers a lot, the fact remains that the United States has killed a very large number of Arab or Muslim individuals over the past three decades. Even though we had just cause and the right intentions in some cases (as in the first Gulf War), our actions were indefensible (maybe even criminal) in others.
It is also striking to observe that virtually all of the Muslim deaths were the direct or indirect consequence of official U.S. government policy. By contrast, most of the Americans killed by Muslims were the victims of non-state terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans should also bear in mind that the figures reported above omit the Arabs and Muslims killed by Israel in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank. Given our generous and unconditional support for Israel's policy towards the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular, Muslims rightly hold us partly responsible for those victims too.
Contrary to what Friedman thinks, our real problem isn't a fictitious Muslim "narrative" about America's role in the region; it is mostly the actual things we have been doing in recent years. To say that in no way justifies anti-American terrorism or absolves other societies of responsibility for their own mistakes or misdeeds. But the self-righteousness on display in Friedman's op-ed isn't just simplistic; it is actively harmful. Why? Because whitewashing our own misconduct makes it harder for Americans to figure out why their country is so unpopular and makes us less likely to consider different (and more effective) approaches.
Some degree of anti-Americanism may reflect ideology, distorted history, or a foreign government's attempt to shift blame onto others (a practice that all governments indulge in), but a lot of it is the inevitable result of policies that the American people have supported in the past. When you kill tens of thousands of people in other countries -- and sometimes for no good reason -- you shouldn't be surprised when people in those countries are enraged by this behavior and interested in revenge. After all, how did we react after September 11?
MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images
I suspect most of the AfPak attention will be focused on the revelations that President Hamid Karzai's brother has been on the CIA payroll, the Taliban attack that killed six people at a U.N. staff house in Kabul, and the bombing that killed more than 80 people in Peshawar. Plus, there are new reports that the United States is going to adopt a strategy that eschews counterinsurgency throughout all of Afghanistan and concentrates on protecting major cities. These are all important stories, because they underscore just how difficult it has been, is, and will be to do social engineering on the lives of 200 million Muslims in Central Asia.
But I want to focus on somewhat broader question today. Yet another justification for continuing the war in Afghanistan is the belief that the Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and groups such as the Haqqani network form a tight ideologically-inspired alliance that is relentlessly anti-American and dedicated to attacking us no matter where we are or what we are doing. In this view, these various groups are "birds of a feather flocking together." This belief fuels the fear that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would produce a dramatic increase in al Qaeda's capabilities, once their Islamic soulmates provided them with territory, recruits, and other forms of support for attacks on the West in general and the United States in particular.
Such an outcome cannot be wholly ruled out, I suppose, and well-informed experts like Ahmed Rashid apparently think it's likely. But there are several good reasons to doubt it. The first is that we know that there have been intense frictions between some of these groups in the past, as well as intense divisions between Osama bin Laden and some of his own associates. In his prize-winning book The Looming Tower, for example, Lawrence Wright describes the repeated tensions between Mullah Omar and Bin Laden, which nearly led the former to turn Bin Laden over to the Saudis. The rift was reportedly healed after bin Laden swore an oath of loyalty to Omar, but their interests and objectives are not identical and one can easily imagine new quarrels in the future.
A second reason to be skeptical that these groups are tightly unified by a set of common beliefs or doctrines is the fact that the foreign presence in the region gives them an obvious incentive to help each other. In other words, what looks like ideological solidarity may be partly a manifestation of balance-of-power politics, and these groups' tendency to back each other might easily dissipate once the foreign presence were reduced. Afghan political history is one where diverse coalitions form, dissolve, and realign in myriad ways, and similar dynamics are likely to resurface once the the United States and its foreign allies are gone.
