Permit me to indulge today in a bit of speculation, for which I don't have a lot of hard evidence. As I read this article yesterday on Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war, I began to wonder whether U.S. involvement in that conflict isn't more substantial than I have previously thought. And then I did a bit of web surfing and found this story, which seemed to confirm my suspicions. Here's my chain of reasoning:
1. The Syrian conflict has become a proxy fight between the opposition and its various allies (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey, etc.) and Bashar al-Assad's regime and its various outsider supporters (Iran, Russia, Hezbollah).
2. For Washington, this war has become a golden opportunity to inflict a strategic defeat on Iran and its various local allies and thus shift the regional balance of power in a pro-American direction.
3. Israel's calculations are more complicated, given that it had a good working relationship with the Assad regime and is concerned about a failed state emerging next door. But on balance, a conflict that undermines Iran, further divides the Arab/Islamic world, and distracts people from the continued colonization of the West Bank is a net plus. So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't object if the United States gets more deeply engaged.
4. Consistent with its buck-passing instincts, Barack Obama's administration does not want to play a visible role in the conflict. This is partly because Americans are rightly tired of trying to govern war-torn countries, but also because America isn't very popular in the region and anyone who gets too close to the United States might actually lose popular support. So no boots on the ground, no "no-fly zones," and no big, highly visible shipments of U.S. arms. Instead, Washington can use Qatar and Saudi Arabia as its middlemen, roles they are all too happy to play for their own reasons.
5. Since taking office, Obama has shown a marked preference for covert actions that don't cost too much and don't attract much publicity, combined with energetic efforts to prosecute leakers. So an energetic covert effort in Syria would be consistent with past practice. Although there have been news reports that the CIA is involved in vetting and/or advising some opposition groups, we still don't know just how deeply involved the U.S. government is. (There has been a bit of speculation in the blogosphere that the attack on Benghazi involved "blowback" from the Syrian conflict, but I haven't seen any hard evidence to support this idea.)
6. In this scenario, the Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks' demands for airstrikes, "no-fly zones," or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is.
To repeat: The above analysis is mostly speculative on my part. I have no concrete evidence that the full scenario sketched above is correct, and I don't know what the level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war really is. But that's what troubles me: I don't like not knowing what my government is doing, allegedly to make me safer or to advance someone's idea of the "national interest." And if you're an American, neither should you. If the United States is now orchestrating a lot of arms shipments, trying to pick winners among the opposition, sending intelligence information to various militias, and generally meddling in a very complicated and uncertain conflict, don't you think the president owes us a more complete account of what America's public servants are or are not doing, and why?
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Guest post by Daryl G. Press and Jennifer Lind
With reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, many U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts have called for U.S. military intervention there. They quote President Obama's previous statements referring to chemical weapons use as an unacceptable crossing of a "red line." This is unsurprising: Every time analysts and leaders call for war, they warn that inaction will jeopardize America's credibility. What is more surprising, however, is how little evidence there is for this view.
What has actually transpired in Syria remains unclear (especially with a new claim that Syria rebels may have used nerve gas), but the possibility that Syria crossed the administration's "red line" has brought calls for U.S. military action. "The credibility of the United States is on the line," declared Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, "not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the president backs up his words with action." (Many others have made similar arguments, for example here and here.)
To be sure, for a country like the United States -- which seeks to assure allies and deter adversaries around the globe -- credibility is a precious asset. Credibility -- the belief held by others that a country will carry out its threats and promises -- is the difference between deterring attacks and having to wage war to repel them.
But how do countries build credibility? Those who favor intervention in Syria assert that credibility comes from having a reputation for keeping commitments. The "smoking gun" evidence for this view can allegedly be found in a 1939 speech in which Adolf Hitler explained to his generals why he felt emboldened to invade Poland. He dismissed French and British threats, mocking them for their concessions at the Munich Conference: "Our enemies are worms," he scoffed, "I saw them at Munich."
Hitler's quote, and the so-called "Munich Analogy," has come to embody the danger of breaking commitments and featured prominently in U.S. decisions to defend South Korea in 1950 and later to fight (and stay) in Vietnam. Since then, the fear of losing credibility helped propel the United States into conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya.
The problem is that there's little evidence that supports the view that countries' record for keeping commitments determines their credibility. Jonathan Mercer, in his book Reputation and International Politics, examined a series of crises leading up to World War I and found that backing down did not cause one's adversaries to discount one's credibility.
In another book, Daryl Press examined a series of Cold War crises between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. From 1958 to 1961, Nikita Khrushchev repeatedly threatened to cut off NATO's access to West Berlin. Each time, the deadlines passed and Khrushchev failed to carry out his threats.
If backing down damages credibility, Khrushchev's credibility should have been plummeting, but the deliberations of American and British leaders show that his credibility steadily grew throughout this period. And a year after the 1961 Berlin confrontation, when the same American decision-makers confronted Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they took his threats very seriously. Senior U.S. leaders were convinced that Khrushchev would respond to any forceful U.S. act against Cuba with an immediate Soviet attack against Berlin. Four years of backing down had not damaged Soviet credibility in the least.
Documents from American and British archives reveal that when NATO leaders tried to assess the credibility of Soviet threats, they didn't focus on the past. Instead, they looked at Khrushchev's current threat and the current circumstances and asked themselves two simple questions. Can he do it? And would it serve his interests?
In the eyes of the Macmillan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy governments, Soviet credibility was growing -- despite Khrushchev's bluster -- simply because Soviet power was expanding. Power and interests in the here-and-now determine credibility, not what one did in different circumstances in the past.
Even the canonical case for reputational arguments -- Hitler's dismissal of French and British threats in 1939 -- shows that credibility stems from power and interests. When Hitler told his generals why the British and French would not oppose him when he invaded Poland, he listed seven reasons, every one of which was about the balance of power. The "worms" quote was a throwaway line after a detailed analysis of the balance of military power and Poland's indefensibility.
Advocates of intervention in Syria worry that a failure to act will embolden U.S. adversaries around the world. But if Kim Jong Un is trying to figure out whether or not the United States would defend South Korea, he will notice that Washington and Seoul have been allies for more than six decades, and that with the rise of China, the United States is increasing its focus on East Asia. The notion that Kim would interpret U.S. reluctance to stop a humanitarian disaster in Syria as a green light to conquer a major U.S. ally strains credulity.
Similarly, leaders in Tehran assessing U.S. threats to strike their nuclear facilities will weigh America's clear interest in nuclear nonproliferation against the real limitations of airstrikes against Iran's deeply buried nuclear facilities. American reluctance to support various extremist rebels in Syria is unlikely to enter into Iran's calculus.
As the civil war in Syria unfolds, the United States may eventually decide to intervene. U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts might make the case (which we disagree with) to join the fighting in order to stop the humanitarian disaster, to contain regional instability, or to secure U.S. influence with the post-Assad Syrian government. But the case for U.S. military intervention should not rest on a bogus theory about signaling resolve to Khamenei and Kim. American credibility lies elsewhere.
Daryl G. Press is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and coordinator of War and Peace Studies at Dartmouth’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. Jennifer Lind is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. Follow her on Twitter @profLind.
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Today's example of sloppy journalism comes from the exalted pages of the New York Times. Here's the key passage, from an article reporting recent poll results showing that the American people are not enthusiastic about intervention in Syria:
"Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."
Got that? If you're one of those people with doubts about the wisdom of intervening in Syria, you're an "isolationist." At a minimum, you're "exhibiting an isolationist streak."
A degree of prudent skepticism about the wisdom of entering the Syrian morasse is not isolationism, of course. Genuine isolationism would mean severing our security ties with the rest of the world and focusing solely on defending sovereign U.S. territory. Genuine isolationism means ending U.S. alliance commitments in Europe and Asia and telling our various Middle Eastern allies that they were going to have to defend themselves instead of relying on help from Uncle Sam. Genuine isolationism would eliminate the vast military forces that we buy and prepare for overseas intervention and focus instead on defending American soil. Real isolationists favor radical cuts to the defense budget (on the order of 50 percent or more) and would rely on nuclear deterrence and continental defense to preserve U.S. independence. And the most extreme isolationists would favor reducing foreign trade and immigration, getting out of the U.N. and other institutions, and trying to cut the United States off from the rest of the world.
The overwhelming majority of people who have doubts about the wisdom of deeper involvement in Syria -- including yours truly -- are not "isolationist." They are merely sensible people who recognize that we may not have vital interests there, that deeper involvement may not lead to a better outcome and could make things worse, and who believe that the last thing the United States needs to do is to get dragged into yet another nasty sectarian fight in the Arab/Islamic world. But many of these same skeptics still favor American engagement in key strategic areas, support maintaining a strong defense capability, and see some U.S. allies as assets rather than liabilities.
Hawks like to portray opponents of military intervention as "isolationist" because they know it is a discredited political label. Yet there is a coherent case for a more detached and selective approach to U.S. grand strategy, and one reason that our foreign policy establishment works so hard to discredit is their suspicion that a lot of Americans might find it convincing if they weren't constantly being reminded about looming foreign dangers in faraway places. The arguments in favor of a more restrained grand strategy are far from silly, and the approach makes a lot more sense to than neoconservatives' fantasies of global primacy or liberal hawks' fondness for endless quasi-humanitarian efforts to reform whole regions.
Bottom line: The Times did its readers a disservice by using the pejorative term "isolationism" in such a sloppy fashion. As Brad DeLong likes to say: "Why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?"
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Does the possibility (likelihood?) that Syrian government forces have used sarin gas strengthen the case for military intervention or at least great U.S. involvement?
