You might think that you don't need to worry about the secret U.S. government programs to collect phone and Internet information on ordinary Americans, a program that is not quite so secret after last week's revelations. There are over 300 million Americans, after all, and the vast majority of their online and cell-phone communications have nothing to do with national security and are unlikely to attract any scrutiny. We are still some ways from Big Brother, "Minority Report," or "The Adjustment Bureau," and maybe we can trust the nameless, largely anonymous army of defense contractors and government employees (by one source numbering more than 800,000) to handle all that data responsibly. Yeah, right.
In fact, you should be worried, but not because most of you are likely to have your privacy violated and be publicly exposed. If you're an ordinary citizen who never does anything to attract any particular attention, you probably don't need to be concerned. Even if your Internet and phone records contain information you'd rather not be made public (an online flirtation, the time you emailed a friend to bring over some pot, or maybe some peculiar porn habits), there's safety in numbers, and you'll probably never be exposed.
The real risk to our democracy is what this situation does to potential dissenters, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and anyone else who thinks that some aspect of government policy might be boneheaded, unethical, or maybe even illegal. If you are one of those people -- even on just a single issue -- and you decide to go public with your concerns, there's a possibility that someone who doesn't like what you are doing will decide to see what they can find out about you. It doesn't have to be the attorney general either; it might just be some anonymous midlevel bureaucrat or overly zealous defense contractor. Or maybe it will be someone who wants to suck up to their superiors by taking down a critic or who wants to have their own 15 minutes of fame. It really doesn't matter: Unless you've lived an absolutely pristine online and cellular life, you might wake up to discover that some regrettable moment from your past is suddenly being plastered all over the blogosphere or discussed in the New York Times.
Does this danger sound far-fetched? Recall that when former diplomat Joseph Wilson published an op-ed debunking the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to score uranium from Niger, some government officials decided to punish him by blowing his wife's cover as a CIA agent and destroying her career. Remember that David Petraeus lost his job as CIA director because a low-level FBI agent began investigating his biographer on an unrelated matter and stumbled across their emails. Recall further that long before the Internet age, J. Edgar Hoover helped keep himself in power at the FBI by amassing vast files of dirt on public figures. Given all that and more, is there any reason to believe that this vast trove of data won't eventually be abused for political purposes?
My point is that once someone raises their head above the parapet and calls attention to themselves by challenging government policy, they can't be sure that someone inside the government won't take umbrage and try to see what sort of dirt they can find. Hoover did it, Nixon did it, and so did plenty of other political leaders. And that means that anyone who wants to challenge government policy has to worry that their private conduct -- even if it has nothing to do with the issues at hand -- might be fair game for their opponents. And the deck here is stacked in favor of the government, which has billions of dollars to spend collecting this information.
Vigorous debate on key issues is essential to a healthy democracy, and it is essential that outsiders be able to scrutinize and challenge what public officials are up to. People who work for the federal, state, and local governments aren't privileged overlords to whom we owe obeisance; in a democracy, they are public servants who work for us. Right now, however, there are hundreds of thousands of public servants (including private contractors with fat government contracts) who are busy collecting information about every one of us. Citizens don't have similar resources to devote to watching what our elected and appointment officials are doing, so we must rely on journalists, academics, and other independent voices to ferret out wrongdoing, government malfeasance, corruption, or just plain honest mistakes. But if these independent voices are becoming more vulnerable to retribution than ever before -- and via completely legal means -- then more and more of those voices will be cowed into silence. And the inevitable result will be greater latitude for government officials, greater corruption, and a diminished capacity to identify and correct errors.
In short, the real reason you should be worried about these revelations of government surveillance is not that you're likely to be tracked, prosecuted, or exposed. You should be worried because it is another step in the process of making our vibrant, contentious, and most of all free-minded citizenry into a nation of sheep.
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Andrew Sullivan has offered a measured response to the Guardian's revelations about a massive effort by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to collect metadata about ordinary Americans' phone calls. You can read his whole comment here, but the sentences that caught my eye were these:
"This kind of technology is one of the US' only competitive advantages against Jihadists. Yes, its abuses could be terrible. But so could the consequences of its absence."
There are two obvious counters. First, the United States (and its allies) are hardly lacking in "competitive advantages" against jihadists. On the contrary, they have an enormous number of advantages: They're vastly richer, better-armed, better-educated, and more popular, and their agenda is not advanced primarily by using violence against innocent people. (When the United States does employ violence indiscriminately, it undermines its position.) And for all the flaws in American society and all the mistakes that U.S. and other leaders have made over the past decade or two, they still have a far more appealing political message than the ones offered up by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the various leaders of the Taliban. The United States is still going to be a major world power long after the contemporary jihadi movement is a discredited episode in modern history, even if the country repealed the Patriot Act and stopped all this secret domestic surveillance tomorrow.
Second, after acknowledging the potential for abuse in this government surveillance program, Sullivan warns that the "consequences of its absence" could be "terrible." This claim depends on the belief that jihadism really does pose some sort of horrific threat to American society. This belief is unwarranted, however, provided that dedicated and suicidal jihadists never gain access to nuclear weapons. Conventional terrorism -- even of the sort suffered on 9/11 -- is not a serious threat to the U.S. economy, the American way of life, or even the personal security of the overwhelming majority of Americans, because al Qaeda and its cousins are neither powerful nor skillful enough to do as much damage as they might like. And this would be the case even if the NSA weren't secretly collecting a lot of data about domestic phone traffic. Indeed, as political scientist John Mueller and civil engineer Mark Stewart have shown, post-9/11 terrorist plots have been mostly lame and inept, and Americans are at far greater risk from car accidents, bathtub mishaps, and a host of other undramatic dangers than they are from "jihadi terrorism." The Boston bombing in April merely underscores this point: It was a tragedy for the victims but less lethal than the factory explosion that occurred that same week down in Texas. But Americans don't have a secret NSA program to protect them from slipping in the bathtub, and Texans don't seem to be crying out for a "Patriot Act" to impose better industrial safety. Life is back to normal here in Boston (Go Sox!), except for the relatively small number of people whose lives were forever touched by an evil act.
Terrorism often succeeds when its targets overreact, thereby confirming the extremists' narrative and helping tilt opinion toward their cause. Thus, a key lesson in dealing with these (modest) dangers is not to exaggerate them or attribute to enemies advantages that they do not possess. I suspect Sullivan knows this, even if he briefly forgot it when writing his otherwise thoughtful post.
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When they want to find the best in contemporary fiction writing, people often think of The New Yorker, Granta, or any number of small circulation literary magazines. When the subject is foreign policy, however, I'll take the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Apart from maybe running a spell-check program on submissions, it's hard to see any sign that the editors there care about factual accuracy, provided that the piece in question satisfies their hawkish proclivities and other litmus tests.
So here's a little game you can play with one of their recent entries: Andrew Roberts' May 1 piece that invokes various historical examples to justify a preemptive strike by Israel on Iran. Your challenge: How many bald-faced errors can you spot in a single short piece?
First, let's start with the title: "The Case for Preemptive War." In fact, what Roberts is advocating in this piece is not pre-emptive but preventive war, and there is a big difference. A preemptive war is a military campaign launched in anticipation of an imminent enemy attack: You strike first because you know the opponent is getting ready to attack and you want to seize the advantage of striking first. Preventive war, by contrast, is a war launched to take advantage of favorable conditions (such as a favorable balance of power), even though the intended target is not in fact preparing an attack of its own. Preemptive war is sometimes permissible in international law; preventive war is not.
