Over the past few years, media critics like Glenn Greenwald, Mark Danner, and Michael Massing have exposed some of the sloppiness, incestuousness, and group-think that routinely afflicts mainstream media coverage of world events, especially in the realm of foreign policy and national security. Even "faux news" outlets like Jon Stewart's Daily Show have contributed to greater awareness of media failings, mostly by pointing out biases and inconsistencies in a ruthlessly funny fashion.
Yet no matter how useful such critiques are, they need to be complemented by more systematic scholarly studies of the complex relationship between media coverage, public opinion, and actual foreign policy decisions. On that topic, my colleague Matthew Baum and his co-author, Tim Groeling of UCLA, have recently published an excellent book entitled War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views on War (Princeton University Press). Drawing on a wide array of empirical evidence (including opinion surveys, media content, and foreign policy decisions), they argue that the interaction between elites, media, and public opinion is a three-way process in which each group’s behavior is essentially strategic. Politicians try to use media to advance their aims; the media picks stories in order to maximize audience (or in some cases, to advance an ideological agenda), and therefore tend to favor stories that are novel or surprising (like when a prominent senator criticizes a president from his own party). Similarly, the public does not just consume the news passively; readers and viewers use various cues to gauge the credibility of different sources.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Comedy Central
Two and half years ago, two political scientists published a book that said (p. 188):
Anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over U.S. Middle East policy stands a good chance of getting labeled an anti-Semite. In fact, anyone who says that there is an Israel lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism, even though AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents are hardly bashful about describing their influence. ... In effect, the lobby both boasts of its own power and frequently attacks those who call attention to it."
Over at The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier has provided the latest example of this all-too-familiar tactic, in the form of an incoherent and unwarranted smear of Andrew Sullivan. Yglesias, Larison, and DeLong offer telling rebuttals.
My copy of Mein Kampf sits on a shelf in my study, along with a couple of dozen books on World War II. It was the first book ever translated by the late Ralph Manheim (who also translated the works of Gunter Grass and others) and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1943. I've used it to prepare lectures on the Second World War, where I quote a few of Hitler's more lurid and bizarre passages in order to convey to students the dangerous world-view from which Nazism sprang.
I mention this because authorities in Bavaria are reportedly trying to prevent new editions of this book from being published in Germany (where it has been banned), now that the original copyright (which is controlled by the Bavarian government) is about to run out. Their concern, which is understandable but in my view overstated, is that neo-Nazi groups will use the expiration of copyright as an opportunity to disseminate Hitler's hateful ideas anew.
I think this is a mistake. In addition to being filled with a lot of appalling racist claptrap, Mein Kampf is an awful book-turgid, tedious, badly organized, and mostly boring. So the danger that a German edition it will win a lot of new converts seems remote. Second, it's widely available in pirated versions on the Internet and in plenty of other countries (including the Untied States), so anybody with neo-Nazi sympathies can get a copy already.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens adds his voice to the growing chorus eager for a heightened confrontation with Iran. Right now they just want more sanctions -- though he seems to think airstrikes would be just dandy too -- and he quotes a few like-minded pundits claiming that the government is really fragile and that sanctions or airstrikes might tip it over the edge. Never mind that there is a wealth of scholarly literature suggesting that airstrikes don’t have that effect (especially when the regime in question didn’t start the war) and that economic sanctions are not a very powerful coercive tool against most adversaries, unless one is very, very patient. (And remember that we aren't going to get tougher multilateral sanctions at this point, especially after the decision to sell more arms to Taiwan.) Stephens also assumes that Iran is dead-set on getting an actual nuclear weapon (it might be, but it might also just want to get close), and that if it does, its neighbors will inevitably follow (they might, but there are also good reasons why they might not).
But rest assured that if sanctions don’t work, Stephens will be calling for military action. Stephens is the former editor of the Jerusalem Post, a well-connected neo-conservative, and one of the many pundits who helped cheerlead us into the disastrous war in Iraq. Is he really someone whose advice we ought to be paying attention to now? It would be one thing if he were offering a new set of prescriptions, but learning from past mistakes doesn’t seem to be part of the neocon playbook.
But for now, his piece is really just one more data point we should put in our files and remember. As somebody wrote a few years ago (see page 305):
The [Israel] lobby is also likely to make sure that the United States continues to threaten Iran with military strikes unless it abandons its nuclear enrichment program. Given that this threat has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future, some of Israel’s American backers, especially the neoconservatives, will continue to call for the United States to carry out the threat. ... There is also some possibility ... that [Bush’s successor] will do so, particularly if Iran gets closer to developing weapons and if hardliners there continue to predominate. If the United States does launch an attack, it will be doing so in part on Israel’s behalf, and the lobby would bear significant responsibility for having pushed this dangerous policy.”
Caveat: Because no lobby "controls" U.S. foreign policy (a point we've made repeatedly and that critics routinely ignore), military action of the sort that Stephens & Co. are pushing isn't inevitable. But if it does happen, you'll know who played a key role in bringing it about.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
I’m in Paris to give a lecture on Obama’s foreign policy after one year, and I can report that 1) it’s cold, 2) it’s beautiful, and 3) there’s some disappointment with Obama’s (lack of) foreign-policy achievements over here. I base that last conclusion on the conversation at a dinner I attended last night, which included a number of diplomats and foreign policy experts. The sample size is minuscule and there’s probably selection effects at work, so take that inference with a few grains of salt.
Meanwhile, I see from the International Herald Tribune that we’re having one of those silly discussions about whether a Democratic president -- in this case, Obama -- is “tough” enough to handle the job. Helene Cooper points out the Democrats have faced this line of criticism ever since Kennedy, and she quotes a bunch of the usual suspects who opine about Obama’s need to do something nasty to someone to show how “tough” he really is.
My question is: what exactly do we mean by “tough”? If the point is that Obama needs to show that adversaries (including opponents at home) will pay a price for trying to thwart him, then I get that. Being too eager to compromise and too reluctant to hit back just encourages opponents to dig in their heels, and makes it harder to achieve your objectives over time.
But in most of these discussions, “toughness” is either conceived as purely rhetorical posturing (i.e., like whether he's using the phrase “war on terror”), or it is simply equated with more hawkish policies. In particular, “toughness” is increasingly seen as demonstrating a willingness to use force: a president shows he’s “tough” when he’s willing to order Americans to kill other people. Ideally, you want to be going after obvious bad guys, but if it’s all about image, then doing anything that involves explosions may be good enough.
Of course, on this score Obama should be in no danger: he’s increased the number of drone strikes against suspected terrorists, escalated the war in Afghanistan, and pushed Pakistan to launch offensives against Islamic extremists on its own soil. As the Fabulous Thunderbirds (the blues group, not the Air Force exhibition flying group) once sang, “Ain’t That Tough Enough?”
I think this is also a pretty silly way to define “toughness.” A better definition would be to show resolution in the face of adversity, to persist in the right course of action even in the face of obstacles. Those obstacles, by the way, would include critics from the GOP or Fox News, as well as the inevitable setbacks that accompany any ambitious policy initiative.
And then there’s the question of whether one is showing resolution in defense of smart policies, or just stubbornly refusing to admit that one’s original decision was wrong. George W. Bush liked to portray his leadership style as “decisive,” and “determined” and “tough;” the problem was that he clung donkey-like to a lot of boneheaded decisions. By contrast, the much-maligned Jimmy Carter -- to whom Obama is now being invidiously compared -- was tough and stubborn in pushing for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and his resolution in the face of many obstacles played a key role in bringing it about.
The point is that you can be tough without being hawkish, and that’s usually preferable to the mindless militarism that most politicians adopt to show their faux “toughness.” And that’s why it’s much more important that a president be smart and strategic and able to identify the right policy choices, and not worry very much about whether he’s being sufficient “tough” to satisfy his critics. And if Obama tries to base his foreign policy on proving to the GOP he meets their definition of "tough," he'll end up exactly where the GOP's former standard-bearer did.
