Are you as frustrated as I am by the whole discussion of terrorism in U.S. national security discourse? Given the billions of dollars that have been spent trying to protect Americans from terrorists (trillions if you add in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), and the army of academics, policy wonks, think tankers, and consultants who've been studying this matter for the past decade or more, you would think we would have a better idea of how well we are doing. And given the stakes involved, by this time you'd think that some serious cost-benefit analysis would be applied to the problem of counterterrorism: Hard-nosed people would be asking whether it really makes sense to spend all that money hardening the United States and chasing terrorists with drones and special operations forces, especially if most terrorists aren't focused on the United States and don't have the capability to do much damage to us.
I raise this question because our leaders don't seem to be able to get their stories straight on this one. A good case can be made that the "war on terror" is mostly won -- in the sense that we've defanged the most dangerous anti-American types -- and that what's left are various copycats in various places that ultimately don't matter that much to the United States and are best dealt with by local authorities. If this view is correct, then President Barack Obama was right to suggest that the "war on terror" is over and to try to shift our attention back to other foreign-policy priorities. To say that is not to say the danger is zero -- indeed, there will be terrorist attacks in the future - it is just to say that it's more of a tragic nuisance than a Major Threat.
But now we're being told by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence committees, that the terrorist threat is back and worse than it was a few years ago. In particular, they point to the growing jihadi role in places like Syria and to self-congratulatory statements from al Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri. The implication, as this New York Times story makes clear, is that the United States needs to get more directly involved in defeating this ever-expanding set of terrorist copycats.
I understand that terrorist groups like al Qaeda do operate in secret (to the extent that they can), and that gauging the actual level of the threat they pose is not an exact science. And I recognize that risk-averse politicians prefer to err on the side of caution. If you issue lots of scary warnings and nothing happens, you can take credit for having been prudent. But if you tell people the danger isn't that great and then an attack takes place, you sound naïve, credulous, and insufficiently devoted to national security. So when in doubt, politicians are inclined to oversell the danger.
Still, it really is important to get this right: Just how serious is the threat, some 12 years after the 9/11 attacks? In terms of the direct harm to Americans in the United States, the danger appears to be quite modest. So why are Feinstein and Rogers so animated by this latest set of developments? And doesn't Boston's defiant and resolute reaction to the city's marathon bombing in April suggest that the American population isn't nearly as querulous as politicians fear: If you explain to them that there is no such thing as 100 percent security, they don't go all wobbly. Instead, they display precisely the sort of calm resolution that causes terrorist campaigns to fail.
It is even more important to figure out how best to respond. If Islamic extremists using terrorist methods are trying to gain power in various countries, does it make sense for the United States to insert itself in these conflicts and inevitably invite their attention? Or is the country better off remaining aloof or just backing local authorities (if it can find any who seem reasonably competent)?
My larger concern is that we have also created a vast counterterrorism industry that has a vested interest in continuing this campaign. Those in the industry are the most prominent and visible experts, but fighting terrorists is also a meal ticket for many of them and self-interest might naturally incline them to hype the threat. The danger is that the United States will devote too much effort and energy to chasing relatively weak and obscure bad guys in various not-very-important places (see under: Afghanistan, Pakistan's frontier provinces, Somalia, etc., etc.,) while other problems get short shrift.
But like I said at the start, mostly I'm frustrated by the lack of consensus at this point in the campaign. And you should be too.
Photo: Zach Klein/Flickr
George Packer of the New Yorker is always worth reading, and he has a thoughtful reflection in the latest issue on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state and what it tells us about the Obama administration's successes and failures during the first term. His basic thesis is that the White House didn't give Hillary much to do (though she stayed plenty busy doing it) and downplayed diplomacy in favor of drone strikes, special forces, and other military instruments. These tools were deployed without an excess of zeal and there were no big catastrophes, but also not a lot of big wins either.