There is of course no serious evidence that Iran is about to attack Israel, and experts even disagree over whether Iran is actively trying to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community still believes there is no active nuclear weapons program underway. So Roberts' entire piece is based on a category mistake, which is not an auspicious way to begin.
Second, Roberts refers to Israel's "successful pre-emptive attacks on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981." These attacks were a tactical success (i.e., the reactor was destroyed) but a strategic failure, as they convinced Saddam Hussein to get serious about developing WMD and to accelerate a covert nuclear weapons program whose full extent we didn't discover until after the 1991 Gulf War. The real lesson for today is that an Israeli preventive attack on Iran might be just the thing to convince the clerical regime that it really does need a genuine nuclear deterrent. That's the policy that Israel adopted back in the late 1950s, when it began its own nuclear program, and that's the lesson Saddam drew in 1981. Why wouldn't the mullahs see it the same way?
Third, Roberts declares that Israel's "preemptive strike" on Egypt in 1967 "saved the Jewish state." This is nonsense. Although Nasser's decision to order the U.N. peacekeepers out of the Sinai and to send part of his army back in was both provocative and foolish, he was not preparing to attack Israel and Egypt's forces in the Sinai were not deployed for offensive action. Strictly speaking, the Six Day War wasn't preemption, though some Israeli leaders may have seen it that way. Israel had more troops arrayed against the Egyptian forces, and U.S. military intelligence correctly predicted that Israel would win easily even if the Egyptians attacked first. No less an Israeli patriot than Menachem Begin described it accurately when he said: "The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him." That attack might have been justified on other grounds -- such as not allowing Nasser to alter the status quo in the Sinai -- but it was not a case of preemption and thus does not support Roberts' case.
(By the way, readers interested in understanding the origins of 1967 war would do well to avoid Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's highly imaginative reconstruction, and rely on more serious scholarly accounts, such as Tom Segev's 1967 or Roland Popp's 2006 article "Stumbling Decidedly into the Six Day War.")
Fourth, most of Roberts' other examples are misleading or inapt, because they are not the "bolt-from-the-blue" acts of preventive war that he is advocating. Instead, the actions he describes -- such as the "Copenhagening" of the Danish fleet by the British in 1807 or the scuttling of the French fleet in Oran in 1940 -- were simply acts of strategic initiative undertaken in the midst of active and open hostilities. As such, they tell us nothing about the wisdom of launching an unprovoked preventive war with Iran today.
Finally, Roberts' entire case rests on the dubious belief that Israel has the military capability to inflict a decisive blow against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. There's little doubt that Israel could damage Iran's enrichment and reprocessing capability. But it cannot destroy the underground facility at Fordow, and it can at best delay Iran's nuclear potential by a few months or years. The fact of the matter is that Iran already knows how to get a nuclear bomb if it ever decides it really wants one, and repeatedly threatening it with regime change and possibly conducting a preventive (not preemptive) strike would be the single best way to convince them to go all-out for a full-fledged nuclear capacity. The only way to prevent an Iranian bomb is to convince the regime that it doesn't need one, but the strategy Roberts recommends would have the opposite effect.
The Wall Street Journal is a distinguished newspaper with an enormous and influential readership, and its reportage is often impressive and fair. But its op-ed page has been off the deep end for as long as I can remember. It should not be forgotten that the Journal's editors and commentators were among the most fervent advocates of invading Iraq, a modest little adventure that didn't turn out so well. All of which suggests that the paper really ought to come with a warning label, or perhaps a color-coding scheme that tells readers when they've left the world of facts and logic and entered into the realm of fiction. Or if that is asking too much, how about a bit of fact-checking?
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Today's example of sloppy journalism comes from the exalted pages of the New York Times. Here's the key passage, from an article reporting recent poll results showing that the American people are not enthusiastic about intervention in Syria:
"Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."
Got that? If you're one of those people with doubts about the wisdom of intervening in Syria, you're an "isolationist." At a minimum, you're "exhibiting an isolationist streak."
A degree of prudent skepticism about the wisdom of entering the Syrian morasse is not isolationism, of course. Genuine isolationism would mean severing our security ties with the rest of the world and focusing solely on defending sovereign U.S. territory. Genuine isolationism means ending U.S. alliance commitments in Europe and Asia and telling our various Middle Eastern allies that they were going to have to defend themselves instead of relying on help from Uncle Sam. Genuine isolationism would eliminate the vast military forces that we buy and prepare for overseas intervention and focus instead on defending American soil. Real isolationists favor radical cuts to the defense budget (on the order of 50 percent or more) and would rely on nuclear deterrence and continental defense to preserve U.S. independence. And the most extreme isolationists would favor reducing foreign trade and immigration, getting out of the U.N. and other institutions, and trying to cut the United States off from the rest of the world.
The overwhelming majority of people who have doubts about the wisdom of deeper involvement in Syria -- including yours truly -- are not "isolationist." They are merely sensible people who recognize that we may not have vital interests there, that deeper involvement may not lead to a better outcome and could make things worse, and who believe that the last thing the United States needs to do is to get dragged into yet another nasty sectarian fight in the Arab/Islamic world. But many of these same skeptics still favor American engagement in key strategic areas, support maintaining a strong defense capability, and see some U.S. allies as assets rather than liabilities.
Hawks like to portray opponents of military intervention as "isolationist" because they know it is a discredited political label. Yet there is a coherent case for a more detached and selective approach to U.S. grand strategy, and one reason that our foreign policy establishment works so hard to discredit is their suspicion that a lot of Americans might find it convincing if they weren't constantly being reminded about looming foreign dangers in faraway places. The arguments in favor of a more restrained grand strategy are far from silly, and the approach makes a lot more sense to than neoconservatives' fantasies of global primacy or liberal hawks' fondness for endless quasi-humanitarian efforts to reform whole regions.
Bottom line: The Times did its readers a disservice by using the pejorative term "isolationism" in such a sloppy fashion. As Brad DeLong likes to say: "Why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?"
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I was up early this morning to get ready for a conference presentation at Harvard only to discover that Boston and the surrounding suburbs were in lockdown and that the university was closed for the day. Like most of you, I've been following Twitter and other news sources as law enforcement officials seek to corner the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. Blogging during a rapidly developing story can be dicey, but here are a few quick thoughts.
As I tweeted a couple of hours ago, knowing the suspects' origins doesn't tell you what their motives were. Let's assume that the two Tsarnaev brothers really did it (which is certainly where the publically available evidence seems to point). The fact that they were of Chechen origin raises various possibilities, but at this point in time we have no idea if their actions were inspired by Chechen nationalism, by anger at America, by some weird personal animosity or desire for glory, by religion or by something entirely different. The man who conducted the Virginia Tech massacre, Seung Hui-Cho, was a South Korean national, but his actions stemmed from mental illness rather than his national or ethnic identity. Until we know more, inferences about motive based on the suspects' origins are little more than guesses.
Whatever their motives were, it certainly doesn't appear to be some sort of well-oiled terrorist plot. As one tweeter I read noted, a sophisticated and well-financed terrorist organization doesn't try to stick up a 7-11 a couple of days after the attack. To see in this tragedy some rebirth of al Qaeda or "terrorists of global reach" seems misplaced, at least based on what we know now.
