The interim nuclear deal with Iran is an important step forward, and the various negotiating teams can be justly proud of their achievement. Far be it from me to be a killjoy at this rare moment of progress, but let's not lose our heads amid all the high-fiving and back-patting. Why? Because Iran's nuclear program is not in fact the real issue. The more important issues are Iran's future relations with the outside world and whether the deal paves the way for reintegrating that country into the world economy and the broader international community.
There is something of a paradox in the ways that opponents and supporters of a deal approach the whole subject of Iran's nuclear program and the country's broader relations with the United States and other major powers. Opponents of a deal tend to believe that 1) Iran is governed by irrational and highly aggressive Shiite fanatics; 2) it is hellbent on getting a nuclear weapons capability; and 3) if Iran does get the bomb, it will have dramatic and overwhelmingly negative consequences for regional stability and world politics more generally. Given those (unwarranted) beliefs, you'd think hawks would be thrilled with this deal, insofar as it freezes Iran's current capabilities, will reduce the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (i.e., the stuff that could be enriched to weapons grade fairly quickly), and leaves all the truly significant sanctions in place. If the nuclear program is your big concern, then this is a great first step and a more far-reaching comprehensive deal would be even better. (The alternatives -- an unconstrained Iranian program or another Middle East war -- are clearly inferior.)
By contrast, many who support the current deal believe that 1) Iran's leaders are rational individuals seeking to advance Iran's national interests; 2) Iran has not yet decided to seek a nuclear weapon and probably prefers a condition of nuclear latency to a fully developed nuclear arsenal; and 3) getting the bomb wouldn't transform Iran into a major world power overnight and certainly wouldn't enable it to threaten Israel or blackmail its neighbors. If this view is accurate, then a final deal on Iran's nuclear program -- i.e., one that scales back those elements that shorten the breakout period but leaves Iran with some enrichment capacity -- isn't that significant by itself, because Iran wasn't really seeking a weapon anyway and its getting a few bombs wouldn't have that big an impact on world politics.
Thus, the paradox: Many supporters of a diplomatic deal don't believe the danger of a "nuclear Iran" is all that momentous, while opponents of the current deal think Iran's nuclear program poses a grave and imminent threat. One would think the former would be more relaxed about recent progress, while the latter would be more enthusiastic. But that isn't the case: Those with a moderate view of the nuclear danger are much happier with the deal than those who (logically) ought to be more interested in anything that constrains what Iran is able to do.
In fact, the real issue isn't whether Iran gets close to a bomb; the real issue is the long-term balance of power in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. Iran has far more power potential than any of the other states in the region: a larger population, a fairly sophisticated and well-educated middle class, some good universities, and abundant oil and gas to boost economic growth (if used wisely). If Iran ever escapes the shackles of international sanctions and puts some competent people in charge of its economy, it's going to loom much larger in regional affairs over time. That prospect is what really lies behind the Israeli and Saudi concerns about the nuclear deal. Israel and Saudi Arabia don't think Iran is going to get up one day and start lobbing warheads at its neighbors, and they probably don't even believe that Iran would ever try the pointless act of nuclear blackmail. No, they're just worried that a powerful Iran would over time exert greater influence in the region, in all the ways that major powers do. From the perspective of Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the goal is to try to keep Iran in a box for as long as possible -- isolated, friendless, and artificially weakened.
But from the U.S. perspective, that's neither a realistic nor a desirable long-term goal. As I laid out last week, America's main strategic interest in the Greater Middle East is a balance of power in which no single state dominates. In such a situation, U.S. interests and leverage are best served by having good relations with as many states as possible and at least decent working relations with all of them. America's long-term interests are best served by helping reintegrate Iran into the global community, which is likely to strengthen the hand of moderate forces there and make Iran less disruptive in other contexts (e.g., Lebanon). Managing this process will require reassuring existing allies, but this development would also force current allies to listen to Washington a bit more attentively, which wouldn't be a bad thing.
Over the next six months, the fine details of a long-term nuclear deal will receive enormous attention and debate. Given the attention that Iran's nuclear program has received over the past decade or more, that level of scrutiny is unavoidable. But in the end the nuclear issue doesn't matter that much; what matters is whether an agreement on that issue will allow relations between Iran and the United States and the rest of the P5+1 to normalize in the months and years ahead. And it is that development that opponents of an agreement will be desperate to prevent.
Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
As I promised in my last post, today I want to offer a somewhat different view of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. I've been traveling for the past 10 days, giving talks at several venues in the United Kingdom and attending the World Economic Forum's meeting of Global Agenda Councils in Abu Dhabi. There was a lot of discussion of America's evolving role in the world at these meetings, and I intend to revisit some of those issues in subsequent posts. But for now, a few thoughts on the Middle East, which is in the news big time these days.
For me, any discussion of U.S. strategy has to begin by acknowledging America's remarkably favorable international position in the world. In the endless quest to identify and neutralize new threats -- both real and imagined -- Americans often forget just how secure the United States is, especially compared with other states. As I've noted many times before, the United States is blessed with a large population, abundant resources, fertile land, navigable rivers, and a technologically sophisticated economy that encourages innovation. These core sources of American power are highly robust, which means that U.S. security and prosperity depend more on what happens at home than on anything that might happen abroad.
Furthermore, the United States has no serious rivals in the Western Hemisphere. It is protected -- still! -- by two vast oceans. As the French ambassador to the United States said in 1910: "The United States was blessed among nations. On the north, she had a weak neighbor; on the south, another weak neighbor; on the east, fish, and on the west, fish." Today, the United States possesses the world's most capable conventional military forces and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal, giving Washington a deterrent power that others can only envy. Indeed, the main reason the United States can roam around concerning itself with other countries' business (and interfering in various ways) is because it doesn't have to worry about defending itself against foreign invasions, blockades, and the like.
One consequence of this favorable position, by the way, is that the country routinely blows minor threats out of all proportion. I mean: Iran has a defense budget of about $10 billion (less than 1/50th of what the United States spends on national security), yet we manage to convince ourselves that Iran is a Very Serious Threat to U.S. vital interests. Ditto the constant fretting about minor-league powers like Syria, North Korea, Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya, and other so-called "rogue states."
When we talk about U.S. strategy in the Middle East, therefore, we need to start by recognizing that the United States is in very good shape, and a lot of what happens in that part of the world may not matter very much to the country in the long run. Put differently, no matter what happens there, the United States can almost certainly adjust and adapt and be just fine.
So what are U.S. interests in the Middle East? I'd say the United States has three strategic interests and two moral interests. The three strategic interests are 1) keeping oil and gas from the region flowing to world markets, to keep the global economy humming; 2) minimizing the danger of anti-American terrorism; and 3) inhibiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The two moral interests are 1) promotion of human rights and participatory government, and 2) helping ensure Israel's survival.
Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
I haven't blogged in a few days because I've been having a fascinating but very busy trip through the United Kingdom. My visits to Cambridge, the London School of Economics (LSE), and the European Council on Foreign Relations went very well -- or so I thought, at least -- and I'm grateful to colleagues there for hosting my visit and offering provocative queries and comments. And a special note of appreciation to the students who asked sharp questions: It's always encouraging to talk to smart and passionate students who care about the real world.
I know Europe and the U.K. have been in the doldrums in recent years, and this article from the New York Times exposes the human consequences of persistent youth unemployment in telling detail. But I have to say that London looked fabulous. There's a visceral and vibrant energy in the city, and some features of English life put the United States to shame.
I mean: What must city officials from Boston think when they ride London's Underground and compare it to Boston's own T? (For some reason, Bostonians are proud that it was the United States' first subway -- the problem is that it shows.) But of course that's what happens when a country chooses to spend money building elaborate air bases in places like Bagram instead of spending that money closer to home.
By contrast, the London Tube is efficient and ubiquitous and is laid out with remarkable clarity -- the graphic maps and visual aids are well-conceived and remarkably easy to navigate. Even New York's subway system, impressive in its own way, seems rather crude, loud, and uncivilized by comparison.
After my talk at LSE, one of the attendees asked a great question: Why is it that politicians in the United States usually think it is safer to take a hard-line, flag-waving, decidedly hawkish approach to many international issues, instead of openly and consciously articulating a vision that emphasizes minding our own business (at least some of the time), embraces diplomacy first and military force last, and reminds Americans that their first duty is to each other. In other words, a view that thinks Americans should spend less time telling the world how to live until they've cleaned up some of their own enduring problems at home. I still think that is what President Barack Obama genuinely wanted to do when he took office, and look how hard it was for him to stick to that vision.
I didn't give the questioner a great answer, and it puzzles me still. Some of the reason lies in the militarist roots of most nationalisms (where state and coercive power tend to be fused), and some of it lies in the natural tendency for those with great power to think they are uniquely virtuous and thus qualified to preach to others. But some of it is genuinely a mystery: Why are Americans so willing to pay taxes in order to support a world-girdling national security establishment, yet so reluctant to pay taxes to have better schools, health care, roads, bridges, subways, parks, museums, libraries, and all the other trappings of a wealthy and successful society?
This question would be easy to answer if the United States were facing a large and/or imminent threat: Sensible states sacrifice butter for guns when the wolf is at the door. But the United States is the most secure power in history and will remain remarkably secure unless it keeps repeating the errors of the past decade or so. When most of the world is spending a lot smaller percent of GDP on defense than the United States is, and when the country is already way ahead, a bit of readjustment shouldn't be controversial -- it should be bleeding obvious. Indeed, under present circumstances, civilian leaders in the Pentagon should be leading the charge to reduce defense burdens, instead of dragging their heels.
But moving in that direction will require some rethinking of America's grand strategy. I'll consider that topic in my next post. Next stop: Abu Dhabi.
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
A heads-up for regular readers: I will be traveling for the next ten days and blogging will be sparse. I'm off to Cambridge University tomorrow, where I have the honor delivering the 2013 F.H. Hinsley Lecture. My topic will be "Follies and Fiascoes: Why U.S. Foreign Policy Keeps Failing," and the main challenge I face will be sticking to the time limit! (Historical backround: Sir Harry Hinsley was a noted cryptographer in World War II, but also a prominent IR scholar, and you can read more about him here). I'll also be visiting a seminar with IR grad students there, and looking forward to hearing what they have to say. Then into London for a talk at the European Council on Foreign Relations and another lecture at the London School of Economics on Friday. If you're in any of those neighborhoods and have nothing better to do, c'mon by.
And then I fly to Abu Dhabi for a conference of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Councils. I'm on the council on "geopolitical risks," and we'll be trying to figure out what the most prominent global dangers are this year. Suggestions welcome.
Our council will be shooting at a moving target given all the diplomatic balls that are currently up in the air. As you all know, the P5+1 didn't reach an interim agreement with Iran after all, and the participants are now trying to kick up a bit of fairy dust, trying not to point fingers, and hoping that progress will resume in a week or so. It would be amusing to watch American neocons and hardliners suddenly discover an unfamiliar affection for the French--who played a major role in derailing the interim deal over the weekend -- if the consequences of failure were not so worrisome. Let's not forget that the main alternatives to a successful deal are either a nuclear-armed Iran, another Middle East war, and heightened tensions within the region. But we've got a great track record of reaching diplomatic agreements with Middle Eastern countries, right? Right?
So I'm crossing my fingers and hoping the negotiations succeed, even if an agreement would undercut the central thesis of my Hinsley lecture.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Secretary of State John Kerry is now in Geneva, no doubt invigorated from his diplomatic triumph at the Israel-Palestine "peace" talks (not). He wouldn't be headed there if there wasn't some tangible progress to report (and take some credit for). The reported deal is straightforward: Iran will halt its nuclear program for six months in exchange for the U.S. lifting a few minor sanctions.
This is a small first step. Its main purpose is building confidence, and buying time for the negotiators to work on a comprehensive permanent deal. Not surprisingly, opponents of an agreement are already working to derail it, by trashing any short-term deal in Geneva or by sponsoring new sanctions legislation designed to poison the atmosphere, discredit the diplomatic approach, and ultimately scuttle any deal.
The battle lines on this issue are now easy to identify. On one side are Obama and Kerry, the U.S. negotiating team, most of the arms control community, and much of America's national security apparatus, including seventy-nine well-connected former officials who endorsed the administration's efforts yesterday. This broad group understands that Iran is not going to accept zero enrichment and that the United States cannot physically prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon if it really, really, wants to get one. Even if the US used force to damage Iran's nuclear infrastructure, they could rebuild it and disperse it and we would have to keep attacking them forever. This group believes -- correctly, in my view -- that Iran is not currently trying to build a nuclear weapon and that a deal can be struck that makes it hard for Iran to sprint toward a bomb if it ever changes its mind. This group recognizes that another Mideast war would be a disaster for us and for others and would merely increase Iran's desire to acquire an effective deterrent. Finally, this group understands that the deal is likely to get worse the longer we delay.
On the other side are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who has already denounced the interim deal), Saudi Arabia, the hardline elements within the Israel lobby, extremist journalists like Jennifer Rubin, and various Congresspersons who are overly beholden to some or all of the above. Despite a dearth of genuine evidence, they believe Iran is hell-bent on getting a bomb and that this development would have far-reaching negative effects on world politics. They think Iran is only negotiating now because we tightened sanctions, and that tightening the screws some more will get Tehran to say "uncle" and give us everything we want. Perhaps they haven't noticed that the United States could have gotten a better deal in 2006 -- before the latest round of sanctions was imposed -- but the Bush administration foolishly spurned Iran's offer. The opponents have a lot of energy and fervor on their side, but logic and evidence doesn't seem to be their strong suit.