I was going to blog this morning about the Times's story that Dr. Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian double agent who killed 8 U.S. operatives in a suicide bomb attack last week, was reportedly motivated by his anger at Israel's pummeling of Gaza last year (you know, the war that President Bush didn't try to prevent, that President-elect Obama didn't talk about, and that the U.S. Congress apparently thinks was just fine.) Talk about blowback. But Phil Weiss and Glenn Greenwald are on the case, and you can just read them instead of me.
Instead, I want to share an invitation I was forwarded by a friend (for some inexplicable reason, I didn't get one myself). The email invited him to attend "Spotlight Iran," a special workshop sponsored by The Israel Project. Here's what it said:
From: The Israel Project [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Tuesday, January 05, 2010 5:11 PM
Subject: You Are Invited to an Iran Conference in Washington, DC
Please join us for a community-wide grass-roots advocacy training program:
Israel Advocacy Training Institute: Spotlight Iran
Don't miss this hands-on training institute for Israel activists with special briefings by high level American and Israeli officials on the vital issues of Iran and grass roots advocacy. Gain new tools and learn how to effectively and efficiently make use of your time and resources to advocate for Israel in the halls of government, pages of newspaper print, radio airwaves, and internet sites of the new media.
Sunday, January 17, 12 noon- 4:30 p.m.
Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy
13300 Arctic Avenue, Rockville, MD
-Dan Arbell, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Israel
-Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, President of The Israel Project
Workshop Sessions featuring:
*Congressional and Legislative Advocacy with AIPAC Mid-Atlantic Political Director Arie Lipnik and Congressional Legislative Assistants
*Online Advocacy: Blogging, Twitter and Social Media with "Press Guru" and Jewish Communications Expert Aaron Keyak
*How to Get Published and Write a Letter to the Editor with journalist and Reuters Editor Alan Elsner
*Israel Advocacy in the Synagogue with Rabbi Jonah Layman of Shaare Tefilah Congregation and President of Congregation B'nai Tzedek Helane Goldstein
*Advocacy and Radio strategy with Former White House Radio Director Richard Strauss
*Understanding Christian Perspectives on Israel: The Keys to Effective Advocacy with Ethan Felson and Josh Protas, Vice President and Washington Director of the JCPA
*Special Teen Track Workshops
Book signing featuring authors: Ilan Berman, Alan Elsner,
Michael Ledeen and Jonathan Schanzer
$18 standard track ? $10 teen track (includes lunch)
[followed by the usual contact info for those seeking additional information]
A few quick comments:
First, if anyone still doubts that groups in the Israel lobby work hard to shape public discourse about Middle East affairs...well, time to cast those doubts aside. Apart from hyping the threat from Iran, the clear purpose of this workshop is to train people on how to write op-eds, twitter posts, blogs, etc., that can push TIP's supposedly "pro-Israel" agenda.(Needless to say, its agenda on Iran is about pushing the United States to do whatever it takes to keep Iran from mastering the full fuel cycle, including the use of force.)
Second, there's nothing wrong with a group of Americans getting together to push their policy views; that's how our system of government works. This is in principle no different than Cuban-Americans organizing to preserve the misguided embargo on Castro's regime, NRA members meeting to figure out new ways to thwart gun control, farmers organizing to push for more crop subsidies, tea partyers getting together to sound off on their pet peeves, or birthers meeting to spread more goofy notions about Obama's heritage. Just good old-fashioned American interest group politics in all its glory.
But notice that this event advertises an AIPAC representative, an Israeli diplomat and apparently several unnamed congressional legislative assistants. The latter are supposed to be public servants; we understand that they will be the objects of a lobbying groups efforts but here they seem to be actively helping one. Given the prominent role given to an official representative of a foreign government and the participation of several congressional aides, this event does seem to blur the line between being a purely domestic lobbying group and being something else. Isn't it a bit over-the-line to have an officially accredited diplomat give the plenary address to a workshop whose declared purpose is to teach Americans how to advocate on behalf of that same diplomat's country?
Third, my main point is to be clear about who is pushing for war with Iran and who isn't. The Israel Project and other like-minded groups want the U.S. to confront Iran, and the main reason they want this is to protect Israel from what they believe (mistakenly, in my view) is a dire threat. (I think Iran's activities are a legitimate concern, but not the apocalyptic danger that many Israelis seem to think.) They are entirely within their rights to hold those views, however, and to work within the American political system to try to advance their hard line agenda. If they want to organize seminars to build support for that position, and train people on how to advocate for it, fine by me. And if other folks with similar views and agendas want to chime in, that's ok too.
And let's be clear about one other thing. War with Iran is not a project that is backed by all Jewish-Americans, or only by Jewish-Americans. The same was true about the war in Iraq, which was dreamed up by the neocons and backed by key groups in the Israel lobby, but not by many American Jews. Indeed, by the time the United States went to war in 2003, surveys showed that American Jews were less supportive of war with Iraq than the U.S. population as a whole.
But as in the run-up to Iraq, many of the most persistent advocates of a "kinetic response" to Iran are individuals or organization in the Israel lobby (including those bizarrely bellicose Christian Zionists), and as this invitation suggests, they aren't being especially bashful about making their policy preferences known. So if the United States does end up at war with Iran in the not-too-distant future, and if it turns out to leave us worse off than before, I hope these same people won't spend the aftermath denying that they had anything to do with it, or accusing people who discuss their role of being somehow bigoted.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
This week marks the one-year anniversary of FP's on-line re-launch, and thus the one-year anniversary of this blog. So I thought I'd offer a few reflections on what the experience has been like, and what I've learned from it.
I was of course flattered when FP invited me to contribute, but I agreed to do so with some trepidation. I'd done a lot of writing by this point, including for some popular venues, but I had usually found it difficult to write op-eds and short pieces of commentary and therefore hadn't done a lot of it. The only way to attract readers is to provide a fairly constant stream of commentary (i.e., nobody comes back if you only post once a month), and I was worried that I'd find it hard to keep the words and ideas flowing.
Thankfully, that hasn't been a big problem. Although there have been a few slow days where I was less than fully inspired (you may have noticed), its more often the case that I don't have time to post on all the topics that I'd like to discuss. One result is that my respect for those who write a biweekly column in the mainstream media has gone down; it would be a luxury to write only twice a week. Given that most of them aren't teaching classes, chairing committees, or writing letters of recommendation, what do all those big-time columnists do with their time?
I quickly discovered that there is a big difference between blogging and academic scholarship, and one has to approach them with a completely different mental attitude. In academic writing, the overriding imperative is to make things as perfect as you can (even though perfection is impossible), and to take as much time as you have to refine and bolster an argument. When academics write a scholarly book or article, it typically goes through a dozen or so drafts, gets presented and criticized at conferences and seminars, and gets circulated to colleagues for additional feedback. And in some cases (e.g., our book on the Israel lobby), we hired two professional fact checkers to go over every line and then spent an entire week with our editor proofing and fine-tuning.
Needless to say, that's not how the blogosphere works. I sometimes spend a fair bit of time researching what I write here, and I occasionally run a piece past a colleague to get their advice, but there is a premium on being timely and analytically sharp, and you rarely have time to sit, sift, ponder, and deliberate. That means bloggers are by definition writing things that are more provisional. If we're honest, we all have to admit that we're going to get a few big things wrong, or offer opinions that we subsequently conclude are mistaken. I'm reasonably happy with most of what I've posted in the past year, but I confess to a sense of trepidation every time I hit "publish." Advice to would-be bloggers: Bring a sense of humility, but also a thick skin.
Of course, that same sense of immediacy is one of the most gratifying things about having a blog. Instead of writing an op-ed and sending it in to some newspaper, and then waiting for days until some editor rules up or down, I just hit "publish" and it appears. Writing a more-or-less daily commentary forces me to stay more closely in touch with world events, and it has made it imperative to develop new sources and new methods for tracking what others have to say about issues I'm interested in.