So far so good. But Packer's real complaint is that things are deteriorating in some key places, and that Obama is going to have to shoulder the burden of global leadership in his second term. There's trouble throughout the greater Middle East, he warns, and that region "will remain an American problem." And so he concludes his piece with a recommendation that ought to send your "uh-oh" meter tingling. In his words, "[Obama] will need to give his next Secretary of State, John Kerry, the authority that he denied his last one, to put the country's prestige on the line by wading deep into the morass."
I don't know about you, but I've always thought that when you see a morass, the last thing you want to do is "wade deeply into it." Ditto quagmires, bogs, and the "Big Muddy." Indeed, most of the problems U.S. foreign policy has faced in recent years have occurred when we poured vast sums into ambitious social engineering projects in societies we didn't understand and where our prospects for success were never bright.
Packer is surely correct that the greater Middle East is in turmoil, but it does not follow that deep American engagement there -- even if purely diplomatic -- will solve that problem. For starters, there is little affection for the United States in many of these societies, either because they rightly blame us for turning a blind eye to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians or because they rightly blame us for backing various brutal dictatorships for our own strategic reasons. Nor does the United States have a lot of credibility as a diplomatic actor, having screwed up the Oslo peace process (with plenty of help, to be sure) and having bungled the occupation of Iraq.
Instead of wading deeper into the morass, in short, the United States would be far better served with a more distant and hands-off strategy. This doesn't mean writing off the region entirely, as we still have a strategic interest in keeping oil flowing to world markets and in discouraging the spread of WMD or the emergence of more anti-American jihadis. But getting deeply involved in the excruciatingly complex problems of internal governance and institution-building that are going to be taking place in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere is probably something America is not that well-suited for, no matter how noble our intentions. Moreover, in some cases greater U.S. involvement fuels jihadism or gives some states greater incentive to think about getting WMD. Regrettably, we are equally incapable of making a positive contribution to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is neither the source of all the region's troubles nor irrelevant to our diminished capacity there.
I don't like admitting that there are problems that Uncle Sam can't solve, and I wish I could share Packer's enthusiasm for another round of energetic U.S. engagement. But given our track record of late, the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm" strikes me as the wiser course. And I'm pretty sure Obama agrees, although he's unlikely to admit it too loudly or too often.
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Where is the Middle East headed? I don't know, and neither does anyone else.
That goes for Obama and Romney, too. The president has been in reactive mode since he got stiffed by Netanyahu on the settlements question and blindsided by the Arab Spring, and his Iran policy is on autopilot until after the election. As for Romney, his foreign policy speech earlier this week showed that he knows a lot of words that imply "resolve," but he had nothing new or different to add to our current stock of not very well-conceived policies. What this tells you is that bad Middle East policy has become a bipartisan tradition.
But lately I'm wondering if we are on the cusp of something even bigger than the gradual emergence of more participatory governments in much of the Arab world. To be specific: Is it possible that the trends now underway could end up transforming the territorial arrangements that have been in place since World War I? Instead of just new regimes, in short, might we even see the emergence of new states and different borders? And if so, at what cost and with what long-term consequences?
The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 created many of the current Middle Eastern states, carving them from the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. Britain and France made a bunch of contradictory promises during World War I -- to certain Arab leaders, to each other, and to the Zionist movement -- and these agreements helped make a fair mess of things after the war. Like good imperialists, Britain and France mostly sought to preserve their own influence by governing these new states through "mandates" authorized by the League of Nations. In theory, the imperial powers were supposed to prepare new states like Iraq, Syria, and Transjordan for independent self-government; in practice, these arrangements were largely a device for retaining imperial control. But the mandates proved unpopular with some of the local populations and Britain and France were eventually forced to grant these states full independence after World War II. Nonetheless, the new states were all artificial creations containing diverse ethnic or sectarian groups, and each has been beset by various internal problems ever since.
Despite a long history of wars, coups, revolts and other regional challenges, the territorial arrangements established back in 1919 have persisted with only a few alterations. Britain renounced its mandate over Palestine in 1946, a step that ultimately led to the creation of Israel. Israel subsequently took the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967. The ideology of pan-Arabism also led several abortive attempts to unify different Arab countries, and there have also been a few minor territorial adjustments in the Persian Gulf. In general, however, the countries and borders that emerged in the aftermath of World War are still intact today.