Which side will win? I don't know, but I do think this is a winnable fight for Obama if he tries. If the negotiators in Geneva can reach an agreement that 1) avoids war, 2) reduces Iran's incentive for a bomb, 3) moves them further from the nuclear threshold, and 4) strengthens the already-tough inspections regime, and presents it to the American people as a done deal, I think the public will support it strongly. The administration will have no trouble trotting out lots of former officials and bemedaled generals to endorse it, and to explain to skeptics or the undecided why the deal is in our interest. The rest of the P5+1 will be ecstatic (except maybe Russia and China, because they benefit from the United States and Iran being at odds), and they will be making supportive noises as well. Hardline opponents won't be able to attack the deal without engaging in transparently obvious special pleading, partly on behalf of a country that already has nuclear weapons and hasn't been all that cooperative lately. Under these circumstances, some of those diehard opponents in Congress might think twice about killing the deal, because their fingerprints would be all over the murder weapon. Indeed, that may be why they are now proposing new sanctions: better to kill the diplomatic process before it produces results than to try to discredit a reasonable deal later on.
Obama hasn't wracked up a lot of foreign policy successes thus far, and there aren't a lot of promising opportunities elsewhere. The Affordable Care Act snafu has him in the doldrums here at home and he could use a big-ticket breakthrough somewhere. Bottom line: he should go for it. I mean, what's the point of being president if you aren't going to lead?
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
A few idle questions occurred to me this morning, and I thought I'd share them with you.
1. If NATO didn't exist, would the United States and Europe bother to create it? Why?
2. Is it possible that the Obama administration is just telling Israeli and Saudi leaders what they want to hear, and then doing what they think is in the U.S. interest? Wouldn't it be nice to think so?
3. Chuck Hagel is really upset that US defense spending is going down. My question: how many of you Americans out there are now worried about foreign attack as a result?
4. Perhaps the most fundamental question in politics is the classic "who guards the guardians?" In other words, how does one create institutions powerful enough to protect the state, without having them take over? Modern version: how do you keep super-secret agencies like the NSA from overstepping their boundaries? (If your answer is "Congressional oversight" you haven't been paying attention.)
5. Will a rising China continue to tolerate the U.S. security role in Asia, or will it gradually try to convince other Asian states to distance themselves from Washington? The answer to that question will tell us a lot about global politics over the next few decades.
6. How many people at AIPAC, Christians United for Israel, JINSA, the Presidents' Conference or the Saudi embassy are sitting around thinking: "how the heck do we stop a deal with Iran yet not get blamed for derailing it?"
7. Is the finance industry inherently corrupt? Every few months we hear about another big financial firm being indicted for something, and eventually paying a big fine. Yet the leaders of this industry are still respected public figures (and big-time political contributors). Seems to me if leading firms in an industry are more-or-less constantly being caught cheating, there's something fundamentally wrong with the way the whole sector is run.
8. If Toronto mayor Rob Ford has to resign in the wake of his admission that he used crack cocaine, which Canadian university will be first to offer him a visiting professorship?
9. Have ANY of the people who led the charge for NATO intervention in Libya expressed second thoughts about the results? Just asking.
10. Hawks and doves can both get their countries into big trouble. Hawks do it by getting you into unnecessary and protracted wars; doves by being too trusting and leaving you vulnerable. Yet being hawkish tends to pay off better professionally, at least in the United States. Why?
I have other questions too, but I'll stop there. Maybe some of you have answers!
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images
I have a question about the diplomatic value of all the NSA spying we've been reading about lately: Where's the tangible payoff for all this activity? With each week, it seems, we learn more about just how active and energetic the NSA has been. They've spied on our enemies, they've spied on our closest allies, and they've spied on us. The NSA's defenders have made various claims about thwarting terrors plots and the like, but these claims don't seem to stand up too much scrutiny. I repeat: Where are the big foreign policy and national security gains that we're reaping from this work?
As a realist, I'm neither surprised nor horrified to learn that governments spy on each other, or that a wealthy, powerful, self-important, and slightly paranoid country like the United States might...ahem...do a bit more of it than others. But this unthinking, unstrategic Hoovering of data, megadata, and actual conversations is obviously out of control, and the diplomatic and other costs could easily outstrip any putative benefits.
In particular, given our capacity and willingness to spy on virtually everyone, you'd think that American diplomats would be entering foreign policy contests and diplomatic negotiations with an enormous advantage over their counterparts. If we're as good at extracting private information from other countries' networks, cell phones, emails, and the like, you'd think U.S. officials would usually have a good idea of our antagonists' bottom line and would be really skilled at manipulating them to our advantage. We now know that the Allies in World War II got big strategic benefits from cracking German and Japanese codes; I want to know if we're getting similar benefits today.
It is hard to believe we are, given that America's foreign policy record since the end of the Cold War is mostly one of failure. And that leads me to suspect that one of two things is true. Either 1) the NSA is good at collecting gazilla-bytes of stuff but not very good at deciding what to collect or figuring out what it means, or 2) the rest of our foreign policy establishment is not very good at taking advantage of the information the NSA has worked so hard to acquire. In other words, either the NSA is not worth the money we're paying for it, or the rest of our foreign policy establishment is less competent than we thought. To be frank, I'm not sure which possibility I prefer.
There is a third possibility, of course: The kind of information that the NSA is good at getting isn't that useful for most policy problems. They collect it because that is what they are able to do -- like the proverbial drunkard looking for lost keys under the lamppost "because that's where the light is" -- but the overwhelming majority of it doesn't really aid our foreign policy (or our counterterrorism efforts) very much. One might say the same for the vast majority of stuff that the U.S. government now classifies. Which raises the worrisome question of whether we are unwittingly laying the groundwork for a much more intrusive authoritarian state without getting much compensating benefits.
Given how ossified and entrenched government bureaucracies tend to be, I doubt another Church Committee-style congressional inquiry is going to have much effect on this problem. Instead, it seems to me that what we need is a real root-and-branch investigation that fearlessly probes the costs and benefits of these activities. And it can't be done by pre-neutered Congressional watchdogs whose sympathies are clear. To be both effective and credible, we'd need an independent task force of intelligence professionals, civil liberties experts, highly skeptical journalists (Jane Mayer or Glenn Greenwald, anyone?), some seasoned but sensible politicians, and maybe a smart academic or two. Otherwise, I suspect we'll get a whitewash, and a rapid return to business-as-usual.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
As some of you may have noticed, I haven't been writing about the Israel lobby that much lately. Life's too short to spend all one's time on the activities of one particular interest group -- even if it has an awful lot of influence -- and there are many topics at least as important as the special relationship between the United States and one small country in the Middle East. Plus, I'm satisfied with my earlier writings on this topic, in part because subsequent events kept confirming their accuracy and because most of the criticisms we received were remarkably weak and tended to confirm our main points.
But occasionally I do see someone writing about the Israel lobby in a way that merits a response. Case in point: the recent WaPo blog post on this topic by Max Fisher, which inspired a sympathetic exegesis by Michael Koplow here. Fisher is often an astute analyst and Koplow has written some smart things on other topics, so it was somewhat surprising to see such careless reasoning from both of them.
The gist of their argument is two-fold. First, they maintain that there is a widespread belief that AIPAC and other organizations in the Israel lobby are all-powerful, and that the lobby "controls" U.S. Middle East policy. Koplow implies that John Mearsheimer and I hold this view, though Fisher does not. Second, recent events -- most notably the Obama administration's failure to heed AIPAC et al.'s push for military intervention in Syria -- demonstrate that this view is bogus. Together, the two pieces suggest that all this talk about an "Israel lobby" is sort of silly, and that these groups have rather limited influence on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Like some other attempts to kick up dust on this question, both pieces involve the ritual slaughter of a straw man. No serious person writing on this topic believes the Israel lobby is "all-powerful" or that it controls every aspect of U.S. Middle East policy. It is telling that Fisher does not mention or quote any individual or group making such a claim. Mearsheimer and I certainly didn't; in our book we repeatedly state that the lobby does not get its way all the time. We also emphasized that its activities were akin to those of other powerful interest groups, and generally consistent with normal practice in American politics.
Viewed in this light, the lobby's failure to get the United States into a war in Syria is hardly telling evidence of its limited influence. Getting the United States to launch an unprovoked war is a big task -- especially when you consider how America's recent wars in that part of the world have gone -- and no lobbying or interest group can accomplish that by itself. Various elements of the lobby did play an important role in getting the United States to invade Iraq, but as we emphasized in our book, they didn't do it by themselves then either. In particular, the war would not have occurred had Bush and Cheney not gotten on board, and it would almost certainly not have happened absent the 9/11 attacks. As with all interest groups, it matters what they are asking for and when they are asking for it.
Does this mean the lobby's power is on the wane? Maybe, but not by much. Israel continues to receive $3-4 billion in U.S. aid each year, even though it is now a wealthy country. It gets this aid even as it continues to take actions the United States opposes, most notably building settlements in the Occupied Territories. The United States continues to provide it with diplomatic cover in the United Nations and other international organizations, and U.S. officials consistently turn a blind eye to Israeli actions that are making the two-state solution that the U.S. favors impossible. Aspiring officials like Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power still have to perform demeaning acts of self-criticism in order to win Senate confirmation. Do Fisher and Koplow think the lobby's influence has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this?
Or ask yourself this: why has President Obama spent more time meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu -- the leader of a small Middle Eastern country whose total population is less than New York City -- than with any other foreign official, and why did Netanyahu recently get a seven-hour meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry? Is it because Obama and Kerry find Bibi's company so engaging that they just can't bear to be apart? I don't think so. One measure of the lobby's impact is simply the amount of time and attention that US officials have to devote to this one small country, while studiously ignoring its nuclear arsenal, illegal settlements, and other deficiencies. (No country is perfect, of course, but Israel is uniquely immune to criticism by prominent U.S. political figures.)
Finally, if you're not wearing blinders, it is impossible to miss the fact that AIPAC, WINEP, JINSA, the RJC, the ADL, and a host of other hardline groups in the lobby are now the principal opponents to a diplomatic deal with Iran. Just look at this article from The Forward, or this one from Ha'aretz, which make it clear that these are the principal groups holding Obama's feet to the fire on this issue. And of course it is many of these same groups or individuals who have been insisting for years that the U.S. keep all options "on the table" and use force against Iran if necessary. Absent pressure from these groups, it would be much, much easier for the United States to come to terms with Tehran.
Will they succeed in derailing a deal? I don't know. As I laid out in detail more than a year ago, the situation vis-à-vis Iran is different than the pre-war situation with Iraq in 2003, and "pro-Israel" organizations here in the United States are not as unified on this topic. A reasonable deal with Iran is clearly preferable to another Middle East war, and preferable to making unrealistic demands that make it harder to monitor Iran's nuclear research activities and might eventually convince Iran to pursue actual weapons. Because the United States and its allies have powerful incentives to pursue a diplomatic solution, resistance from hardline groups in the lobby may be insufficient to stop them.
Bu no interest group gets everything it wants. Interest groups and lobbies advance their cause partly by pushing for specific policies (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). But they also succeed when they can limit the options that policymakers are willing to consider or can force policymakers to offer up other concessions to keep these groups happy. AIPAC famously lost the AWACs fight during the Reagan administration, but the battle was so difficult and costly that Reagan never really challenged it again. Similarly, former US Mideast negotiator (and FP colleague) Aaron David Miller has noted that "those of us advising the Secretary of State and the president were very sensitive to what the pro-Israel community was thinking, and when it came to considering ideas that Israel didn't like, we too often engaged in a kind of preemptive self-censorship." Bottom line: powerful interest groups often get their way not by achieving specific goals directly, but by shaping and constraining the options politicians are willing to contemplate.
So the question to ask is not whether AIPAC "wins" any particular issue (particularly when that issue involves a big demand). It is what US policy would be if these groups did not exist, or if they were advocating a different course of action. In other words, if Obama and Kerry didn't have to worry at all about the lobby, or if groups like J Street or Americans for Peace Now had as much clout as AIPAC, would the United States have handled relation with Iran in exactly the same way for the past twenty year or more? More tellingly still: would the United States have done a better job of brokering an Israel-Palestinian peace if its negotiators (a number of whom were drawn from the lobby's ranks) had not been acting as "Israel's lawyer" and if the U.S. could have made its aid to Israel conditional on an end to settlement building? If you think the lobby's clout had no impact on our mishandling of these two important problems, I've got a bridge to sell you and then a couple of books for you to read.
One final point. Despite the flaws in their two posts, Fisher and Koplow may in fact be on to something. Two things have changed since Mearsheimer and I wrote our original article and subsequent book: 1) a lot more people are aware of the lobby and understand that its positions are often harmful to U.S. (and Israeli) interests, and 2) a few more people are willing to talk and write about this phenomenon openly, instead of being silenced by false charges of anti-Semitism or the fear of professional retribution. Democracy thrives on free, open, and rational debate, which is why a sensible but frank discussion of the lobby's influence is all to the good. Or as Andrew Sullivan might say: know hope.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
One of the hardest things for a great power to do is reverse course when it's made a strategic blunder, especially when it involves a war. Fred Ikle wrote a whole book about this problem -- the classic Every War Must End -- where he described many of political obstacles that getting in the way of cutting one's losses and either making peace or just getting out. You know some of the reasons: politicians don't like to admit they screwed up, the fallacy of "sunk costs" continues to drive policy, the military doesn't like admitting defeat, etc. And even when the decision to end a war is made, it usually takes longer to get out than it should.
Case in point: Afghanistan. I don't know if the United States and NATO could have achieved a meaningful victory in Afghanistan had the Bush administration not embarked on its foolish misadventure in Iraq. But it was clear by 2009 that doubling down in Afghanistan wasn't going to produce an effective or fully legitimate Afghan government and wasn't going to produce a strategically more favorable outcome from the perspective of U.S. interests. But President Obama decided to "surge" there anyway, mostly because he wanted to look tough on national security and feared the domestic backlash if he cut our losses and withdrew.