Indeed, given the concerns I've sometimes expressed about the "cult of irrelevance" in academe, I've come to believe that blogging ought to be actively encouraged in the academic world. I'm not saying that all political scientists, historians, or economists ought to start their own blogs, but we shouldn't penalize scholars who do engage in this activity and we might even consider rewarding it, the same way we should reward scholars who care enough about public service to use their talents and training working in the public or NGO sector. It would be good for the IR field if academic scholars were expected to write a few blog posts every now and then, if only for the purpose of self-examination. If the typical academic had to write a blog for two weeks, they might discover they had nothing to say to their fellow citizens, couldn't say it clearly, or that nobody cared. That experience might even lead a few of my fellow academics to scratch their heads and ask if they were investing their research time appropriately, which would be all to the good.
What's been the best part so far? First and foremost, I've appreciated the opportunity to participate more actively in the public debate on key topics like U.S. foreign policy, the AfPak dilemma, the ongoing drama in the Middle East, etc.). At the same time, I've also enjoyed exploring more fanciful topics (movies, pop music, sports, novels, holidays), as well as the chance to wander into areas I simply didn't know that much about. Knowing that I had to "feed the beast" each morning has encouraged me to read more widely and keep a notebook of ideas (a useful diversion during boring faculty meetings), and I've found that intellectual spur to be very satisfying.
And as I had hoped, writing this blog has forced me to connect more with the blogosphere itself, which I see as a revolutionary development in mankind's collective conversation. I remain in awe of many of my fellow bloggers -- there are simply far too many for me to mention them all -- and I wish I had more time to wander the net and search out nuggets of insight that aren't likely to make into more conventional formats (at least not yet). I've also appreciated the supportive emails I've received from lots of readers, and even smiled at some of the snarky comments from some who seem less-than-enthralled (if not downright hostile). Forgive me if I don't read them all or respond; I am trying to retain some semblance of a normal life.
The downside? Obvious: it's a big time-sink, and I'm still trying to figure out how to write my next book while doing this gig. Writing a solo blog can have a certain treadmill-like quality to it, and there have been a few mornings where I approach my laptop with a sense of obligation rather than zest. And there are those cringe-worthy moments when I realize I've made an obvious mistake; thankfully, there haven't been too many of those.
But on the whole, it's been a fun ride and I'm looking forward to Year 2. If peace breaks out, expect to read more about arts and music and less about fear, greed, stupidity, corruption and other enduring features of world politics. But don't hold your breath.
Yesterday I pointed out that neither the New York Times nor Washington Post had yet covered the story of the "Gaza Freedom March," a group of 1300 or so peace activists who were trying to travel to Gaza to protest the continued blockade of this beleaguered region. I am pleased to report that today the Times ran a pretty good story on the march. As near as I could tell from its website, the Post has yet to do so.
Over at Mondoweiss, Adam Horowitz reports that the Egyptian government has now agreed to let 100 Freedom Marchers enter Gaza. One of the organizers of the March, Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin, called it a "partial victory," that shows that "mass pressure has an an effect." I hope she's right, both in that context and in some others.
SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images
Did you know that the Gaza Freedom March -- a group of over 1300 peace activists from 43 countries -- is protesting the continued siege of Gaza, on the anniversary of the brutal Israeli assault that killed over a thousand people last year? (There is also a separate effort to bring a convoy of relief aid to the Gazans, under the auspices of the group Viva Palestina).
Did you know that the Freedom March is now stuck in Cairo, because the Egyptian government has denied them permission to travel to Gaza? The Mubarak regime has its own issues with Hamas, and it is also dependent on U.S. economic and military aid. Israel and the United States don't want the adverse publicity that the Freedom March might generate and are perfectly content to let the Gazans suffer, so needless to say Washington isn't putting any pressure on Egypt to let the convoy through.
Did you know that this event is being extensively covered in the Arab world, and may be causing problems for Mubarak & Co., as the Egyptians are once again being exposed as complicit in the collective punishment that Israel is inflicting on the population of Gaza?
Did you know that one of the participants in the convoy is an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor (Hedy Epstein), and that she recently began a hunger strike to protest the refusal to let the convoy go to Gaza?
You probably didn't know about any of this, but it's not really your fault. You probably get your news from mainstream outlets like the New York Times or Washington Post, and neither of these illustrious newspapers has bothered to cover this story. What do they consider important? Well, in the case of the Times, their idea of a big Mideast story right now is the heart-warming saga of a little shwarma shop in Amman.
If you do want to learn a bit more about this worthy effort to help the Gazans, you can go to the group's website, here. Or you can follow it on Mondoweiss, here. Or even read about it in Ha'aretz, here. And then you might have a better idea why the Mubarak government isn't very popular, why Israel faces growing censure for its conduct, why the United States continues to be despised in much of the Arab and Islamic world, and why the blogosphere is so important.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
When I started blogging last January, one of my first posts warned against believing that Obama’s election and the evident bankruptcy of the neoconservative approach to foreign policy had ended the prospect of a war with Iran. If you didn’t believe me then, the incoherent, war-mongering op-ed by Alan Kuperman in last Thursday’s New York Times should encourage you to reconsider. As Jim Lobe points out on his own blog, the fact that the Times accepted this piece in the first place is not an apolitical act, and it may herald a tilting of the public debate in a way designed to legitimate a subsequent U.S. attack.
Several features of Kuperman’s essay are worthy of note. The first is the timing: Why did the Times choose to run an unusually long (1,500-word) op-ed advocating war on the very eve of Christmas, a holiday normally associated with themes of peace, understanding, and harmony? It was also published on the last day when many people were likely to be paying much attention to mainstream news sources, which meant that prominent rebuttals would not appear or be read for several days. And that meant Kuperman’s piece could hang out there a bit longer.
The second puzzle is the dearth of new information or arguments in Kuperman’s piece. He hasn’t been to Teheran and come back with new testimony; the piece contains no scoop of leaked information or a novel piece of analysis, and as Marc Lynch points out in a compelling takedown here on his FP blog, Kuperman’s arguments in favor of war merely rehearse the same sort mixture of paranoia and over-confidence that was used to buffalo the country into attacking Iraq.
In particular, Kuperman assumes that a decision not to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities will yield a series of Very Bad Results (though at least he doesn’t claim that Iran would immediately bomb Tel Aviv), yet he also assumes that our launching an attack won’t have any serious consequences. To take but one example, he discounts the possibility of Iranian retalation in Lebanon, Iraq, or Afghanistan by suggesting that Iran is already causing trouble there, conveniently ignoring the possibility that they might do a lot more if sufficiently provoked.
A third feature of Kuperman’s piece is the absence of any clear link between his proposed course of action and the U.S. national interest. He takes for granted that Iran will get nuclear weapons unless someone bombs them, and that if they do, this will have grave consequences for the United States. But even if we assume that Iran eventually gets a few bombs -- which is still far from certain -- thereby joining the ranks of Israel, Pakistan, and India, it is not clear why this event poses a sufficiently grave threat to the United States as to justify a preventive war.
Could Iran use a nuclear weapon against us, or against close U.S. allies? Only if they wanted to experience devastating retaliation. Could Iran use it to blackmail the United States or even countries like Israel or Saudi Arabia? No, the threat would not be credible because carrying it out would be suicidal. Could they give a bomb to terrorist? In theory, yes, but what leaders would run serious risks and spend billions of rials to obtain a deterrent and then blithely hand it to some third party, who might use it in a way that would trigger massive retaliation on Iran by the United States or others?
Remember that the USSR had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and was governed by ruthless men, and they never tried to blackmail us, our allies, or various non-nuclear adversaries either. Mao Zedong was equally indifferent to human life and made a number of bellicose statements about nuclear war, but getting the bomb in 1964 didn’t make China either more aggressive or more influential. Proliferation hawks have been offering doom-and-gloom forecasts nearly every time a new nuclear weapons state emerged; fortunately, virtually all of their pessimistic predictions have proven to be erroneous.