A third reason has to do with the nature of certain types of political ideology. Unlike liberalism, which emphasizes the need to tolerate a wide range of political views, political ideologies that rest on a single authoritative interpretation of "truth" are inherently divisive rather than unifying. In particular, ideologies that call for adherents to obey the leadership because it wields the "correct" interpretation of the faith (whether in Marxism, Christianity, Islam, etc.) tend to foster intense rivalries among different factions and between different leaders, each of whom must claim to be the "true" interpreter of the legitimating ideology. In such movements, ideological schisms are likely to be frequent and intense, because disagreements look like apostasy and a betrayal of the faith. Instead of flocking together, these "birds of a feather" are likely to fly apart.
During the Cold War, for instance, hawks repeatedly worried about a "communist monolith" and were convinced that Marxists everywhere were reliable tools of the Kremlin. In reality, however, world communism was rife with internal tensions and ideological schisms, as illustrated by the furious Bolshevik-Menshevik split, the deadly battle between Trotsky and Stalin, and the subsequent rift between Stalin and Tito. China and the Soviet Union became bitter rivals by the early 1960s -- on both geopolitical and ideological grounds -- and the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam ended another yet another period of illusory communist unity and quickly led to wars between communist Vietnam, communist Kampuchea, and communist China.
Such historical analogies should be used with caution, of course, but in this case the logic is similar and compelling. Islamic fundamentalists rely in part on specific interpretations of Islamic thought to recruit and motivate their followers, and disagreements over doctrine and policy can easily lead to bitter internal quarrels, especially once the immediate need to cooperate against a common enemy is gone. We've already seen amples sign of division within al Qaeda and its clones, and more are to be expected.
This is not to say that global terrorists won't continue to learn from each other, to inspire imitators (much as Marxism-Leninism once inspired a wide array of fringe groups who had nothing to do with Moscow) and they may even provide each other with various forms of tactical support on occasion. But there are good reasons to question the facile assumption that they are eternally loyal comrades-in-arms, united forever by a shared set of a deeply held politico-religious beliefs. And if there is considerable potential for division among both the leaders and even more among their followers, then a strategy of divide-and-conquer makes more sense than a long and costly counterinsurgency campaign that gives them every reason to stay united.
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Several friends and associates have asked me how it feels to have our book on the Israel lobby plugged by Osama bin Laden. While it is usually gratifying to get kudos for your work, that is certainly not the case in this instance, given what bin Laden has done in the past and given what he stands for. I just wish we had captured him long ago, making it impossible for him to issue any statements to the world.
I do have a few additional comments on the matter, however. To start, Bin Laden's announcement that there is a powerful "Israel lobby" in the United States is not exactly a news flash. If he had not cited us, he could just have easily quoted the late Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) who wrote in his memoirs that "I was never put under greater pressure than by the Israeli lobby ... it's the most influential crowd in Congress by far." Or he could have cited former Senator Ernest ("Fritz") Hollings (D-SC), who said that "you can't have an Israel policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here." He might have invoked notorious terrorist sympathizer Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who called AIPAC "the most effective general interest group ... across the entire planet," or even former Senate Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) who told AIPAC's annual conference that "without your constant support ... the U.S.-Israeli relationship would not be." Heck, bin Laden could even have brought up Alan Dershowitz, who once wrote that "my generation of Jews ... became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fundraising effort in the history of democracy." In short, he didn't need our book to tell people there's an Israel lobby with a powerful influence on U.S. Middle East policy.
It is also important to ask why bin Laden called attention to U.S. support for Israel, and to the lobby's role in generating that support. He did this because he understands -- along with plenty of other people -- that the combination of unconditional U.S. support for Israel and Israel's brutal treatment of the Palestinians is a source of great resentment in the Arab and Islamic world. This is hardly an original insight on his part either. The 9/11 Commission reported "it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ... is [a] dominant staple of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world." imilarly, the State Department's Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World found that "citizens in these countries are genuinely distressed at the plight of the Palestinians and at the role they perceive the United States to be playing." Not only is Bin Laden personally motivated by this issue -- as his own family and prior statements attest -- he knows it is a good way to attract support.