But as I suggested a couple of days ago, that observation doesn't change our situation very much. Given the nature of destructive technology -- in this case, fairly primitive bombs -- and the fact that there will always be a few people with a destructive agenda of some kind, there are always going to be senseless acts of violence. Governments and society at large can and should take reasonable measures to reduce that risk -- and yes, a saner approach to gun regulation would help -- but 100 percent safety isn't possible. Fortunately, the odds that any of us will ever experience a direct encounter with this sort of violence are still vanishingly small. Even if you're a police officer or a soldier, the odds are in your favor. For the rest of us, we are still remarkably safe by historic standards. And Americans are much, much safer than people in many other places.
And remember, four people have now died in Boston (not counting the dead suspect), but some fifteen people died in Texas when a fertilizer plant blew up. The world is not foolproof. Bad things do happen. That bedrock reality is not even interesting; what matters is that we recognize dangers for what they are, calibrate them properly, and respond to them intelligently.
P.S.: Continued kudos to the law enforcement agencies dealing with this problem, who identified the suspects with remarkable speed and have handled an extremely difficult situation with calm but decisive measures. Cable TV? Not so much.
Update: As I've watched today's events and pondered further, I've become convinced that public officials in Boston erred by locking down the City and most surrounding suburbs for an entire day. There may be a good explanation for this decision, but it hasn't been provided yet. The economic cost has been enormous (by one estimate about $1 billion), and it sets a worrisome precedent if a 19 year old fugitive can paralyze an entire metropolitan region. We didn't shut down DC when the snipers were operating there, and we didn't shut down Los Angeles when a renegade and heavily armed police officer was a fugitive. This response also belies our insistence that we're tough and we won't be intimidated. On the contrary: we look skittish and scared. I suspect public officials were deathly afraid of further violence, and of being blamed later for not taking precautions. We'll see. But I worry that potential copycats will be inspired rather than deterred by the combination of media frenzy and governmental overreaction.
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George Packer of the New Yorker is always worth reading, and he has a thoughtful reflection in the latest issue on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state and what it tells us about the Obama administration's successes and failures during the first term. His basic thesis is that the White House didn't give Hillary much to do (though she stayed plenty busy doing it) and downplayed diplomacy in favor of drone strikes, special forces, and other military instruments. These tools were deployed without an excess of zeal and there were no big catastrophes, but also not a lot of big wins either.
So far so good. But Packer's real complaint is that things are deteriorating in some key places, and that Obama is going to have to shoulder the burden of global leadership in his second term. There's trouble throughout the greater Middle East, he warns, and that region "will remain an American problem." And so he concludes his piece with a recommendation that ought to send your "uh-oh" meter tingling. In his words, "[Obama] will need to give his next Secretary of State, John Kerry, the authority that he denied his last one, to put the country's prestige on the line by wading deep into the morass."
I don't know about you, but I've always thought that when you see a morass, the last thing you want to do is "wade deeply into it." Ditto quagmires, bogs, and the "Big Muddy." Indeed, most of the problems U.S. foreign policy has faced in recent years have occurred when we poured vast sums into ambitious social engineering projects in societies we didn't understand and where our prospects for success were never bright.
Packer is surely correct that the greater Middle East is in turmoil, but it does not follow that deep American engagement there -- even if purely diplomatic -- will solve that problem. For starters, there is little affection for the United States in many of these societies, either because they rightly blame us for turning a blind eye to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians or because they rightly blame us for backing various brutal dictatorships for our own strategic reasons. Nor does the United States have a lot of credibility as a diplomatic actor, having screwed up the Oslo peace process (with plenty of help, to be sure) and having bungled the occupation of Iraq.
Instead of wading deeper into the morass, in short, the United States would be far better served with a more distant and hands-off strategy. This doesn't mean writing off the region entirely, as we still have a strategic interest in keeping oil flowing to world markets and in discouraging the spread of WMD or the emergence of more anti-American jihadis. But getting deeply involved in the excruciatingly complex problems of internal governance and institution-building that are going to be taking place in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere is probably something America is not that well-suited for, no matter how noble our intentions. Moreover, in some cases greater U.S. involvement fuels jihadism or gives some states greater incentive to think about getting WMD. Regrettably, we are equally incapable of making a positive contribution to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is neither the source of all the region's troubles nor irrelevant to our diminished capacity there.
I don't like admitting that there are problems that Uncle Sam can't solve, and I wish I could share Packer's enthusiasm for another round of energetic U.S. engagement. But given our track record of late, the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm" strikes me as the wiser course. And I'm pretty sure Obama agrees, although he's unlikely to admit it too loudly or too often.
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Today I want to do a shout-out for the just-released report of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk. I was privileged to participate in this council this year, and the report is the product of three days' deliberation and discussion back in November and subsequent discussion and redrafting afterwards. (Kudos to Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group for ably chairing the group).
Our task was to assess geopolitical risks in 2013. You can read the full report for some specific forecasts, but our overarching theme was the increasing vulnerability of elites in virtually every sector. In a globalized and unequal world where information flows almost instantaneously, where economic tides can shift without warning, where masses can mobilize via new media, and where the slightest transgressions can be amplified and repeated in the blogospheric echo-chamber, elites in both the public and private sector can find the ground shifting beneath their feet suddenly and without warning.
"The vulnerability of elites cuts across emerging markets and advanced economies, democracies and authoritarian states, public and private institutions, and a wide array of issues. This is the challenge: as their legitimacy gets called into question, political actors struggle to react to instability, crises and opportunities in the most effective manner. Whether it is the growing disparity of wealth or the evolving flow information, several factors are facilitating pushback against existing policies and institutions and making both governments and some private actors across the globe look increasingly fragile."
Examples? Think of Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, and (one hopes) Bashar al-Assad. Look at what happened to CIA director David Petraeus or Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Consider how Rupert Murdoch's reputation and clout were tarnished by the phone hacking scandal, and ask yourself where his former editor Rebekah Brooks is now. Similarly, the Jimmy Savile scandal brought down the head of the BBC, showing that the leaders of a powerful and sophisticated news organization cannot control the news cycle.
Given that the annual WEF meeting at Davos is a confab of global elites, I wonder if our report will make any of them feel a bit ... well ... nervous. Some of them should.
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Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has the opportunity to make a principled stand in favor of reasoned discourse about American foreign policy. All he needs to do is insist that one of his employees -- senior fellow Elliott Abrams -- issue a public apology to Secretary of Defense-designate Chuck Hagel.
Why does Abrams owe Hagel a public apology? Not because he opposes Hagel's candidacy, which is his right. Rather, Abrams owes Hagel an apology because he falsely accused him of being an anti-Semite. The charge wasn't something Abrams just blurted out in an ill-considered moment: He first made the accusation in writing in the neoconservative journal the Weekly Standard (where accusing people of anti-Semitism is a well-developed practice) and then repeated it in an interview with National Public Radio.
As Ali Gharib of the Daily Beast and others have documented, these charges are baseless. Not only have prominent Israelis leapt to Hagel's defense against these smears, but so have important American Jewish leaders and some of Hagel's longtime Jewish friends from Nebraska. Abrams knows all this, of course, but that has not led him to retract his earlier calumnies against a distinguished public servant and decorated soldier.