Pro-intervention hawks like Sen. John McCain certainly think so and have been quick to remind everyone that President Obama called chemical weapons use a "red line." But McCain has been a vocal advocate of greater U.S. action for quite some time, which suggests that the use of chemical weapons hasn't really altered his thinking at all. Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that far more sensible commentators -- such as former CIA analyst Emile Nakhleh -- also view these reports as an additional reason to topple Assad sooner rather than later.
But why? Nobody should be pleased that Assad's forces (may) have used chemical weapons, but it is not obvious to me why the choice of weapon being used is a decisive piece of information that tips the balance in favor of the pro-intervention hawks. It's been obvious for decades that the entire Assad regime was nasty, and it's been equally clear that the government forces were using lots of destructive military force to suppress the opposition. How else did 70-80,000 Syrians die over the past two years? It's not as though Assad has been acting with great restraint and sensitivity to civilian casualties and then suddenly decided to unleash sarin gas. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks, or chemical weapons? Dead is dead no matter how it is done.
The case against direct U.S. intervention never depended on believing that Assad was anything but a thug; rather, it rested first and foremost on the fear that intervention might make things worse rather than better. Specifically, it has rested on the interrelated concerns that 1) the fall of the Assad regime might unleash an anarchy of competing factions and warlords, 2) the opposition to Assad contained a number of extremist groups whose long-term agendas were worrisome, and 3) pouring more weapons into a society in the midst of a brutal civil war would create another Afghanistan, Iraq, or 1970s-era Lebanon. These prudential concerns still apply, irrespective of the weaponry Assad's forces have chosen to employ. And if his forces have used chemical weapons, then one might even argue that it raises the risks of intervention and thus strengthens the case against it.
This is not an open-and-shut issue, and there are obvious points to make on the other side. Obama did suggest that chemical weapons use might be a "red line," in what was a fairly transparent attempt to deter Assad from going down that road. So one might argue that Washington would incur some loss of credibility if it does not respond now. Although I think we routinely exaggerate concerns about our credibility, that doesn't mean that it is of no concern at all. Nonetheless, Obama's prior statements do not require any particular response, and the administration certainly shouldn't do something unwise simply because it feels it has to do something.
One might also argue that chemical weapons are a form of WMD and that allowing Assad to get away with their use will undercut the existing taboo against these weapons. There's a case for that point of view, but I think it exaggerates the supposedly "unique" lethality of chemical weapons. Sarin is very bad stuff, but it is not like a nuclear weapon. Nor should we forget that governments can sometimes kill lots of people using rather simple weapons -- in the Rwandan genocide, they did it with machetes -- and the overwhelming number of deaths in Syria have occurred through conventional means.
Like Senator McCain, I find my position on this issue unchanged by the revelations about possible chemical weapons use. I still see Syria as a tragically vexing policy question. It is heart-wrenching to see what is happening there and the instinct to "do something" is understandable, but the downsides to direct or indirect military involvement remain formidable. I certainly think we should be doing more to help refugees and to minimize the destabilizing effects of the carnage on Syria's neighbors. I am all in favor of continued diplomatic pressure on Russia and China to end their support for Assad, and the chemical weapons report may provide additional leverage on that point. (See here for some useful thoughts along those lines). But I hope that Obama doesn't allow himself to be bullied into doing a lot more simply because of these reports, unless he is convinced that doing more now reduce the risks later on.
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If you want evidence of the tunnel vision that continues to dominate U.S. national security thinking, check out David Sanger's news analysis yesterday on the "lessons" of Iraq. Sanger checks in with various former policymakers to explore the different implications one might draw from the Iraq experience for the current situation in Syria.
As expected, there is some difference of opinion expressed by the various people that Sanger interviewed. But what's striking is how the entire discussion of "lessons" revolves around tactical issues, and none of the people quoted in the article raise larger questions about how the United States is defining its role in the world or the broader goals it is trying to accomplish. Instead, they debate the reliability of pre-war intelligence, whether the U.S. can do a better job when it occupies other countries, or whether the U.S. can figure out ways to intervene in various places without getting sucked into costly quagmires. In short, it's all about whether we can do these things differently and not about whether we should do them at all.
What's missing from these reflections is any discussion of U.S. interests. What exactly is the goal when the U.S. contemplates intervening in another country? More importantly, how would military intervention directly contribute to the security and prosperity of the American citizens who will be paying for it and the soldiers whose lives will be at risk?
In the case of Syria, does it really matter which combination of thugs, warlords, Islamists, Alawis, Sunnis, etc., ends up running that unfortunate country? Syria has been governed by some very nasty characters for over half a century, and somehow the United States of America has managed to do pretty well despite that fact. Do U.S. strategic interests really demand that it get directly involved in reshaping Syrian politics now? Do we have any idea how to do that? Even if we did, there is no guarantee that a future Syrian government would be reliably pro-American, especially given the complex regional environment and the diverse currents of opinion among the various contenders for power. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. Middle East policy has alienated lots of people in that part of the world.
To be sure, one can justify greater U.S. involvement on purely humanitarian grounds. (Of course, if that were our main concern, you'd think we'd be doing more for the million-plus Syria refugees). Yet even here, you need a plausible and convincing plan for ending the violence, you need to be sure intervening won't make things worse, and you need to convince the American people to support the costs and risk solely for the purpose of saving Syrian lives. Needless to say, pouring more weaponry into the Syrian cauldron isn't going to do that, and the U.S. military isn't eager to put boots on the ground there either.
But what about those chemical weapons? It would obviously not be a good thing if Assad starts using them, or if they began to leak out into the global arms market or got acquired by anti-American groups. So one can imagine conducting a very limited operation intended to destroy or seize arms caches before they fell into the wrong hands. But chemical weapons, dangerous though they are, are not nuclear weapons, and one would still need to do a pretty careful cost-benefit analysis before plunging ahead.
When Franklin Roosevelt took the United States into World War II, he did so on the basis of very clear strategic reasoning. As outlined by the 1941 "Victory Program," he understood that if Germany defeated the Soviet Union and was able to consolidate the industrial power of Europe, it might pose a potent long-term threat to U.S. security. That logic led him to back Great Britain through Lend-Lease and to work assiduously to bring the U.S. into the war. Going to war was a big step back then, it's no accident that this was the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war.
Today, U.S. military superiority gives presidents the freedom to fight wars of choice (or whim), which allows foreign policy gurus to sit around and think up lots of interesting ways to use American power. We even have drones and special forces that permit us to conduct acts of war without anyone being fully aware of what we are doing. Yesterday: Kosovo, Colombia, Iraq, and Libya. Today: Afghanistan, Yemen, and a few other places. Tomorrow, maybe Syria or Mali. And these same ambitious experts can always come up with a rationale for these activities, because smart people can always invent some sort of connect-the-dots scenario suggesting why failure to act might eventually lead back to something unfortunate happening to somebody or something we care about. But this sort of worst-case reasoning -- the life blood of our national security establishment -- isn't really strategy at all. It was the kind of thinking that led us into Iraq, and it's still alive and well today.
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The Obama administration is reportedly rethinking its previous reluctance to send arms to the Syrian rebels. With violence continuing to rise and Assad refusing to blow town, the apparent aim is to ensure that the United States has some influence or leverage over at least some of the parties who will be competing for power in a post-Assad Syria.
This is the logic presented by former State Department official Frederick C. Hof, who told the New York Times that "the odds are very high that, for better or worse, armed men will determine Syria's course for the foreseeable future ... For the U.S. not to have close, supportive relationships with armed elements, carefully vetted, is very risky."
FP's Marc Lynch has already provided a comprehensive set of reasons why arming the rebels is not a good idea. Here I just want to challenge the idea implicit in Hof's statement above -- that providing arms to a warring group earns you lasting gratitude, leverage, or long-term influence. The issue isn't whether you can "carefully vet" the recipients or not; the issue is whether giving arms today has any lasting effects on what even well-vetted recipients might think, feel, or do in the future.
Indeed, isn't this a movie we've seen many, many times? The United States poured billions of dollars of aid into South Vietnam, but we could never get that government to behave the way we wanted. We sent vast piles of weaponry -- including sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles -- to the Afghan mujaheddin, and ended up helping create Al Qaeda. We bankrolled Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and listened to his advice about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, only to watch him go rogue after Hussein was toppled. We've given hundreds of billions of dollars to the Karzai government in Afghanistan, but that hasn't made it any less corrupt or any more compliant with U.S. wishes. Needless to say, it's easy to think of lots of other recipients of American largesse who take the money and the arms and then do whatever they think is right, even if it is sharply at odds with Washington's wishes.
And it's not just us, of course. The Soviet Union gave its own clients lots of money and arms over the years, but it rarely bought them a lot of lasting influence. Remember when Anwar Sadat kicked them out of Egypt and realigned with us instead?
This situation should not surprise us in the slightest. Politics can be a brutal and nasty business, especially during a civil war and certainly in conflict zones like the Middle East. In such circumstances, gratitude to a foreign patron is a luxury that few actors can afford, and especially not to a country whose reputation in the region is less than stellar. The question isn't even "what have you done for me lately?"; it is always "what will you do for me now?"
Assad's opponents would undoubtedly love to get lots of lethal weaponry from the United States (along with anything else we're willing to provide), and it might help them oust the Syrian dictator more swiftly. But what giving arms won't do is provide Washington with much influence over what these groups do afterwards.