Third, my co-author and I have a very different idea of how to deal with this situation than bin Laden does. He recruits people to engage in despicable acts of violence against innocents, in the grandiose (and vain) hope of toppling all of the states in the region (not just Israel). He's perfectly happy to kill Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, and just about anyone else if it will advance that goal. By contrast, Professor Mearsheimer and I reject his aims and abhor his chosen means. We believe the United States should defend Israel's existence, and we said so repeatedly in our book. (My guess is that bin Laden missed those parts). We also think the United States should oppose Israel's occupation of the West Bank and control of Gaza and treat Israel the same way it treats other democracies. Why? Because ending the occupation and having a normal relationship with Israel would be better for us, better for Israel, and better for our other friends in the region. In short, we want the United States to pursue a smarter and more ethical policy in the Middle East. Needless to say, that's a far cry from bin Laden's murderous agenda.
Ironically, bin Laden's "endorsement" of our book could even be a self-defeating gesture. If enough people were to read our book and U.S. policy were to evolve in the manner we recommend, bin Laden's call to arms would fall on deaf ears and he'd become even more irrelevant than he is today. Furthermore, any would-be imitators who might subsequently emerge would find an even less receptive audience.
And if Juan Cole is right and bin Laden's statement was a sign of weakness, so much the better.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has reportedly penned a "searing critique" of efforts to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world via "strategic communication." According to the New York Times, Mullen argues that "we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate."
Sounds right to me. Like most great powers, and especially dominant ones, the United States tends to believe that its motives are pure, that its noble aims are apparent to all, and that other peoples ought to be grateful for its self-less assistance. (Never mind that U.S. foreign policy is mostly driven by perceived self-interest, even if we don't like to admit it to ourselves). If people overseas are mad at us, this must be due to a some sort of misunderstanding. If we just explained it to them a little better, they would support whatever it is we are doing, even if it involves reorganizing their way of life, helping select who runs their country, supporting various allies even when they are mis-behaving, or sending Predators or cruise missiles from afar to blow up suspected terrorist sites on their soil. And if anti-Americanism isn't just a misunderstanding, it is because some misguided people "hate our values." Whatever it is, it's never our fault.
To his credit, Mullen appears to be acknowledging that U.S. actions really do have consequences--including negative consequences--and maybe we ought to think about them differently. This isn't the first time that the Pentagon has said smart things about the sources of anti-Americanism, by the way. A 1997 study by the Defense Science Board found "a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and increased terrorist attacks on the United States," and a 2004 DSB study on strategic communication concluded that "Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom," but rather they hate our policies." It also observed that in the eyes of the Muslim world, the "American occupation of Aghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering." The Pew Global Attitudes Survey reached a similar conclusion in 2002, observing that "antipathy toward the United States is shaped more by what it does in the international arena than by what it stands for politically and economically."
Of course, one can still debate whether a given policy is the right one or not; sometimes policies that are in the U.S. interest will annoy or anger other people. That's just life in the international system: conflicts of interest inevitably arise and foreign policy isn't a popularity contest. Given America's privileged position, however, one of our main foreign policy goals should be to try to minimize the amount of global irritation we face, and to go to some lengths to make sure we don't generate antipathy unnecessarily.
The key point to bear in mind is that there are real limits to America's ability to improve its global image simply by improved "messaging," "spin," or even by electing a black President. And there's an important lesson there for Obama, whose rise to power was elevated in good part by his remarkable communications skills. The lesson is that an eloquent, learned, and well-delivered speech-like the one he gave in Cairo--is just a first step, and the effects wear off quickly. To bring about genuine change, lofty rhetoric needs to be accompanied by policies that will actually address the legitimate concerns and grievances of his listeners. You know the old line: talk is cheap. And here's another old saw: actions speak louder than words.