Now, some five years later, NATO and the U.S. are preparing to (mostly) leave. The corrupt Karzai government has been giving us a hard time about the terms under which the residual force would operate, however, and insisting that we accept their terms if we wanted to stay.
But instead of seizing this free gift and saying "da khoday pa amaan" ("goodbye" in Pashto), Secretary of State Kerry and other U.S. officials have done a full-court press to persuade Karzai & Co. to let us keep pouring resources into this bottomless pit. To do that, reports the New York Times, U.S. officials "are planning a more minimalist mission, with a force consisting of fewer combat trainers and more military managers to ensure that billions of dollars in security aid are not squandered or pilfered."
I have two comments. First, if you've read any of the reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), you'd know that vast sums of money have been squandered already. It therefore beggars belief that we're going to do a better job of monitoring Afghan spending of our aid programs with a smaller force. Bottom line: a lot of the money spent in the future is just going to disappear.
Second, this whole enterprise looks like a can-kicking, face-saving operation, precisely the sort of long, drawn-out end that Ikle and others have described. In this regard, it is revealing to read what retired general David Barno, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2003-05, told the Times we are going to get for this extra effort (my emphasis):
"The most important thing we can do is keep writing checks so the Afghan National Security Forces can remain funded - fuel, food, weapons, salaries. . . If that continues, they will be at least able to maintain a stalemate with the Taliban, and that is enough to keep the state up and running."
That's right: more than ten years of war, and we've managed to create a corrupt central government that cannot defeat the Taliban (who aren't getting $4 billion a year in US aid, by the way). The government can manage a stalemate, but only if Uncle Sucker keeps thousands of troops there and keeps the money flowing. . . presumably forever.
I don't quite know how to describe this policy, but I sure wouldn't use the word "strategy."
DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images
Some of America's Middle Eastern allies are reportedly not very happy with the United States these days. I refer, of course, to Saudi Arabia and Israel, who are troubled by U.S. discussions with Iran and upset by Obama's reluctance to plunge head-first into the Syrian quagmire. But those of us with a more strategic view of U.S. interests in the Middle East may welcome these developments, as they contain the kernel of a more flexible and effective approach that may be emerging.
Let's start with U.S. interests. The United States has at most three strategic interests in the Middle East. First, we want Persian Gulf oil and gas to continue to flow to world markets. Hydraulic fracturing notwithstanding, a major disruption in energy supplies from the Gulf would drive up world prices and hurt a still-fragile global economy. Second, we want to discourage countries in the Middle East from developing WMD, and especially nuclear weapons. (It would have been better had the United States done more to stop Israel from getting the bomb, but that horse left the barn in the 1960s.) Third, we would like to reduce extremist violence emanating from this region, mostly in the form of terrorism. (This threat is usually exaggerated, in my view, but it is hardly non-existent.)
The key to advancing these interests is two-fold: first, help maintain a balance of power in the region, and second, keep the US military presence there to a minimum. If one regional state becomes too powerful, or if an external power were able to intervene there, it might be able to dominate the various oil-producing countries and manipulate energy supplies in ways we might find unpleasant. Concerns about that possibility led the United States to create the Rapid Deployment Force in the late 1970s, and led us to tilt toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. It also led to our direct military intervention to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.
At the same time, excessive U.S. interference and a large-scale U.S. military presence threatens our other strategic goals, either by encouraging some states to seek WMD as a means of deterrence or by fueling anti-American terrorism of the Al Qaeda sort. Policies like 1990s-era "dual containment" or the Bush administration's disastrous attempt at "regional transformation" were strategic missteps for this reason, not to mention their human and economic costs. Given the unpredictable turmoil that has roiled the region ever since the "Arab spring" erupted, it makes even more sense for the U.S. to keep its presence limited, lest we be seen as a predatory imperial power addicted to interference in local political events.
A balance of power (or if you prefer, balance of threat) approach to the Middle East also highlights the costs of America's "special relationships" with Israel and Saudi Arabia. If you are playing the balance of power game, you want to maximize your diplomatic flexibility and avoid becoming overly committed to any particular ally. As was said of England during its own balance of power heyday: it had "no permanent friends, only permanent interests."
Today, because the United States is so closely tied to Israel and Saudi Arabia, it gets blamed for and associated with their various misdeeds. Specifically, we are seen as complicit in Israel's cruel treatment of its Palestinian subjects, and seen as the chief protector of a decadent Saudi monarchy whose ruling values are sharply at odds with our own. Equally important, preserving these "special relationships" has reduced U.S. influence over both partners: the Saudis have repeatedly dragged their feet on counter-terrorism issues while Israel has continued expand settlements and either threatened or used force with disturbing frequency, and often in ways that complicate US relations with the rest of the region.
Talking to Iran and taking a more measured approach to intervention in the region is thus a very good development. Although the United States and Iran won't become close allies anytime soon, rebuilding a working relationship with Tehran would be a great benefit to the U.S. strategic interests. Not only would it facilitate cooperation on various issues where U.S. and Iranian interests align (such as Afghanistan), but the mere fact that the U.S. and Iran were talking to each other constructively would also make our other allies in the region more attentive to our concerns and responsive to our requests.
I don't want to overstate this trend or exaggerate its likely benefits: the United States is not about to abandon its current allies or entirely reverse its long-standing regional commitments, and widening our circle of contacts won't immediately force others to leap to do our bidding. Nor do I think it should. But a bit more distance from Tel Aviv and Riyadh, and an open channel of communication between Washington and Tehran would maximize U.S. influence and leverage over time. It's also a useful hedge against unpredictable events: when you become too strongly committed to any particular ally (as the U.S. was once committed to the Shah of Iran), you suffer more damage if anything happens to them.
Because the United States is not a Middle Eastern power -- a geographic reality we sometimes forget -- and because its primary goal is the preservation of a regional balance of power, it has the luxury of playing "hard to get." That's why it's not such a bad thing if our present regional allies are a bit miffed at U.S. these days. Remember: they are weaker than the United States is and they face more urgent threats than we do. And if they want to keep getting U.S. protection and support and they are concerned that our attention might be waning a wee bit, they might start doing more to keep U.S. happy.
For further reading: for an excellent analysis of these issues which makes a number of similar points, see Paul Pillar's blog post here.
Heidi Levine-Pool/Getty Images
The U.S. government shutdown got me thinking: How much of the foreign policy-related activity of the federal government is truly necessary? If you waved a magic wand and cut the number of people working on foreign-policy issues in half, would it really make a difference? The idea makes me a bit uncomfortable because I have a lot of respect for many of the people who work on foreign policy in the executive branch, the armed services, the intel community, and on Capitol Hill. It seems naive to think the United States could run as effective a foreign policy with fewer people, even though the country already has a lot more people doing this work than other countries do and doesn't seem to be getting better results.
More importantly, how much of what they do is strictly necessary? One acquaintance with recent government experience told me that most of what he did was preparing his principal for the next international summit meeting. As soon as one meeting was over, it was time to start drafting talking points for the next one, usually starting with whatever the U.S. representative had said at the last one. He was so busy cranking out routine guidance that he never had time to think about broader issues or to consider whether the approach the United States was taking at all these meetings was the right one. And none of the gatherings for which he was assiduously preparing were truly momentous events like the 1919 Paris Peace Conference or were even a Camp David summit; they were just the typical business-as-usual international confabs that have become de rigueur in this globalized world.
Similarly, think of all the massive government reports that each administration has to spew out these days, such as the Quadrennial Defense Review; its State Department analogue, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review; or even the various National Security Strategy documents that presidents are required to produce. Pundits subject these reports to Talmudic readings in the hopes of discerning what the administration is "really thinking" (and I'm as guilty of this practice as anyone), but how important are they really? Thousands of staff hours and intragovernmental wrangling goes into assembling these snooze-fests, but it's hard for an outsider like me (and many insiders as well) to see what positive impact they have on America's global position or the quality of U.S. foreign policy itself.
Instead, as America's foreign-policy apparatus has grown over the years, the main effect is to multiply the number of constituencies that need to be consulted before anything gets done. Hence the endless parade of interagency meetings, memoranda, leaks, back-channel dialogues, etc., which serve to keep public servants busy. The more people doing foreign policy, it seems, the more meetings that have to be held and the more paper or emails that have to be sent. But to what end?
And when you think about it, a lot of the big foreign-policy innovations of the past 40-plus years weren't produced by a churning bureaucracy, but by small groups of people with a creative vision. Think of the Marshall Plan, conceived and designed by a handful of folks in the State Department's policy planning staff. Or Richard Nixon's opening to China, which hardly anyone knew about until it occurred. Not all these innovations were successes, of course: Tom Friedman once told Haaretz that the Iraq war would not have happened if someone had sent about 25 people in Washington to a desert island in 2001. Even today, one gets the impression that Barack Obama's foreign policy isn't being handled by the formal machinery of government, but by a small circle of inner advisors and maybe just Obama and his speechwriter.
In some areas of government, manpower matters because public agencies have to provide direct services to the citizenry. If you cut the number of people working for the IRS, it would take longer to get your tax refund processed. If there were fewer people working on visas and passport applications, it would take longer for us to get them. If we cut the number of park rangers, you'd find visiting a national park (once they reopened) less safe or enjoyable. And other things being equal, reducing the number of people in the armed services reduces a country's ability to fight effectively, especially over the long term.
But many other elements of foreign policy aren't like that; it simply isn't obvious that adding more people to the National Security Council, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Agency, or even the State Department really generates smarter, more coherent, or more well-chosen strategies for dealing with the rest of the world. And getting rid of some of the endless paperwork and unread reports that these agencies produce might actually give public servants more time to think about what they are doing and to ponder whether it makes sense.
To repeat: This post is not intended to disparage the work of public officials. Despite what I've said above, I put more value on what they do than on a lot of the machinations of firms like Goldman Sachs. But I can't help but wonder whether the United States would do just about as well if it had fewer cooks in the kitchen, but representing a wider range of views.
Photo: Melanie Acevedo via Getty Images
Even if you stayed up since Friday and skipped the finale of Breaking Bad, there's no way you could have kept up with all the commentary about the U.S.-Iranian minuet at the U.N. General Assembly opening last week. There was a lot of spinning going on, of course, with proponents of a nuclear deal looking for reasons to be optimistic and die-hard opponents looking for signs that it was all just a bad dream.
For a conventional assessment of where things now stand, I recommend Richard Haass's piece today in the Financial Times. Haass notes the various obstacles that still remain and argues that the two sides have reached a tacit agreement on the end point of negotiations but not the sequence of events. In other words, he thinks there's already something of an understanding on the terms of a nuclear deal (i.e., how much nuclear capability Iran will be allowed to retain), but what needs to be worked out is the pace at which elements of Iran's nuclear program are given up and the pace at which economic sanctions are lifted.
Haass also believes the political obstacles to a deal are formidable, especially on the Iranian side. In making this claim, he offered a classic illustration of the biases that warp U.S. efforts to deal with countries like Iran. Here's the sentence that caught my eye:
It was also that Mr Obama's UN address gave Iran quite a lot -- no US desire for regime change; acceptance of Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear programme - but Mr Rouhani offered little in return.
For Haass (and many other Americans, one suspects), Obama was being incredibly generous last week. In Haass's mind, saying that the world's most powerful country won't seek regime change in Iran is a wonderful gift, a lavish sign of American goodwill. Never mind that overthrowing the Iranian regime would be an illegal act of war. Never mind that Haass would probably not see a pledge by Rouhani that Iran does not seek regime change in America as giving the United States "quite a lot."
This attitude is symptomatic of an enduring U.S. foreign- policy mindset: Overthrowing other governments is just one of those "normal" options that we keep in our foreign-policy tool kit, and telling another country we won't actually use it this time is a really big sacrifice on our part. Haass probably thinks it is, because he was openly calling for the United States to topple the clerics back in 2010. And he now thinks those pesky Iranians ought to be grateful that Obama didn't follow his advice.
Similarly, it is not an act of generosity for the United States to "accept" Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program. That right is enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory. Full stop. Iran is also one of the most heavily inspected countries on Earth, and neither the International Atomic Energy Agency nor the U.S. intelligence community believes that Iran has a nuclear weapons program at present. Iran did violate some of its NPT obligations in the past, and there are valid reasons to wonder about its long-term nuclear aims. Reaching agreement on additional safeguards is likely to be essential to any future nuclear deal, and the United States (and others) should press for them. But Iranians see their "right" to a peaceful program as something they already possess; it is not a gift or a concession or a sign of U.S. goodwill. From their perspective, there was no need for Rouhani to offer up something in return.
To be clear: I found last week's events heartening, though we have a long way to go before we get an actual agreement, and this initiative won't be a success until it gets all the way across the finish line. But a good way to derail this process is for Americans to believe that we are making lots of big concessions or gifts -- and getting little for them. And my guess is that we're going to hear a lot of people making that sort of argument in the weeks and months ahead.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
By all indications, Iran's new president wants a deal with the United States on its nuclear program and has the authority to negotiate one. As predictably as the sunrise, hard-liners in the United States and Israel are dismissing the possibility on various grounds. Indeed, about 10 minutes after President Hasan Rouhani was elected, they began describing him as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and suggesting that nothing had changed. Then, after Rouhani unleashed a wave of conciliatory actions, skeptics like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by proposing a new set of deal-breaking conditions, and other Israeli officials suggested that time had already run out and that further diplomacy was a waste of time.
Given that these are the same people and organizations that have been pushing for military action against Iran for some time, it is hardly surprising that they pooh-pooh the prospect of diplomacy now. But notice that their core position is fundamentally contradictory: They have been saying for years that only sustained outside pressure will get Iran to "say uncle." So the United States and the European Union have ramped up sanctions and made repeated threats to use force. Surprise, surprise: Iran's new leaders are now saying they want a deal, precisely the response that this pressure was supposed to produce. If the hawks were consistent, they would at a minimum recommend that we explore the possibility carefully. Instead, they are trying to make sure that the United States continues to demand complete Iranian capitulation (or maybe even regime change). This tells you all you need to know about their sincerity and why Barack Obama shouldn't pay them the slightest attention.