Like most advocates of preventive war, in short, Kuperman has conjured up implausible nightmare scenarios in order to justify attacking a country that has not attacked us and shows no signs of wanting to do so. And he has somehow convinced himself bombing Iran will leave us better off, even though he concedes that it can't prevent Iran from getting a weapon if it really wants one. Gee, I wonder if bombing them will make the U.S. more popular there, or decrease Iran’s desire to have a deterrent that works?
Lastly, let’s be completely clear about what Kuperman is advocating. No matter how careful and discriminating the attack might be, an aerial assault on Iran will kill a substantial number of Iranians, including innocent civilians (and possibly some who are in fact opponents of the current regime). In short, he thinks it is perfectly OK for the U.S. government to kill innocent civilians in another country, in order to prevent that country from having access to the full nuclear fuel cycle (to which Iran is entitled, under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty). When respected intellectuals can say things like this in the pages of major newspapers, do we really have to wonder why the United States is so disliked in many parts of the world, and especially those areas that have been feeling the sharp end of the American spear in recent years?
The good news is that Kuperman’s piece has generated some valuable push-back in the blogosphere: in addition to the piece already cited, see the smart rebuttals from Helena Cobban, FP's Dan Drezner, Richard Silverstein, and Matt Duss. But I fear this battle is just getting underway, and I’ve lost confidence in President Obama’s ability to stand up to a relentless drip-drip-drip of hawkish advocacy, especially once it gets mainstreamed by publications like the Times and begins to take on the aura of inside-the-Beltway “conventional wisdom.”
Given the American media’s lamentable performance in the run-up to the Iraq war, now’s the time to start keeping score. Keep track of who the Times publishes on the op-ed page (the Wash Post and Wall Street Journal are mostly hopeless already), and also what they report. Pay attention to which think tanks, lobbies, and pundits are beating the war drums, and remind yourself what positions they took on the decision to topple Saddam. Remain alert for signs that officials within the administration are starting to advocate for "kinetic action" (or other euphemisms). And while you’re doing all that, ask yourself the ageless question: cui bono?
Mario Tama/Getty Images
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 didn't have a chance to comment on the revelations that foreign-policy insider Peter Galbraith received a 5 percent stake in an oil field in the Dohak region of Iraqi Kurdistan, for his role in helping the Norwegian oil company DNO negotiate drilling rights there. Galbraith was also involved in the constitutional negotiations that gave the Kurds substantial autonomy over the region and thus made the proposed deal possible, and the Times reports that he could make roughly $100 million or so for his efforts.
Not surprisingly, the exposure of Galbraith's dealings has caused some controversy in Iraq, though remarkably little in Washington One of the Iraqi participants said "the idea that an oil company was participating in the drafting of the Iraqi Constitution leaves me speechless," and the whole business is bound to reinforce the widespread (and in my view, false) belief that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a "war for oil. "
Galbraith is publicly unrepentant, arguing that his deal with DNO was arranged while he was a private citizen and declaring that "What is true is that I undertook business activities that were entirely consistent with my long-held policy views. . . I believe my work with [DNO and other companies] helped create the Kurdistan oil industry which helps provide Kurdistan an economic base for the autonomy its people almost unanimously desire. . . So, while I may have had interests, I see no conflict."
Of course, as a number of other critics quickly pointed out, the problem is not that Galbraith is in line to receive millions of dollars in compensation; the problem is that he failed to disclose his financial interests while he was busy writing op-eds and articles and engaging in other public activities on behalf of Kurdish autonomy. His behavior is no different than a medical researcher who takes millions of dollars from a pharmeceutical company and then writes articles or offers expert testimony about the efficacy of that company's products. The testimony may be entirely consistent with the scientist's "long-held views," but anyone exposed to the testimony has a right to know about the potential conflict of interest.
The whole sordid business got me thinking: is there any way to clean up the marketplace of ideas here in the United States? We are drowning in information and opinion, much of it claiming to be objective and authoritative when it may in fact be inspired and funded by moneyed special interests eager to sell the public a story that advances their particular objectives. Most "think tanks" in Washington portray themselves as objective, quasi-scholarly institutions (indeed, they increasingly give researchers endowed chairs and other quasi-academic titles), but unlike most universities, most think tanks remain heavily dependent on "soft money" and are bound to be especially sensitive to what potential donors might be thinking. And some of them aren't really scholarly at all; they are just public relations operations or "letterhead organizations" seeking to mold public opinion and push the policy process in a particular direction. But unless you know who's paying for it, it's hard to decide who's giving you an honest opinion and who is just shilling for some powerful interest group.
Can we tame this beast without infringing on free speech?
Here's a suggestion: let's start by asking participants in the war of ideas to provide a lot more information about their financial dealings. The SEC requires companies to make relevant financial information available to investors; why shouldn't those who provide information in the public arena provide a similar level of disclosure to those who "invest" in their alleged expertise? We don't have to pass a law requiring think tanks or pundits to disclose the details of their funding arrangements to the public; as a first step, we could simply rank different organizations and individuals on the level of disclosure they provide, much as other groups help potential donors rate charitable organizations on their administrative efficiency.
For example, think tanks could be ranked according to their willingness to provide lists of their funding sources, specifying both the sources of the funding and the specific projects that the donors paid for. Wouldn't you like to know who is bankrolling the American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Center for American Progress, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Brookings Institution, Council on Foreign Relations, Hudson Institute, Middle East Institute, Foreign Policy Initiative, Institute for the Study of War, the Federation of American Scientists, or the New America Foundation?
Such groups shouldn't make us dig for the information; they could just put it all out on their websites. Lord knows that these groups work overtime disseminating reports, testimony, op-eds and policy memos; surely it is not too much to ask them to tell us who is providing the wherewithal. Organizations that come clean could get a 5-star rating, and journalists and citizens who get exposed to their "analysis" could attach the appropriate discount to whatever they were being fed.
Or take this idea a step further: why not ask prominent pundits and commentators to provide similar disclosure, and rate them for their transparency as well? Where do David Brooks, Juan Cole, Ann Coulter, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Goldfarb, Michelle Malkin, Matt Yglesias, Richard Perle, Steve Clemons, Fred Kagan, or George Will get their money? How much is salary, and how much is derived from honoraria, royalties, or consulting work? And who's paying the bills?
Please understand that I'm not criticizing these organizations for accepting contributions from any legitimate source, and I'm not suggesting that commentators shouldn't supplement their income through various outside activities. This is America, where, making a buck is a perfectly worthy enterprise. Nor am I suggesting that think tanks and pundits are just selling their opinions to the highest bidder; more commonly, outside groups pay for someone's services because they already know what he or she thinks and they want to support it or consume it (i.e., by hiring a well-known pundit to give a talk). My point is simply that consumers of a think tank's products or a public intellectual's work have a right to know who is paying for their activities, so that they can take that fact into account.
Nor am I proposing that full (or even partial) disclosure be a requirement for bloggers, journalists, pundits, or essayists who engage in public debate. Needless to say, that would be a gross infringement of free speech. My proposal is much more modest: we should start asking about their sources of support, and somebody ought to keep track of how different people answer it. Any commentator or public intellectual who wants to keep their financial information strictly private is free to do so. But if they do, then we are entitled to ask if they have something to hide, and to rank them lower than those who are willing to divulge their backers.
Am I willing to practice what I preach? Sure. For the current year, for example, about 80 percent of my income is my salary from Harvard. Harvard pays me to teach courses, advise students, administer a research program, and serve on various school committees, and it also expects me to publish research on various public policy issues. I like to think that I'm pulling my weight in each of these areas.
The remainder of my earnings comes from service as the academic consultant to the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, writing this blog, co-editing a book series, and assorted royalties and honoraria (mostly for giving talks or writing articles). The latter, by the way, is almost all from universities or citizens' groups, although I also got some modest compensation for participating (along with a bunch of other scholars) in a workshop series funded by the National Intelligence Council.
So far, nobody has offered me a stake an oil-field. If anybody does, I'll let you know right away.
