There was a terrific NOVA program on the tube last night, on the subject of remotely-piloted vehicles (aka "drones") and their rapidly expanding role in the American military. The show focused mostly on the technical aspects of these weapons, but didn't omit some of the tricky ethical and political questions associated with their use. FP's Rosa Brooks argues that the advent of drones is a recipe for perpetual war; I'm inclined to agree, at least as long as the United States can continue to use them with impunity.
I took three lessons away from last night's program. First, a reminder: for all the alleged successes of our expanded drone program (i.e., degrading al Qaeda in various locales, providing battlefield intel in Afghanistan, etc.) in the end the United States failed to achieve its core objectives in either war. Iraq did not become a stable, pro-American democracy (it remains violent and if anything tilts toward Iran). Nor did we defeat the Taliban and create a stable democracy in Afghanistan (whose fate will be determined after we leave in 2014). And this reminds us that technological wizardry does not always translate into strategic success.
Second, one of the interesting puzzles of the so-called drone wars is why so few remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) get shot down. Most RPVs are slow and don't fly that high, which would makes them vulnerable to relatively unsophisticated anti-aircraft weapons. Even the most elusive drones would be invulnerable to fighter aircraft or advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Serbia reportedly shot down some fifteen U.S. drones in the Kosovo War, and Iran may -- repeat, may -- have forced one down over its territory last year.
There are two obvious reasons why we don't lose more drones. One is that some governments (e.g., Pakistan) that object to their use are protesting too much: they are not so angered by drone strikes that they are willing to start shooting them down. Another is the fact that the Taliban and al Qaeda don't have access to sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry, and nobody is going to provide it to them. Even states like Russia and China aren't overly fond of non-state terrorist organizations, which makes it much harder for the groups that we are targeting with drones to acquire counter-measures that might equalize the situation. But note: this situation also means that the relatively passive environment that we've been exploitng in places like Yemen or Pakistan may not be the norm, and things might be quite different if we went up against a foe that had better anti-aircraft capabilities and was willing to use them.
Third, I couldn't help but consider what the RPV revolution tells us about the future of the manned space program. Homo sapiens has many interesting and attractive qualities, but we also have real physical limitations and keeping us alive in demanding environments like space is very hard and expensive. Sending machines to explore space makes a lot more sense than sending human beings; we will learn more at far less cost if we abandon our romantic notions of "space exploration" by humans and send sophisticated machines instead.
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If you're one of those people who still thinks it would be a good idea to attack Iran, you might spend a moment or two reflecting on the past week of events in the Middle East. If a stupid and amateurish video can ignite violent anti-American protests from Tunisia to Pakistan, just imagine what a joint U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran would do.
And don't be misled by the fact that a few Arab leaders are also worried about Iran's nuclear program. Some of them are, though they aren't going on the American airwaves to demand "red lines" and set the stage for preventive war. More importantly, surveys of Arab opinion suggest that these publics aren't that worried about Iran's nuclear potential, which they rightly see as a counter to America's military dominance and to Israel's already-existing stockpile of nuclear weapons. If the United States and/or Israel decides to launch an unprovoked attack on Iran, it's going to be seen in the region as the latest manifestation of Western hostility to Islam, as well as another sign that we are actively trying to dominate the region. Public sentiment will be overwhelmingly against us, and current governments will have little choice but to go along with it.
There are big problems throughout the Middle East these days: civil war in Syria, low-level violence in Iraq, pervasive instability in Yemen, armed militias in Libya, uncertainty in Egypt, slow-motion ethnic cleansing on the West Bank, and a host of others. But no set of problems is so great that we couldn't make them a lot worse.
I've detected a growing tendency to issue obituaries for the "Arab spring." This impulse is understandable given the relentless turmoil in Yemen, the brutal repression that continues in Syria, the simmering tensions in Libya and Bahrain, and the recent resurgence of sometimes violent protest against the military regime in Egypt. Not surprisingly, early hopes that the Arab world was at the dawn of a new era have been dashed-or at least diminished. And that's why pundits like Tom Friedman are now crossing their fingers and hoping for the reincarnation of Nelson Mandela in each of these states.