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Forces loyal to beleaguered Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad have reportedly begun firing Scud missiles at rebel groups. The New York Times' Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt call this a "significant escalation" in the fighting, but it's not at all clear why this is the case. In particular, this usage reflects the widespread but often unjustified tendency to view the introduction of any new weapon as a form of "escalation," even if doesn't involve an increase in lethality, war aims, or geographic scope.
In his book, War: Controlling Escalation, the late Richard Smoke pointed out that the term “escalation” has many meanings in strategic discourse. Sometimes it refers to the aims of war, at other times to the means being used, and in some cases to the scope of the conflict. When we talk about a conflict escalating, therefore, we usually mean it has crossed some strategically significant threshold and entered a qualitatively new phase. Thus, conflicts escalate when the original combatants adopt decidedly larger war aims, when a new category of targets (e.g., cities, civilians, etc.) are deliberately attacked, when other states join in the fighting, or when significantly more lethal means (e.g., WMD) are employed.
What constitutes a significant threshold is somewhat arbitrary, however. In this case, Assad’s aims haven’t changed and there’s no sign as yet that the Scuds are being used to attack a new set of targets. Instead, Assad’s forces appear to be using a different weapon to pursue the same ends (i.e., the defeat of the rebel forces and the retention of power). But given that the Scuds are armed with conventional high explosive, why assume that the use of different delivery system is itself a case of “escalation?” If Assad began using cavalry, hot air balloons, chariots, or pikes, would we call it “escalation?” I doubt it. Gordon and Schmitt’s use of this term implicitly assumes that the mere use of any type of ballistic missile is by definition a “higher” level of war, even if they don’t threaten or kill as many people as other weapons do.
The Scud is a tactical-range ballistic missile, originally developed by the Soviet Union. It carries a rather modest payload of roughly 900-1000 kilograms; enough to do lots of damage but not a form of WMD unless equipped with a chemical or nuclear warhead. The most modern version, the Scud-D, reportedly has a circular error probability of 50 meters (in theory); earlier versions are much less accurate.
There’s no question that Assad’s forces can probably use Scuds against various rebel targets with some effectiveness, and using missiles of this sort might help them avoid MANPADS (shoulder-fired rocket launchers) or other missile defenses that are now showing up in rebel hands. But using the term “escalation” implies that the Syrian government has somehow taken the conflict to a new level. This does not appear to be the case -- at least not yet -- because Scuds aren’t significantly more lethal than the other means -- such as artillery fire -- that Assad has already been using against the Syrian people.
What worries me, of course, is that careless use of language will convince people that the war is rising rapidly up some sort of “escalation ladder” and strengthen the chorus of voices demanding that the United States get more heavily involved. Reasonable people can disagree about that point, but the mere fact that Assad has now used Scuds is largely irrelevant. This decision may be a sign of growing desperation on his part; if so, I hope that some creative diplomacy can convince him to blow town before the entire country is destroyed. But unless he puts chemical warheads on top of them or starts attacking a new category of targets, the fact that Scuds are involved is not in fact very significant.
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Where is the Middle East headed? I don't know, and neither does anyone else.
That goes for Obama and Romney, too. The president has been in reactive mode since he got stiffed by Netanyahu on the settlements question and blindsided by the Arab Spring, and his Iran policy is on autopilot until after the election. As for Romney, his foreign policy speech earlier this week showed that he knows a lot of words that imply "resolve," but he had nothing new or different to add to our current stock of not very well-conceived policies. What this tells you is that bad Middle East policy has become a bipartisan tradition.
But lately I'm wondering if we are on the cusp of something even bigger than the gradual emergence of more participatory governments in much of the Arab world. To be specific: Is it possible that the trends now underway could end up transforming the territorial arrangements that have been in place since World War I? Instead of just new regimes, in short, might we even see the emergence of new states and different borders? And if so, at what cost and with what long-term consequences?
The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 created many of the current Middle Eastern states, carving them from the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. Britain and France made a bunch of contradictory promises during World War I -- to certain Arab leaders, to each other, and to the Zionist movement -- and these agreements helped make a fair mess of things after the war. Like good imperialists, Britain and France mostly sought to preserve their own influence by governing these new states through "mandates" authorized by the League of Nations. In theory, the imperial powers were supposed to prepare new states like Iraq, Syria, and Transjordan for independent self-government; in practice, these arrangements were largely a device for retaining imperial control. But the mandates proved unpopular with some of the local populations and Britain and France were eventually forced to grant these states full independence after World War II. Nonetheless, the new states were all artificial creations containing diverse ethnic or sectarian groups, and each has been beset by various internal problems ever since.
Despite a long history of wars, coups, revolts and other regional challenges, the territorial arrangements established back in 1919 have persisted with only a few alterations. Britain renounced its mandate over Palestine in 1946, a step that ultimately led to the creation of Israel. Israel subsequently took the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967. The ideology of pan-Arabism also led several abortive attempts to unify different Arab countries, and there have also been a few minor territorial adjustments in the Persian Gulf. In general, however, the countries and borders that emerged in the aftermath of World War are still intact today.
Might this long period of territorial stability now be coming to an end? On the one hand, borders around the world have tended to be pretty durable since 1950, partly because the United States and Soviet Union helped reinforce existing arrangements and partly because sensible people realize that you open up Pandora's box when you start rearranging borders. There's also the emergence of a fairly strong norm against the acquisition of territory by force. The status quo may be forcing different ethnic or sectarian groups to live together when they might not want to (as in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon) and it may deny the national aspirations of others (as with Palestinians and Kurds), but it often persists because people either don't think it is possible to change the status quo or fear that change might lead to something even worse.
That's why I think a far-reaching territorial revision is unlikely. But I don't think it can be completely ruled out either. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of independent countries throughout the former Soviet empire, ushered in the reunification of Germany, and helped trigger the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. New states have emerged in several other places as well, such as East Timor and South Sudan, which reminds us that protracted internal violence sometimes has far-reaching effects.
The civil war in Syria may drag on for quite awhile. Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others are already involved to some degree, and it is by no means clear which side is going to win. If Assad eventually falls, however, the aftermath could be an an intense struggle for power between Alawis, Sunnis, Kurds, and the other components of Syria's ethnic/religious blend, with various outside powers trying to influence the outcome as well. The longer the fighting lasts and the more parties are involved, the harder it will be to put together a workable political order once the civil war is over. The struggle in Syria could further heighten Kurdish demands for their own state, and any attempt to advance that long-deferred goal will directly affect Turkey, Iran, and Iraq (where major Kurdish areas already exist). The fighting in Syria is also magnifying the Sunni/Shia divide throughout the Arab world, with Iran and Iraq backing Assad and the Alawis and Sunni states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia favoring the opposition.
And then there's Jordan. The turmoil in Syria has hurt Jordan's economy, and the spread of democratic ideals in places like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia is eventually going to lead to intensified demands for political reform in Amman. Given that a majority of Jordanian citizens are of Palestinian origin, any weakening of Hashemite rule cannot help but raise questions for the Palestinian Arabs currently living under Israeli control, either as second-class citizens in Israel proper or as colonized subjects in the occupied territories. Some Israelis have long insisted that Jordan was (or should become) the real "Palestinian state," and hardliners there might be tempted to take advantage of any upheaval there to solve the "demographic threat" by trying to push more Palestinians across the river.
To repeat: I'm not saying any of these things are likely. Indeed, if pressed, I'd bet that the existing states/borders will remain intact, though many of them will eventually be "under new management." But social mobilization is an unpredictable thing, especially when it turns violent, and its ultimate course might surprise us. If these various states are headed towards forms of government that are more dependent on popular backing, will it be possible to establish legitimate governments without redrawing some of the existing borders or moving people around? Probably, but maybe not.
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Today we learn that Iran is resupplying the Assad regime in Syria via Iraqi airspace. Hardly surprising, for two reasons. First, Syria is a key Iranian ally, so naturally Iran is doing what it can to keep Assad in power. Second, the al-Maliki government is not nearly as anti-Iranian as Saddam Hussein was, and in some ways is sympathetic to Tehran's position.
All of which reminds us what dunderheads the neocons were when they dreamed up the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein. Of course, all those liberal hawks who eventually went along with the idea were nearly as foolish.
No, this is not nostalgia for Saddam Hussein. He was a thug and tyrant with as much blood on his hands as Assad, and I don't mourn either his ouster or his passing. But the negative consequences have been enormous, in lives and money and in geopolitical position, as this latest revelation makes clear.
Effective strategy requires thinking more than one move ahead, and not basing momentous decisions on worst-case assumptions about the risks of inaction and best-case forecasts about the benefits that war will bring. It was obvious at the time that destroying Iraq would tilt the balance of power in the Gulf in Iran's favor, and there was no good reason to expect it to produce the pro-American tilt that the neocons promised. So America ended up replacing an anti-Iranian government in Baghdad with one that is at least partially attuned to Tehran's wishes, with the bill for the operation being footed by the U.S. taxpayer.
This issue might not matter that much had we really learned from the experience, and if the people who got us into that foolish war had been put out to pasture. But as I've noted before, failure doesn't have any real consequences in America's foreign policy community, which is why the architects of the Iraq war still have safe sinecures at D.C. think-tanks, still have prominent platforms on FOX News and other major media outlets, and still have trusted positions advising the Romney campaign. Of course, the Democrats who backed the war haven't suffered any career penalties either, which may help you understand why things haven't improved as much as some of us hoped they would back in 2008.