In fact, the United States and Iran are facing a classic problem in international relations (and other forms of bargaining): Given that an adversary could be bluffing or dissembling, how do you know when a seemingly friendly gesture is sincere? Political scientist Robert Jervis explored this issue in depth in The Logic of Images in International Relations (1970) and drew a nice distinction between "signals" (i.e., actions that contain no inherent credibility) and "indices," which he defined as "statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct."
More recently, this basic idea was resurrected in economics (and borrowed by IR scholars) in the notion of a "costly signal." Unlike "cheap talk," a costly signal is an action that involves some cost or risk for the sender and therefore is one that the sender would be unlikely to make if they didn't really mean it. A classic example was Anwar Sadat's 1977 offer to fly to Jerusalem and speak directly to the Israeli Knesset in search of a peace deal. Because this move was obviously a risky step for Sadat (who was condemned throughout the Arab world), his Israeli counterparts had good reason to believe that his desire for peace was genuine.
So should we take Rouhani's overtures seriously? I think we should. As noted above, the possibility that Iran is genuinely interested in a deal is inherently credible, because we have in fact been squeezing the Iranians quite hard. To repeat: Isn't what they are now doing exactly what we've been trying to achieve? Equally important is that Iran has taken a wide range of actions that were not cost-free. First, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been granted enhanced authority to negotiate a deal, and Rouhani has appointed officials who favor negotiations and are familiar to their American interlocutors. Any time you pick one set of officials over another, there are political costs involved. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has publicly stated that Iran should show "heroic flexibility," thereby lending his own authority to this effort. And this has all been done in public view, making it harder for Iran's leaders to reverse course on a whim.
Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
After President Barack Obama was re-elected last year, I wrote that I didn't expect him to devote much attention to foreign affairs and that we should not expect any major breakthroughs in that arena. In light of recent events (e.g., Syria, the relaunching of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, etc.), does my position need rethinking?
Yes and no.
It is true that the Syria business has forced Obama to spend more time on foreign affairs than he probably wanted to, but let's not forget that what happens in Syria is not that important in the larger scheme of things. Yes, it is obviously important to the people of Syria and to some of their immediate neighbors, but Syria itself is just not that powerful or influential. No matter what happens in Syria -- a victory for Bashar al-Assad's thugs, the removal of all the chemical weapons, a complete rebel triumph, the establishment of genuine democracy, or the creation of an Islamist state, etc. -- the broader trajectory of world politics isn't going to change very much. So even if the deal in Geneva works out as well as one might hope, and even if I gave Obama & Co. full credit for the deal (which they don't deserve), I wouldn't score it as a "major" foreign-policy achievement.
Now for some more bad news. Right now, it doesn't look like the main currents of the so-called "Arab Spring" are going to turn out well either, at least not in the short term. Given that Obama pushed for greater openness throughout the region, having to tacitly support a military coup and crackdown in Egypt hardly seems like a big win for U.S. policy. Similarly, the resumption of "peace talks" between Israel and the Palestinians is not a success unless it actually gets all the way to the finish line and produces a viable Palestinian state. How many of you would bet $5 on that outcome? Instead, as Ian Lustick laid out clearly in the New York Times yesterday, what we have is a "peace process" that does far more harm than good. Actually achieving a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace would be a major achievement, but is the talks are far, far more likely to end in another ignominious failure.
So where might a genuine foreign-policy accomplishment be found? The obvious place is the troubled U.S. relationship with Iran. Iran is a potentially powerful and influential state (though not the looming danger that threat-mongers often depict), and a positive relationship between Tehran and Washington would benefit both countries. Indeed, even having a more normal sort of rivalry -- including diplomatic recognition -- would make it easier to deal with the various areas of friction that might remain. That is why people like Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomat Thomas Pickering see the present moment as a golden opportunity to explore a fundamentally different relationship with Tehran.
Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Now that the flap over Syria has been settled (not really...), I guess it's safe for me to get back on the road. Translated: I'm off to Brazil this evening to give a series of lectures at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. It is my first visit to Brazil, and I'm looking forward to seeing these two cities and hearing what the Brazilians think about Obama, U.S. foreign policy, the NSA (!), and the future of world politics (among other things). Blogging will be sporadic at best until I return next week.
As for Syria, one should not be churlish and cavil about the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough that gets Obama and Kerry out of the corner they painted themselves into. The path by which we got here wasn't pretty, but as Lefty Gomez said, "I'd rather be lucky than good." Or as Bismarck famously noted, there's a special providence that "looks after drunkards, fools, and the United States of America." We've some ways to go before the chemical weapons issue is resolved, of course, and this is at best a first step toward ending the grinding civil war in Syria, but realists take what we can get in this imperfect world. Right now, this deal looks better than bombing Syria to no good purpose or having Congress in visible revolt against Obama's handling of the whole matter.
Photo: NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images
I don't know how the Syria business is going to turn out, and neither do you. But I think everyone ought to take a deep breath and ratchet down their forecasts of how deep, significant, and meaningful this event is.
On one side, advocates of military strikes have been using increasingly overheated rhetoric over the past week, employing the familiar tropes and arguments that hawks have relied on ever since World War II. Comparisons to Hitler and the Holocaust? Check. Obligatory reference to Munich? Got it. Lurid warnings about a loss of American "credibility"? Uh-huh. Repeated attempts to portray opponents of a military strike as "isolationists" or worse? Roger.
This approach makes it appear that what is at stake in the Syria debate is nothing less than America's Future Role in the World. If the United States doesn't act, so the argument runs, this one decision heralds a progressive retreat of the United States from its global responsibilities (whatever those are), its steady decline as a great power, and the onset of a new era of global anarchy. But if the United States can just find the will to send some cruise missiles into Syria, then all those terrible things can be avoided and American leadership will be restored (until the next time it is hanging by a hair, of course -- probably a few months from now).[[LATEST]]
Dire warnings can be just as lurid on the other side. Opponents warn that bombing Bashar al-Assad's forces will start the United States down a slippery slope to a major ground-force commitment (it might, but it's unlikely). They suggest that attacking Assad will bring al Qaeda extremists to power (a possibility, but far from certain). Or they believe it will just reinforce America's tendency to use force first and do diplomacy later, a tendency that has gotten the United States into trouble repeatedly over the past two decades. And some more overwrought doves worry that attacking yet another Middle Eastern country will further intensify Islamic radicalism and produce a lot of nasty blowback down the road.
I remain opposed to military intervention because I do not think it will advance U.S. strategic or moral interests, and because I do not believe we have a magic formula for solving the Syrian civil war. But I also believe that both sides in this debate need to take a deep breath and to stop portraying this moment as an all-important fork in the road that will shape world events for decades to come.
In fact, what happens in Syria is not going to affect America's overall position in the world very much. Syria is a small and weak country, and what happens there isn't going to alter the global balance of power in any significant way. It's not even clear it will alter the regional balance all that much. (Israel will remain the region's strongest power no matter what happens in Damascus.) America's global position will be determined primarily by the state of the U.S. economy and by what happens in places like China, the European Union, India, Turkey, and Brazil in the years ahead.
To be more specific: If America's economic recovery continues and if the advent of hydraulic fracking and cheaper energy gives the U.S. economy an additional boost, then America will remain the world's No. 1 power no matter what happens to Assad, the Free Syrian Army, or the al-Nusra Front. If China's economy hits a wall, if Brazil, Turkey, and India hit economic headwinds, and if the EU remains hampered by its various economic woes, then the United States will be in relatively good shape whether it bombs Damascus or not.
Ditto "American engagement." Contrary to what people like Bill Keller seem to think, the United States is not becoming "isolationist." Opposition to the Syrian adventure stems from the fact that U.S. strategic interests are not deeply engaged (here the American people have got this one right), and moral considerations do not mandate intervention because we might easily make things worse and increase the level of human suffering. But comparisons to World War II are deeply misleading: Assad is a thug and a war criminal, but he's not genocidal or bent on world domination, and Syria is not a great power like Germany was. No matter what happens in Syria, the United States will remain the single most formidable international actor, and other countries aren't going to lose sight of that reality in the years ahead. I'd even bet that the pivot to Asia continues no matter who is elected the next U.S. president, unless China slips badly and doesn't seem like an emerging threat anymore.
Instead of becoming "isolationist," the American people seem to be returning to a realistic degree of prudence. To oppose a military response in Syria because it won't make Americans more secure and may not help the Syrians very much isn't cowardly, irresponsible, or feckless; you might just call it common sense.
Postscript: There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity today, based on a Russian proposal to take control of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. If the U.S. goal is merely to reinforce the "red line" against chemical weapons use, then it has little choice but to take the deal and spin it as a great success for "tough" U.S. diplomacy. But it is likely to take some time to work out the procedures and actually secure the weapons, and there's always the risk that Russia would renege (or Assad would cheat) so as to retain a chemical weapons option in extremis. More importantly, this arrangement doesn't by itself get us much closer to settling the war, which should be our primary objective. To do that, the United States is going to have to engage with Russia and Iran, and we might even have to agree to leave Assad in power for a while. That's not a very satisfying outcome, perhaps, but it is one that would save a lot of lives.
Thumbnail image: The Keep Calm-o-Matic (www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/p/keep-calm-and-dont-bomb-syria-1)
Remember the Powell doctrine? Elaborated by Colin Powell back in 1990, during his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it consisted of a series of questions identifying the conditions that should be met before committing U.S. military forces to battle. The questions were:
1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
For Powell, each question had to be answered in the affirmative before a decision to use military force was made. If these conditions were met, however, Powell (and other military officers of his generation) believed that the United States should then use sufficient force to achieve decisive victory.[[LATEST]]
Like the closely related "Weinberger doctrine" (named for Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger), these guidelines were designed to ensure that the United States did not stumble into pointless wars whose costs far outweighed the benefits. Powell understood that civilians often had idealistic or quixotic ideas about improving the world with U.S. military power and that they were often too quick to employ it without thinking through the broader strategic implications. One might think of the Powell doctrine as a checklist designed to curb the well-intentioned but naive desire for global do-gooding that has inspired American liberal interventionists for decades.
The Powell doctrine also rests on a decidedly realist vision of U.S. security and grand strategy. Powell's eight questions implicitly recognize that the United States is an extraordinarily secure country and one that rarely needs to rush into war to keep itself safe. It is a vision of U.S. strategy that does not shrink from using force, but only if vital national security interests are at stake. If they are, then the United States should defend those interests by taking the gloves off and doing whatever it takes. But most of the time vital interests are not at stake, and the United States can and should rely on "other nonviolent policy means." It is a doctrine designed to husband U.S. power and keep the country's powder dry, so that when America does have to go to war, it can do so with ample domestic and international support and with military forces that have not been ground down and degraded by endless interventions in arenas of little strategic importance.
What do we learn if we apply Powell's principles to the current debate on Syria? Just ask and answer the questions, giving the administration the benefit of the doubt. The results are not pretty.
1. Vital national interests at stake? Hardly. The United States hasn't cared who governed Syria since 1970, and it did business with Bashar al-Assad's regime whenever doing so suited it. If it didn't matter who ran Syria for the past 40-plus years, why does it suddenly matter so much now? Nor is defending the norm against chemical weapons a "vital" interest, given that other states have used them in the past and they are not true weapons of mass destruction anyway.
2. Clear obtainable objective? Nope. If you can figure out what the Obama administration's actual objective is -- defend the chemical weapons norm? reinforce U.S. credibility? weaken the regime a little but not a lot? send a warning to Iran?, etc. -- you have a better microscope than I do.
3. Costs and risks analyzed fully and frankly? Well, maybe. I'm sure people in the administration have talked about them, though it is hard to know how "fully" the risks and costs have been weighed. But let's be generous and give the administration this one.
4. Other nonviolent policy options exhausted? Hardly. As I've noted before, there has been a dearth of imaginative diplomacy surrounding the Syrian conflict ever since it began. Oddly, the administration seems to have thought this whole issue wasn't important enough to warrant energetic diplomacy, but it is important enough to go to war. And there in a nutshell is a lot of what's wrong with U.S. foreign policy these days.
5. Plausible exit strategy to avoid entanglement? Not that I can see. Barack Obama, John Kerry, et al. seem to recognize the danger of a quagmire here, so their "exit strategy" consists of limiting the U.S. attack to airstrikes and cruise missiles and maybe some increased aid to the rebels. In other words, they are preemptively "exiting" by not getting very far in. But that also means that intervention won't accomplish much, and it still creates the danger of a slippery slope. If the action they are now contemplating doesn't do the job, what then? If credibility is your concern, won't those fears increase if the United States takes action and Assad remains defiant?
6. Have the consequences been fully considered? It's hard to believe they have. Whacking Assad's forces won't do that much to restate any "red lines" against chemical weapons use, and as noted above, that's a pretty modest objective in any case. But military action might also help bring down the regime, thereby turning Syria into a failed state, fueling a bitter struggle among competing ethnic, sectarian, and extremist groups, and creating an ideal breeding and training ground for jihadists. It may also undercut the moderate forces who are currently ascendant in Iran, derail any chance of a diplomatic deal with them (which is a far more important goal), and even reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Is there any evidence that Obama, Kerry, Rice & Co. have thought all these things through?
7. Support from the American people? No, no, and no. Surveys show overwhelming public opposition to military action in Syria. Obama can boost those numbers with some saber-rattling and threat-inflation (now under way), but the American people are going to remain skeptical. I suspect Congress will eventually go along -- for a variety of reasons -- but right now the idea of going to war in Syria is even less popular than Congress itself (which is saying something). Bottom line: This criterion is nowhere near being met.