Might this long period of territorial stability now be coming to an end? On the one hand, borders around the world have tended to be pretty durable since 1950, partly because the United States and Soviet Union helped reinforce existing arrangements and partly because sensible people realize that you open up Pandora's box when you start rearranging borders. There's also the emergence of a fairly strong norm against the acquisition of territory by force. The status quo may be forcing different ethnic or sectarian groups to live together when they might not want to (as in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon) and it may deny the national aspirations of others (as with Palestinians and Kurds), but it often persists because people either don't think it is possible to change the status quo or fear that change might lead to something even worse.
That's why I think a far-reaching territorial revision is unlikely. But I don't think it can be completely ruled out either. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of independent countries throughout the former Soviet empire, ushered in the reunification of Germany, and helped trigger the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. New states have emerged in several other places as well, such as East Timor and South Sudan, which reminds us that protracted internal violence sometimes has far-reaching effects.
The civil war in Syria may drag on for quite awhile. Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others are already involved to some degree, and it is by no means clear which side is going to win. If Assad eventually falls, however, the aftermath could be an an intense struggle for power between Alawis, Sunnis, Kurds, and the other components of Syria's ethnic/religious blend, with various outside powers trying to influence the outcome as well. The longer the fighting lasts and the more parties are involved, the harder it will be to put together a workable political order once the civil war is over. The struggle in Syria could further heighten Kurdish demands for their own state, and any attempt to advance that long-deferred goal will directly affect Turkey, Iran, and Iraq (where major Kurdish areas already exist). The fighting in Syria is also magnifying the Sunni/Shia divide throughout the Arab world, with Iran and Iraq backing Assad and the Alawis and Sunni states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia favoring the opposition.
And then there's Jordan. The turmoil in Syria has hurt Jordan's economy, and the spread of democratic ideals in places like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia is eventually going to lead to intensified demands for political reform in Amman. Given that a majority of Jordanian citizens are of Palestinian origin, any weakening of Hashemite rule cannot help but raise questions for the Palestinian Arabs currently living under Israeli control, either as second-class citizens in Israel proper or as colonized subjects in the occupied territories. Some Israelis have long insisted that Jordan was (or should become) the real "Palestinian state," and hardliners there might be tempted to take advantage of any upheaval there to solve the "demographic threat" by trying to push more Palestinians across the river.
To repeat: I'm not saying any of these things are likely. Indeed, if pressed, I'd bet that the existing states/borders will remain intact, though many of them will eventually be "under new management." But social mobilization is an unpredictable thing, especially when it turns violent, and its ultimate course might surprise us. If these various states are headed towards forms of government that are more dependent on popular backing, will it be possible to establish legitimate governments without redrawing some of the existing borders or moving people around? Probably, but maybe not.
SEZAYI ERKEN/AFP/Getty Images
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.
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.
One of the downsides of blogging is the feeling that if youtry to take a day or two off, something big will happen and you'll miss thechance to say anything about it. So mywife and I spent this weekend in Portland, Maine, to celebrate our 20thanniversary, and what happens? GeorgeMitchell resigns, Palestinian demonstrations in Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza,and Syria (!) spill across the ceasefire lines and the "most moral army in theworld" ends up shooting and killing several of them. Meanwhile, NATO officials call for escalating the war inLibya, the head of the IMF gets arrested on suspicion of rape in New York, andthere's lots of speculation about what Obama is going to say in his upcomingMiddle East speech (and what Israeli PM Netanyahu will say in his speech toCongress the day after). And then we learn that Obama is planning to address the annual AIPAC policy conferencenext weekend, a decision that strikes me as both beneath the dignity of the Presidency and a classic "no-win" situation to boot. (If he panders he'll just confirm what everybody now suspects about America's paralyzed Middle East policy; if he tells them the truth, he'll face a firestorm of criticism here at home. Why not just send Biden?)