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Where is the Middle East headed? Where will it be a decade or two hence? Although most commentary tends to obsess about recent events (Will Assad fall? Was Hezbollah for the bombing in Bulgaria? Will there be war with Iran? Is the two-state solution really dead? etc.) today, I want to step back and ask what the larger implications of these various events might be. Here are three scenarios for the Middle East, judged largely from the perspective of U.S. interests:
1. The Good: The optimistic scenario for the Middle East runs something like this: Although the road may be bumpy for awhile, the various upheavals now subsumed under the heading “Arab spring” mark the end of a long period of regional stagnation. In this view, the Arab world has languished for decades under the bankrupt leadership of a series of autocrats who were better at clinging to power than in developing their societies. Education, scientific competence, economic development and human rights have all suffered as a result. These circumstances have also fueled anti-Americanism and intensified regional tensions, as various entrenched elites have used the bogeyman of “Western imperialism,” Israel’s presence and occupation, and the sufferings of the Palestinians to distract their populations from their own failings.
But in this scenario, that era is coming to an end. Assad will fall the same way Qaddafi did, and his departure will deal a body blow to the “axis of resistance” (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas), which is the last stubborn remnant of anti-Western opposition in the region. Weak and isolated, Iran will have no choice but to bow before the West’s demands, and the clerical regime itself will be living on borrowed time. As political change ushers in more responsive and accountable governments throughout the region, the long pent-up energies of these societies will be unleashed and broad-based economic development will begin.
Equally important, the flowering of democracy (or something closer to it) will reduce the current frictions between the United States and some of these societies, as citizens focus on getting educated and getting rich, instead of worrying about red herrings like the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza, or the U.S. military presence in the region. Islam may play a somewhat larger role in political life, but it will be mostly moderate and benign.
This view is consistent with the traditional liberal view of international relations, which tends to dominate how U.S. policymakers think about foreign policy. Liberal theories of IR argue that foreign policy behavior is heavily influenced by societal preferences and regime type, by economic interdependence, and by the creation of powerful global institutions. They tend to assume that human beings mostly care about material prosperity. As Middle East countries become more like us, so the argument runs, conflicts of interest will diminish, anti-Americanism will fade, and interest in obtaining WMD will decline. And once these states become more democratic and fully enmeshed in the world economy, they will drop their outdated objections to Israel and all will be well.
Notice also that this view implies that neoconservatives’ program for “regional transformation” was the right idea all along; the problem was that the people who tried to implement it were incompetent and their chosen instrument -- military power and direct U.S. intervention -- was simply the wrong tool. Obama’s embrace of the “Arab spring” has been cautious and not always consistent (see under: Bahrain), but it was directed at essentially the same goal and his approach has proven to be far more effective. On balance, he has positioned the United States on the progressive side of change and confined the U.S. role to helping local forces win their battles.
In effect, the administration is betting that the arc of history will bend in a direction that leads to more participatory politics, to greater gender equality and human rights, and to a dramatic reduction in both regional tensions and anti-Americanism over time. It may take a couple of decades for this hopeful vision to be realized, and because massive social change is always messy, there are bound to be some rocky moments along the way. But all Americans need to do is stay the course, use their still-considerable power to nudge these societies in the right direction, and manage the inevitable turbulence for a little while longer.
In many ways, it would be nice if this hopeful future came to fruition, although it would probably consign the Palestinians to another generation or two of impoverished statelessness. Alas, this is not the only scenario one can envision.
2. The Bad: In this version of the future, the political changes unleashed by the “Arab spring” continue to roll forward, and attempts to reimpose the old order (as Egypt’s military seems to be attempting) ultimately fail. Moreover, the emergence of more participatory politics and greater openness do in fact generate many of the positive features described above: education expands, economic development accelerates, and national unity is ultimately strengthened in many of these societies. In short, social and political mobilization continues and deepens, and governments manage to create more open and effective institutions.
But in this scenario, these shifts do not transform the Middle East into a region of calm Kantian liberals, or some Middle Eastern version of the EU. As political dynamism returns to the region, this scenario envisions more and more governments that are both increasingly responsive to popular sentiment and increasingly capable of advancing their national interests (as defined by popular beliefs) on the world stage. And because some of those sentiments are at odds with long-standing U.S. policies, the emergence of a more politically mobilized and capable Arab world might turn out to be a real headache for Washington.
Recent history offers several cautionary warnings. Turkey under the AKP has enjoyed impressive economic growth in recent years -- in sharp contrast to the military governments that preceded it -- but it has also become a less compliant ally of the United States and increasingly an independent force in the region. U.S. and Turkish interests are often compatible but not always, and that is likely to be true of a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Or consider what has happened to China. If Mao had lived forever, China would still be saddled with a dysfunctional command economy. Embracing capitalism has lifted millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty, but it has also given Beijing the capacity to challenge U.S. leadership on a host of issues, and may one day make it a true “peer competitor.” From a selfishly American perspective, therefore, it might have been better of the “four modernizations” had never occurred and China had remained weak and economically backward. By the same logic, Arab inefficiency is one of the main reasons why the United States and Israel have been able to dominate the Middle East for the past four decades, and we should not blindly assume that a more capable and competent Arab world would also be a more compliant one.
The “good” scenario assumes that the emergence of more participatory, quasi-democratic politics will eventually eliminate the existing conflicts of interest within the region and with the United States. But there are good reasons to question that optimistic belief. Sunni vs. Shiite divisions have been around for centuries and are likely to persist. Palestinians will still press for statehood (or for full voting rights), and politically mobilized Arab publics will continue to back them, in part because this might be an issue that democratic politicians exploit to make themselves more popular at home, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was done. A democratic Syrian government will still want the Golan Heights back, and a fully democratic Iran might want nuclear weapons as much as the Shah did or as much as democratic (and nuclear-armed) Israel does.
In this view, in short, we ought to be careful what we wish for. Autocrats like Hosni Mubarak and monarchs like King Hussein or King Abdullah of Jordan could ignore popular sentiment and align closely with Washington, but this may not be so easy for governments that have to depend on popular support. The assumption that progressive political change in the Arab world is a good thing for the United States rests on the belief that “all good things go together": political change will eventually foster economic development and attenuate existing political disputes. Unfortunately, history also reminds us that as states grow richer and stronger, they often grow more assertive and they start defining their interests in broader terms. This could be big trouble for Washington, given how unpopular U.S. policies have been and how deeply rooted these attitudes seem to be.
3. The Ugly: There is a third scenario, and it is the one we have already seen in Iraq and Lebanon and may now be seeing in Syria. In this version of the future, the Arab spring succeeds in overturning a number of bankrupt orders but does not lead to stable and progressive governance in some of them. Instead, we get weak and divided orders where sectarian quarrels are rife, extremism is rewarded, al Qaeda finds new followers, and those who are adept at violence are advantaged.
Needless to say, this bleak forecast implies that the region will remain messy and divided for many years to come. An economic renaissance will not occur, because political instability will discourage investment and tourism and force local populations to squander time and resources on fighting rather than building. Outside powers will be tempted to intervene in various ways, which will lead to tit-for-tat retaliations and raise the risk of broader regional conflicts. Given that the Gulf region will remain a key source of global energy supplies (no matter how much natural gas the U.S. eventually obtains from hydraulic fracking), continued regional instability could have far-reaching and harmful effects on the world economy.
This scenario isn’t good news for the United States either. It might be smart for the United States to remain aloof from the carnage, but that will be difficult given our interventionist tendencies and the pressure we’ll face from regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. And if the past is any guide, we can’t expect Russia or China or the Europeans to help us quiet things down; they’d rather hand Uncle Sam the burden of managing yet another regional cauldron. So not only would this scenario mean lots of trouble for people in the Middle East, it's bound to be a big headache for the United States too.
Which of these scenarios do I think is most likely? I lean towards the second, because I don’t think the Arab spring is reversible and because I don’t think that protracted instability in places like Syria will prove all that contagious. But that’s really no more than a hunch.
Of course, these three scenarios are not the only ones one can imagine. But they do help put the current turmoil into perspective, and they help us identify the underlying logic on which current U.S. policy is based. Needless to say, I’ll be delighted if the first scenario is the one we get. I’ll also be more than a little surprised.
I am pleased to offer the following guest post by Nasser Rabbat of MIT:
Nasser Rabbat writes:
The euphoria sparked by the 2011 Arab uprisings has settled into realpolitik. The youth who initiated the protest movements split into myriad organizations or withdrew in despair. The Islamists, disciplined through decades of clandestine political action, took over in Tunisia and Libya, and are poised to wrestle power from a recalcitrant army in Egypt. The secularists, assumed to be the natural allies of the West, are weak and divided. In Tunisia and Egypt, they garnered fewer votes in the elections than predicted. In Libya, they retreated from the National Transitional Council, leaving the Islamists to occupy its most powerful positions. In Syria, still struggling against a belligerent and criminal regime that is proving hard to nudge, the secularists in the opposition are constantly bickering, whereas the Islamists are organized and goal-oriented. Arab secularism, the events seem to suggest, is a spent force. The United States and other Western governments, claiming to be responding to the realities on the ground, are engaging the Islamic parties as the defining new paradigm of Arab politics.