8. Genuine and broad international support? Not really. The British Parliament has already voted against military action, and Germany has made it clear that it's not playing either. Russia and China are of course dead set against. America's got the French (oh boy!), the Saudis, and (quietly) the Israelis, along with the usual coalition of the cowed, coerced, or co-opted. But it's a far cry from the support the United States had in the first Gulf War or when it initially entered Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. This is not the sort of "genuine and broad" support that General Powell had in mind.
I draw two conclusions from this exercise. First, the case for military action in Syria remains weak, and the fact that the United States is barreling headlong toward that outcome anyway is a powerful indictment of its foreign policy and national security establishment. Second, Colin Powell was really onto something when he laid out this framework, and the United States would be in much better shape today had that framework guided U.S. military responses for the past 20 years.
J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images
I'm attending the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association this week, so I don't have much time to blog. I'd love to write about something besides Syria, but it's hard to avoid such an obvious issue right now. Here are a few further thoughts to add to my previous posts on the subject.
First, it looks like Barack Obama's administration has painted itself into something of a corner (though to be fair, a lot of inside-the-Beltway hawks were wielding their own paintbrushes too). With the administration having made a number of unequivocal statements about the Assad government's responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks, it is going to be hard for it to do nothing and not get accused of being wishy-washy at best and pusillanimous at worst.
But there are several problems. It's still not clear what positive objectives a limited use of force would accomplish. It won't tip the balance inside Syria or drive Bashar al-Assad from power. It's not even clear that punitive strikes would do much to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use, as any leader contemplating the use of these weapons in the future is probably going to be in pretty dire straits and might not care if some foreign power might retaliate. Moreover, the American people are clearly not interested in getting into this war, and Obama and the Dems could pay a big price if retaliation goes awry in any way. Indeed, as Conor Friedersdorf writes in a brilliant piece on the Atlantic's website, this is another elite-driven intervention led by inside-the-Beltway politicos who are addicted to using American power even when vital U.S. interests aren't at stake.
Perhaps what bothers me most is how little imagination we seem to be showing in dealing with this deeply troubling situation. Everyone seems to be viewing this as a vexing problem that just has to be managed, instead of asking whether the crisis might be an opportunity for creative and potentially game-changing diplomacy.
To be specific: Why not use the crisis over chemical weapons as an opportunity to launch a new diplomatic initiative? Start by referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council, and let everyone on the Security Council see the intelligence that lies behind U.S. suspicions. And as Sean Kay has proposed, for good measure we could ask the Security Council to refer the issue of possible war crimes to the International Criminal Court. But most importantly, before launching punitive strikes that probably won't accomplish anything positive, the United States could invite the European Union, Russia, China, Turkey and -- wait for it -- Iran to a diplomatic conference on Syria.
What would that accomplish? Plenty. Including Iran would satisfy its long-standing desire to be recognized as a regional stakeholder (which it is, no matter how much the United States tries to pretend otherwise). America would giving Iran the chance to play a constructive role, much as Iran did back in 2002 and 2003 over Afghanistan. Doing so would also help ensure that the crisis in Syria didn't interfere with the more important task of negotiating an agreement on Iran's nuclear program. Inviting Iran into the picture would also be a way of rewarding the moderate stance the President Hasan Rouhani has taken since his election and his own public condemnation of any use of chemical weapons.
This route is obviously unlikely to yield an agreement that removes Assad from power, at least not anytime soon. My guess is that the most one could hope for is an agreement that imposed a cease-fire, acknowledged the de facto partition of Syrian territory into government and opposition zones, began negotiations on some sort of power-sharing arrangement, and maybe got outside powers to reduce their support for their various clients. But might this approach also begin to weaken the political support Assad has been getting from Russia, China, and Iran? They can't enjoy being the main protectors of a larcenous regime that has been killing lots of innocent people, and they might be looking for a way to distance themselves provided their own interests are protected.
As with all diplomatic initiatives, the idea sketched above might fail. But I doubt it would do any harm to try it, and it would certainly make the United States look less trigger-happy. That would be a positive outcome all by itself.
Photo: EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA
Thomas Friedman's piece in the Sunday New York Times was vintage Friedman: chatty, moderately insightful, and filled with quotations from his pal (and co-author) Michael Mandelbaum. The basic theme of the column was the limits of U.S. influence and U.S. interests in the Middle East. U.S. influence is down because the name of the game today is shaping the internal evolution of these societies, and outside powers will never be very good at that. U.S. interests are declining because the global energy market is changing and Middle East oil and gas are not as critical as they once were. As a result, what happens in the Middle East just won't matter as much as it did during the Cold War or even over the past couple of decades.
Fair enough. But here's the line that caught my eye, near the end of the piece:
"Obama knows all of this. He just can't say it."
Why in heaven's name can't he? What's the big secret that Obama or his administration dare not speak of? If Friedman can write about in the Times, why can't Obama or John Kerry or Susan Rice or Chuck Hagel talk about it too? What is to be gained from keeping the American people in the dark about the changing nature of American interests and involvement in this turbulent region?
Indeed, if I were to fault the Obama administration on its handling of the Arab spring (and a bunch of other issues) it is that they never bothered to lay out a clear strategic framework that explains why they are acting as they are. As Friedman and others note, it is clear that Obama is deeply reluctant to get drawn into more Middle Eastern conflicts and that he prefers limited uses of force (drones, targeted killings, etc.) to grandiose invasions and costly occupations. It is also pretty clear that Obama wants to shift American strategic attention out of the Middle East and toward Asia.
But for the most part this gifted communicator has never tried to explain why this policy makes sense. Sure, he keeps saying that it is up to the peoples of these countries to determine their own fate, but he keeps getting dragged back into doing things he'd clearly prefer to avoid (and stay tuned for airstrikes in Syria). Instead of educating the American people about how global interests are changing and how our policies must adapt to reflect new realities, Obama tends to fall back on the familiar rhetorical bromides that have informed U.S. grand strategy for decades: democracy, human rights, stability, order, rejection of extremism, and, of course, American leadership.
But then what we get are a series of ad hoc responses and a grab bag of justifications. First we are going to stay out of Libya, and then we get involved, and then we write it off (more or less). Then we help usher Mubarak out (because we think that's the way history is running), but then we refuse to call a military coup by its right name and acquiesce in the reimposition of Mubarak-lite. We ratchet up the rhetoric on Syria but limit our direct involvement to humanitarian aid and covert assistance, while turning a blind eye to continued oppression in places like Bahrain. And so on.
The problem with this ad hoc approach to policy formation is it leaves the administration perennially buffeted by events and vulnerable to pressure from all those factions, interest groups, GOP politicians, and ambitious policy wonks who think they know what ought to be done. If you don't explain what you are trying to do and why it makes sense, it is hard for anyone to get behind the policy or see the common thread behind each separate decision. By failing to lay out a clear set of principles -- which in this case means explaining to the American people the basic points that Friedman made and why it doesn't make sense for the US to toss a lot of resources into these various struggles -- Obama & Co. end up looking inconsistent, confused, and indecisive.
By the way, laying out a clear set of strategic principles wouldn't force the country into a rigid political straightjacket. Sometimes broad goals have to adapt to particular circumstances, and foreign policymakers often have to accept what is possible rather than what is ideal. But if you don't explain what your underlying objectives are, why those objectives are the right ones, and how your polices are on balance going to move us in the right direction, then you are giving your political opponents a free gift and your supporters little with which to defend you.
In other words, if Friedman is correct that President Obama and his advisors really do "know all this," it would be in their interest to explain it to the country. And not just in one of those stand-alone speechifying moments that Obama likes so much, but over and over and over. Who knows? Americans might like hearing the president explain why this part of the world is less important than it used to be and why Americans can start focusing their worries somewhere else.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
I was participating in an exchange on an email listserv the other day, and one of the participants -- Brendan Green, a visiting professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas -- made an intriguing observation. With his permission, I reproduce a slightly edited version here:
"Pre-2011, if you said that Mubarak would fall, that Egypt would experience a mass political mobilization that destroyed its political order several times over, that the streets of Cairo would run red with blood; that 100,000 would die in Syria, that the Levant would be aflame; that the entire region would start to conduct much of its politics on sectarian grounds, and that there would be no end in sight, I think most people would have told you the proposed situation would be disastrous for American interests. Certainly it would be disastrous for American influence in the region. And yet, are we really worse off that we were in 2010? By what metric?"
Green also argued that a similar principle applied in reverse-that anti-Americanism in the region depended less on our specific actions and more on the mere fact of American size and prominence, which made us a useful foil for jihadi ideologists no matter what U.S. policy actually is. In other words: we're damned if we do a lot in the region and damned if we don't. And then he concluded:
"At best, it appears like we are arguing over whether a nickel of American policy is going to buy us four or six cents worth of American interests. To me, the most compelling arguments for or against our policy are moral arguments. There seems to be an excellent case that shooting your citizens is appalling and we shouldn't give money to those who appall us, at least not without an excellent reason. There also seems to be an excellent case that other people's problems are none of our business, and that we should simply write "Hic Dragones" on this part of the map while investing heavily in hydraulic fracking and other sources of energy independence. But those sort of arguments seem off limits in the mainstream foreign policy community."
Though I have some reservations about Green's second point -- i.e., there is a lot of survey evidence suggesting that "what we do" does have a big impact on perceptions of the United States, especially in the Middle East -- I thought his basic comment was brilliant. If something as momentous, turbulent, and bloody as the "Arab Spring" can erupt and fester for several years, and yet have hardly any observable impact on the life expectancy or economic well-being of the overwhelming majority of Americans, what does that tell you about the true scope of "vital U.S. interests?"
Green's closing comment is also well-worth pondering: if genuine "vital interests" (as opposed to our assorted preferences and discretionary desiderata) are few in number, why do so few people in the foreign policy establishment see it this way? Could it be that endlessly expanding the sphere of "vital interests" is just a good way for ambitious policy wonks to give themselves something to do?
JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images
What are the "greatest hits" of U.S. foreign policy since World War II? I mean: what would you regard as the most important "success stories" in America's handling of world affairs? Off the top of my head, here's a list of possible contenders.
1. The Marshall Plan. By almost any account, the Marshall Plan was brilliant success. It jump-started European economic recovery, demonstrated U.S. goodwill to former adversaries like Germany and Italy, and helped stave off the appeal of communism in the immediate aftermath of World War II. It was also a remarkably far-sighted and innovative policy, and implemented with great skill.
2. Bretton Woods, the GATT & the WTO. Management of the world economy hasn't been perfect since World War II, but the institutional arrangements that were set up after World War II and that have evolved since then have played a critical role in reducing barriers to trade and investment and fueling a long period of economic growth. Most of us would be a lot poorer had these institutions not been in place, and U.S. leadership has been critical to their expansion over time.
3. The Non-Proliferation Regime. The NPT and its associated arrangements haven't prevented nuclear proliferation, but they played a major role in discouraging it and have made it much easier to keep tabs on states with nuclear ambitions. Back in the 1960s, many experts believed there would be forty-plus nuclear weapons states by 2000; the NPT is a big reason why that didn't happen.
4. The Opening to China, 1972. Nixon's decision to end the long U.S. ostracism of China was both a major event in modern diplomacy and a smart geo-strategic move. It increased external pressure on the Soviet Union, facilitated the U.S. exit from the Vietnam conflict, and laid the foundation for subsequent Sino-American cooperation. China may be a peer competitor in the decades ahead, but this breakthrough was still the correct policy for its time.
5. The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. There were five wars between Israel and Egypt (and sometimes others) between 1948 and 1973; there have been precisely zero since this treaty was signed. Unless you're a big fan of Middle East wars, this is a good thing, even if the United States (and others) failed to follow through with the rest of the agenda laid out in the original Camp David process. At a minimum, the treaty also reminds us what US mediation can accomplish when it is run by skillful and tenacious leaders who aren't afraid to push both sides.
6. German Reunification. When empires collapse, it usually means big trouble. Indeed, the break-up of the Soviet Union led to various conflicts throughout the former Soviet territories. The prospect of a reunified Germany alarmed many people--including some Germans--yet it took place with remarkably little conflict, and Europe (and the world) are far better off as a result. There were many players involved, but sober guidance from the first Bush administration was an important ingredient in the relatively benign outcome.
One can think of other candidates: NATO, the Dayton Accords, the first Gulf War, etc.-but the six items listed above aren't a bad list.
Now here's the question: what do all of these successes have in common? Answer: they were all primarily diplomatic initiatives, where the use of force played little or no direct role. This stands in sharp contrast to U.S. foreign policy today, where the preferred response to many problems tends to be some form of "kinetic action" (in the form of drone strikes, special operations, covert action, large-scale bombing raids, or in a few cases, all-out invasions). And notice that those cases where we turn to military force don't seem to be working out all that well. It failed in Indochina and in Iraq, it is failing in Afghanistan, and it is by no means clear that trying to kill our way to victory against al Qaeda is going to work out either.
The apparent futility of military power is partly due to selection effects: governments tend to use force when other approaches have failed (and one is therefore dealing with highly resolved opponents and situations where success may be elusive). But our poor track record in recent years is also due to a tendency to shoot first and talk later, and to use military force to solve problems for which it is ill-suited. Just look at the recurring debate over whether the United States should even talk to Iran, and you get an idea of how much we have devalued diplomacy and privileged military power.
To be sure, military power can be a key to diplomatic success. As George Kennan once remarked, "you have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet force in the background." But the key word there is "quiet," and the focus is still on diplomacy, not simply on blowing things up.
Bottom line: it is worth remembering that America's greatest foreign policy successes were mostly the result of skillful diplomacy, not military prowess. Having a big stick is nice, but speaking softly is usually more effective. And if a country finds itself using that stick over and over and over, that's a very good sign that its foreign policy has lost its way.