Why does Haass need to take firm stand on this issue? Because making false accusations of anti-Semitism is an odious tactic that runs contrary to how one should behave in a great democracy like the United States. Not only have such smear tactics done great damage to innocent individuals' careers, but they also have a chilling effect on public debate about important foreign-policy issues. Promoting intelligent discourse about American foreign policy is the CFR's main raison d'être, which is why its leadership should not tolerate an employee who engages in this reprehensible behavior.
Given the long and tragic history of anti-Semitism, it is imperative that we remain on guard against it. Indeed, one can understand why some people err on the side of caution when questions about anti-Semitism are raised. But the assault on Hagel has nothing to do with protecting Jews from bigotry. On the contrary, it is a politically motivated smear campaign conducted by a small number of extremist neoconservatives who disagree with Hagel's views on foreign policy and are also trying to enforce the crumbling taboo against open discourse about U.S. Middle East policy, especially as it relates to Israel. To do this, Abrams and his allies have slandered Hagel with a hateful and false charge. In a fairer world, their campaign would have no impact on Hagel's reputation and instead discredit them.
Unfortunately, making false charges of anti-Semitism has become a risk-free activity that carries virtually no penalty and may even win the accuser support in some circles. Small wonder that hard-line defenders of Israel use this charge so promiscuously: They pay no price for doing so while their targets invariably pay dearly, even when the targets are innocent. So long as this is the case, why should anyone expect such slanders to stop?
Abrams is obviously free to oppose Hagel's nomination and to marshal legitimate arguments against his candidacy. And Haass -- who is a strong and vocal supporter of Hagel's candidacy -- should certainly not try to force anyone at the council to agree with him and support Hagel. But what Abrams should not be permitted to do under CFR's aegis is make unsubstantiated insinuations about Hagel's supposed "problem with Jews." That is the rankest form of McCarthyism and is antithetical to everything the council represents.
So as president of an organization that aims to foster open and respectful debate about foreign policy and improve America's standing in the world, Haass now has the opportunity -- indeed, the responsibility -- to make a stand for reasoned, rational discourse. To his credit, he has distanced himself and the council from Abrams's remarks, telling an interviewer that these insinuations of anti-Semitism were "over the line." But he needs to go further and tell Abrams to issue a public apology to Hagel. If Abrams refuses, Haass should fire him.
If Haass doesn't do that, he will have allowed Abrams's behavior to tarnish CFR's reputation, and he will have helped stymie open and honest debate about American foreign policy. Needless to say, that is exactly the opposite of what the president of the Council on Foreign Relations is supposed to be doing.
Richard Haass has made important contributions to U.S. foreign policy through his writings, his own public service, and his leadership at CFR. By doing the right thing now, he has the chance to make another one. And all Abrams has to do is admit he was wrong and say he is sorry.
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When Andrew Sullivan announced last week that he was taking his uber-blog, The Dish, independent and relying solely on reader subscriptions to fund the operation, the first thing I thought of was...
Not because the announcement made me yearn for a nice IPA, but because it made me wonder whether what is happening to the media environment is in some ways analogous to the extraordinary improvements in brewmaking over the past couple of decades, especially here in North America.
Back in my youth, beer in America was a consistently bland and homogeneous product. Watery lagers predominated, because the big brewing companies all sought to appeal to the median drinker. There just wasn't much difference between Bud, Miller, Schlitz, etc., which is why beer like Coors -- which had even less flavor but was hard to get in much of the country -- could become a fad for awhile. Beer snobs sometimes drank imports like Beck's or Guinness, but the major U.S. brands were boring, conventional, and competing to be more-or-less like each other. Kinda like Detroit's Big Three automakers or the three major TV networks.
Enter the microbrewery revolution. Beginning in the 1980s, enterprising Americans in search of good beer began drawing on artisanal brewing traditions and techniques from Europe, leading to an explosion of small craft breweries whose main selling point was creativity and diversity. Not to mention taste. Instead of trying to be like everyone else, microbrews thrived by presenting unique and interesting products that could actually hold a beer fan's interest. Instead of putting out a cheap product to be swilled in front of the TV or at a football game, microbrewers sought to produce something you could savor, discuss, and get seriously passionate about. No wonder I haven't sipped a Bud in years. Even the Obama White House has caught the bug, producing its own Honey ale in recent years.
So too with blogs. As Sullivan has realized, you don't have to be connected to some big media giant like the New York Times or the Economist in order to have a significant readership. It helps to be part of a well-known brand, of course but it's not essential, especially if you're more interested in appealing to a smaller group of engaged readers than in grabbing as much market share and advertising revenue as you can.
Furthermore, as the diverse set of writers that Sullivan often features on his blog illustrate, those who work primarily in the blogosphere are usually more interesting, provocative, willing to experiment, and well-informed than the mainstream commentators and pundits writing for the big media outlets. There are exceptions, of course, but I'm constantly impressed by how many smart people and good writers now inhabit the internet, and I frequently find myself in awe of how well so many of them use language and how much genuine pleasure one can get from reading them. By contrast, outstanding writing is becoming harder to find in a lot of mainstream media platforms, and its almost an endangered species in the hallowed halls of academe. It's not that they are bad writers, it's just that they are mostly so cautious, predictable, and bland. You know: like PBR.
Given the effectiveness of modern search engines, interested citizens can get lots of information from the web if they're willing do a little bit of dedicated trolling, which in turn makes it harder for governments, interest groups, or big media conglomerates to control discourse anymore. And that's why authoritarian governments in countries like China or Iran have worked so hard to slap restrictions on this free-wheeling environment, lest their own actions and legitimacy get undermined by the unconstrained flow of ideas.
None of this is big news by now, and Sullivan isn't the first blogger to rely solely on reader support. He's just the most visible and prominent, and his experiment reminds us that the information revolution that we are all living through is still in its early stages. But I hope Sullivan's venture succeeds and that others follow his lead. I don't know what the information industries will look like a decade or two into the future, but it's certain to be different than it is today and a lot different than it was when I was a kid. I'm already reconciled to the fact that I'll eventually have to give up my cherished morning newspapers and get almost everything in digitized form. I'll heave a nostalgic sigh when that happens, but in the end I think it will be for the best. Why? Because I also believe that the open exchange of information and ideas eventually leads to greater collective wisdom and better public policies. For this reason, the break-up of big media oligopolies and the proliferation of independent voices is a good thing.
And on that happy note, I think I'll have a beer.
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FP colleague Dan Drezner is clearly feeling generous this holiday season, which is a wonderful thing. Yet at the same time, I miss his normally sharp-elbowed intelligence. To be specific, his recent post is too forgiving of the incestuous relationship between Iraq/Afghan commander David Petraeus and inside-the-Beltway operators Fred and Kimberly Kagan, as well as of the other think-tankers Petraeus "consulted" with during his stints in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To his credit, Dan acknowledges that there are troubling features in this case. It bothers him that Kimberly Kagan hinted that they'd say critical things about the Afghan campaign unless they got more cooperation from the Pentagon, and then penned upbeat stuff once they got what they wanted. Dan also thinks exploiting their relationship with Petraeus for fundraising purposes was "unseemly" (an uncharacteristically timid charge for him.) And he's bothered by the reports that they overstepped their role as consultants and seemed to interfere with the chain of command.