Is this a new turn for the West? Did the West support the secularists before the revolutions? And has Arab secularism really become irrelevant? My answer to all three questions is an emphatic no. To begin with, the record of the West in the Arab world is patently not pro-secularist. Indeed, if we are to limit our assessment to the regimes that have been consistently backed by the U.S. in the last fifty years, we will find on the top of the list Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Morocco, all avowedly Islamic regimes, at least in their claims to legitimacy or their application of Islamic law. Conversely, some of the most ardent opponents of the U.S. have been the secular regimes of the Baath party in Syria and Iraq, though their secularism proved skin-deep and opportunistic. Moreover, when the United States decided to avenge the attacks of 9/11, perpetrated as they were by an extremist Islamist militancy, its most decisive act was to destroy the secular regime of Iraq. Eight years later, when the Americans finally withdrew from Iraq, they left behind not only a flagrantly sectarian regime, but also a political class composed largely of religious movements umbilically linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Nor does history show much Western support for the budding secular tendencies in the early twentieth century, which coincided with the colonization of most of the Arab world. Pragmatism may explain why colonial powers, Britain and France in particular, preferred to deal with traditional leaders. They had political influence, economic clout, and a wide base of clients. That they adhered to conservative forms of piety added to their usefulness: They understood the mechanisms of religious authority and could manipulate them to appease potential popular unrest. The few Arab secularists, on the other hand, even though thoroughly westernized and belonging to the social elite, were seen as troublemakers. Having been profoundly influenced by the principles of the Enlightenment, they formulated strong demands for liberation, democratization, and modernization. Many clashed with the colonial authorities and paid a heavy price of imprisonment or exile.
Independence, when it finally came, fell smack at the height of the Cold War. The West, which was eventually reduced to the United States, was seeking to build alliances of nations committed to countering the Communist threat. Conservative regimes, such as those of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, were obviously the most promising allies. So the West supported them regardless of their religious agendas. When military regimes came to power in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq after the defeat of these countries in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, they first toyed with accepting Western tutelage. Their subsequent turning to the USSR as a patron more sympathetic to their national causes, however, did not translate into espousing communism or rejecting religion. Ungodly these military regimes certainly were, but they were not secular. They neither believed in nor practiced the separation of religion and politics. They in fact heavily relied on religious symbolism to frame the image of their one inspired despot and his family or clan. This was the case of Anwar al-Sadat after Camp David and his successor Hosni Mubarak, as well as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad. Fundamentalism and its defiant social expressions actually grew under their watch, even if they had been relentlessly suppressing all Islamic political organizations, or any other political activism for that matter.
Secularists had no place in such a system. Those who dared to speak out against it found themselves dismissed from their jobs, jailed, or forced to leave their countries. Some, who persisted in their criticism of the dictators or of the rigid views of the growing Islamist extremists, like the journalists Salim al-Lawzi and Samir Kassir in Lebanon, Hidaya Sultan Al-Salem in Kuwait, Farag Foda in Egypt, and Mohammed Taha in Sudan, were assassinated. Others, unable to cobble together a political structure to unite them like the Islamists had, channeled their political activism into more intellectual and artistic pursuits. Secularism, already accused of elitism because of the social background of its proponents, became even more rarefied as it migrated either away from the pulse of the street and into the confines of academia and art or out of the country altogether.
The 2011 uprisings seemed at first to bring secularism back to the forefront as a vociferous political force. Fueled by a new breed of activists -- young, globally networked, and unbothered by considerations of class, religion or gender -- the uprisings wielded the same principles that earlier Arab secularists have advocated. But like those earlier Arab secularists, the youth did not translate their secularist rallying cries into framers of political parties able to compete for the post-revolutionary governments. Some movements, notably the 6th of April Movement in Egypt, simply declared after the fall of Mubarak's regime that it had no plan to become a political party, then lived to regret that impulsive decision. The prominent and reasonably popular candidate for the presidency in Egypt, Mohammad el-Baradei, withdrew from the race before it began, citing as a reason the reprehensible way politics was conducted by his detractors. The few attempts to register a secularist political presence in the elections in Tunis and Egypt were swept aside by the eminently more organized Islamist parties and by their shrewd appeal to the basic religiosity of the people, especially the poor and the illiterate.
Arab secularism, however, remains on the street and online. Though outdone in the current rush to power by the Islamists, it still has the ability to reassert itself in the political arena, if not as the ruling party, at least as lawful opposition and guardian of the principles of civic freedoms. The culture of lawful opposition, long absent under the totalitarian regimes, needs to be reinserted into the political discourse. This is as important a function as good governance for the well-being of the nascent Arab democracies. To that end, the efforts of the discontented revolutionary youth and the seasoned secular intellectuals should be united under the umbrella of political parties. The West should help them by recognizing their crucial political role and by treating them as long-term partners not just as recipients of training and aid.
In February 2011, after the victory of the Egyptian revolution in which they played no significant role, some of the most famous Islamic preachers gloated that the next government will be Islamic. Secularism, they contended, should be put to rest because it reigned for fifty years and failed. But true secularism has never had a chance to rule in the modern Arab world, except perhaps in Tunisia under al-Habib Bourguiba (1957-87). Otherwise, religion was always enshrined in the fiat constitutions of all the Arab kingdoms and republics, even those that were ferociously hunting down Islamists. Moreover, Arab rulers who hid behind secular masks, whether they were civilian or military, never separated religion from their politics. Many enlisted docile forms of religion and compliant sheiks as parts of their arsenal of control. In that, they were following in the footsteps of a long tradition of inglorious religion-based rule in the Arab world, which did not really end until the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923. It is thus more accurate to question what Islamic rule of the kind imagined by the vocal Islamist organizations will bring that was not tried before during the long centuries of what they themselves believe was an Arab decline.
Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of the History of Islamic Architecture at MIT.
What to do, what to do about Syria? Hardly anyone is confident that the Annan mission will resolve the struggle between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition. Today I want to offer a more-or-less realpolitik approach to the problem, though I am not at all certain it would work or even that it would make sense to try. Consider it an effort to think outside the box.
As I've noted before, the central problem here is that there doesn't seem to be a genuine "compromise" option available that would leave Assad & Co. in place yet guarantee the safety of the opposition and their ability to organize politically. Neither side trusts the other at all, and neither can credibly commit not to try to eliminate their rivals if they get the chance. This creates the growing risk of a long and grinding confrontation and/or civil war. In this scenario I think outside powers would eventually get involved and Assad would eventually lose, but Syria would be in very bad shape when it was all over.
This latter outcome is not in anyone's interest, and certainly not ours. Our interests are best served if Assad leaves sooner rather than later, before all-out war occurs and before the entire Syrian state collapses. So the question is: Is there anyway to convince Assad and his closest associates to leave? I don't have a surefire way to do it, but one big step in the right direction would be for Russia to shift is position and stop protecting him. In other words, what if Moscow made it clear that they were willing to grant Assad et al asylum if they left, but were not willing to help keep them in power any longer?
Recall that it was the withdrawal of Russian support that eventually convinced Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate in the 2000 war in Kosovo. The circumstances in Syria are quite different, but the logic is the same: If Assad knew he'd lost Moscow's backing, and his associates figured this out too, they might start looking for any reasonably safe exit.
If you're still with me, then the question becomes: How could the U.S. and others convince newly "re-elected" Russian president Vladimir Putin to follow this path? I'm not sure we could, but one option would be by telling Putin that we would let him take full credit for resolving this confrontation. Putin and other Russian leaders have consistently opposed the emergence of a world order where Washington gets to determine which regimes survive and which regimes fall. For this reason, an overt attempt at Libya-style "regime change" is bound to upset them and encourage them to dig in their heels. But what if we made it clear that we were willing to let them take the lead (for example, by hosting an international conference to address the issue) and eager to let them have all the credit if they were able to ease Assad out. As Harry Truman once noted, "it's amazing what you can achieve if you don't care who gets the credit."
Now comes the tricky part. I doubt Putin would buy this sort of deal unless he got some sweeteners, and unless he thought that Russian interests would suffer if they continued their present course. In other words, the carrot of diplomatic credit might have to accompanied by some additional carrots, as well as the subtle hint of a stick. As for additional carrots, I'd happily toss in concessions on European missile defense, which is a costly boondoggle we ought to be ditching anyway. As for sticks, I think we'd have to try to convince Russia that outside intervention is going to happen sooner or later, and that once it does, Assad is going to be toast no matter what Moscow does. So they can either watch a regime they've backed for 40 plus years go down the tubes -- thereby reminding the world of their growing geopolitical impotence -- or they can get with us and get the credit for resolving a thorny problem, thereby allowing Putin to reaffirm Russia's importance on the world stage. There's bound to be a certain element of Kabuki theater in all this, but that's hardly unheard of in modern diplomacy. The risk, however, is that we have to threaten to intervene ourselves, and Moscow might call our bluff in the hopes of luring us back into a nice Iraq-style quagmire.
Like I said: I see this as a bit of a hail Mary, and I'm sure that readers will be able to poke a lot of holes in the idea. Go right ahead, but please offer up your own suggestions too.
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
What should we do about Syria? By "we," I don't mean just the United States. Rather, I mean that wonderfully ambivalent phrase the "international community," and especially those states with a clear stake in the outcome (i.e., Syria's immediate neighbors, its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian allies, and its various adversaries, including the United States).
Reading two pieces that appeared today helps clarify the basic dilemma. The first piece, by economist Paul Collier of Oxford, argues that the Assad regime is living on borrowed time, having "crossed a red line" of international acceptance. He advocates ramping up the pressure by arming the opposition forces, in order to encourage Syrian army leaders and other Baath officials to defect. (The piece is in the Financial Times, and is firewalled on their site).
A second piece by Asli Bali of UCLA and Aziz Rana of Cornell, warns of the perils of this approach. While highly critical of Assad, they emphasize the danger of prolonged civil war and point out that a significant number of Syrians still worry as much about internal instability and sectarian violence as they do about Assad's brutalities. Accordingly, Bani and Rana favor an inclusive diplomatic process that avoids isolating Assad completely, in order to head off a destructive civil war.