In the end, what will matter to people around the world is what the United States actually does with its vast power at its disposal. If it is seen as both competent and committed to morally defensible aims and broadly benevolent purposes, it is likely to be viewed as a positive force by most people (though the sheer magnitude of U.S. power will still make many nervous, and there will always be some who cannot be won over). If it is seen as bumbling, venal, cruel, or deeply hypocritical, however, then no amount of clever packaging is going to fool the world for long.
P.S. Mullen's article is due to be released today in Joint Forces Quarterly. It wasn't on-line when I was writing this, so my discussion is based solely on the Times story. I'll read the article as soon as it's available, and will let you know if my thinking changes after I read the whole thing.
(Editor's note: Mullen's article is now available on ForeignPolicy.com)
I'm jetlagged in Geneva, but I spent part of the flight over thinking about thee bits of seemingly good news:
1. The pro-Western March 14 coalition won a clear victory in the Lebanese election, a promising step towards more enduring stability in that deeply-divided country.
2. The Iranian presidential election campaign has turned into a real dogfight between incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. Although recent polls in Iran suggest that Ahmadinjed will still win, Mousavi seems to be gaining ground and there may well be a run-off. Even if Mousavi loses, there's clearly a lot of popular disconnect with Ahmadinejad's rule, and a lot of it centers around his bizarrely self-defeating approach to foreign policy. (Side note: is there any other major world figure who has done as much public relations damage to his own country's image and interests? Nominations welcome). Moreover, there seems to be widespread popular support for improving relations with the United States.
3. The New York Times reports that some Pakistani villagers are turning against the Taliban, and may even be supporting the government's more active role against them.
It would be a mistake to give Barack all (or even most) of the credit for these developments, but I don't think its completely unrelated either. (Juan Cole agrees, see here). By striking a fundamentally different tone towards all three countries (and the Arab/Muslim world in general), Obama hasn't made reflexive anti-Americanism go away. But he has made it a less potent political weapon, so leaders like Ahmadinejad or Sheik Nasrallah don't reap the same domestic benefits from America-bashing. (Even Republicans should recognize that Bush and Cheney were nearly-ideal bogeymen; heck, even GOP candidates in the last election did their best to pretend they didn't know them.) It's also possible that Pakistan's government decided to take a more assertive stance against the Taliban after President Zardari got a rather chilly reception up on Capitol Hill, where several key members suggested that they weren't going to shell out endless billions to a government that continued to play footsie with Mullah Omar and his associates. The key lesson: if the United States stops trying to do everything itself, sometimes others will start addressing common problems because it is in their interest to do so too.
Matt Yglesias is right: elections in most countries turn on local conditions and issues and not on what's happening in Washington. But it sure looks like Obama's approach is helping tip the scale in the right direction. Legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey used to say that "luck is the residue of design." If Obama has been getting "lucky" the past week or so, maybe that suggests that his foreign policy design is better suited to contemporary world conditions than that of his predecessor.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
A few quick thoughts on President Obama's Cairo speech.
Overall, Obama once again demonstrated his willingness and ability to wrestle with complex and difficult ideas in public. One of his hallmark features as a leader is to show respect for his listeners by appealing to their sense of reason. As he did in the "race" speech during the campaign, and in his Notre Dame speech on abortion, Obama acknowledged room for disagreement and contestation and showed that he understands and respects alternative views even when he does not share them. Yet there are also clear limits to his tolerance: the speech included a forthright rejection of violence, a reminder to his audience that his "first duty is to protect the American people" and that "al Qaeda killed 3,000 people on [9/11]," and a clear statement of the American commitment to basic human rights. In seeking a "new beginning," he didn’t start with an act of appeasement.
I thought his handling of the Israel-Palestinian issue was clear and straightforward, He reaffirmed both the bedrock U.S. commitment to Israel's existence and security and the necessity of an independent Palestinian state. He understands -- even if others do not -- that "this is in Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest and the world's interest." He also rejected the poison of Holocaust denial and "vile stereotypes about Jews" in clear and direct language, and told his listeners that such beliefs helped prevent "the peace that the people of this region deserve." I wish he had offered a few more specifics, but overall he handled this issue well.