Dan's main defense of the Petraeus/Kagan relationship is that military commanders ought to get outside their own bureaucratic environments on occasion and solicit informed advice from independent experts. It is hard to disagree with this general observation, but the devil is in the details and in this case they are pretty damning.
The main problem is that the relationship between Petraeus and his outside advisors was rife with conflicts of interest and perverse incentives, and it made it almost certain that a) Petraeus would mostly get advice he wanted to hear, and b) the people he was consulting would return home and write upbeat articles about him, and the strategy he was pursuing. And that's exactly what they did.
Here's the basic structure of the situation. If you're a politically ambitious commander like Petraeus, you want good advice. But you also want to make sure that you and your decisions are portrayed in a positive light. So you invite some well-connected civilians to visit your operation, and you make sure you select people who aren't known for being critical of the war and who will be easy to co-opt if need be. And when the consultants come to visit for a few days or weeks, you make sure they receive briefings that give the impression things are going well even if they are not.
Next, consider how this looks from the consultants' perspective. If you're an inside-the-Beltway think-tanker (and especially if you're someone who depends on soft money), it's a big deal to be invited to go to Afghanistan or Iraq and advise the commander. It makes you look more important to your colleagues, your boss, and your board, and you can go on TV and radio and write op-eds invoking your "on-the ground" experience. If you have to debate somebody on U.S. policy, you can sit up straight and pontificate about "what I saw when I was in Kabul," or "what General Petraeus told me when we were discussing COIN strategy," or whatever. Then you (or your organization) can write fundraising letters or grant proposals touting your connections and deep on-the-ground experience. And let's not forget the role of ego: it's just plain flattering to think a four-star general wants your advice.
Your well-scripted tour of the battle zone will probably convince you things are generally okay, of course, but you may still have a few doubts or questions and you may even express them to the commanders who invited you over. But what you won't do is tell them that the entire enterprise is misguided, or return home and write a hard-hitting piece explaining why the strategy is wrong or that the war effort is likely to fail. Because if you did that, it would be the last invitation you'd ever get and you wouldn't be able to play up your insider status anymore. Even worse, powerful people inside the national security bureaucracy might start bad-mouthing you, thereby diminishing your clout in Washington and destroying any hopes you might have had about serving in the government.
To see how well this works, ask yourself: How many of the people who took advantage of Petraeus' hospitality ended up writing critical assessments of his strategy or offered pessimistic forecasts about the prospects for victory? Not Michael O'Hanlon or Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution, not Max Boot or Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and certainly not the Kagans. I haven't done a comprehensive survey of everything that Petraeus' various advisors have written since then, but my impression is that virtually all of them remained upbeat about both wars for quite some time and none were critical early on. And it isn't as if there wasn't plenty of evidence that both of these wars were going badly.
Dan and I agree in principle: U.S. government officials and military commanders should sometimes solicit independent outside advice. And I have no problem with academics offering advice if they feel they have something to contribute. But we ought to recognize from the start that these relations are fraught with the potential for corruption and cooptation. Powerful leaders aren't likely to solicit advice from people who aren't already sympathetic to their views, and even scholars with considerable integrity will find it hard to keep their bearings, speak truth to power, and tell the rest of us what's really going on.
I suppose I could be flattered that William Kristol is trying to use my endorsement to derail Senator Chuck Hagel's candidacy to be the next secretary of defense. But in fact I'm disgusted, because Kristol's predictable hatchet job depends on the false charge that my co-author John Mearsheimer and I are "Israel-haters." It is, to be blunt, a shameful lie. It is also a revealing glimpse into how Kristol thinks and operates.
Here's Kristol's problem: Hagel is a decorated Vietnam veteran who was wounded twice in the service of his country. Instead of helping cause wars from the sidelines like Bill does, Hagel fought with bravery on the battlefield. He's also a Republican with ample experience in national security and intelligence matters whose judgment President Obama respects. Hagel has been quite supportive of Israel throughout his public career, and his views on many Middle East topics are similar to those of prominent Israeli officials. But he hasn't been as slavishly devoted to Israel as fanatics like Kristol would like, and he's skeptical about the merits of a war with Iran (as are many Israeli experts). Hagel also said openly he "was a United States senator, not an Israeli senator," and that his primary responsibility is to serve the American national interest, not Israel's. This statement would disqualify him were he in the running to be Israel's minister of defense, but it is precisely what you'd expect a loyal American to say.
Well, if you're Bill Kristol and you can't find any legitimate grounds to oppose Hagel, what do you do? You smear him. You try to convince people that Hagel's perfectly sensible views are really a manifestation of some sort of hidden anti-Semitism. Since Hagel has never done or said anything to support such a vicious charge, you have to use the well-known McCarthyite tactic of guilt-by-association. How? Point out that yours truly blogged that his nomination would be a "smart move."
See how it works? Someone who has previously been falsely smeared as anti-Israel thinks Hagel would be a good choice, so Hagel must be a nasty piece of work too. Of course, the charges against me are equally baseless -- and I'll bet Kristol knows that quite well -- but factual accuracy is not his concern. The sad fact is that if someone displays the slightest degree of independent thought on the subject of U.S.-Israel relations, they'll get falsely smeared. And then if that person says anything favorable about anyone else, that statement will be used to smear the others too. The goal, of course, is to silence or marginalize anyone who doesn't fully support the current "special relationship" and prevent a full and open debate about its merits.
President Obama hasn't shown a lot of backbone on this issue in the past, and it's possible that Kristol and the other hardliners who are now spewing falsehoods about Hagel will get the White House to blink. It's also possible that Obama will prefer a less traditional defense and foreign policy team and will opt for somebody else for that reason. The rumors about Hagel may even have been a clever White House ploy to provoke Kristol and the other neocons into their usual frenzy, thereby exposing their monomania about Israel once again and discrediting future efforts to oppose a more sensible U.S. policy in the region.
But what this incident really reveals is how desperate Kristol & Co. are becoming. Having conceived, cheer-led, and then bungled the disastrous Iraq war, their credentials as foreign policy "experts" are forever tarnished. They've used the "anti-Semitism/Israel-hater" charge so often and so inaccurately that it is losing its power to silence or deter, and defending the "special relationship" will be more and more difficult as Israel drifts rightward and hopes for a two-state solution fade into oblivion.
These trends will force Kristol and those who share his views to use even more despicable tactics to defend an untenable status quo. So I wouldn't expect them to abandon the art of the smear anytime soon. At this point, what else have they got?
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Now that the dust has settled in Gaza, permit me a brief comment on the way the conflict was covered here in the United States. I normally leave media commentary to people like Glenn Greenwald, Brad DeLong, or Jon Stewart, who do a terrific job of puncturing the foibles of mainstream reporting and commentary. But occasionally an article strikes me as so symptomatic of What's Wrong with American Journalism that I can't resist a few words of my own.
Case in point: Helene Cooper and Mark Landler's New York Times article from a few days ago. The title of the piece was "Obama, Showing Support for Israel, Gains New Leverage Over Netanyahu," and the article suggested that the combination of Obama's reelection, Netanyahu's support for Romney during the campaign, the Gaza fighting, and the upcoming Israeli election would suddenly give Obama a lot of new-found influence over the Israeli leader.