One could make a crude realist case for Collier's approach, if you believed that the strategic benefits of ousting Assad were worth the human costs to Syrian civilians. One might argue that toppling Assad would eliminate a key Iranian ally and deal a crippling blow to Hezbollah, thereby advancing broader U.S. interests in the region. In this optimistic scenario, grateful Syrians would seek friendly relations with their Western benefactors, including Washington. Notice that this view assumes that the transition is swift, that few civilians die in the fighting, and that forming a new government is fairly easy.
But a sophisticated realist would be skeptical of a grand scheme like this. Realists understand that force is a crude instrument that usually generates lots of unintended consequences, and trying to exploit the Syrian crisis to shape the regional balance of power could backfire in all sorts of unpredictable ways. If one gives Assad & co. no choice but to fight to the end, we're likely to get a protracted civil conflict. Some officers may defect, but plenty of others won't and will do whatever it takes to try to hold on. In these circumstances, groups and individuals who are adept at using violence tend to come to the fore, and politics inside Syria will tend toward the extreme.
Nor should we assume that a post-Assad Syria will be a compliant client state governed by pro-Western elites who are grateful for our help. The Syrian opposition may despise Assad -- and with good reason -- but it is hardly unified. Moreover, a post-Assad government will still have security concerns and interests to pursue (such as the return of the Golan Heights). Our experiences with Iraq and Libya also belie Collier's blithe assumption that reconstituting a new Syrian government will be easy. The composition of a post-Assad state in Syria is anyone's guess, but there are plenty of contenders for power who are wary of the West in general and the U.S. in particular. A post-Assad Syria would still be buffeted by its neighbors and other interested parties, especially if outsider powers are supporting different factions. And the greater the level of force needed to topple him, the harder it will be to put Syria back together afterward.
And as Bali and Rana emphasize, even well-intentioned humanitarian intervention can have the unintended consequence of putting more Syrian lives at risk. Thus, for both strategic and moral reasons, the international community should concentrate on stopping what is now a slowly escalating civil war, instead of trying to escalate it. This may not be a morally heroic stance, but it is realistic.
Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images
The continued carnage in Syria is leading more people to call for some sort
of international intervention, ostensibly to protect Syrian rebels from further
attacks by government forces. A prominent example was a New York Times op-ed
last week by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the
State Department, which recommended that the United States and others create
"no-kill zones" on Syrian territory, protected by a coalition of
outside powers. She also wants these outside powers to give the rebel forces
various forms of weaponry, military training, and tactical advice. To avoid the
criticism that her policy would fuel a civil war, Slaughter insists that
support be conditional on the aid being used "defensively," though
Turkish or Arab League units would be free to use drones or unmanned helicopters
"to attack Syrian air defenses and mortars in order to protect the no-kill
The core problem with this proposal, as Paul Staniland makes clear in this incisive critique, is that it ignores basic military realities. The rebels are trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad; once we commit ourselves to arming and protecting them, how are we going to stop them from doing whatever they can to bring him down? Once engaged on their behalf, is it realistic that any government could cut them off because they had gone beyond our Marquis of Queensbury rules of engagement? Moreover, Slaughter admits that we cannot protect her "no-kill zones" without degrading Assad's forces. In practice, therefore, her neat distinction between "defensive" and "offensive" operations would quickly break down.
In fact, her proposal would lead inexorably to an active military effort to overthrow the Assad regime. As in Libya, what sounds at first like a noble effort to protect civilians would quickly turn into offensive action against a despised regime, and in partnership with a host of opposition forces whose character and competence we can only guess at. If that's what Slaughter and others want to do, they should say so openly, instead of performing what can only be described as a strategic bait-and-switch. China and Russia have figured this ploy out, by the way, which is one reason they've been so reluctant to endorse any international action to stop the killing.
Here's the basic problem. Once we commit ourselves to creating safe havens ("no-kill zones"), we will be obliged to defend them for as long as there is any possibility that Assad's forces might attack. As our experience with the no-fly zones in Iraq teaches, this could involve defending them for years. And if Assad's forces start shelling the rebel areas, then we will have to defend them or risk humiliation. But let's be clear: "defending them" means attacking Assad's own forces. In other words: war. And once that happens, the United States and the other outside powers will face enormous pressures to complete the job.
In fact, it is hard to believe that we could take the step Slaughter is recommending and subsequently agree to leave Assad and his regime in place. As soon as outside powers take sides and intervene, a failure to remove Assad from power would be interpreted as a striking defeat for the intervening powers and a blow to those who have seen the Arab Spring as a hopeful turn for a troubled region.
In short, there is no way to conduct the sort of minimalist, purely defensive, and strictly humanitarian operation that Slaughter describes in her op-ed, without it eventually leading to forcible regime change. And one big reason that Syria's neighbors have been reluctant to go that route is their understandable fear of a protracted internal conflict there that would make the present carnage look mild by comparison.
I take no pleasure from that reality, and I share Slaughter's anger and disgust at what Assad is doing. But the choice we face is stark and agonizing, and pretending that we can keep our balance on this steep and slippery slope is not helpful.
Jason Reed/AFP/Getty Images
The Libyan revolution celebrated its first anniversary last week, and though there were a few news stories and blog posts about it, the milestone didn't attract as much attention as one might have expected. Instead, the focus of debate has moved on to the grim tragedy unfolding in Syria, and the perpetual sabre-rattling over Iran, not to mention vital issues such as whether 1) Santorum or Romney will win Michigan, 2) Jeremy Lin is a fluke or a phenom, and 3) Bobby Brown was treated badly by the security team at ex-wife Whitney Houston's funeral.
Meanwhile, what about Libya? There's no question that efforts to build a stable, legitimate, and effective post-Qaddafi government haven't gone all that well, belying the confident proclamations that rebel leaders made during the fighting itself. The National Transitional Council is increasingly seen as weak and ineffective, dozens of armed militias continue to hold sway throughout the country, and radical Islamists are openly contending for power. Amnesty International reports that human rights abuses are widespread, including acts of torture, extra-judicial executions, and acts of retribution against ethnic minorities. Thousands of man-portable surface-to-air missiles remain unaccounted for, and some of the weapons may be helping fuel conflicts in neighboring countries and maybe even getting into the hands of terrorists.
Does this mean the effort to topple Qaddafi was a mistake? Those of us who were skeptical about the wisdom of the operation might be tempted to declare our view vindicated, but to do so would be just as foolhardy as George W. Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq. Fixing a country as screwed up as Libya was is going to take time, and I still believe we won't really know the answer for another year or two at least.
What is more troubling to me is the short attention span we seem to have about these events. The foreign policy community is like a kid with ADD: A crisis erupts, and there's a sudden flurry of interest and activity. Advisors huddle and plan, spokespersons proclaim, diplomats confer, pundits opine, and yes, bloggers like me type our hearts out for awhile. And then the moment passes (often as soon as the former ruler does), and attention moves on to the next set of headlines. A year ago, Libya; today, Syria, tomorrow, who?
And in the meantime, Libyans are more-or-less left to their fate. Yes, there is a UN mission there, and yes, the United States has pledged a modest amount of aid. In particular, we are funding a program to buy up the remnants of Qaddafi's arsenal of weapons, which tells you that we care more about that issue than we do about the condition of the Libyan people. As you can read about in this very useful Congressional Research Service study, a few Congressmen have inserted various Libya-oriented programs into various authorization bills, which suggests that a few people in Washington are still engaged by the issue. But overall, one doesn't get the sense that Libya is taking up much bandwidth in the foreign policy establishment anymore.
Mind you, I'm not saying that the United States should be offering Libya a new Marshall Plan, or trying to conduct an ambitious "state-building" operation there. We've tried that in some other places and our track record isn't encouraging. But I worry that while we may have lost our appetite for state-building, we haven't lost our appetite for state-destroying (otherwise known as regime change). Call it a policy of "drive-by interventionism": We'll help take out this month's bad guy (and let's be clear, the leaders we've gone after lately have been pretty despicable), but then we'll leave it to others to sort out the bodies and rebuild the institutions. If they do. And if things go south later, well, by then we'll have moved on.
In some ways, this is the central tension in America's current global posture. Despite some largely rhetorical efforts to emphasize diplomacy, development, and other forms of "civilian power," our approach to contemporary security problems continues to privilege the sharp end of the stick. Outside powers cannot build functioning states on the ashes of the old without committing massive resources to the task -- and it may not work even if you do -- and the United States and its allies have neither the resources nor the motivation to do that anymore. Instead, we send drones and planes and Special Forces to topple governments who have fallen from favor. These policy instruments are cheap and sometimes effective, but they are of little or no value when it's time to rebuild.
Again: it's too soon to say whether the Libyan adventure will turn out well or not. But thus far, it is a cautionary tale for those who are now eager to do something similar in Syria. I share the widespread desire to see Assad give up power and accede to the demands for reform, but we have no way of knowing whether aid to the rebels will hasten that shared goal or simply ignite an even more punishing civil war. In other words, be careful what you wish for: There's hardly any situation that is so bad that it couldn't get worse.
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In another corner of the vast FP media empire, David Bosco wants to know if "in some secret chamber of [my] heart, [I am] a believer in international law and institutions." He was writing in response to my post earlier this week, where I argued that NATO's decision to conduct "regime change" in Libya under the auspices of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, even though the resolution did not authorize this act, may have contributed to Russia and China's decision to veto a proposed resolution on Syria. He finds it surprising that a realist such as myself could take the niceties of international law -- and in this case, the text of a Security Council resolution -- so seriously.