In Going Rogue Ms. Palin talks perfunctorily about fiscal responsibility and a muscular foreign policy, and more passionately about the importance of energy independence, but she is quite up front about the fact that much of her appeal lies in her just-folks "hockey mom" ordinariness. She pretends no particular familiarity with the Middle East, the Iraq war or Islamic politics -- "I knew the history of the conflict," she writes, "to the extent that most Americans did." And she argues that "there's no better training ground for politics than motherhood."
Yet Mr. McCain's astonishing decision to pick someone with so little experience (less than two years as the governor of Alaska, and before that, two terms as mayor of Wasilla, an Alaskan town with fewer than 7,000 residents) as his running mate underscores just how alarmingly expertise is discounted -- or equated with elitism -- in our increasingly democratized era, and just how thoroughly colorful personal narratives overshadow policy arguments and actual knowledge.
I think Kakutani is right, but I wonder why so many people -- including Senator McCain, Ms. Palin herself, and the other folks who supported her -- seem to think you don't need to know anything to be good at running foreign policy. I doubt if Ms. Palin would let someone perform surgery on one of her children (or even repair her car) simply because they had parenting experience or an entertaining life story. No, she'd want to make sure that the person in question actually knew what they were doing. Virtually all of us normally insist on genuine expertise when we hire anyone to do an important job -- whether it's carpentry or a cardiac bypass -- yet millions of people in this country seem to think that the most momentous decisions about our collective future can be entrusted to people who are sublimely comfortable in their own ignorance.
George Frey/Getty Images
I'm in the UK at a conference, but I came across the following video, courtesy of Newsweek. If you've been doing a Rip Van Winkle or otherwise engaged for the past ten years, here's a quick way to catch up on the first decade of the 21st Century. My thought: "no wonder I'm tired ... it's been a busy ten years."
Two eminent mainstream journalists -- Tom Friedman and Joe Klein -- recently called for United States to disengage from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, on the grounds that Palestinians were too divided to make a deal and the Israelis were not interested in one. Friedman couldn't bring himself to draw the logical conclusion -- if the United States truly going to "disengage," that also means cutting off its economic and military assistance -- but Klein did.
I have a certain sympathy for this position (and even wrote similar things myself before I wised up), but there are two problems with this specific idea. The first is that it is a meaningless prescription: There's no way to cut the aid package (or even put a hold on it, which is what Klein recommends) so long as Congress is in hock to AIPAC and the other groups in the status quo lobby. And unless I've missed something, I doubt groups like J Street would support it either.
Friedman and Klein's statements do convey how discourse in the United States is changing, but the specific recommendation they offer here is a non-starter. Remember: we are dealing with a Congress that just voted to condemn the Goldstone Report by a vote of 344-24. The aid package may be indirectly subsidizing the settlements and threatening Israel’s future as a Jewish majority state, but a supine House and Senate will still sign the annual check.
The second problem, I fear, is that it is too little, too late. Having dithered, delayed and dissembled ever since the Oslo Accords -- while the number of settlers more than doubled -- we are about to face an entirely different problem. The sun is now setting on the "two-state solution" -- if it is not already well below the horizon -- and pretty soon everyone will have to admit that they are sitting around in the dark and pretending they see daylight.
Be careful what you wish for. Israel is going to get what it has long sought: permanent control of the West Bank (along with de facto control over Gaza). The Palestinian Authority is increasingly irrelevant and may soon collapse, General Keith Dayton's mission to train reliable and professional Palestinian security forces will end, and Israel will once again have full responsibility for some 5.2 million Palestinian Arabs under its control. And the issue will gradually shift from the creation of a viable Palestinian state -- which was the central idea behind the Oslo process and the subsequent "Road Map" -- to a struggle for civil and political rights within an Israel that controls all of mandate Palestine. And on what basis could the United States oppose such a campaign, without explicitly betraying its own core values?
In this regard, it was telling that Martin Indyk -- a key figure in the lobby and far from a harsh critic of Israeli policy -- is quoted in the Times saying "more than likely, we are entering a new era." I think he's right, and he sounds worried. He should be, because the Obama administration isn't remotely ready for it.
MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images
Now that Tom Friedman is expressing a few doubts about the Afghan War, David Brooks is ready to take over as cheerleader-in-chief for endless war in Central Asia. In his column today, he claims to have spoken with various "military experts" (without naming any of them, of course), and-surprise, surprise -- all of them channel Brooks' unsupported belief that the only thing that matters in Central Asia is Obama's "determination." There's no analysis, no facts, no weighing of pros and cons, no attempt at cost-benefit analysis, and of course, no sources. Has Brooks bothered to read any of the recent studies of this problem -- including Gen. McChrystal's own assessment -- which make it clear that we face a daunting task? Even those that favor continuing the war understand that victory is far from certain even if we do commit more resources and stay a long time.
This is the kind of "journalism" that gave the Times a black eye over Iraq, and you'd think Brooks (and his editors) would have been chastened by that experience. But I forgot: being a neoconservative pundit means never having to admit error, or apologize for the lives you've helped squander.
The best thing one can say about this piece is that it provides yet another illustration of the behavior that is gradually discrediting mainstream journalism. I read it and immediately thought: "more grist for Glenn Greenwald's mill." Glenn doesn't disappoint.
Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press
I watched the Frontline documentary on Afghanistan ("Obama's War") Tuesday night, and most of my concerns got reinforced. One should watch most documentaries with a skeptical eye, because skilled filmmakers can easily slant the story by omitting any footage that doesn't fit the impression they are trying to leave and by shaping the story in ways that reinforce a particular conclusion.
Nonetheless, the presentation didn't offer much grounds for hope, and even the on-screen advocates of a continued U.S. effort (Gen. Stanley McChrystal, AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke, CNAS President John Nagl, etc.) didn't sound very encouraging. I think McChrystal and maybe even Holbrooke know they've got a loser on their hands, and were operating in damage-limitation mode. As others have noted, the on-screen interviews with Pakistani officials made it clear that they are playing a double-game here; they've been in bed with the Afghan Taliban for years and are even less reliable partners than the Karzai government, no matter how much aid we dump on them. To believe we can eke out something resembling "victory" in these circumstances is like believing one could drain the Atlantic Ocean with a teaspoon. And watching the footage of U.S. Marines attempting to do the impossible made me admire their dedication and raw courage and resent like hell the strategic myopia that sent them on this fool's errand.
Remember that the main justification for our counterinsurgency campaign is the "safe haven" argument: We must defeat the Taliban to prevent Al Qaeda from regaining a sanctuary there. A recent presentation by Richard Barrett, coordinator of the United Nations' Al Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, suggests that this may not be much of a problem (h/t: John Mueller).
Money quotes (from pp. 17 and 23 of the PDF file):
p. 17: "If I could just talk a little bit about Afghanistan and al-Qaida, the link between al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban is a historic one but not a very strong one, in my view. The Afghan Taliban have their own objectives. And their objectives are to take power in Afghanistan. Essentially, it's a local issue for them. Al-Qaida can join the party; fine, they can help them, but to a certain extent, al-Qaida doesn't help them because if – and I think Mullah Omar's made this very clear – if they take over in Afghanistan, they want to consolidate their power. They don't want to be kicked out again like they were in 2001. And to consolidate their power, they don't want al-Qaida hanging around. They want to be able to say we are a responsible government; we're not going to support anybody who meddles in the business of our neighbors or in other international countries or partners.
Well, you might say well, they'd say that anyway; why wouldn't they – why shouldn't they say that? But I don't think they lose a lot if they don't say that. They don't gain a lot by saying it and they don't lose a lot by not saying it. So I think that we could possibly think that we might take them at the face value – that they would not automatically allow Afghanistan to become a base for al-Qaida…"
p. 23: "I'm not sure that if the Taliban took over in Afghanistan that they would necessarily welcome al-Qaida back in great forces, particularly if al-Qaida was going back there to set up camps to train people to mount attacks against other countries. I think the Taliban must calculate that had it not been for 9/11 they'd still be empowering Kabul now today, that no one would have come to kick them out. It was only 9/11 that caused them to lose power. So you know, they lost all that time, and if they get back they perhaps don't want to make that same mistake again."