There were two fundamental problems with this piece. The first is that it is almost certainly wrong. Netanyahu is going to get re-elected anyway, so he hardly needs to curry favor with Obama. In fact, quarreling with Obama has increased Netanyahu's popularity in the past, so where's the alleged leverage going to come from? Over the past four years, Obama has backed Israel over the Goldstone Report, the attack on the Gaza relief vessel Mavi Marmara, and the Palestinian statehood resolution at the UN. He's also stopped trying to get Israel to halt settlement building. Obama was already re-elected when the latest round of fighting broke out, yet the administration reflexively defended Israel's right to pummel Gaza as much as it wanted. If you're looking for signs of new-found leverage, in short, they're mighty hard to detect.
Do Cooper and Landler think Netanyahu will be so grateful for all this support that he'll suddenly abandon his life-long dream of Greater Israel? Or do they think Obama will be so empowered by re-election that he'll put the rest of his agenda on the back-burner and devote months or years of effort to the elusive grail of Israeli-Palestinian peace? After pandering to the Israel lobby throughout the 2012 election, does Obama now think it is irrelevant to his political calculations? Hardly. We might see another half-hearted effort at pointless peace processing (akin to the Bush administration's token gesture at Annapolis), but who really believes Obama will be able to get Netanyahu to make the concessions necessary to achieve a genuine two-state solution, especially given all the other obstacles to progress that now exist?
The second problem with the article were the sources on which Cooper and Landler relied. The article quotes four people: Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller, and Robert Malley. All four are former U.S. officials with long experience working on U.S. Middle East policy, and mainstream reporters like Cooper and Landler consult them all the time. There are some differences among the four, but all share a powerful attachment to Israel and both Ross and Indyk have worked for key organizations in the Israel lobby. All four men have been closely connected to the post-Oslo "peace process," which is another way of saying that they have a lengthy track record of failure. I know Washington is a pretty incestuous hothouse, but are these really the only names that Cooper and Landler have in their smart phones?
I've no objection to Cooper and Landler getting quotations from Miller, Indyk, Ross, or Malley, of course, but Americans would be far better informed if reporters from the Times got outside the familiar Beltway bubble on occasion. So as a public service, here's a list of some other people that Cooper, Landler and their associates could call when they're looking for fresh thinking on this very old topic.
1. Yousef Munayyer, The Jerusalem Center
2. Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies
3. Noam Sheizaf, +972 Magazine, Israel.
4. Matt Duss, Center for American Progress
5. Mitchell Plitnick (formerly Jewish Voice for Peace and B'tselem)
6. Jerome Slater, SUNY-Buffalo
7. Sanam Anderlini, International Civil Society Action Network & MIT.
8. Charles Manekin, University of Maryland/The Magnes Zionist
9. Sara Roy, Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University
10. M.J. Rosenberg (formerly AIPAC, congressional staff, and
Media Matters for America).
11. Henry Siegman US/Middle East Project and University of London
I could go on, but at least that's a start. And if reporters need some former U.S. government officials to make the story sound authoritative, why not try Chas Freeman of the Middle East Policy Council or William Quandt at the University of Virginia?
My point is not that any of the above names have a monopoly on wisdom or truth; it's just that they are less likely to rehash the same-old, same-old thinking that has kept U.S. Middle East policy stuck on the hamster-wheel for the past two decades or more.
I've never paid much attention to forecasts and analysis from Stratfor, the for-profit strategic analysis firm that was rocked by a cyber-attack in December 2011 that compromised its customer data base. I wasn't willing to pay their premium prices, although I occasionally read Stratfor reports forwarded to me by a colleague who was a subscriber. On the whole, I thought they were often interesting but also overly alarmist.
I mention this because Stratfor has taken an interesting step to salvage its fortunes, by hiring journalist and noted realist Robert Kaplan to write a regular feature on geopolitics. I don't always agree with Kaplan's analysis -- I don't agree with anyone all of the time -- but he's one of the few prominent journalists who sees the world through a realist lens and has a clear capacity to think in broad strategic terms. He's also an intrepid traveler and lucid writer who is willing to challenge conventional nostrums, and I'll be interested to see what he has to say from his new perch.
I've complained in the past about the remarkable dearth of realist commentators at major media outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and the like. Liberals, idealists, neoconservatives, and former editors all enjoy privileged positions at these august institutions, but none of these organizations has managed to find a card-carrying realist to provide an alternative view on a regular basis. This omission is especially striking given that realism is a well-established intellectual tradition and used to have a respected place in our foreign policy discourse. It's not perfect, of course, but its track record is clearly superior to the liberal and neoconservative commentary that one can read almost daily in the commanding heights of American journalism. Fareed Zakaria's CNN show GPS is a partial exception, perhaps, but when you consider that this humble blog might be the most prominent realist commentary in contemporary public discourse, you get a good sense of marginal realism has become.
Which is why Kaplan's new job is a welcome development. It's not the Washington Post op-ed page -- unfortunately -- but I hope he attracts a lot of readers. You can see his first entry here.
Update: After posting this entry, it occurred to me that I had failed to mention several important realist voices in contemporary policy discourse, including Steve Clemons (now at the Atlantic), Paul Pillar at The National Interest, Robert Merry (ditto), and this site. Les Gelb at the Daily Beast seems to be rediscovering his inner realist of late. Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune also writes from a partly realis, partly libertarian perspective. But I'd still argue that realist ideas remain systematically under-represented in the commanding heights of contemporary media.
I did a brief interview for All Things Considered last Friday, on the topic of media handling of the current war scare over Iran. Here's a link to the story, which ran over the weekend.
The interview got me thinking about the issue of media coverage of this whole business, and I'm sorry to say that most mainstream news organizations have let us down again. Although failures haven't been as egregious as the New York Times and Washington Post's wholesale swallowing of the Bush administration's sales pitch for war in 2002, on the whole the high-end media coverage has been disappointing. Here are my Top Ten Media Failures in the 2012 Iran War Scare.
#1: Mainstreaming the war. As I've written before, when prominent media organizations keep publishing alarmist pieces about how war is imminent, likely, inevitable, etc., this may convince the public that it is going to happen sooner or later and it discourages people from looking for better alternatives. Exhibits A and B for this problem are Jeffrey Goldberg's September 2010 article in The Atlantic Monthly and Ronan Bergman's February 2012 article in the New York Times Magazine. Both articles reported that top Israeli leaders believed time was running out and suggested that an attack might come soon.
#2: Loose talk about Iran's "nuclear [weapons] program." A recurring feature of Iran war coverage has been tendency to refer to Iran's "nuclear weapons program" as if its existence were an established fact. U.S. intelligence services still believe that Iran does not have an active program, and the IAEA has also declined to render that judgment either. Interestingly, both the Times' public editor Arthur Brisbane and Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton have recently chided their own organizations for muddying this issue.
#3: Obsessing about Ahmadinejad. A typical insertion into discussions of Iran is to make various references to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, usually including an obligatory reference to his penchant for Holocaust denial and his famously mis-translated statement about Israel "vanishing from the page of time." This feature is often linked to the issue of whether Iran's leaders are rational or not. But the obsession with Ahmadinejad is misleading in several ways: he has little or no influence over Iran's national security policy, his power has been declining sharply in recent months, and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini -- who does make the key decisions -- has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam. And while we're on the subject of Iranian "rationality," it is perhaps worth noting that its leaders weren't goofy enough to invade Iraq on a pretext and then spend trillions of dollars fighting an unnecessary war there.