This week, the Stimson Center's Michael Krepon posted a sharp critique of Barack Obama's foreign policy, accusing his administration of "lack of ambition." And that was before Obama's tepid response to the brutal military crackdown in Egypt. Here's Krepon's lede:
Remember when American presidents set out to do big things in the world?
That was when denizens of the Oval Office had one powerful attribute: ambition. And that's exactly what President Barack Obama is lacking today: a desire to shape world events to America's liking, and a willingness to take big risks to make that happen.
No wonder he is making little progress on the enormous foreign policy and national security challenges facing the United States. The less ambition an administration has, the harder achieving anything becomes.
Krepon is a smart, sensible guy, and getting to know him was one of the high points of the year I spent at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace back in the 1980s. He has written a lot of wise things over the years, and he is certainly correct that Obama's foreign-policy team can claim few real successes over the past five-plus years.
But is the problem really "lack of ambition"? After all, consider some of the goals that Obama has set forth since becoming president. He was going to get a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was going to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. He greatly expanded the U.S. effort to kill suspected terrorists with drones and special operations forces, thereby inserting the United States directly into the internal politics of several unstable countries. He also pledged to lead the world to a new climate change agreement and take big steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. And he was going to "reset" with Russia, "pivot" to Asia, nurture the democratic roots of the "Arab spring," and rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward greater emphasis on "development and diplomacy." Or so he and his minions said.
Sounds pretty darn ambitious to me. The real problem is that this laundry list is wholly emblematic of the exceptionalist, "America must lead the world" vision that has informed U.S. foreign policy for decades. In particular, Obama hasn't challenged any of the entrenched interests and worldviews that continue to drive U.S. engagement in the world. The United States may be getting out of Afghanistan, but five years later than it should have. Americans still think their security depends on having military bases all over the world and that they won't be safe if their country can't determine who governs every little strategic backwater on the planet. Washington still sees itself as a credible broker of Middle East peace, despite 30 years of failure. The United States still thinks it can coerce Iran into abandoning its nuclear enrichment program, even though America has been trying to do that for over a decade without success. And so on.
Krepon is right that Obama hasn't plunged into foolish crusades in places like Syria, and I share his dismay at Obama's halfhearted response to the recent presidential election in Iran. Among other things, if Obama is serious about negotiating with Iran, he needs to start preparing the American people and the various yahoos in Congress for a deal and explain what they can realistically expect (and what they can't). But the real problem isn't lack of ambition; it's that Obama is pursuing some misguided goals, and he's doing it with a foreign-policy establishment that seems to become less effective with each passing year.
Krepon's article also paints an overly upbeat portrait of what American engagement can produce. True, ambitious U.S. diplomacy has sometimes accomplished positive and lasting ends. Between 1945 and 1950, for example, the United States helped lay the groundwork for NATO, the United Nations, and a panoply of enduring international institutions, while simultaneously developing and implementing the strategy of containment that eventually won the Cold War. Similarly, George H.W. Bush's administration did a good job managing the Soviet collapse and German reunification and handled the 1991 Gulf War well (after some initial stumbles).
But these achievements have to be balanced against some notable failures: the damaging coups the United States helped engineer in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and the Dominican Republic (1965), as well as its long, insensitive, and tragic involvement in Indochina. And surely it was ambitious of George W. Bush to think he could transform the entire Middle East at the point of a gun, a lamebrained idea that cost the United States more than $2 trillion and thousands of dead soldiers, cost the Iraqi people even more, and ended up enhancing Iranian influence.
Lastly, Krepon's piece also reflects the common Washington belief that American national security is precarious, as in his statement that the United States faces "enormous foreign policy and national security challenges." As I've written before, most of these supposed "challenges" are simply burdens the U.S. government has chosen to take on, and most of them have scant effect on the life expectancy or prosperity of Americans at home. Great powers always tend to define their interests expansively, and as the world's most powerful country, the United States has decided that everything everywhere somehow matters to it because one can at least conjure up some hypothetical reason why an event in, say, Syria or Somalia or Tadzhikistan, might somehow rebound back on American soil. That's probably true in a handful of instances, but trying to control everything everywhere increases the opposition the United States faces and in most cases isn't cost-effective. The truth is that most of those "foreign-policy challenges" are acts of philanthropy undertaken on behalf of various U.S. "allies," rather than making a direct contribution to the security of the 50 states. I think Obama may have understood that; he just didn't do much to change the prevailing mindset.
My point is simple: It is perfectly fine for presidents to be ambitious, but lofty ideals need to be tempered by a sense of political realism. Otherwise, you get either vague speeches that never seem to lead anywhere or foolish crusades that do far more harm than good.
Photo: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
What's happening throughout the Middle East isn't really surprising. Mideast experts had long been aware of the strains that these societies are under: stagnant economies, widespread corruption, massive youth bulges, faded political ideologies, and the rise of various dissident movements -- all of them held in check by brutal police states. U.S. and other leaders rightly worried about what might happen if the old order began to collapse, and mostly they hoped that this would take place on someone else's watch.[[LATEST]]
When the Arab Spring first started, many people hoped it would shake the Arab world out of its torpor and eventually produce more just, open, and efficient societies. That might still happen -- eventually -- but it is going to take a very long time and it's going to be a bumpy ride. That shouldn't surprise us either: The emergence of modern democracy in Western Europe and the United States took centuries and was punctuated by contentious and bloody politics throughout. Remember the French Revolution? The Whiskey Rebellion? European fascism? The American Civil War? One may hope that the Arab world traverses this terrain more quickly than the West did, but there's little reason to think that it will or that it will end up in the same place.
I don't pretend to be expert on the domestic politics of these societies; for valuable commentary from some people who are, see Juan Cole, Marc Lynch, and Issandr El Amrani, among others. But here are some initial thoughts on the latest events.
For starters, what is happening in Egypt today is the triumph of stupidity. First Hosni Mubarak, who had clearly lost touch with the country by the time he was driven from power. Then Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, who had the opportunity to rule after decades in opposition and blew it, big time. Instead of building a political order in which power was shared among the various groups and factions in Egyptian society, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to run roughshod over its opponents, in a heavy-handed power grab that alarmed everyone else and brought the military back into the field. And now the generals are back and trying to suppress the Brotherhood and other opponents with brutal force. That's dumb too, because the Brotherhood is well organized, has deep roots in Egyptian society, and has been around for decades.
The only solution for Egypt that I can see is one where the contending groups agree to share the country. The competing factions will eventually have to realize that none of them can rule alone and that a political order must be devised that gives each a stake and guarantees each at least some degree of political influence. That's the only formula for successful participatory politics: Those in power today can't ignore the rest of society or try to rig the game to keep themselves in power forever. (BTW: This is a lesson that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP in Turkey might heed as well). If that doesn't happen, then I fear Egypt is headed down the same dark road that Algeria traveled in the 1990s and that Syria is already on today.
What should the United States do? Not much. I'm certainly with those -- like FP's Marc Lynch -- who are calling for the United States to cease all military aid to Egypt. I actually recommended this several weeks ago, in part because Egypt doesn't need more weapons and in part because it does the United States no good to be associated with yet another military crackdown. And oh yeah: Ending aid after the July coup would also have been consistent with U.S. law. Aid to Egypt's military isn't buying the United States any leverage and U.S. aid is dwarfed by the funds that the Gulf Arab states are pouring in. If they want to double down on a bankrupt order, fine; but there's no reason for the American taxpayer to do the same.
More importantly, there isn't much the United States can do. The country lost any moral authority it might have had years ago, when it backed Arab dictators, turned a blind eye to Israel's predations, and showed a callous disregard for Arab populations in places like Iraq. Nor does the United States know how to manipulate or guide Egypt's internal politics. If the Egyptians can't figure out how to construct a workable polity, do you think national security advisor Susan Rice or Secretary of State John Kerry could? And because a narrative of Western interference is a key element of jihadi ideology, the last thing the United States should do is intervene with military force or try to tell Egyptians how to run their own country.
The good news -- such as it is -- is that U.S. "vital interests" are not really engaged here. I know Americans like to think that everything that happens everywhere is a direct threat to American security, but this is another one of those cases where the actual U.S. interest is modest. We have every reason to prefer an Egypt that is stable, prosperous, friendly, supportive of human rights, and at peace with Israel. But Egypt has been none of those things at various points over the past 50 years, and somehow the United States managed to survive and prosper anyway. Yes, what happens in Egypt could affect Israel's security in a modest way, but Egypt is too weak to be an "existential threat" to Israel and Israel isn't the United States (despite what some senators and congressmen seem to think).
Lastly, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the U.S. government is basically out of its depth here and has been for some time. Bill Clinton's administration helped put the United States in al Qaeda's cross-hairs through its policy of "dual containment" and its bungling of the Oslo peace process. George W. Bush's administration made things worse by invading Iraq and promoting a policy of "regional transformation." And Barack Obama seemed to think that all he needed to do in the Middle East was give a few speeches and rely on the same discredited diplomats who were responsible for most of the previous failures. It is Obama's misfortune to be president when these long-simmering problems finally came back to haunt us, but the writing has been on the wall for a long, long time.
If you're anything like me, you find it hard to keep up with the Niagara of events and information with which you're deluged every day. It used to be a challenge just to keep track of a half-dozen or so professional journals in my field/subfield; now there's that plus online pubs, bloggers, twitter feeds, and the various books I'm reading in the course of my research. Not to mention reviewing manuscripts, writing tenure letters, and other professional responsibilities. And then there are the "events, dear boy, events" in the real world that we all try to comprehend.
So today, a few short takes on things I wish I had time to comment on at greater length.
1. Iran. I've blogged about this a lot over the past five years, but isn't it crashingly obvious that we have a golden opportunity to explore a real rapprochement with Iran? Frankly, if we don't pursue that possibility energetically, creatively and sincerely, it will be the most revealing example of foreign policy incompetence that I can imagine.
2. Putin, Snowden and the aborted summit. I can understand why the Obama administration was annoyed with Russia for not turning over Snowden, but did they really expect Moscow to passively fall in line? Would we have turned over someone who had sent similar secrets about the KGB to the Guardian and then somehow gotten themselves to Dulles Airport? I rather doubt it. The best reason to cancel the summit, however, was the fact that nothing was likely to be achieved there.
3. More good news on the Israel-Palestinian peace talks: Netanyahu gets them off on positive note by expanding government subsidies to settlements in the occupied territories. Next step: John Kerry and Martin Indyk will hint -- ever, ever, so gently -- that this decision was "not helpful."
4. The Ride of the Valkyries: I find it interesting that some of the most hawkish voices on Syria have been women (e.g., Anne-Marie Slaughter, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton). This doesn't necessarily contradict Micah Zenko's observation that women are generally less disposed to using force (or at least drones), but it's still curious. My hypothesis: it has nothing to do with gender, but instead reflects their lack of knowledge about military operations and a tendency to downplay the unintended consequences of military action. (And no: John McCain's support for aggressive action doesn't contradict my point, because McCain's own operational knowledge seems pretty paltry and his past military judgments have been questionable).
5. The sequester: There's no doubt in my mind that the sequester is a terrible way to try to trim defense spending. But given the entrenched interests that fight like tigers to preserve every defense nickel, I'm not sure there was any other way to do it. And I console myself with the thought that the U.S. will still be spending vastly more than any other single country on national security. Now if we could just connect that process to a rethinking of our overseas commitments (cue The Impossible Dream).
6. America the Skittish (Round 2). The terror plot alert that shut down 19 US diplomatic facilities was certainly conveniently timed, wasn't it? Just when Congress was starting to show some backbone on the issue of NSA spying, we get a report of some new "chatter" (or maybe an Al Qaeda "conference call") that justified a vaguely scary new alert. But what really bugs me is the message that this sends: that the mighty United States can be spooked into closing its doors with remarkable ease. We want to run the world, it seems, but we want to be able to do it without taking any risks at all. And it makes me question (once again) the effectiveness of the whole "war on terror." If we've been pursuing the right policies for the past twelve years, why are these guys still so dangerous?
7. "The New Newt" (2013 version). Newt Gingrich isn't an important politician anymore, as his lackluster performance in the last GOP primary season proved. But he's still a world-class egomaniac, and like many politicians, he can't stop seeking the spotlight. He grabbed it again this week by suggesting that the neoconservative foreign policy that he used to champion might have been ... well ... stupid, and that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz might have some good ideas on that subject. This event is interesting because Gingrich is nothing if not an opportunistic weathervane, and it tells you that he thinks that calls for a more restrained foreign and military policy would find a lot of takers out there in the body politic. As I suggested once before, all it will take to launch a serious debate on this issue is an articulate champion who isn't saddled with a lot of unrelated baggage. Rand Paul may or may not be that person (and I fervently hope Ted Cruz isn't) but he/she is bound to show up eventually.
8. The Death of IR theory: Noah Smith and Paul Krugman had some interesting blog posts up on the "death of theory" in economics. This is as good an excuse as any to remind folks that John Mearsheimer and I have written an article on similar trends in international relations, which will be out in the European Journal of IR next month. Plus, stay tuned for an upcoming symposium on the broader topic of the future of IR theory at Duck of Minerva website.
9. Anarchy, the State, and Dystopia. If nothing else, the events in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo remind us all that the only thing worse than a bad state is no effective state at all. For insightful commentary, see Robert Kaplan's reflections on the late Samuel Huntington's best book, Political Order in Changing Societies.
10. I'm off to California tomorrow for a family wedding (congratulations, Lindsay and Bobby!), so blogging will be light-to-nonexistent through the weekend. But you've got the rest of FP (and a zillion other bloggers) to tide you over, and nobody's commentary is indispensable.