If the Frontline report was mostly accurate and Barrett is mostly correct, there are no good strategic reasons to wage a costly counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. It's no more the "good war" than Iraq was, and Obama is deluding himself if he thinks he can achieve a meaningful victory there.
Postscript: If Obama wants a more promising strategy -- and Lord knows he should -- he should take a look at Robert Pape's op-ed in today's New York Times. Readers here know that I'm in favor of the "offshore balancing" strategy that Pape outlines, and not just in Afghanistan. I believe we will eventually head in that directon, but as Winston Churchill once noted about America, only after "trying all the alternatives."
Talking Points Memo reports that a host of prominent right-wing pundits-- including those Very Serious People at the Weekly Standard -- could not have been more delighted when the International Olympic Committee ousted Chicago during the first round of the voting for the 2012 Olympics. When the decision was announced, the editor reported, "cheers erupted."
As readers here know, I thought it was a mistake for Obama to get involved in this issue, and I predicted that the "right-wing smear machine" would try to exploit it. But hosting the Olympics would almost certainly have been a boon for Chicago -- a great American city -- and good for the United States overall. So why were these right-wing apparatchiks cheering?
Simple. They were happy because they could not care less about the actual United States of America or ordinary American citizens: What they care about is their privileged positions, political clout, and personal income. And those things depend on trashing the Democrats and trying to get the GOP back in power no matter what it takes, which at the present means seizing any pretext to bash President Obama. So if the IOC decision makes Obama look bad, they are for it, even if it means fewer jobs for Americans in the Midwest and less prestige for the country as a whole.
Am I being too harsh? Here’s a simple test: Have any of these organizations of individuals issued an apology for their selfish and sophomoric behavior? The Weekly Standard removed a post from its Web site describing the cheers that filled their offices when Chicago lost, but that's a sign of embarrassment, not remorse. Right-wing gasbag Rush Limbaugh was openly unrepentant, saying, "For those of you ... who are upset that I sound gleeful, I am. I don't deny it. I'm happy."
So the next time you see or hear William Kristol or Rush Limbaugh wrapping themselves in the flag and waxing eloquent about how much they love "America," just remember: They were happy when the United States lost.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Yesterday, the New York Times online service hosted a "debate" about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, in response to the leaking of commanding general Stanley McChrystal's memo stating that more troops were necessary to avoid defeat. Unfortunately, the six people they asked to debate the issue (Gretchen Peters, James Morin, Vanda Feldab-Brown, Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, and Kori Schake) all seemed to be open supporters of the U.S. military commitment there. So when asked "how should additional troops be deployed? What types of specialized personnel are needed now?" none of the Times's chosen panel responded by saying "more troops are not the answer." In short, the six panelists managed to avoid the real question that President Obama (and the nation) faces: should the United States increase its presence in the hopes of reversing the situation, or should it cut its losses and get out? Would it really have been so bad to have at least one genuine skeptic of the war included among the respondents?
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
Late empires are known for several things: a self-obsessed, self-serving governing class, small over-reaching wars that bankrupt the Treasury, debt that balloons until retreat from global power becomes not a choice but a necessity, and a polity unable to address reasonably any of these questions -- or how the increasing corruption of the media enables them all.
Obama is, in some ways, a test-case.
He was elected on a clear platform of reform and change; and yet the only real achievement Washington has allowed him so far is a massive stimulus package to prevent a Second Great Depression (and even on that emergency measure, no Republicans would support him). On that he succeeded. But that wasn't reform; it was a crash landing after one of the worst administrations in America's history.
Real reform -- tackling health care costs and access, finding a way to head off massive changes in the world's climate, ending torture as the lynchpin of the war on terror, getting out of Iraq, preventing an Israeli-led Third World War in the Middle East, and reforming entitlements and defense spending to prevent 21st century America from becoming 17th Century Spain: these are being resisted by those who have power and do not want to relinquish it -- except to their own families and cronies.
Nepotism is part of the problem; media corruption is also part; the total uselessness of the Democratic party and the nihilism of the Republicans doesn't help. But something is rotten in America at this moment in time; and those of us who supported Obama to try and change this decay and decline should use this fall to get off our butts and fight for change."
Wish I'd said that. And it makes me wonder: would Obama agree with the above (meaning he is a reluctant prisoner of well-entrenched interests), or is he is part of the problem too?
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images
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)
Via Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, we learned yesterday that Stars and Stripes has reported that journalists seeking to "embed" with U.S. forces in Afghanistan are being vetted by the Rendon Group, the controversial consulting group that helped the Iraqi National Congress spread disinformation about Iraqi WMD in the run-up to the Iraq War. Rendon reportedly "examines individual reporters' recent work and determines whether the coverage was "positive," "negative" or "neutral.'" The article also quotes an Air Force public affairs officer saying that no reporters have been denied access, but says that the policy "is so we know with whom we're working."
It's hard not to see this as a not-too-subtle attempt to bolster public support for the war by spinning coverage (the more you know about a reporter's proclivities, the more you can try to mold what they write). And that makes me wonder if the situation there is even worse than the mainstream media coverage suggests (which is worrisome enough).
Last week, the Los Angeles Times published a courageous and moving op-ed entitled "Boycott Israel" by Israeli political scientist Neve Gordon, in which he reluctantly endorsed the "Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions" (BDS) campaign against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Gordon is a tenured lecturer and department head at Ben Gurion University, and the author of several important scholarly works, including the recent book Israel's Occupation (2008). He is a committed Zionist who was wounded during his military service in an elite IDF paratroop unit. He is also a long-time member of the peace camp in Israel.
In his op-ed, Gordon argued that Israel is at an historic crossroads and that "massive international pressure" is the only way that Israel "can be saved from itself." For this reason, he says, he reluctantly supports the BDS campaign, "to ensure that Israel respects its obligations under international law and that Palestinians are granted the right to self-determination."
As one would expect, his article has provoked a firestorm of controversy. Israel's consul-general in Los Angeles wrote a letter to the president of Ben-Gurion University, Dr. Rivka Carmi, warning that Gordon's remarks could undermine fund-raising efforts. He suggested that the university create a Center for Zionist studies to "help dispel the lies disseminated by Gordon in the name of your university." But instead of defending the core principle of academic freedom, President Carmi said that Gordon's views were "destructive," "morally reprehensible," and an "abuse [of] the freedom of speech prevailing in Israel and at BGU." Even more disturbingly, she went on to say that "academics who entertain such resentment toward their country are welcome to consider another professional and personal home." A spokesman for the university added "We're proud to have a full range of political views at the university, and I want to live in a country that protects freedom of speech, but Gordon’s remarks are beyond the pale.”
I have three comments. First, as Richard Silverstein points out in his own blog, neither President Carmi nor her spokesperson seem to understand what academic freedom is all about. The tenure system and the principle of academic freedom exists for one main reason: to permit academics to say what they think without fear of retribution (provided, of course, that they aren't advocating a violent crime or some equally heinous act). Reasonable people can take issue with what Gordon wrote, of course, but nothing he said is even remotely near the boundaries of acceptable discourse in a democracy that values free speech and academic freedom. I'm not quarreling with President Carmi's right to disagree with Gordon; I'm just saying that her statements are at odds with the core principle of academic freedom, a principle that senior academic administrators are supposed to defend. She can't fire him, of course, but for her to call his op-ed an "an abuse of freedom of speech" was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on discourse. And trying to stifle the free exchange of ideas is not what we normally expect university presidents to do.
Second, this incident illustrates the harmful effects that the occupation is having on Israel itself. As opinions harden and the Israeli body politic moves rightward, dissenting voices inevitably get squelched or encouraged to leave the country. Any and all criticisms of Israel's conduct get attributed to either enduring anti-Semitism (when made by gentiles) or labeled as treason or "self-hatred" (when made by Jews). Israel's universities, once a legitimate source of national pride, become more and more politicized, with faculty expected to stay within the "acceptable" national consensus and with donors encouraged to fund programs intended to propagandize rather than enlighten.