#4: Ignoring Iranian weakness. As I've noted before, Iran is not a very powerful country at present, though it does have considerable potential and could exert far more international influence if its leaders were more competent. But its defense budget is perhaps 1/50th the size of U.S. defense spending, and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. It could not mount a serious invasion of any of its neighbors, and could not block the Strait of Hormuz for long, if at all. Among other things, that is why it has to rely on marriages of convenience with groups like Hezbollah or Hamas (who aren't that powerful either). Yet as Glenn Greenwald argues here, U.S. media coverage often portrays Iran as a looming threat, without offering any serious military analysis of its very limited capabilities.
#5: Failing to ask why Iran might want a bomb. Discussions of a possible war also tend to assume that if Iran does in fact intend to get a nuclear weapon, it is for some nefarious purpose. But the world's nine nuclear powers all obtained these weapons first and foremost for deterrent purposes (i.e., because they faced significant external threats and wanted a way to guarantee their own survival). Iran has good reason to worry: It has nuclear-armed states on two sides, a very bad relationship with the world's only superpower, and more than three dozen U.S. military facilities in its neighborhood. Prominent U.S. politicians repeatedly call for "regime change" there, and a covert action campaign against Iran has been underway for some time, including the assassination of Iranian civilian scientists.
#6: Failing to consider why Iran might NOT want a bomb. At the same time, discussions of Iran's nuclear ambitions often fail to consider the possibility that Iran might be better off without a nuclear weapons capability. As noted above, Supreme Leader Khameini has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam, and he may very well mean it. He could be lying, but that sort of lie would be risky for a regime whose primary basis for legitimacy is its devotion to Islam. For another, Iran has the greatest power potential of any state in the Gulf, and if it had better leadership it would probably be the strongest power in the region. If it gets nuclear weapons some of its neighbors may follow suit, which would partly negate Iran's conventional advantages down the road. Furthermore, staying on this side of the nuclear weapons threshold keeps Iran from being suspected of complicity should a nuclear terrorist attack occur somewhere. For all these reasons, I'd bet Iran wants a latent nuclear option, but not an actual nuclear weapon. But there's been relatively little discussion of that possibility in recent media coverage.
#7: Exaggerating Israel's capabilities. In a very real sense, this whole war scare has been driven by the possibility that Israel might feel so endangered that they would launch a preventive war on their own, even if U.S. leaders warned them not to. But the IDF doesn't have the capacity to take out Iran's new facility at Fordow, because they don't have any aircraft that can carry a bomb big enough to penetrate the layers of rock that protect the facilities. And if they can't take out Fordow, then they can't do much to delay Iran's program at all and the only reason they might strike is to try to get the United States dragged in. In short, the recent war scare-whose taproot is the belief that Israel might strike on its own-may be based on a mirage.
#8: Letting spinmeisters play fast and loose with facts. Journalists have to let officials and experts express their views, but they shouldn't let them spout falsehoods without pushing back. Unfortunately, there have been some egregious cases where prominent journalists allowed politicians or government officials to utter howlers without being called on it. When Rick Santorum announced on Meet the Press that "there were no inspectors" in Iran, for example, host David Gregory didn't challenge this obvious error. (In fact, Iran may be the most heavily inspected country in the history of the IAEA).
Even worse, when Israeli ambassador Michael Oren appeared on MSNBC last week, he offered the following set of dubious claims, without challenge:
"[Iran] has built an underground nuclear facility trying to hide its activities from the world. It has been enriching uranium to a high rate [sic.] that has no explanation other than a military nuclear program - that has been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency now several times. It is advancing very quickly on an intercontinental ballistic missile system that's capable of carrying nuclear warheads."
Unfortunately, MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell apparently didn't know that Oren's claims were either false or misleading. 1) Iran's underground facility was built to make it hard to destroy, not to "hide its activities," and IAEA inspectors have already been inside it. 2) Iran is not enriching at a "high rate" (i.e., to weapons-grade); it is currently enriching to only 20% (which is not high enough to build a bomb). 3) Lastly, Western intelligence experts do not think Iran is anywhere near to having an ICBM capability.
In another interview on NPR, Oren falsely accused Iran of "killing hundreds, if not thousands of American troops," a claim that NPR host Robert Siegel did not challenge. Then we got the following exchange:
Oren: "Imagine Iran which today has a bunch of speedboats trying to close the Strait of Hormuz. Imagine if Iran has a nuclear weapon. Imagine if they could hold the entire world oil market blackmailed. Imagine if Iran is conducting terrorist organizations through its terrorist proxies - Hamas, Hezbollah. Now we know there's a connection with al-Qaida. You can't respond to them because they have an atomic weapon."
Siegel: Yes. You're saying the consequences of Iran going nuclear are potentially global, and the consequences of a U.S. strike on Iran might also be further such attacks against the United States..."
Never mind the fact that we have been living in the nuclear age for some 60 years now, and no nuclear state has even been able to conduct the sort of aggressive blackmail that Oren suggests Iran would be able to do. Nuclear weapons are good for deterrence, and not much else, but the news media keep repeating alarmist fantasies without asking if they make sense or not.
Politicians and government officials are bound to use media moments to sell whatever story they are trying to spin; that's their job. But It is up to journalists to make this hard, and both Mitchell and Siegel didn't. (For another example of sloppy fact-checking, go here).
9. What about the human beings? One of the more bizarre failures of reporting on the war debate has been the dearth of discussion of what an attack might mean for Iranian civilians. If you take out some of Iran's nuclear facilities from the air, for example, there's a very real risk of spreading radioactive material or other poisonous chemicals in populated areas, thereby threatening the lives of lots of civilians. Yet when discussing the potentially dangerous consequences of a war, most discussions emphasize the dangers of Iranian retaliation, or the impact on oil prices, instead of asking how many innocent Iranian civilians might die in the attack. You know: the same civilians we supposedly want to liberate from a despotic clerical regime.
10. Could diplomacy work? Lastly, an underlying theme in a lot of the coverage is the suggestion that diplomacy is unlikely to work, because it's been tried before and failed. But the United States has had very little contact with Iranian officials over the past thirty years, and only one brief set of direct talks in the past three years. Moreover, we've insisted all along that Iran has to give up all nuclear enrichment, which is almost certainly a deal-breaker from Tehran's perspective. The bottom line is that diplomacy has yet to succeed-and it might not in any case-but it's also never been seriously tried.
I'm sure you can find exceptions to the various points I've made here, especially if you move outside major media outlets and focus on online publications and the blogosphere. Which may be why more people are inclined to get their news and analysis there, instead of from the usual outlets. But on the whole, Americans haven't been well-served by media coverage of the Iran debate. As the president said last week, "loose talk" about an issue like this isn't helpful.
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In our book on the Israel lobby, John Mearsheimer and I emphasized that it was "wrong -- and objectionable -- to argue that Jews or pro-Israel forces 'control' the media and what [it] says about Israel." Instead, we argued that groups and individuals in the lobby work overtime to monitor what the media says about Israel, and to bring pressure to bear on reporters and editors who said things these groups or individuals didn't like. The lobby didn't "control" the media in a direct or conspiratorial fashion; it just sought to influence media coverage in a variety of sometimes heavy-handed ways, much as some other interest groups do. We documented numerous incidents where media organizations faced pressure to alter their coverage. As a former spokesman for the Israeli consulate in New York put it, "Of course, a lot of self-censorship goes on. Journalists, editors, and politicians are going to think twice about criticizing Israel if they know they are going to get thousands of calls in a matter of hours. The Jewish lobby is good at orchestrating pressure." (Note: "Jewish lobby" was his term, not ours). As an anonymous interviewee told journalist Michael Massing, "the pressure from these groups is relentless. Editors would just as soon not touch them."