About six weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the election of new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. I said it was precisely the sort of opportunity that Barack Obama's administration had been looking for back in 2009, but I was pretty sure the United States and Iran would find a way to squander it. Here's one paragraph from that post, dated June 17, 2013:
Back in Washington, any attempt at a serious rapprochement will also have to overcome relentless opposition not only from AIPAC and the other major groups in the Israel lobby, but also from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system doesn't reward patience, and Obama has not shown himself to be especially bold or courageous when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, he has yet to take and stick to any foreign-policy position that requires him to buck powerful political forces at home. By the time his finger-in-the-wind approach to diplomacy has run its course, the opportunity for a new approach to Iran may be lost, thereby reinforcing the Iranian belief that the only thing the United States will accept is the end of the Islamic Republic, and strengthening the American conviction that even reformist Iranian leaders are beyond the pale.
It's a bit too soon to say, "I told you so," but so far my initial prediction is on track. Although Rouhani has appointed a series of moderate officials (many associated with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani), softened Iranian rhetoric about Israel somewhat, and pledged to seek the path of "détente," we still have little idea how the Obama administration intends to respond. I'm not even sure who is taking the lead in figuring that out. In the meantime, hawks in the United States -- led by the always-helpful lobbyists at AIPAC -- are already doing everything they can to derail a possible rapprochement.
Unfortunately, they can always count on the help of a timorous and craven Congress, including a number of prominent "progressive" Democrats. Just last week, the House passed H.R. 850, an AIPAC-sponsored resolution tightening sanctions for the umpteenth time. The bill was called the "Nuclear Iran Prevention Act," but as Paul Pillar blogged on National Interest's website, a more honest title would be the "Nuclear Iran Promotion Act." The vote was 400-20 (with 378 co-sponsors!), and I'm sorry to say that my own representative, Joe Kennedy III, wasn't exactly a "profile in courage" on this issue. Of course, he had plenty of company.
And now 76 supine Senators are sending Obama one of those stern AIPAC-drafted letters warning him to keep up the pressure. Negotiating with Iran is OK, they concede, provided that any discussions are backed up by the constant threat of military force. Never mind that the United States has been threatening force and conducting various forms of covert action against Iran for years, and Iran hasn't said "uncle" yet. Never mind that Congress has repeatedly called for regime change in Tehran (now there's a confidence-building measure!), and Iran has responded by building more centrifuges. Never mind that Iran has said all along that it won't be bullied into concessions. Never mind the obvious fact that threats of military force are a pretty silly way to convince a much weaker country that it doesn't need some sort of deterrent. And please ignore the fact that America's key allies in Europe and even conservative publications like the Economist are urging the Obama administration to seize this and give Rouhani a serious chance. So is Bloomberg News.
I'm still fairly confident that Obama and the White House have little or no interest in another Middle East war. The State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence services aren't pushing for a war that could only delay but not eliminate Iran's nuclear potential either. And I'm 100 percent sure that the United States should engage Iran's new government seriously and patiently to see whether a deal can be struck. I even suspect that most of the senators and representatives who voted for or signed those silly but dangerous documents last week know all this too. But nobody ever went broke betting on the spinelessness of elected representatives in Congress, especially on just about anything concerning the Middle East.
According to Thom Shanker of the New York Times, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is "looking for a few good ideas." Translated: The Defense Department is under a lot of budget pressure (from the sequester and from broader fiscal realities), so he's looking for smart ways to cut the budget without jeopardizing U.S. security.
If Hagel is really looking for some "outside-the-box" thinking on this important issue, then I've got three suggestions for him. First, he won't make real progress without examining the fundamentals of U.S. grand strategy: What America's real interests are, what are the different ways it can advance or protect them, and what are the costs, benefits, and trade-offs among different commitments? Trying to maintain all U.S. present commitments on a shoestring makes it much more likely that the country will in fact defend nothing very well.
Second, in addition to directing the Defense Department bureaucracy and the uniformed services to work hard on it, he ought to convene a "Team B" of outside experts to brainstorm the problem too. And if he needs new ideas, he ought to populate that Team B with knowledgeable people whose views aren't warped by long service inside the Washington bubble or by years spent inside the Pentagon itself. Instead, this group should be composed mostly of people who don't work for defense contractors and who don't depend on Defense Department consulting contracts for their livelihoods. I'd also exclude people at think tanks that receive a lot of defense-industry dollars and anyone who has ever spoken at the Aspen Security Forum. (I'm not dissing any of these organizations, by the way; I'm just saying that it's not where I'd look to find alternatives to the conventional wisdom).
In short, I'd be looking for smart academics and independent thinkers, like MIT's Barry Posen or Cindy Williams, Dartmouth College's Daryl Press, or the Cato Institute's Christopher Preble. Throw in Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives. A creative, thoughtful journalist like James Fallows and an iconoclast like Michael Lind would be good additions too. Hagel should also encourage this group to consult with insiders or seasoned Washington veterans -- such as Brent Scowcroft, Steve Clemons, Colin Powell, Gordon Adams (an FP columnist), etc. -- to make sure that their recommendations aren't just pie in the sky.
The point is not that such people would necessarily come up with the best ideas; the purpose of this sort of exercise is to ensure that a wide range of possibilities gets considered and that well-worn shibboleths get challenged.
Third, Hagel should remind everyone involved in this process who they are working for. The name of the organization in question is the "U.S. Department of Defense." It is not the "Department of Imperial Power Projection," "Department of World Order Maintenance," the "Department of Democracy Promotion," or the "Department of Regime Change and Global Pest Control." My dictionary defines "defense" as "the action of resisting attack," and the focus of its efforts ought to be on that fundamental goal. Weaning the United States away from the belief that its security is enhanced by constantly searching for monsters to destroy in faraway lands (a task the country has been doing rather badly in recent years) would be a major achievement. But it's not one the United States is likely to accomplish if the task is left solely to the usual experts and the existing institutions.
It's no fun being a killjoy about the new "peace talks" between Israel and the Palestinians, but I would have to put my brain on the shelf to be optimistic. See David Gardner in today's Financial Times and this recent post by Richard Falk for more reasons to be gloomy, as if there weren't enough already.
But seeing all the obvious obstacles raises an obvious question: What does U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry think he's doing? Kerry may not be Mr. Charisma, but he's not stupid. So why has he chosen to put himself on this well-worn path to failure? No doubt it is partly because he knows unconditional U.S. support for Israel and the continued colonization of Palestinian land is deeply damaging to broader U.S. interests. No doubt he understands that current trends threaten Israel's long-term future. He's also getting pressed by J Street and other moderate pro-Israel groups here in the United States that know the window for a two-state solution is closing and that the alternative is Israel as an apartheid state.
One suspects Kerry is also troubled by the plight of the Palestinians themselves, who have been victimized by nearly everyone over the past century. There's probably a lot of ego involved too, along with the siren song of achieving diplomatic immortality should he defy the odds and somehow pull this off. Heck, if President Barack Obama can get a Nobel Peace Prize on spec, then Kerry can be forgiven for thinking he might finagle one too.
Bottom line: Kerry has lots of reasons for undertaking this quixotic crusade. But he may also be doing this because he genuinely believes that circumstances are oddly propitious for deal. Here's what I think may -- repeat, may -- be going on and why it is still misguided.
First off, even hawkish Israelis are worried about the "demographic problem," and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent warnings about the "one-state solution" reflect that concern. Serious Israelis are also worried about their eroding image worldwide, and the European Union's largely symbolic decision to ban grants to Israeli entities on the West Bank is an important bellwether in this regard. Even a passionate advocate of "Greater Israel" -- which Netanyahu surely is -- might see some value in cutting a deal now, especially if he thinks he can get one that is heavily skewed in Israel's favor.
Israeli and U.S. officials may also believe that the time is ripe to coerce Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) into accepting a one-sided final status agreement that formally ends the conflict but gives Israel almost everything it wants. Abbas is not especially popular and has been neither bold nor clever in the past. He's abjectly dependent on outside support, and the rest of the Arab world is distracted by events in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. Indeed, at this point the wealthy Arab regimes in Qatar and Saudi Arabia would mostly like the Palestinian issue to go away. So you can easily imagine Netanyahu and Kerry convincing themselves they can twist Abbas's arm hard enough to make him sign.
Ironically, Abbas's most potent source of leverage would be to threaten to dissolve the PA entirely, forcing Israel to bear the full costs of the occupation, and to launch a full-blown campaign for Palestinian civil and political rights within "Greater Israel." But he's not going to do that because the Palestinians would still prefer a state of their own and Israel would never grant such rights without a long and bitter struggle. Moreover, dissolving the PA would eliminate the lucrative patronage networks that Abbas & Co. now control.
If this interpretation is right, then we're going to see a new push for a "Palestinian state" that is barely "viable" and hardly meets the definition of sovereignty at all. In other words, precisely the sort of "state" that Netanyahu sketched in his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University. There may be various formal or informal references to the "1967 borders," but this formulation is largely meaningless given all the changes that have taken place over the past 46 years. Israel will insist on keeping the major settlement blocs, including Ariel and Maale Adumim, which were deliberately constructed to bisect any future Palestinian entity and to preserve Israel's control over key West Bank aquifers. It will insist that the future Palestinian state be demilitarized (and thus incapable of defending itself) and further demand that Palestinian airspace be open to Israeli military aircraft. Israel will also try to maintain a military presence in the Jordan River valley for many years to come, further truncating a future Palestinian government's independence. The Palestinians will be compensated for these various concessions with land swaps (albeit less valuable land than they used to have) and with a big slug of money designed to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians (and no doubt line the pockets of Fatah's leaders).
In short, Kerry and Netanyahu are hoping they can engineer a one-sided deal that Netanyahu can hail as a "final end to the conflict," thereby heading off the dreaded "one-state" solution and rehabilitating Israel's international image.
There's only one problem: A deal of this sort won't work. To create a truly lasting peace, the parties need an agreement that is "renegotiation proof." Both sides need to be relatively pleased with the outcome, and neither side should see itself as having been abjectly humiliated by the final terms. An agreement that you signed only because you were coerced into it is an agreement you'll be looking to renege on as soon as you think you can get away with -- and it wouldn't be a genuine "final status" agreement, no matter what the ink on the treaty said.
Paradoxically, this situation places the greater burden on whichever side is stronger because the stronger side has to resist the temptation to extract every last concession that its superior power could impose. If the stronger side is smart and farsighted, it would offer a generous peace and maybe even give the weaker side more than it originally expected, thereby giving the weaker party more reason to welcome the agreement and signaling a genuine desire to live together in the future. With luck, generosity of this sort buys goodwill and thus buys time for peaceful and mutually beneficial ties to develop over time, thereby marginalizing potential spoilers and obviating any desire to renegotiate later.
When the PLO recognized Israel's right to exist at the start of the Oslo process, it was reluctantly accepting that it had lost the decades-long struggle against Zionism. It was formally acknowledging that Israel wasn't going to disappear and that Israel would get roughly 78 percent of the land laid out in the 1947 U.N. partition plan. The PLO was also admitting that it would have to be content with the remaining 22 percent. Unfortunately, the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian leadership bungled the Oslo process and squandered the single best chance to end the conflict. In the meantime, Israel continued to expand settlements throughout the West Bank, insisted that "Jerusalem will not be divided," and demanded that any future Palestinian state be placed under restrictions that no other state in the world is forced to endure. In recent years, it has added the further demand that the Palestinians formally recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." Far from offering their defeated partners a generous peace, Israel's leaders have continued to haggle over every prior issue and create new ones in the bargain.
My fear: Even if a deal is somehow reached and the doves fly across the White House lawn nine months from now, it won't be a true end to the conflict. If the terms are blatantly one-sided and if Israel continues to seek concessions from its far weaker Palestinian neighbors, the deal will not produce a lasting peace. Instead, it will be but a temporary respite, and conflict is likely to resume at whatever point in the future the balance of power shifts.
In his The Second World War, Winston Churchill summarized the "Moral of the Work" in four Churchillian phrases: "In War: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Goodwill." The victors in the long conflict between Zionist Israelis and Palestinian Arabs would be wise to heed those maxims, and if I were John Kerry, I'd spend a lot of time over the next nine months reminding them about the last two.
Photo thumbnail: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
After the 9/11 attacks, the United States quickly declared a "war on terror." In the conduct of that war, the United States invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, imprisoned hundreds of captured "enemy combatants" without trial, tortured suspected terrorists, drastically ratcheted up homeland security, conducted drone strikes and/or targeted assassinations in several countries, and conducted a vast campaign of electronic surveillance at home and abroad.
Virtually all these actions were designed to detect or eliminate actual terrorists or prevent them from carrying out deliberate attacks. In other words, whether offensive or defensive in nature, they were actions designed to win the war by thwarting or eliminating existing terrorist organizations.
But what about the parallel problem of terrorist recruitment? The other way to defeat terrorism is to make it harder for movements employing terrorist methods to recruit new followers, and to gradually marginalize the radicals within the societies in which they were trying to grow. There was a lot of talk about trying to do this immediately after 9/11: The State Department commissioned a task force report on public diplomacy toward the Arab/Islamic world, George W. Bush's administration hired a series of public diplomacy czarinas, and various experts offered advice on how the United States could undercut Osama bin Laden's message and rebuild the country's dubious image in that part of the world. This goal also underlay Barack Obama's initial outreach to the region and especially his infamous Cairo speech in June 2009.[[LATEST]]
But looking back, has the United States actually acted in ways that would reduce the jihadi appeal? In some cases (e.g., Jordan and Iraq), we were fortunate that terrorist groups acted in ways that reduced their appeal significantly. But has the United States also adjusted its policies to make it harder rather than easier for a jihadi leader to convince a potential recruit to join up?
The answer is no.
When he launched the original al Qaeda and began targeting the United States, bin Laden emphasized three main grievances. First, he accused the West -- and especially the United States -- of constant and hostile interference in the Islamic world. This charge included the U.S. sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s (which caused thousands of Iraqi deaths) and the West's alleged exploitation of Mideast oil. Second, he accused the United States of propping up corrupt and illegitimate dictatorships in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and he specifically cited the stationing of thousands of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia following the 1991 Gulf War. Third, he blamed the United States for giving lavish, unconditional support to Israel and for turning a blind eye to Israel's harsh treatment of its Palestinian subjects.