I know this isn't about me, but if this is what happens whenI go away for a weekend, maybe I should just stay home. So let me play catch-up on some of the news.
The word that comes to mind is "trapped." George Mitchell was trapped in a dead-endjob as special envoy, because his job was to shepherd negotiations and therewere no negotiations taking place. Someof you may recall that I thought Mitchell should have resigned eighteen months ago, onceit became clear that Obama wasn't willing to take on Netanyahu or the Israellobby. Had he resigned then, it mighthave been of some modest value as a wake-up call. His resignation last Friday was more of awhimper than a bang.
But Mitchell wasn't the only one who's trapped. So are Arab dictators like Muammar Qadhafi in Libyaand Bashar Assad in Syria, even if they manage to cling to power temporarily throughthe use of brutal force. They aretrapped because demands for greater openness and justice aren't going to end,and their responses over the past few months now guarantee that there can be nosoft landing or safe exit strategy for them. If they fall, they will fall completely, andprobably lose their lives in the bargain. So they are trapped in the dead-end spiral of repression and stagnation,while the rest of the world advances.
The Palestinians are still trapped of course; they remain theworld's largest stateless populations and are simultaneously victims ofIsrael's expulsion in 1947-48 and again in 1967, decades of Arab neglect andexploitation, Israel's long occupation/control of the West Bank and Gaza, and prolongedWestern indifference. Their only silver lining is the growing realization that terrorist violence is not their best route to statehood, but diplomacy, publicity, and non-violent civil protest might be.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is trapped too: by hisideological devotion to the dream of "Greater Israel," by the even more hawkishstance of the settlers and his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and by theuncertainties created by the recent upheavals in the Arab world. He can't do the right thing and move swiftlytowards the creation of a viable Palestinian state--even if he wanted to, whichis highly unlikely--though this step would end the demographic threat toIsrael's democratic and Jewish character andremove the main reason why people around the world are increasinglycritical of Israel's conduct. Instead, by clinging to the policies of the past,the IDF ends up having to crack down on demonstrators on the West Bank andalong the borders, which means they start to resemble the thugs that areputting down pro-democracy movements in Syria and Bahrain. (No, I'm not saying the situations are identical, but appearances do matter).
And Barack Obama is surely trapped too. I think he's understood what needed to bedone in the Middle East since before he became president; he just didn't recognizethat it would be a lot harder to do than he thought. He knew that achieving a viable two-statesolution was the most obvious way to remove the primary source of Arab andMuslim anger at the United States, as well as the best way to safeguardIsrael's long-term future. As he said inCairo back in June 2009, a two-state solution was "in America's interest, thePalestinians' interest, Israel's interest," and the world's interest." And if he could pull that off, then theUnited States could stop devoting so much time on the squabbles in the MiddleEast and start shifting more of its strategic attention to the far more seriousissue of China's rise in Asia. But Obamadidn't fully recognize the power of the Israel lobby, which made it impossiblefor him to deliver on his early commitments. And as long as that is the case, Obama (or his successors) will remaintrapped in policies that aren't good for America, Israel, or any of our otherfriends in the region.
Based on the news reports I've read this morning, it was some numbskull in the Lebanese Army who was responsible for the clash that occurred along the Israeli-Lebanese border yesterday. An Israeli officer was killed by sniper fire as IDF troops were removing a tree in the buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon, and the IDF retaliated for the attack and killed two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist. Some initial accounts suggested that the IDF had crossed the border to remove the tree, but U.N. officials now confirm that the tree was in Israeli territory.
My reaction? What a pointless and tragic waste of life. I don't know which Lebanese individuals were directly responsible for the shooting of the IDF officer, but it was stupid and wrong and whoever did it ought to be held to account. How anyone could think that taking potshots at soldiers removing a tree -- a tree, for heaven's sake -- might accomplish anything positive is beyond me. That's the sort of behavior we expect from North Korea.