Third, this sort of thing is going to become more widespread as long as the occupation continues. If we don't get a two-state solution soon, Israel will be stuck running an apartheid system in the Occupied Territories and inflicting additional suffering on its Palestinian subjects. Defenders of the status quo in Israel and abroad will have to rely on more elaborate rationalizations and forms of deception to defend this situation, and they will wind up denouncing critics in increasingly harsh terms. This situation won’t be good for anyone, but that's where we are headed if current efforts to bring about a two-state solution fail.
I might add that I dont support the "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement" myself. This is partly because I'm uncomfortable with even mild forms of collective punishment and partly because, like Gordon himself, I do worry about the double-standard issue (i.e., if you think it's ok to boycott Israel, why not China or Burma or any number of other countries?). And I'm especially leery of efforts to interfere with academic exchanges, because I don't like anything that interferes with free speech or obstructs the free flow of ideas. But I respect Gordon's motives and his op-ed did make me wonder: what if he's correct and this is in fact the only way to get a two-state solution? Making people think is something scholars are supposed to do, right?
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As attention remains riveted on Iran, readers should not miss two important pieces on the Israel-Palestine front. The first is Tony Judt's blockbuster op-ed from today's New York Times, which demolishes most of the myths about Israel's "settlements" and calls them -- all of them -- what they are: illegal.
My only difference with Judt's analysis -- and it is a minor one -- is his suggestion that Israeli leaders have repeatedly "hoodwinked" American officials about the nature of the settlement enterprise. That may be true of George W. Bush, who seemed to accept Ariel Sharon's world-view rather uncritically, but it's not true of most of Bush's predecessors. Every U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson formally opposed the creation of settlements, and some administrations (e.g., Richard Nixon's) also referred to them as contrary to international law. And even George W. Bush repeatedly called on Israel to stop expanding the settlements, to little avail, of course.
The real problem has been that no president has been able to put sustained pressure on Israel to stop building settlements, because to do so would trigger reflexive opposition from AIPAC and the other hard-line elements in the Israel lobby. Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush both took on the lobby and were able to make some modest progress, but both paid a significant price for doing so. Subsequent U.S. presidents have effectively sub-contracted their Middle East policy to individuals (e.g., Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk under Clinton and Elliott Abrams under Bush) who were connected to key groups in the lobby and personally opposed to putting any pressure on Israel, so it's hardly surprising that settlement expansion continued even though it was contrary to official U.S. policy. Moreover, as the Washington Post recently reported, the State Department issued an opinion in 1979 that the settlements were "inconsistent with international law." That opinion, the Post reports, "has never been revoked or revised." But it has been ignored.
The result of all this, as Judt makes clear, has been to "create facts" that make a two-state solution increasingly difficult -- and maybe impossible -- to achieve. But don't forget former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's warning: "If the two-state solution collapses, Israel will face a South African style struggle for political rights." If Israel continues on its present trajectory, in other words, it will become an apartheid state. And once that happens, Olmert said, "The state of Israel is finished." By turning a blind eye towards the settlement project for decades, in short, Israel's so-called "friends" helped pave the road to a very bleak future.
Judt will undoubtedly receive the usual denunciations from hardliners committed to defending the status quo; we can expect the usual retorts in the letters' section from Abe Foxman of the ADL or David Harris of the AJC. But anyone with a genuine commitment to Israel's future should welcome his honest and eloquent piece. And the Times deserves credit for running it.
The second piece is a terrific commentary by Helena Cobban on the internal paralysis within the Palestinian national movement, and especially the current weakness of Fatah. Most people already know that Fatah and Hamas are bitter enemies, and that this rift is an obstacle to peace. But Cobban shows that the problems are in fact deeper than that, and will require sustained attention to repair.
The dysfunctional nature of current Palestinian leadership has many origins, and lots of different groups bear responsibility for it. As Rashid Khalid documents in The Iron Cage, the British did their best to decapitate the Palestinian Arab community during the 1936-1939 Arab revolt, and the expulsion of the Palestinians at the hands of the Zionists/Israelis in 1948 further decimated and divided the community. The Arab states subsequently reinforced these divisions by backing competing Palestinian factions in order to advance their own selfish interests. Key PLO leaders -- including Yasser Arafat -- made serious blunders themselves. Israel also did its best to reinforce Palestinian disunity by aiding Hamas in the late 1980s and by arresting or assassinating Palestinian leaders, and especially anyone who looked like they might be legitimate leader and capable foe. Given the various forces that have worked to keep the Palestinians weak and divided, it would be shocking if their leadership were not problematic.
But if our goal is peace, then we need strong and legitimate leaders on both sides. It follows that if Israel wants a durable peace, it has an interest in doing everything it can to strengthen Palestinian leaders. As Barack Obama clearly understands, halting settlement expansion and removing the hundreds of checkpoints that are strangling Palestinian daily life would be an important step in both symbolic and practical terms. Agreement on the basic principles of a two-state solution -- starting with an agreement on borders -- would strengthen moderate leaders and force Hamas to choose between being part of the peace process or being increasingly irrelevant to the Palestinian future. Today, Israel's long-term interests are advanced not by encouraging division and rancor on the other side but by helping foster a greater sense of national unity and the creation of strong and effective Palestinian institutions. The multinational effort to train Palestinian security forces (under the leadership of U.S. general Keith Dayton) is a step in the right direction, but it will only succeed if viable statehood in the near future is a realistic possibility.
When making war, it is good to face an adversary who is weak and divided. But when it comes time to make peace, it is best if one's former foe is competent, legitimate, efficient, and able to live up to its commitments. Convincing Israelis of that radical but rather obvious idea will be one of Barack Obama's most important tasks.
My point was about not recognizing now. As to the future, we have to see what it brings. A day is a long time right now in Iranian politics. So let's take this one day at a time for now."
Fine by me. And his blog has been a fascinating read since the election, not least for his spirited debunking of a lot of foolish neoconservative posturing on these events.
How should we respond to North Korea's unconscionable decision to sentence two American journalists to twelve years at hard labor? North Korea has a history of using prisoners as bargaining chips or for propaganda purposes (as it did with the crew of the USS Pueblo, which it seized back in 1968), or as a way to get far more powerful countries to make symbolic apologies or concessions. This tactic shouldn't surprise us: when you are as weak as the Hermit Kingdom, facing the possibility of more intrusive sanctions, and apparently in the midst of a succession struggle of some kind, trying to find some way to get Uncle Sam to do your bidding is probably hard to resist.
But the louder we protest, the more domestic benefits the regime gets and the greater their incentive to extract the maximum prestige by prolonging the journalists' incarceration. North Korea wants this story on page one and wants Obama to pay lots of attention to them, but we don’t have to play that game. In fact, we want to remind them that we've got lots of more important countries to deal with and we just don't have much to say to them anymore. Once they are ready to release the captives, they know how to reach us. Pyongyang might demand some sort of apology or statement of regret from Washington (as it received when it finally repatriated the Pueblo's crew), and if that's all it would take to get the journalists released, then we ought to go ahead and give it to them. The good news is that we could say almost anything they asked and nobody outside of North Korea would believe we actually meant it. In fact, the more abject and absurd the apology, the less credible it would be and the less actual harm it would do to our image.
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I watched the Men's final at the French Open tennis tournament yesterday, and I was struck by the dominance of: 1) Roger Federer, who won his 14th Grand Slam tournament handily, and 2) the English language. The announcer at *Roland Garros* Stadium reported the scores en francais and French TV apparently got the first courtside interview with Federer after the match (while NBC took a commercial break), but Federer and Swedish runner-up Robin Soderling gave their acceptance speeches in English (with a French translation for the crowd). One imagines the spirit of Charles de Gaulle whirring rapidly in his tomb, not to mention the "Immortals" in L'Academie francaise.