He did not avoid the tricky issue of democracy and human rights -- an especially delicate subject in Egypt -- but he left a lot of wiggle room by saying "there is no straight line to realize this promise." And while his focus on women's rights isn't likely to endear him to some Islamists, he was right to include it, for it is a fundamental issue that is bound to play a major role in the years to come.
His discussion of nuclear weapons acknowledged the current double standard "that some countries have [nuclear weapons] while others do not," and tried to square that circle by referring to "America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons." This was less convincing -- at least to me -- but at least Obama acknowledged the contradictions in the U.S. position.
What was more significant was his statement but that "any nation -- including Iran -- should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." The big question: does "the right to access" mean control of the full fuel cycle (under full NPT safeguards, including the Additional Protocol), or does it merely mean one of the various proposals that would deny Iran control of the full fuel cycle but provide nuclear fuel via some sort of international consortium? If it's the latter, there's no deal possible; if the former, it is at least conceivable that a deal that kept Iran from building a nuclear weapon might still be negotiated. We'll see.
The truest thing he said? "No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust." But he has committed himself to a set of principles and policies in front of the entire world. And if you think that "audience costs" (both domestic and foreign) matter, it will be hard for him to backtrack on the commitment to get out of Iraq on schedule, to leave Afghanistan as quickly as possible, to make significant changes in nuclear weapons policy, and to focus like a laser beam on the Middle East peace process. He's committed his administration in public, and that means he (and the country) will pay a bigger price if he doesn’t follow through.
Now he needs to follow up words with deeds. And so do his listeners.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
McClatchy News reports that the United States is planning to spend over $700 million dollars to build a major new embassy complex in Pakistan, while negotiating to purchase a five-star hotel to serve as the new consulate in Peshawar. These new facilities are intended to support the "surge" of diplomats and aid workers that the United States intends to deploy as part of President Obama's deepening involvement in Central Asia. The obvious comparison is to the huge U.S. embassy in Iraq (which cost nearly $600 million dollars and occupies on 104 acres (in downtown Baghdad), but I’m also reminded of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, which was one of the largest U.S. facilities in the 1970s and was later occupied by Iranian students in the infamous 1980 hostage incident.
I'm all for providing U.S. officials with adequate facilities, but this idea merely underscores the inherent contradictions in the current U.S. approach. One of America's main problems in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan is the widespread popular belief that it is now addicted to interfering in these societies, usually in a heavy-handed and counter-productive way. In their eyes, Washington is constantly telling them which leaders to choose, which leaders should step down, which extremists to go after and how they should reorder their own societies to make them more compatible with our values. And oh yes, we also drop bombs and fire missiles into their territory, which we would regard as an act of war if anyone did it to us. Even when well-intentioned, these activities inevitably lend themselves to various conspiracy theories about America's "real" motives, and reinforce negative impressions of the United States. As of last year, only 19 percent of Pakistan’s population had a favorable view of the United States, and this hardly makes it easier to get meaningful cooperation on issues that we should (and do) care about, such as the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Building a costly new embassy -- which will undoubtedly resemble a giant fortress -- is not going to help win "hearts and minds" there, or allay concerns about our ambitions in that part of the world. And if we need a facility like that in order to execute our overall strategy, doesn’t that cast some doubt on the merits of the strategy itself?
I haven't watched a video of it, but the text of President Obama's speech to the Turkish parliament sure reads like a home run to me. He offered the gracious words of praise that any guest offers his hosts, but he also managed to be eloquent on matters of great sensitivity and to convey a healthy respect for his listeners. A few highlights, and maybe a bit a tea-leaf reading:
1. Obama began by noting that Turkey was "part of Europe," and later said it "is not where East and West divide -- it is where they come together." And he made it unequivocally clear that the United States supports Turkey's entry into the EU. French President Nicolas Sarkozy wasn’t pleased, but I’ll bet Obama’s audience was.