Like Juan Cole, I also wonder why the IDF didn't ask UNIFIL (the U.N. peacekeeping force) to remove the tree for them or to arrange conditions where it could have been done safely. My guess is that it didn't occur to them that anything serious might happen, but if so, that assumption was tragically wrong. The BBC reports that the IDF is now removing the tree under UNIFIL supervision: Had it done so in the first place, the dead officer would still be alive and so would the two Lebanese soldiers and the journalist.
This incident underscores the fragility of the current peace between Israel and Lebanon. When security is precarious, military personnel will be more inclined to shoot first and ask questions later, and may also engage in provocative actions to show that they can't be intimidated. The problem is that this is all very risky, especially in this context.
There has been some speculation in recent weeks about the possibility of renewed fighting in Lebanon -- and maybe even a replay of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah -- which is just about the last thing the region needs right now. If you want to get a good sense of the issues and the need for renewed diplomatic action, I recommend the latest International Crisis Group report: "Drums of War: Israel and the ‘Axis of Resistance." But don't read it just before you go to bed.
MAHMOUD ZAYAT/AFP/Getty Images
CNN has fired senior editor Octavia Nasr for tweeting that she was "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah ... One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot." Fadlallah was one of the spiritual leaders of Hezbollah, and regarded by the U.S. government as a terrorist. Nasr subsequently clarified that she was referring to Fadlallah's "pioneering" positions on womens' rights (among other things, he issued fatwas condemning honor killings and affirming the right of women to protect themselves from domestic abuse), and she expressed regret for trying to address a complex issue like this in a brief tweet. But in a gutless decision that brings it no credit, CNN has shown her the door.
Needless to say, the double-standard here is both remarkable and distressing. As Juan Cole noted this morning, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki openly praised Fadlallah after the latter's death, and in terms far more lavish than Ms. Nasr used. Al-Maliki is the democratically-elected leader of Iraq and supposedly a U.S. ally; does his praise for Fadlallah mean that we shouldn't say anything positive about him either?
More importantly, plenty of American journalists and politicians have shown "respect" (and in some cases, fawning admiration) for various world figures with hands far bloodier than Ayatollah Fadlallah -- including Mao Zedong, Ariel Sharon, the Shah of Iran, or even Kim il Sung -- but it didn't cost them their jobs. And let's not forget that plenty of American journalists treat our own leaders with plenty of deference and "respect," even after the latter have launched unnecessary wars in which tens of thousands have died or authorized the torture of detainees. And as Josh Marshall notes over at TPM, getting fired after a successful twenty-year career over a 140-character tweet "just doesn't seem right."
This incident is also distressing because CNN was essentially caving into a black/white, us vs. them, good vs. absolute evil view of the world. Because the United States had labeled Fadlallah a "terrorist," expressing any sort of positive comment about him was a firing offense. But the real world is more complicated than that: people who support some good things sometimes embrace bad things too, and we ought to be able to acknowledge and "respect" them for their positive actions while recognizing and condemning their errors or flaws. Nasr is correct to have expressed regret for having tweeted on a subject that requires more nuance, but her firing will only reinforce the simplistic stereotypes that already prevail in mainstream political commentary. (For a more nuanced appreciation of Fadlallah's positive and negative contributions, go here.)
Mind you, I'm not defending Fadlallah's views on terrorism or Nasr's ill-advised tweet. But CNN's spineless response to this incident strikes me as one more reason why mainstream journalism is increasingly seen as morally bankrupt and why the blogosphere is slowly taking over.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
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
Many supporters of Israel will not criticize its behavior, even when it is engaged in brutal and misguided operations like the recent onslaught on Gaza. In addition to their understandable reluctance to say anything that might aid Israel's enemies, this tendency is based in part on the belief that Israel's political and military leaders are exceptionally smart and thoughtful strategists who understand their threat environment and have a history of success against their adversaries. If so, then it makes little sense for outsiders to second-guess them.