It’s possible that Robin Soderling (the Swedish runner-up) spoke to the crowd in English because he doesn't speak French. But Federer reportedly speaks fluent French, German, and Swiss-German, as well as English, so why wasn’t he addressing the local crowd in their native tongue?
My guess is that this was dictated by the global TV market, and by the growing position of English as the lingua franca of contemporary globalization. The tournament was being watched all over the world, and English is the language that would be understood by the greatest number of potential viewers world-wide.
Americans sometimes view the dominant position of English as another component of America's "soft power," but that view is simplistic chauvinism. With English becoming a "universal" language, no single country will own it or be able to regulate its content. Instead, it will continue to evolve as most languages do, incorporating new words, spellings, and grammatical practices from an wide variety of sources. If they haven't started already, American xenophobes are going to start complaining soon about the corruption of "standard English" by all these foreign influences. For an interesting collection of views on this topic, check out the "Freakonomics" discussion here.
Of course, this whole discussion may be moot, given the damage that email, text-messaging, and Twitter feeds are already doing to civilized discourse. Or does that comment make me sound like a technophobe?
*P.S.: Bonus points for anyone who knows who Roland Garros was without looking up the link. Answer: Garros was a French aeronautical pioneer, who developed an armored propeller that allowed the use of a forward-firing machine gun for aerial combat during World War I. His system predated the more effective synchronization device later perfected by the Dutch/German Anthony Fokker. Garros was captured by the Germans in 1915, later escaped, and eventually shot down and killed in 1918. The stadium for which he is named occupies the site of a tennis academy that he attended.
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In general, I think the Obama/Netanyahu meetings went pretty much as I expected. I've also been struck by the Rashomon-like quality of the commentary on the event, which reminds me of the way that politicians react after campaign debates (their candidate always won). People who want the United States to be more evenhanded saw signs of discord and emphasize the clear differences between the two men on the Palestinian issue; those who favor the status quo on Israel-Palestine highlight the partial agreement on Iran (both men regard its nuclear program as a bad thing, albeit with different degrees of alarm).
The fact that different people can so easily read different meanings into this event is not surprising; both men had little incentive for an overt clash despite their obvious differences. That that's what diplomatic ambiguity is all about. As I suggested yesterday, we won't really know where U.S.-Israeli relations are headed unless and until Obama spells out own vision of a peace settlement in some detail, and until we learn whether Obama is willing to use U.S. leverage to bring it about. Stay tuned.
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Last summer, the Israeli government announced a new effort to "rebrand" the country in the eyes of the world, and it hired a prominent British public relations firm to help out. In addition to various forms of cultural outreach designed to highlight Israel's achievements, this effort included having a men’s magazine publish a photo spread of several women from the IDF (including the former Miss Israel) in various fetching poses, a decision that didn't go over all that well back in Israel itself. You can read all about it here, here, or here.
The Gaza operation, the sham peace process, and the recent election of the Netanyahu/Lieberman government aren’t making the "rebranding" effort any easier, of course. And if you want to know why this new hasbara campaign isn’t likely to work, start by reading English journalist and military historian Max Hastings's sobering account, published last week in the Guardian. Drawn from an appearance in Balliol College's Leonard Stein lecture series, Hastings recounts his own evolution from an enthusiastic cheerleader for Israel to a disillusioned critic who strongly supports Israel’s existence but openly opposes many of its present policies. Where once he "loved those people, and boundlessly admired their achievement," he now describes himself as "one of those foreigners who progressively fell out of love with Israel." I know the feeling.
The problem, as Hastings makes clear, is the reality of the occupation and the brutal treatment of the Palestinians that goes hand-in-hand with it. This situation can't be disguised by more energetic public relations efforts. There are too many video cameras and human rights groups documenting Israel's actions -- including Israeli groups like B’tselem. There are too many bloggers willing to write about the conflict from varying perspectives, and too many scholars and journalists like Hastings -- plus a growing number in the United States -- who no longer accept the outdated image of Israel as a plucky and virtuous David facing a looming and bloodthirsty Arab Goliath. That image was easy to sell in 1948, perhaps, and it remained fairly convincing after the Arab states offered the infamous "Three Nos" at the 1967 Khartoum summit. But it's a much tougher sell after Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, after Gaza in 2008-2009, and after the Saudi and Arab League peace proposals in 2002 and 2007 don't even elicit an official response from Jerusalem.
Israel's achievements over the past sixty-one years are undeniable, and the officials responsible for the rebranding campaign won't have any trouble finding artists, athletes, scientists and entrepreneurs to write feel-good stories about. But the dark side of the story won’t go away -- 40-plus years of an increasingly brutal occupation, the construction of the apartheid wall (or if you prefer,"separation fence"), much of outside the 1967 borders, thousands of dead Palestinian civilians, a series of failed wars since 1982, and the repeated squandering of genuine opportunities to make peace. And every year the number of settlers grows. I don't hold Israel solely responsible for this tragedy, but they are neither powerless nor blameless.
As Hastings observes, more in sadness than in anger, these policies have also had a deeply corrosive effect on Israeli society itself. In his words, "Morally, if not militarily, [the IDF] is a shadow of the force which fought in 1948, 1956, 1967, or 1973." Not to mention rising political corruption, the polarization of the body politic, once-impressive universities in decline, and a worrisome tendency for younger Israelis to seek careers abroad. In an era when information flows freely and where anyone with an internet link can read Ha'aretz, the Jerusalem Post, the Daily Star, the Guardian, etc., the Israeli Foreign Ministry is not going to control the story.
In fact, trying to "rebrand" Israel through a one-sided PR campaign could be counterproductive, because offering a uniformly sunny image that leaves out much of the story just undermines the credibility of the messenger. My sense is that few Israelis believe Shimon Peres anymore, and I doubt many of them think Benjamin Netanyahu means it when he says he’s interested in a genuine peace. It's like when Bush and Cheney declared that United States doesn't torture, Bill Clinton told us that he "didn’t have sex with that woman," or Richard Nixon said "I am not a crook." After awhile, smart listeners learn not to accept anything they're told without double-checking it themselves. Even worse, when they hear one thing, they start to assume that the opposite is probably true.
Some readers may think that Hastings is employing a double-standard, or that he is "singling Israel out" for criticism. They could point out that Israel's adversaries have often lied or prevaricated too, and that they have done plenty of brutal things themselves. They could also remind us that Israel's neighbors are hardly models of tolerance or open discourse and that there is a far more open debate about these issues within Israel than there is in Jordan or Saudi Arabia or Syria. I agree, and the willingness of some Israelis to confront the past honestly and to question its present policies remains an admirable feature of Israeli society.
But there is no double-standard at work here, and comparisons with states whose behavior may be worse miss the point. Israel's actions are not being judged against the conduct of a Sudan or Burma, but by the standards that people in the West apply to all democracies. It is the standard Americans expect of allies who want to have a "special relationship" with us. It is the standard Israel imposes on itself when it tells everyone it is "the only democracy in the Middle East." Israel is being expected to behave like Britain or Canada or France or Japan and not like some one-party military dictatorship, and it is certainly expected not to deny full political and civil rights to millions of Palestinians who now live under its constant control. These other democracies eventually gave up their colonial enterprises; Israel is still trying to consolidate its own.
As Americans have learned in recent years, whenever any country fails to live up to its own professed values, it is going to lose friends and admirers around the world. Barack Obama understood that he couldn’t restore America’s image in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the Bush torture regime by trying to change the subject or by talking about some cool or virtuous things Americans had done. ("OK, we tortured some people and invaded Iraq on false pretences, but weren’t the Founding Fathers great, aren't Tiger Woods and Kelly Clarkson amazing, and have you seen that new Star Trek movie?"). The way a country regains the world’s admiration in the aftermath of misconduct is to stop doing it, admit it was wrong, express regret, and make it clear that it won't happen again. Restoring Israel's image in the West isn't a matter of spin or PR or "rebranding;" it's a matter of abandoning the policies that have cost it the sympathy it once enjoyed. It's really just about that simple.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.