These charges have remained prominent elements in the overall jihadi narrative ever since. The question is: Has U.S. behavior since then made such charges look more credible or less credible? Has the United States undertaken actions designed to show that bin Laden's charges were basically bogus, or has it behaved in ways that make them appear to be largely correct?
Has the United States stopped using military force in the Arab or Islamic world? Hardly. The United States invaded two Muslim countries -- Afghanistan and then Iraq -- even though the latter had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. Each war then led to long and incompetently run occupations in which many local inhabitants died. The United States was not directly responsible for all these deaths, of course, and some of its acts in both countries were obviously intended to help local citizens. But overall, these actions merely reinforced the idea that the United States has an irresistible propensity to interfere in these societies, and often with military force. The war on terror also led to drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and an outpouring of Islamophobic rhetoric by certain U.S. pundits and politicians. And oh yes: The United States has also imposed increasingly stringent sanctions on Iran, which makes both Israel and the Saudi royal family happy but reinforces perceptions of a powerful but hypocritical America. In short, the past 12 years provide plenty of ammunition for anyone trying to argue that the United States remains intrinsically hostile to the Muslim world.
Has the United States stopped propping up Arab dictatorships? The record here is more mixed, but it is hard to argue that the United States has consistently embraced a true "freedom agenda." The United States did remove its troops from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, but it's still an important military presence elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. The United States has consistently backed Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan, despite endemic corruption and even a palpably fraudulent election. Washington did help ease Hosni Mubarak from power two years ago, but it subsequently turned a blind eye to the Saudi-backed crackdown against popular forces in Bahrain and continues a cozy relationship with Jordan and Saudi Arabia. U.S. tolerance for the recent military coup in Egypt also suggests that its commitment to genuine democracy or the promotion of basic human rights remains thin. The Obama administration has for the most part stayed out of the Syrian mess (wisely, in my view), but some jihadists will no doubt see this as evidence that Washington isn't all that hostile to Bashar al-Assad's regime. Bottom line: bin Laden's complaint that the United States has no problem with Arab authoritarianism is still pretty hard to refute.
Is the United States still backing an expansionist Israel? Although public criticism of the "special relationship" has become somewhat more vocal in recent years, the broad outlines of U.S. policy have changed little. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have given Israel everything it has wanted (except a green light to attack Iran), and U.S. politicians continue to bend over backward to express their deep devotion to the Jewish state. The United States gave Israel diplomatic cover during the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008-2009 Gaza War, and also following the attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Obama caved completely on the issue of a settlement freeze, and the U.S. Congress continues to vote a generous aid package every year and demean itself with various AIPAC-drafted resolutions. Heck, if I were a jihadist trying to convince a recruit that the United States had no sincere commitment to human rights and no respect for Arab or Muslim lives, I'd just show them a transcript of Chuck Hagel or Samantha Power's confirmation hearings and leave it at that.
My point is not that the United States should have responded to 9/11 by totally upending its Middle East foreign policy or by leaning over backward to appease bin Laden's complaints. I'm certainly not suggesting that the United States break diplomatic relations with Riyadh or throw Israel under the bus. Nor am I suggesting that some adjustment to U.S. policies would make the terrorist problem dry up overnight, if only because many terrorist groups are motivated as much or more by local concerns than by a fundamentally anti-American agenda.
My point, instead, is that the United States has been fighting a completely one-sided campaign against al Qaeda and the group's cousins. It has hardened its own society (excessively) and taken the battle to those suspected of being hostile to it (probably excessively too). But the United States has done hardly anything to counter the narratives that anti-American forces use to rally support, and it has done plenty to reinforce them. And a lot of the things the United States has done -- such as invading Iraq or giving Israel unconditional support -- are bad for the United States and bad for its various friends in the region (Israel included).
This just isn't smart strategy: If we really want to bring the "war on terror" to an end, then we cannot simply deal with the terrorists who exist today -- we also have to diminish the number and fervor of those we will face tomorrow. Sadly, that task remains to be tackled.
HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images
There were two interesting developments regarding the United States' Middle East diplomacy last week. The first, of course, was Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement of a tentative agreement to resume peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I've already noted my skepticism about that initiative here, but feel free to look at Bernard Avishai or Ben Birnbaum if you'd like to read a more optimistic take. The second development was the surprising level of bipartisan congressional support for the Dent-Price letter endorsing renewed diplomacy with Iran. Given that Congress normally votes hawkish AIPAC-sponsored resolutions on Iran without a semblance of thought, the fact that 131 representatives from both parties backed this Dent-Price letter constitutes a rare moment of sanity on Capitol Hill.
I just hope that these two initiatives don't find out about each other. There are a lot of ways that diplomacy on both issues could fail, but one good way to raise the odds of failure would be to link the two. For instance, the United States could try to get Israel to be more forthcoming in its talks with the Palestinians by promising to take a tougher line toward Iran, based on the familiar theory that a more secure Israel will be more willing to make concessions.
Bad idea. For starters, this approach has been tried before, most notably in the policy of "dual containment" that Martin Indyk formulated during his first stint in government back in 1993. "Dual containment," in case you've forgotten, committed the United States to containing both Iraq and Iran, even though these two regimes were deeply hostile to one another and it would have made a lot more sense to play one off against the other. But as Trita Parsi and Kenneth Pollack have shown, the United States pledged to contain both states in part to reassure Israel, in the hope that it would then be more forthcoming in the Oslo peace process. This approach didn't work, of course, and keeping lots of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia (as dual containment required) was one reason Osama bin Laden decided to attack the United States on 9/11.
Furthermore, explicitly linking these two issues merely increases the number of players with a potential veto over any possible agreement. If progress on Israel-Palestine is tied to an agreement with Iran, then Tehran could in theory scuttle an Israeli-Palestinian deal by digging in its heels. Similarly, linking a deal with the Palestinians to a resolution of the various disputes with Iran would give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a perfect reason to either raise the ante or simply walk away from a deal that he doesn't like. Linkage would in effect force U.S. negotiators on both issues to look over their shoulders constantly to see what was happening in the other arena, thereby impairing their ability to craft a workable deal on the issue at hand.
Most importantly, this approach is neither necessary nor in the U.S. interest. On Israel-Palestine, U.S. leaders have correctly seen a two-state solution as the best outcome. As President Barack Obama put in his Cairo speech, it is in "Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest." Retired Centcom commander James Mattis underscored that point in his remarks at the Aspen Security Forum last week, telling his audience, "I paid a military security price every day as a commander of Centcom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel." I have my doubts about whether "two states for two peoples" is possible at this point, but achieving that goal would clearly remove one potent source of anti-Americanism in the region.
In short, the United States has a profound interest in an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal no matter what its relationship with Iran is like and no matter what Tehran is up to. And despite its occasional bluster, Iran is far less of an existential threat to Israel than continuing the occupation, because trying to maintain a "Greater Israel" is leading Jerusalem toward permanent apartheid and growing international isolation. Moreover, achieving a just peace with the Palestinians would deprive Iran of the one issue that gives it some modest street cred within the Arab and Islamic world and would make it easier for the United States to organize a regional coalition against Iran should that ever become necessary.
By the same token, a deal that reliably capped Iran's nuclear program and began a process of reconciliation with that country would be very much in America's (and the world's) interest, irrespective of the state of play on Israel-Palestine. Indeed, a good case can be made that Iranian meddling on that issue -- including its support for radical Palestinian groups -- is largely a tactical maneuver designed to ensure they are not marginalized within the broader region. Once a deal was reached, however, both Iran's incentive and its ability to make trouble on Palestine would decline. But even if Kerry's efforts fail and there is no two-state solution, resolving the dispute on Iran's nuclear program would still be highly desirable.
For these reasons, therefore, the United States should reject any attempt to link these two already difficult diplomatic projects. The key thing to remember is that progress on either one would be a good thing, even if there were little or no progress on the other. Indeed, progress on either one would probably facilitate progress on the other, but only if said progress were not contingent on movement on the other. It will be tough enough to overcome the many obstacles to agreement in either case, and linking the two is a blueprint for failure on both.
As I write this, numerous online news stories and Twitter feeds are announcing the imminent resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. (Apparently the framework for the talks is still being finalized, but presumably it's enough of a done deal for the United States to go public.) It is to some degree a vindication of Secretary of State John Kerry's dogged effort to get the peace process started again, and no doubt he and the rest of Barack Obama's administration are going to spin this achievement as an important breakthrough.
I hope they're right, but we can all be forgiven for a certain skepticism by this point. Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian leadership have been taking place off and on for over two decades (not counting the various back-channel, covert, or track II discussions), and the main result of all that palaver has been the further expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and the steady deterioration of Fatah's prestige and authority. Let's also not forget that Hamas was a relatively minor force when the Oslo process started back in the early 1990s; today it governs in Gaza. America's handling of the "peace process" hasn't won it any laurels either; serving as "Israel's lawyer" merely confirmed that the United States was incapable of being an effective mediator and made the country complicit in Israel's harsh treatment of its Palestinian subjects.
The only serious question to ask is whether this new round of talks has a better chance of succeeding. And let's be clear: Success means actually reaching a final status agreement that establishes a viable state for the Palestinian people. Kicking the can down the road for another few years is not success. Endless discussions that collapse in mutual recriminations, while the bulldozers continue to demolish Palestinian homes and construction crews erect more condos and apartments for Israelis in the occupied territories, are not success either. And neither is another demonstration of American fecklessness, naivete, and diplomatic incompetence.
The structural reasons for pessimism are plain for all to see. First, Israel's government is led by a man who opposed Oslo from the start and whose Likud party's official platform openly rejects any possibility of a Palestinian state. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken of a Palestinian "state" in recent years, it is clear that what he has in mind is a set of disconnected Bantustans under complete Israeli control, which is of course a nonstarter.
Second, most of Netanyahu's governing coalition is even more hard-line than he is, and his government would almost certainly collapse if he were to offer the Palestinians any sort of reasonable deal. And given that the Israeli peace movement is much weaker than it used to be, it's hard to imagine a different Israeli government being substantially more forthcoming.
Third, the Palestinians remain deeply divided themselves. Not only does this reduce their bargaining leverage (which was already pretty paltry), but it means Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has to get a pretty good deal if he is going to sell it to the broader population and marginalize the rejectionists. But as just noted, it's hard to imagine him being offered anything very generous by his Israeli counterparts, and it's even harder to imagine the United States putting sufficient pressure on Israel to make the kind of concessions that would now be needed.
Fourth, these are hardly ideal conditions to pursue a final status agreement. Syria is in flames, Lebanon is unsettled, and Egypt's future course is anyone's guess. One might argue that these events give Israel a big incentive to resolve the I-P issue once and for all, but even the boldest Israeli peacenik might be leery of making the necessary concessions while the regional environment is so uncertain. I personally think that this view is shortsighted and that Israel would be more secure if it reached a fair deal with the Palestinians, but I can easily understand why even moderate Israelis would proceed with caution these days.
So what are the grounds for optimism? Well, it is possible that Netanyahu & Co. are aware of broader global trends that are working against them. The recent EU decision barring aid to organizations operating in the occupied territories was a straw in the wind, and TIAA/CREF's recent decision to divest its holding in the Israeli firm Soda Stream might be another. By reminding even hard-line Israelis that the occupation is eating away at their international acceptance, such events give even the current government some reason to think differently. And there are prominent voices inside Israel -- such as the former Shin Bet heads profiled in the documentary The Gatekeepers -- who have been sounding the alarm about where Israel may be headed.
It is also possible that Obama will show more spine than he did during his first term and that he'll get sufficient cover from groups like J Street so that he can pursue a more effective approach. That approach is going to require a combination of bribes and pressure: Kerry and Obama will have to convince both sides that a bright future is ahead of them if they can end the conflict and focus instead on economic development, but Kerry and Obama are also going to have to make it clear that things are going to get worse for both sides if they don't. The Palestinians know that already, of course, because they are the ones under occupation and dependent on international handouts. On the other side, American economic subsidies and diplomatic protection have been insulating Israel from the consequences of its own intransigent expansionism. Until that situation changes, there's little reason to expect a different outcome this time.
Still, it will be interesting to see what the terms of the new discussions are. Will the 1967 borders be viewed as the starting point for talks, albeit with the understanding that the final borders will almost certainly be different? Will anything be said about a settlement freeze? What time frame, if any, will be put on the discussions? And will either leader make a gesture designed to demonstrate a genuine interest in reaching an agreement? I don't know, but I will be looking to see whether any of the three main parties -- the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority -- does or says anything different or surprising this time around. If not, then there's no reason to expect a different outcome.
My forecast: a lot of talk, but ultimately no action. The Palestinians have nothing left to give up (save for symbolic concessions over the so-called "right to return"), and I can't see Netanyahu offering them a deal that comes even close to a viable state. And while Kerry's tenacity is admirable, I've yet to see any sign of a genuinely different U.S. approach. Remember: Assorted U.S. diplomats have spent thousands of hours going back and forth with both sides over the years and have ended up with bupkis. So I think we'll see more talks, along with more settlement building, and ultimately no agreement. And then Obama and Kerry will be gone, and another "opportunity" for peace -- if it even is one -- will have been lost.
I take no pleasure in this gloomy appraisal, and I will be genuinely delighted to be proved wrong here. I'm prepared to eat my words, but alas, I fear I won't have to.
UPDATE: The text of Kerry's statement announcing the talk is now available here. He says a lot of the right things, and I'll be curious to learn more about the "positive steps" he says both sides are taking on the ground. Words matter here, but actions usually speak louder.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.