This image of Israeli strategic genius has been nurtured by Israelis over the years and seems to be an article of faith among neoconservatives and other hardline supporters of Israel in the United States. It also fits nicely with the wrongheaded but still popular image of Israel as the perennial David facing a looming Arab Goliath; in this view, only brilliant strategic thinkers could have consistently overcome the supposedly formidable Arab forces arrayed against them.
The idea that Israelis possess some unique strategic acumen undoubtedly reflects a number of past military exploits, including the decisive victories in the 1948 War of Independence, the rapid conquest of the Sinai in 1956, the daredevil capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, the stunning Israeli triumph at the beginning of the 1967 Six Day War, and the intrepid hostage rescue at Entebbe in 1976.
These tactical achievements are part of a larger picture, however, and that picture is not a pretty one. Israel has also lost several wars in the past -- none of them decisively, of course -- and its ability to use force to achieve larger strategic objectives has declined significantly over time. This is why Israelis frequently speak of the need to restore their "deterrent"; they are aware that occasional tactical successes have not led to long-term improvements in their overall security situation. The assault on Gaza is merely the latest illustration of this worrisome tendency.
What does the record show?
Back in 1956, Israel, along with Britain and France, came up with a harebrained scheme to seize the Suez Canal and topple Nasser's regime in Egypt. (This was after an Israeli raid on an Egyptian army camp in Gaza helped convince Nasser to obtain arms from the Soviet Union). Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion initially hoped that Israel would be allowed to conquer and absorb the West Bank, parts of the Sinai, and portions of Lebanon, but Britain and France quickly scotched that idea. The subsequent attack was a military success but a strategic failure: the invaders were forced to disgorge the lands they seized while Nasser's prestige soared at home and across the Arab world, fueling radicalism and intensifying anti-Israel sentiments throughout the region. The episode led Ben-Gurion to conclude that Israel should forego additional attempts to expand its borders -- which is why he opposed taking the West Bank in 1967 -- but his successors did not follow his wise advice.
Ten years later, Israel's aggressive policies toward Syria and Jordan helped precipitate the crisis that led to the Six Day War. The governments of Egypt, Syria, the USSR and the United States also bear considerable blame for that war, though it was Israel's leaders who chose to start it, even though they recognized that their Arab foes knew they were no match for the IDF and did not intend to attack Israel. More importantly, after seizing the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza Strip during the war, Israeli leaders decided to start building settlements and eventually incorporate them into a "greater Israel." Thus, 1967 marks the beginning of Israel's settlements project, a decision that even someone as sympathetic to Israel as Leon Wieseltier has described as "a moral and strategic blunder of historic proportions." Remarkably, this momentous decision was never openly debated within the Israeli body politic.
With Israeli forces occupying the Sinai peninsula, Egypt launched the so-called War of Attrition in October 1968 in an attempt to get it back. The result was a draw on the battlefield and the two sides eventually reached a ceasefire agreement in August 1970. The war was a strategic setback for Israel, however, because Egypt and its Soviet patron used the ceasefire to complete a missile shield along the Suez Canal that could protect Egyptian troops if they attacked across the Canal to regain the Sinai. American and Israeli leaders did not recognize this important shift in the balance of power between Israel and Egypt and remained convinced that Egypt had no military options. As a result, they ignored Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's peace overtures and left him little choice but to use force to try to dislodge Israel from the Sinai. Israel then failed to detect Egypt and Syria's mobilization in early October 1973 and fell victim to one of the most successful surprise attacks in military history. The IDF eventually rallied and triumphed, but the costs were high in a war that might easily have been avoided.
Israel's next major misstep was the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The invasion was the brainchild of hawkish Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who had concocted a grandiose scheme to destroy the PLO and gain a free hand to incorporate the West Bank in "Greater Israel" and turn Jordan into "the" Palestinian state. It was a colossal strategic blunder: the PLO leadership escaped destruction and Israel’s bombardment of Beirut and its complicity in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila were widely and rightly condemned. And after initially being greeted as liberators by the Shiite population of southern Lebanon, Israel's prolonged and heavy-handed occupation helped create Hezbollah, which soon became a formidable adversary as well as an avenue for Iranian influence on Israel's northern border. Israel was unable to defeat Hezbollah and eventually withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2000, having in effect been driven out by Hezbollah's increasingly effective resistance. Invading Lebanon not only failed to solve Israel’s problem with the Palestinians, it created a new enemy that still bedevils Israel today.