But if the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process, and having a few Mandelas around is no guarantee of success. Why? Because once the existing political order has collapsed, the stakes for key groups in society rise dramatically. The creation of new institutions -- in effect, the development of new rules for ordering political life -- inevitably creates new winners and losers. And everyone knows this. Not only does this situation encourage more and more groups to join the process of political struggle, but awareness that high stakes are involved also gives them incentives to use more extreme means, including violence.
Under these conditions, it is a pipedream to think that key actors in a complex and troubled society like Egypt or Libya (or in the future, Syria) could quickly agree on new political institutions and infuse them with legitimacy. Even if interim rulers write a quick constitution, hold a referendum, or elect new representatives, those whose interests are undermined by the outcomes are bound to question the new rules and the process and to do what they can to undermine or amend them. What one should expect, therefore, are half-measures, false starts, prolonged uncertainty, and highly contingent events, where seemingly random events (a riot, an accident, an episode of overt foreign interference, an unexpected flurry of violence, etc.) can alter the course of events in far-reaching ways. Tunisia notwithstanding, what you are unlikely to get is a quick and easy consensus on new institutions.
Remember the French Revolution? The storming of the Bastille took place in July 1789, the nobility was abolished by the National Assembly the following year, and Louis XVI tried unsuccessfully to flee in 1791 before being forced to accept a new constitution. Internal turmoil and foreign interference eventually lead to war in 1792, Louis and Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793, and Paris was soon engulfed by the Jacobin terror, which eventually burns itself out. A new constitution is adopted in 1795, establishing a government known as the "Directory," which is eventually overthrown by Napoleon's coup d'etat on 18 Brumaire, 1799. By the time Napoleon seized power, it had been more than ten years since the initial revolutionary upheaval.
To judge by that timetable, the "Arab spring" has a long way to go. And other cases offer a similar lesson. The Russian revolution starts with the fall of the Tsarist regime in March 1917 and the formation of Kerensky's provisional government, which is subsequently overthrown by the Bolshevik coup a few months later. But the Bolsheviks' hold on power isn't fully established until their victory in the Russian Civil War, which isn't fully won until 1923. The Soviet political order endured recurrent power struggles over the next decade, until Joseph Stalin vanquished his various opponents and established a personal dictatorship.
Or take a more recent case, Iran. The revolution begins in 1978, with a steadily escalating series of street demonstrations. The shah flees into exile in January 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returns in February and appoints Mehdan Bazegar as Prime Minister of an interim government. A new constitution is drafted by October, but there is a continuing struggle for power between liberal, Islamist, and other groups.
The first president of the new "Islamic Republic," Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, is impeached in 1981, and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war strengthens hardliners and provides an opportunity for a crackdown against some prominent members of the original revolutionary movement. The Islamic republic remains a work-in-progress to this day, with the role of the "Supreme Jurisprudent," the Revolutionary Guards, the clergy, the presidency, and the Majlis remaining in flux.
Even the comparatively benign American Revolution was hardly a done-deal when the peace treaty with England was signed in 1783. Independence from England had required the colonists to fight a lengthy war of independence, and the fledgling republic then faced several armed rebellions, most notably Shays' Rebellion in 1786. These challenges revealed the inadequacies of the original Articles of Confederation (1777-1786) leading to the drafting and adoption of what is now the U.S. Constitution.
In short, anybody who thought that the events that swept through the Arab world in 2011 were going to produce stable and orderly outcomes quickly was living in a dream world. To say this is not to oppose what has happened, or to believe that the old orders could or should have continued. Rather, it is to recognize that radical reform -- even revolution -- is a long, difficult, and uncertain process, and that the ride is likely to be a bumpy one for years to come.