2. As he did in his famous speech on race during the campaign, Obama used his and our own experiences in order to address the delicate issue of Turkish-Armenian history. In the race speech, he invoked the example of his white grandmother to appeal to white Americans who were struggling in their own way with the implications of our troubled racial history. And he managed to do that in a way that conveyed his deep affection for her despite her human lapses. In this speech, he spoke of America's own "darker periods," and reminded his Turkish audience that "human endeavor is by its nature imperfect. History, unresolved, can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past." He deftly turned attention away from his earlier comments about the Armenian genocide (and did not use that word), by noting that "this is really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past." By referring to America’s own treatment of blacks and native Americans, and to our shameful reliance upon torture under President Bush, he avoided the self-congratulatory hubris that appeals to American audiences but usually puts foreign audiences’ teeth on edge.
3. He thanked Turkey for its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, and once again stated that the United States "strongly supports" the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace. His language treated the two sides equally, and he again committed himself to "actively pursuing" that goal.
4. Obama also went to some lengths to engage the Muslim world in a broad and expansive manner that looked to the future instead of dwelling on the past. He acknowledged that there have been strains in recent years and made it clear that the United States was still committed to combating terrorism. Yet he emphasized that "America's relationship with the Muslims cannot and will not be based on opposition to Al Qaeda." I'm sure that played better than "you're either with us, or with the terrorists."
5. Finally, I was struck by the language he used when addressing Iran’s nuclear program. He said that “the peace of the region will also be advanced if Iran forgoes any nuclear weapons ambitions” (my emphasis), adding that "Iran's leaders must choose whether they will build a weapon or build a better future for their people." Was this a subtle hint that the United States might be willing to tolerate Iranian enrichment, provided that we are confident that it was not masking a covert weapons program? Hmmmmm.
All in all, I thought it was a terrific speech. But my opinion hardly matters: the real question is what his audience thought. I’ll be very interested to see what they have to say about it.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
I wasn't able to follow the fallout from Obama's message to Iran in much detail while traveling, but the magic of the internet allowed me to catch up a bit this afternoon (Monday in Singapore). A few quick thoughts:
First, having called for a more accommodating and open approach to Iran, I can only applaud Obama's New Year's message. It showcased his strengths as a leader: confidence, a ready willingness to abandon failed policies, and an ability to see how things might look to the other side. If we follow up with clear, resolute, and disciplined diplomacy, and if we have the patience to realize that you don't unwind thirty years of animosity overnight, we may succeed in defusing a serious problem, and maybe even turn Iran from an adversary into an asset over time.
Second, I though Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's response (given in a speech to a gathering at a shrine in Mashhad) was about what we should have expected, and not discouraging at all. Juan Cole has provided a translation on his website here, and I agree with his analysis here. Stripped of the somewhat harsh rhetoric, Khamenei was making the wholly sensible point that the key to changing the relationship lies in what each country does, not just what it says. After all, how would we respond if some adversary's leader made a friendly speech? We would welcome the words but we'd make it clear that real change would depend on actions, which is essentially what Khamenei did. And I had to love this passage of Khamenei's speech:
Regarding our vital issues, we are not sentimental. We do not make decisions based on emotion. We make decisions through calculation.
Who'd have thought that the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran was a realist? Well, me, but also someone like Trita Parsi, who knows a lot more about Iran than I do. And when you think about it, Khamenei's response was a lot more encouraging than the U.S. reaction when Iran offered to negotiate a "grand bargain" with us back in June 2003. The Bush administration rejected the overture out of hand, and look where that got us.
So I'd call this a good first step. But I'd remind everyone that this journey will be a long one, and if history is any guide, there will lots of opportunities for both sides to stumble.
ALIREZA SOTAKBAR/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.