In the late 1980s, Israel helped nurture Hamas -- yes, the same organization that the IDF is bent on destroying today -- as part of its long-standing effort to undermine Yasser Arafat and Fatah and keep the Palestinians divided. This decision backfired too, because Arafat eventually recognized Israel and agreed to negotiate a two-state solution, while Hamas emerged as a new and dangerous adversary that has refused to recognize Israel's existence and to live in peace with the Jewish state.
The signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 offered an unprecedented chance to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all, but Israel's leaders failed to seize the moment. Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu all refused to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state -- even Rabin never spoke publicly about allowing the Palestinians to have a state of their own -- and Ehud Barak's belated offer of statehood at the 2000 Camp David summit did not go far enough. As Barak's own foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, later admitted, "if I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David as well." Meanwhile, the number of settlers in the West Bank doubled during the Oslo period (1993-2001), and the Israelis built some 250 miles of connector roads in the West Bank. Palestinian leaders and U.S. officials made their own contributions to Oslo's failure, but Israel had clearly squandered what was probably the best opportunity it will ever have to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Barak also derailed a peace treaty with Syria in early 2000 that appeared to be a done deal, at least to President Bill Clinton, who had helped fashion it. But when public opinion polls suggested that the Israeli public might not support the deal, the Israeli Prime Minister got cold feet and the talks collapsed.
More recently, U.S. and Israeli miscalculations have gone hand-in-hand. In the wake of September 11, neoconservatives in the United States, who had been pushing for war against Iraq since early 1998, helped convince President Bush to attack Iraq as part of a larger strategy of "regional transformation." Israeli officials were initially opposed to this scheme because they wanted Washington to go after Iran instead, but once they understood that Iran and Syria were next on the administration's hit list they backed the plan enthusiastically. Indeed, prominent Israelis like Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, and then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres helped sell the war in the United States, while Prime Minister Sharon and his chief aides put pressure on Washington to make sure that Bush didn’t lose his nerve and leave Saddam standing. The result? A costly quagmire for the United States and a dramatic improvement in Iran's strategic position. Needless to say, these developments were hardly in Israel's strategic interest.
The next failed effort was then-Prime Minister Sharon's decision to unilaterally withdraw all of Israel’s settlers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Although Israel and its supporters in the West portrayed this move as a gesture towards peace, "unilateralism" was in fact part of a larger effort to derail the so-called Road Map, freeze the peace process, and consolidate Israeli control over the West Bank, thereby putting off the prospect of a Palestinian state "indefinitely." The withdrawal was completed successfully, but Sharon's attempt to impose peace terms on the Palestinians failed completely. Fenced in by the Israelis, the Palestinians in Gaza began firing rockets and mortars at nearby Israeli towns and then Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006. This event reflected its growing popularity in the face of Fatah’s corruption and Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank, but Jerusalem and Washington refused to accept the election results and decided instead to try to topple Hamas. This was yet another error: Hamas eventually ousted Fatah from Gaza and its popularity has continued to increase.
The Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 revealed the deficiencies of Israel's strategic thinking with particular clarity. A cross-border raid by Hezbollah provoked an Israeli offensive intended to destroy Hezbollah's large missile inventory and compel the Lebanese government to crack down on Hezbollah itself. However worthy these goals might have been, Israel's strategy was doomed to fail. Air strikes could not eliminate Hezbollah's large and well-hidden arsenal and bombing civilian areas in Lebanon merely generated more anger at Israel and raised Hezbollah's standing among the Lebanese population and in the Arab and Islamic world as well. Nor could a belated ground attack fix the problem, as the IDF could hardly accomplish in a few weeks what it had failed to do between 1982 and 2000. Plus, the Israeli offensive was poorly planned and poorly executed. It was equally foolish to think that Lebanon’s fragile central government could rein in Hezbollah; if that were possible, the governing authorities in Beirut would have done so long before. It is no surprise that the Winograd Commission (an official panel of inquiry established to examine Israel’s handling of the war) harshly criticized Israel's leaders for their various strategic errors.