In fact, Bosco's query betrays a common misconception about realism, as well as a misunderstanding of my original position. Of course realists "believe in" international law and institutions": they exist, and we'd have to be blind to deny that basic fact. Moreover, realists have long acknowledged that international law and international institutions can be useful tools of statecraft, which states can use to achieve their national interests. In particular, law and institutions can help states coordinate their behavior so as to reap greater gains or avoid various problems (think of the rules that regulate air traffic, some forms of pollution, or global communications), and they can also provide mechanisms to facilitate international trade and to resolve various disputes. Where realists part company with some (but not all) liberal idealists is in their emphasis on the limits of institutions: they cannot force powerful states to act against their own interests and they usually reflect the underlying balance of power in important ways.
Thus, a realist like me isn't surprised when a powerful country like the United States ignores the fine details of a U.N. resolution, and proceeds to undertake unauthorized regime change. Nor are we surprised when the U.S. and some of its allies invaded Iraq without any U.N. authorization at all. It was a surprising decision because it was so stupid, but it was apparent by late 2002 that U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of serial blunderers. Sadly, there was nothing international law or the U.N. could do about that fact.
The central point in my post, however, was not that Russia and China were necessarily upset by the fact that the U.S. and its allies had trod all over the text of Resolution 1973. Rather, they were upset because they didn't like the United States and its allies saying one thing and doing another, and they were upset by the precedent that the Libya case appeared to set. Put differently, they think they got snookered over Libya, and they weren't about to get snookered again. Realists understand that institutions are weak constraints on state behavior (which is why the U.S. could act as it did), but realists also understand that when you take advantage of others, they are going to take notice and make it harder for you to exploit them again. And that appears to be part of the tragic story that is unfolding in Syria.
In short, the puzzle isn't why a realist might point out that we are now paying a price for our earlier high-handedness. The real puzzle is why advocates of intervention are so fond of invoking multilateralism, institutions, and the importance of international law, and then so quick to ignore it when it gets in the way of today's pet project. Realists aren't always right, but at least we're not hypocrites.
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Did last year's triumph in Libya help stymie efforts to forge an international consensus on Syria?
Some of you will have already seen FP colleagues Marc and Colum Lynch's excellent posts bemoaning the U.N. Security Council's inability to pass a resolution addressing the continuing violence on Syria. The proximate cause was a joint Russian and Chinese veto of the proposed resolution, ostensibly on the grounds that it was one-sided.
I think Marc is right to say that this lapse weakens the authority and legitimacy of the Security Council (SC). I place less weight on the SC than some commentators do, but even I don't think a weak and discredited SC is a good thing. I also agree that this development increases the danger of a prolonged conflict in Syria, and maybe even an internationalized civil war there.
There are a number of reasons why the U.N. effort has failed thus far, but part of the blame lies with the liberal interventionists who abused the Security Council's mandate during last year's intervention in Libya.
You'll recall that UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized military action in Libya to protect civilians. The resolution was directly inspired by the fear that Qaddafi loyalists laying siege to the rebel town of Benghazi were about to conduct some sort of massacre there. In response, Res. 1973 authorized member states "take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." France, the United States and other foreign powers quickly went beyond this mandate, using airpower and other forms of assistance to help the rebels defeat Muammar Qaddafi's forces and oust him from power.
One can argue that this was the right course of action anyway, because getting rid of a thug like Qaddafi was worth it. That's a debate for another day, although I would note in passing that post-Qaddafi Libya remains deeply troubled and the collapse of the regime seems to be fueling conflicts elsewhere. But what if the Libyan precedent is one of the reasons why Russia and China aren't playing ball today? They supported Resolution 1973 back in 2011, and then watched NATO and a few others make a mockery of multilateralism in the quest to topple Qaddafi. The Syrian tragedy is pay-back time, and neither Beijing nor Moscow want to be party to another effort at Western-sponsored "regime change." It is hardly surprising that Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin condemned the failed resolution on precisely these grounds. In short, our high-handed manipulation of the SC process in the case of Libya may have made it harder to gain a consensus on Syria, which is arguably a far more important and dangerous situation.
Don't get me wrong: I shed no tears for Qaddafi or his family and I'd be delighted to see Bashar al-Assad gone in Syria. The Libya precedent is not the only reason why China and Russia dug in their heels, and I think their decision to veto the resolution could be costly for them. But it is both ironic and tragic that some of the most enthusiastic defenders of multilateralism and international law seem all too willing to ignore them when they get in the way of other things they want to do, however laudable the latter goal might be. But a commitment to multilateralism and international law is not something you can invoke when it suits you and ignore when it doesn't, at least not without paying a price. Powerful states like the United States can (and do) act with impunity on occasion, but they shouldn't be surprised when such behavior backfires later on.
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I've detected a growing tendency to issue obituaries for the "Arab spring." This impulse is understandable given the relentless turmoil in Yemen, the brutal repression that continues in Syria, the simmering tensions in Libya and Bahrain, and the recent resurgence of sometimes violent protest against the military regime in Egypt. Not surprisingly, early hopes that the Arab world was at the dawn of a new era have been dashed-or at least diminished. And that's why pundits like Tom Friedman are now crossing their fingers and hoping for the reincarnation of Nelson Mandela in each of these states.
But if the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process, and having a few Mandelas around is no guarantee of success. Why? Because once the existing political order has collapsed, the stakes for key groups in society rise dramatically. The creation of new institutions -- in effect, the development of new rules for ordering political life -- inevitably creates new winners and losers. And everyone knows this. Not only does this situation encourage more and more groups to join the process of political struggle, but awareness that high stakes are involved also gives them incentives to use more extreme means, including violence.
Under these conditions, it is a pipedream to think that key actors in a complex and troubled society like Egypt or Libya (or in the future, Syria) could quickly agree on new political institutions and infuse them with legitimacy. Even if interim rulers write a quick constitution, hold a referendum, or elect new representatives, those whose interests are undermined by the outcomes are bound to question the new rules and the process and to do what they can to undermine or amend them. What one should expect, therefore, are half-measures, false starts, prolonged uncertainty, and highly contingent events, where seemingly random events (a riot, an accident, an episode of overt foreign interference, an unexpected flurry of violence, etc.) can alter the course of events in far-reaching ways. Tunisia notwithstanding, what you are unlikely to get is a quick and easy consensus on new institutions.
Remember the French Revolution? The storming of the Bastille took place in July 1789, the nobility was abolished by the National Assembly the following year, and Louis XVI tried unsuccessfully to flee in 1791 before being forced to accept a new constitution. Internal turmoil and foreign interference eventually lead to war in 1792, Louis and Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793, and Paris was soon engulfed by the Jacobin terror, which eventually burns itself out. A new constitution is adopted in 1795, establishing a government known as the "Directory," which is eventually overthrown by Napoleon's coup d'etat on 18 Brumaire, 1799. By the time Napoleon seized power, it had been more than ten years since the initial revolutionary upheaval.
To judge by that timetable, the "Arab spring" has a long way to go. And other cases offer a similar lesson. The Russian revolution starts with the fall of the Tsarist regime in March 1917 and the formation of Kerensky's provisional government, which is subsequently overthrown by the Bolshevik coup a few months later. But the Bolsheviks' hold on power isn't fully established until their victory in the Russian Civil War, which isn't fully won until 1923. The Soviet political order endured recurrent power struggles over the next decade, until Joseph Stalin vanquished his various opponents and established a personal dictatorship.
Or take a more recent case, Iran. The revolution begins in 1978, with a steadily escalating series of street demonstrations. The shah flees into exile in January 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returns in February and appoints Mehdan Bazegar as Prime Minister of an interim government. A new constitution is drafted by October, but there is a continuing struggle for power between liberal, Islamist, and other groups.
The first president of the new "Islamic Republic," Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, is impeached in 1981, and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war strengthens hardliners and provides an opportunity for a crackdown against some prominent members of the original revolutionary movement. The Islamic republic remains a work-in-progress to this day, with the role of the "Supreme Jurisprudent," the Revolutionary Guards, the clergy, the presidency, and the Majlis remaining in flux.
Even the comparatively benign American Revolution was hardly a done-deal when the peace treaty with England was signed in 1783. Independence from England had required the colonists to fight a lengthy war of independence, and the fledgling republic then faced several armed rebellions, most notably Shays' Rebellion in 1786. These challenges revealed the inadequacies of the original Articles of Confederation (1777-1786) leading to the drafting and adoption of what is now the U.S. Constitution.
In short, anybody who thought that the events that swept through the Arab world in 2011 were going to produce stable and orderly outcomes quickly was living in a dream world. To say this is not to oppose what has happened, or to believe that the old orders could or should have continued. Rather, it is to recognize that radical reform -- even revolution -- is a long, difficult, and uncertain process, and that the ride is likely to be a bumpy one for years to come.
History also warns that outside powers have at best limited influence over the outcomes of a genuine revolutionary process. Even well-intentioned efforts to aid progressive forces can backfire, as can overt efforts to thwart them. Overall, a policy of "benevolent neglect" may be the more prudent course, making it clear that outsiders are prepared to let each country's citizens choose their own order, provided that important foreign policy redlines are not crossed. But for a country like the United States, which still sees itself as a model for others and tends to think that it has the right and the wisdom to tell them what to do, patience and restraint can be hard to sustain. And patience is what is needed most these days.
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One can only look on the continuing violence in Syria with a
mixture of awe, anguish, and dismay. Awe because so many Syrians continue to
protest against the Assad government, despite the enormous personal risks that
this entails. Anguish and dismay because there is relatively little that
outside powers can do to bring about a speedy end to the crisis, apart from the
measures that have already been taken (which I support).