History also warns that outside powers have at best limited influence over the outcomes of a genuine revolutionary process. Even well-intentioned efforts to aid progressive forces can backfire, as can overt efforts to thwart them. Overall, a policy of "benevolent neglect" may be the more prudent course, making it clear that outsiders are prepared to let each country's citizens choose their own order, provided that important foreign policy redlines are not crossed. But for a country like the United States, which still sees itself as a model for others and tends to think that it has the right and the wisdom to tell them what to do, patience and restraint can be hard to sustain. And patience is what is needed most these days.
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It's Election Day, and I'm about to go out and vote, but first a few belated comments on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's failed attempt to blow up cargo planes by shipping fairly sophisticated bombs to fictitious locations in the United States. What lessons did I draw from last week's event?
First, this incident reminds us about the perils of instant analysis. Initial news reports suggested that the targets were synagogues or Jewish community centers in Chicago, leading various pundits to speculate that this was either another sign of al Qaeda's deeply rooted anti-Semitism, or perhaps a bizarre attempt to send a message about the influence of Chicago-based politicos like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. But The New York Times reports today that the addresses on the bombs were outdated and that investigators now believe that the bombs were intended to destroy the planes, not targets on the ground.
Whatever the target may have been, the more obvious point is that these groups are still hoping to make Americans pay a price for our policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are angry about our close ties with Saudi Arabia, by the drone attacks the United States is conducting in Yemen and Pakistan, and by our unstinting support for Israel. And even though AQAP's main target appears to be the Saudi regime, America's unpopularity throughout the region makes attacking the United States a useful recruiting tool.
Second, this latest episode reinforced my belief that winning in Afghanistan is neither necessary nor sufficient for eliminating the terrorist threat in general and al Qaeda or its clones in particular. There is little or no al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, and in the unlikely event that we defeated the Taliban completely, it wouldn't eliminate the groups that already exist in Pakistan, Yemen and assorted other places. At this point, in fact, our costly attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan may be a distraction from the broader global effort to deal with terrorism itself. And if that's the case, then what are we doing there?
Third, the big lesson is that this plot was thwarted not by drones or airstrikes or special operations forces, but by good old-fashioned intelligence and police work, largely conducted by the Saudi intelligence services. Because AQAP seeks to overthrow the Saudi regime, the Saudis are highly motivated, and they also seem to have done a good job of infiltrating the organization and passing the information on to us in time to thwart the attack.
One might also infer that responding to 9/11 with a "global war on terror" was a bad idea all along, because wars and occupations create conditions in which terrorist organizations can more easily thrive. Osama and his imitators are not heroic warriors and don't deserve to be treated as such, even rhetorically. Instead, they are criminals who believe the murder of innocents is justified in order to advance a fanciful fundamentalist cause. They are best defeated by intelligence sharing and patient police work, and where appropriate, by addressing some of the underlying conditions and grievances that give rise to such movements in the first place. Toppling individual governments or waging costly counterinsurgency campaigns in one or two countries cannot eliminate a global phenomenon like this one; indeed, such actions are likely to make it worse.
Lastly, although we can all be glad that this latest attack was foiled, it is hard for me to believe that one of them won't eventually succeed. It is impossible to inspect every single package in the global shipping system, and terrorist organizations are bound to learn more about how to exploit vulnerabilities in existing (or future) security procedures. We should take all reasonable measures to prevent them from succeeding, but we also ought to recognize that perfect security is probably not achievable. And remaining resolute in the face of that reality ought to be part of our counter-terrorist response too.
In short, although the bomb plots remind us that the terrorist danger is still with us, it also says a lot about the best way to deal with it. And one obvious step is not to go into conniptions every time a plot like this gets exposed. On that score, kudos to Jewish community figures in Chicago, who responded to the initial (and false) reports that synagogues had been targeted with an admirable degree of aplomb.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.