Finally, a similar strategic myopia is apparent in the assault on Gaza. Israeli leaders initially said that their goal was to inflict enough damage on Hamas so it could no longer threaten Israel with rocket attacks. But they now concede that Hamas will neither be destroyed nor disarmed by their attacks, and instead say that more extensive monitoring will prevent rocket parts and other weapons from being smuggled into Gaza. This is a vain hope, however. As I write this, Hamas has not accepted a ceasefire and is still firing rockets; even if it does accept a ceasefire soon, rocket and mortar fire are bound to resume at some point in the future. On top of that, Israel's international image has taken a drubbing, Hamas is probably more popular, and moderate leaders like Mahmoud Abbas have been badly discredited. A two-state solution -- which is essential if Israel wishes to remain Jewish and democratic and to avoid becoming an apartheid state -- is farther away than ever. The IDF performed better in Gaza than it did in Lebanon, largely because Hamas is a less formidable foe than Hezbollah. But this does not matter: the war against Hamas is still a strategic failure. And to have inflicted such carnage on the Palestinians for no lasting strategic gain is especially reprehensible.
In virtually all of these episodes -- and especially those after 1982 -- Israel's superior military power was used in ways that did not improve its long-term strategic position. Given this dismal record, therefore, there is no reason to think that Israel possesses uniquely gifted strategists or a national security establishment that consistently makes smart and far-sighted choices. Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about Israel is how often the architects of these disasters -- Barak, Olmert, Sharon, and maybe Netanyahu -- are not banished from leadership roles but instead are given another opportunity to repeat their mistakes. Where is the accountability in the Israeli political system?
No country is immune from folly, of course, and Israel's adversaries have committed plenty of reprehensible acts and made plenty of mistakes themselves. Egypt's Nasser played with fire in 1967 and got badly burnt; King Hussein's decision to enter the Six Day War was a catastrophic blunder that cost Jordan the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Palestinian leaders badly miscalculated and committed unjustifiable and brutal acts on numerous occasions. Americans made grave mistakes in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq, the French blundered in Indochina and Algeria, the British failed at Suez and Gallipoli, and the Soviets lost badly in Afghanistan. Israel is no different than most powerful states in this regard: sometimes it does things that are admirable and wise, and at other times it pursues policies that are foolish and cruel.
The moral of this story is that there is no reason to think that Israel always has well-conceived strategies for dealing with the problems that it faces. In fact, Israel's strategic judgment seems to have declined steadily since the 1970s -- beginning with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon -- perhaps because unconditional U.S. support has helped insulate Israel from some of the costs of its actions and made it easier for Israel to indulge strategic illusions and ideological pipe-dreams. Given this reality, there is no reason for Israel's friends -- both Jewish and gentile -- to remain silent when it decides to pursue a foolish policy. And given that our "special relationship" with Israel means that the United States is invariably associated with Jerusalem's actions, Americans should not hesitate to raise their voices to criticize Israel when it is acting in ways that are not in the U.S. national interest.
Those who refuse to criticize Israel even when it acts foolishly surely think they are helping the Jewish state. They are wrong. In fact, they are false friends, because their silence, or worse, their cheerleading, merely encourages Israel to continue potentially disastrous courses of action. Israel could use some honest advice these days, and it would make eminently good sense if its closest ally were able to provide it. Ideally, this advice would come from the president, the secretary of state, and prominent members of Congress -- speaking as openly as some politicians in other democracies do. But that's unlikely to happen, because Israel's supporters make it almost impossible for Washington to do anything but reflexively back Israel's actions, whether they make sense or not. And they often do not these days.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.