The Obama administration has come under some criticism for not turning against Assad sooner. I'm inclined to cut them some slack here, because it would have been far better had the United States, Turkey, and a few others been able to convince Assad to begin a genuine process of dialogue, compromise, and liberalization. So it was worth trying to see if a deal could be struck, even if that effort ultimately failed. Having tried to give the Assad regime a way out also made it much easier to line up international support for sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
The central difficulty at this stage is two-fold: 1) the regime has no easy exit options and thus every incentive to fight on, and 2) its opponents inside and outside the country -- including the United States -- do not have a lot of attractive ways to put more pressure on the regime. Let's consider each aspect in turn.
Assad's problem now is that he's lost any chance of a genuine compromise and must therefore fight on in the hopes that he can cow the opposition and restore order. Regrettably, that is precisely what his father managed to do when he crushed an uprising in Hama in 1982 (killing some 20,000 people in the process). Once an authoritarian ruler rejects compromise and liberalization and launches a bloody crackdown instead, they have to do whatever it takes to win. With 3,500 people already dead, no one in Syria would believe any offers Assad might subsequently make to share power, and Assad and his cronies undoubtedly know that the risk of future retribution will be considerable if other actors in Syria ever gain real political power.
The other option for Assad, of course, is accepting a graceful flight into exile (presumably with a pile of cash to pay for a comfortable retirement). Several Arab states have reportedly offered Assad this sort of safe haven, and other notorious dictators (such as Uganda's Idi Amin) left power in this way. But that option isn't very attractive for Assad either, because leaders with bloody hands now face international prosecution for crimes against humanity. Furthermore, this hypothetical option would only be available to Assad, his family, and perhaps his inner circle of advisors. But other members of the government are implicated in the crackdown -- most of them drawn from the minority Alawi sect -- and they would be inclined to fight on even if Assad himself were to leave. This situation helps us understand why the regime and its security forces haven't cracked yet: they just don't have a lot of options at this point and they must either hang together (or hang separately).
The problem for the United States, Turkey, and other opponents of the regime is that there are real costs and risks to trying to do a lot more than they are already doing. Syria is more urban, mountainous, and densely-populated than Libya, so an air campaign against the regime's security forces would be a far trickier affair and Syria could respond to a drone campaign or other overt military action in ways that we might find unpleasant. Moreover, Assad's security forces are mostly conducting small-scale operations against unarmed civilians, not massed army assaults on cities, so they are less vulnerable to an air campaign. Libya was also a minor player far from the center of Middle East politics, but Syria lies in the heart of the region and instability there could easily reverberate into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. Assad, for all his faults, is not as hated or despised as Qaddafi was, which means we aren't likely to get the same support from the Arab League that we had during the Libyan campaign. And we will never get UN Security Council authorization for military action, because both China and Russia are opposed. (This situation, by the way, is at least partly fallout from the Libya intervention, which Moscow and Beijing regard as having exceeded the Security Council mandate. It also reflects their enduring concern to limit U.S. efforts to dictate conditions in the Middle East.)
Hence the dismay one feels when reading news accounts and watching videos of the violence being wreaked against Syrian civilians, and when one remembers that their movement began in a completely peaceful manner. I fear that the Syrian tragedy will grind on for many months, and its principal victims will be ordinary Syrians who dreamt of a more open political order, and dared to think they could bring them about. And because societies take a long time to recover from extended bouts of internal violence (see under: Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia, former Yugoslavia, etc.), the consequences of this tragedy are likely to be with us for a long time after it is finally resolved.
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One of the downsides of blogging is the feeling that if youtry to take a day or two off, something big will happen and you'll miss thechance to say anything about it. So mywife and I spent this weekend in Portland, Maine, to celebrate our 20thanniversary, and what happens? GeorgeMitchell resigns, Palestinian demonstrations in Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza,and Syria (!) spill across the ceasefire lines and the "most moral army in theworld" ends up shooting and killing several of them. Meanwhile, NATO officials call for escalating the war inLibya, the head of the IMF gets arrested on suspicion of rape in New York, andthere's lots of speculation about what Obama is going to say in his upcomingMiddle East speech (and what Israeli PM Netanyahu will say in his speech toCongress the day after). And then we learn that Obama is planning to address the annual AIPAC policy conferencenext weekend, a decision that strikes me as both beneath the dignity of the Presidency and a classic "no-win" situation to boot. (If he panders he'll just confirm what everybody now suspects about America's paralyzed Middle East policy; if he tells them the truth, he'll face a firestorm of criticism here at home. Why not just send Biden?)
I know this isn't about me, but if this is what happens whenI go away for a weekend, maybe I should just stay home. So let me play catch-up on some of the news.
The word that comes to mind is "trapped." George Mitchell was trapped in a dead-endjob as special envoy, because his job was to shepherd negotiations and therewere no negotiations taking place. Someof you may recall that I thought Mitchell should have resigned eighteen months ago, onceit became clear that Obama wasn't willing to take on Netanyahu or the Israellobby. Had he resigned then, it mighthave been of some modest value as a wake-up call. His resignation last Friday was more of awhimper than a bang.
But Mitchell wasn't the only one who's trapped. So are Arab dictators like Muammar Qadhafi in Libyaand Bashar Assad in Syria, even if they manage to cling to power temporarily throughthe use of brutal force. They aretrapped because demands for greater openness and justice aren't going to end,and their responses over the past few months now guarantee that there can be nosoft landing or safe exit strategy for them. If they fall, they will fall completely, andprobably lose their lives in the bargain. So they are trapped in the dead-end spiral of repression and stagnation,while the rest of the world advances.
The Palestinians are still trapped of course; they remain theworld's largest stateless populations and are simultaneously victims ofIsrael's expulsion in 1947-48 and again in 1967, decades of Arab neglect andexploitation, Israel's long occupation/control of the West Bank and Gaza, and prolongedWestern indifference. Their only silver lining is the growing realization that terrorist violence is not their best route to statehood, but diplomacy, publicity, and non-violent civil protest might be.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is trapped too: by hisideological devotion to the dream of "Greater Israel," by the even more hawkishstance of the settlers and his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and by theuncertainties created by the recent upheavals in the Arab world. He can't do the right thing and move swiftlytowards the creation of a viable Palestinian state--even if he wanted to, whichis highly unlikely--though this step would end the demographic threat toIsrael's democratic and Jewish character andremove the main reason why people around the world are increasinglycritical of Israel's conduct. Instead, by clinging to the policies of the past,the IDF ends up having to crack down on demonstrators on the West Bank andalong the borders, which means they start to resemble the thugs that areputting down pro-democracy movements in Syria and Bahrain. (No, I'm not saying the situations are identical, but appearances do matter).
And Barack Obama is surely trapped too. I think he's understood what needed to bedone in the Middle East since before he became president; he just didn't recognizethat it would be a lot harder to do than he thought. He knew that achieving a viable two-statesolution was the most obvious way to remove the primary source of Arab andMuslim anger at the United States, as well as the best way to safeguardIsrael's long-term future. As he said inCairo back in June 2009, a two-state solution was "in America's interest, thePalestinians' interest, Israel's interest," and the world's interest." And if he could pull that off, then theUnited States could stop devoting so much time on the squabbles in the MiddleEast and start shifting more of its strategic attention to the far more seriousissue of China's rise in Asia. But Obamadidn't fully recognize the power of the Israel lobby, which made it impossiblefor him to deliver on his early commitments. And as long as that is the case, Obama (or his successors) will remaintrapped in policies that aren't good for America, Israel, or any of our otherfriends in the region.
One apparent area of agreement among virtually all public participants in the recent debate over U.S.-Israeli relations is the importance of confronting Iran. Secretary of State Clinton made it a theme of her remarks to the AIPAC policy conference, as did PM Netanyahu, and interestingly enough, it's implicit in General David Petraeus's comment to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict complicates U.S. efforts to forge effective alliances with other Middle East states.
Add to that a recent column by Michael Hirsh of Newsweek, who quotes an unnamed U.S. official saying that the real reason Obama went ballistic over the continued Israeli intransigence regarding settlement building is that this policy is undermining U.S. efforts to deal with Iran.
In short, what you see here is an emerging consensus that Iran is the problem, and we've got to address Israel-Palestine in order to focus everyone’s attention on that. For the record, some of the things I've written are consistent with that view too.
But one word of caution, courtesy of Trita Parsi. Trying to push Israeli-Palestinian peace in order to then go after Iran has one obvious downside: it gives Tehran an enormous incentive to do whatever it can to derail the admittedly fragile peace process. As Parsi shows in his prize-winning book Treacherous Alliance, this is what happened during the 1990s, after the Bush administration excluded Iran from the Madrid Conference and after the Clinton administration had adopted the policy of "dual containment." Iran had never paid that much attention to the Palestinian issue before then, but it started ramping up support for Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups as a way to pay the United States back and to undermine U.S. efforts to isolate them.
So instead of announcing (or hinting) that we are interested in Israeli-Palestinian peace primarily so we can go after Iran, we ought to emphasize that we are interested in peace there because it’s the right thing to do (i.e., better for us, better for Israel, and obviously better for the Palestinians). At the same time, we should continue patient, realistic (and maybe even more imaginative) efforts to improve relations with Iran, so that they don’t have greater incentives to play the spoiler. Ditto Syria.
If we play our cards right, we might even generate something of a virtuous circle; where various parties with whom we now have disagreements begin to realize that they ought to deal now, lest we mend fences elsewhere and leave them with a weaker bargaining position down the road. But notice that will require a far-sighted, patient, and coherent approach to the region, and not just a single-minded focus on one particular problem.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.