Discourse about this topic has opened up a lot in recent years, but the same tactics are still on display. Case in point: the warning shots fired at the New York Times' new bureau chief in Jerusalem, Jodi Rudoren, which began when the ink on the press release announcing her appointment was barely dry.
What was Rudoren's scandalous transgression? She had the temerity to send a pleasant (but hardly effusive) response to a tweet from Ali Abunimah, who is the author of a book advocating one state for Israel and Palestine. Whatever you may think of Abunimah's views (I happen to think he's wrong on that issue), he's not a violent extremist and there's nothing inappropriate about Rudoren responding to him as she did. Rudoren also tweeted some positive things about Peter Beinart's forthcoming book The Crisis of Zionism.
Well, before you could say "hasbara," Rudoren was being chastised by a familiar list of commentators, including Adam Kredo of the Washington Free Beacon, Shmuel Rosner of the Jerusalem Post, and Josh Block, the former AIPAC staffer who recently led a despicable effort to smear the Center for American Progess. And of course Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, self-appointed Supreme Jurisprudent of What is Permissible to Say about Israel, got into the act as well. (Goldberg's sudden interest in fair-minded reporting is especially amusing, given his penchant for making up lies about those with whom he disagrees.)
Rudoren had done nothing wrong, of course. Her job as a reporter is to reach out to a wide variety of interested parties, to describe the situation on the ground as she sees it, and to render intelligent judgments about what she observes. I frankly don't envy her the job given how politicized the issue is. It remains to be seen how good a job she will do, but the obvious purpose of this little exercise in intimidation was to put her on notice. Her critics were sending a message: "If you write things that we don't like (and especially anything that might present Israel in a negative light), then we're going to raise a stink and try to get you to start pulling your punches."
As I've said ad nauseum, this situation is not healthy for the United States or for Israel. If Americans get a one-sided diet of reportage about this conflict, we are going to misunderstand it and we are going to keep making stupid or ill-informed decisions. We're also going to be less capable of giving our Israeli friends sensible advice, which all states need from time to time. Israel's staunchest backers shouldn't want a cheerleader at the Times' Jerusalem bureau; in fact, the more you care about Israel, the more you want someone who'll tell you the truth, even when some of it might not be pleasant to read or hear. Otherwise, you might not find out what's really happening until it is too late.
P.S. Readers here will probably be aware of the tragic death of Times' reporter Anthony Shadid, who suffered a fatal asthma attack while covering the violence in Syria. I don't think I ever met Shadid, and my only experience with him was being on a couple of radio talk shows. His reporting on Middle East affairs was intrepid, insightful, fair-minded, and often eloquent, and his death is a loss for us all. My condolences to his family and to anyone who knew him well.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
It's Thanksgiving once again, and it's become something of a ritual for me to record what I'm feeling grateful for each year. For starters, I want to thank the various people who responded to my request for advice on "policy analysis" yesterday, both via the "comments" section and to me directly. I got some very good suggestions, and I appreciate the help. Whether my students will be similarly appreciative remains to be seen.
This year, I'm thankful that the euro hasn't collapsed - yet -- and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it won't. It's true that the unraveling of the eurozone would be a striking vindication of a broadly realist view of international relations, but it would also produce tremendous human suffering and that's way too big a price to pay to vindicate a theory. So I hope Europe's leaders manage to defy my usual pessimism and navigate through the crisis. If they do, I'll be even more thankful next year.
I'm also grateful that there's been no war with Iran. Whatever the Obama administration's other shortcomings might have been, those at the top seem to have understood the folly and futility of unleashing major military action against Iran. I won't give them high marks for imaginative diplomacy, but at least they haven't done great harm.
I'm also giving thanks that the United States is getting out of Iraq, and I wish I could believe that we will draw the right long-term lessons from the debacle. On that score, it is not a good sign that many of the architects of that war are still taken seriously as foreign policy "experts," and some are even advising GOP candidates. Doesn't say much for our national learning curve, does it? But even if historical amnesia sets in quickly, I'm pleased that we are finally leaving Iraq to its own leaders. Now if we can just draw a similar conclusion about that other exercise in imperial futility ... Afghanistan.
Like nearly everyone, I'm troubled by the continued turmoil in Egypt and by the Assad regime's brutal behavior in Syria. But I'm thankful that the situation in Libya has thus far defied my worst fears and made at least some modest progress toward the establishment of a more legitimate political order. The capture of former heir-apparent (and accused war criminal) Saif al-Islam Qaddafi and former security head Abudullah al-Senussi pretty much eliminates any possibility of a "loyalist" insurgency, which is a good sign too. The country still has a long way to go, but I will be keeping my fingers crossed.
On a purely personal note, I'm thankful for the courageous policy analysts, writers and bloggers who make it easier for me to do this blog. I'm talking about people who seek puncture conventional wisdom, challenge orthodoxies, and rock the boat on occasion. I value them because they are an antidote to the flood of cautious semi-official narratives that dominate most of the writing on foreign policy, and so they help me think outside the box. So heartfelt thanks to Carl Conetta, Phil Weiss, Juan Cole, Gordon Adams, Martin Wolf, Jerry Haber, Uri Avnery, Jim Lobe, Helena Cobban, Glenn Greenwald, M. J. Rosenberg, John Mueller, Andrew Sullivan, Spencer Ackerman, Jerry Slater, Gideon Rachman, and many others too numerous to list or even remember. I don't know a lot of the people just mentioned, and I don't always agree with any of them. Heck, I don't always agree with this guy either. But I'm glad they are doing what they do.
Of course, I cannot omit my annual word of thanks to the whole gang at FP, including the reporters, writers, and bloggers with whom I've occasionally tussled. The editors remain a delight with whom to work, and it's been a pleasure to be part of their team. And because all bloggers ultimately depend on readers, I'm especially grateful for those of you who take the time to read this stuff.
With each passing year, I've become more aware and more appreciative of my own good fortune. It's been a pretty soft gig to be born a white American male in the mid-1950s, in a country enjoying enormous geopolitical advantages and considerable prosperity. I like to think I've done ok with the advantages I was handed, and there's no doubt that the deck was stacked in my favor from the start. And that goes for a lot of my colleagues and contemporaries too.
More broadly, if you compare the era in which most of us have lived to the previous fifty years (1900-1950), there's little question that we've enjoyed a period of comparative benevolence. The first half of the 20th century witnessed two enormously destructive world wars, the worst economic depression in history, and several brutal genocides. The past sixty years has its own share of tragedies, to be sure, but the overall level of violence was much lower, economic growth was fairly steady (until recently), and many of us never had to endure the insecurities, travesties, and sacrifices that earlier generations experienced or that were still common in other parts of the world.
Most Americans ought to be especially grateful for their extraordinary good fortune, and Thanksgiving is an appropriate time for us to reflect upon it. And as I watch Europe teeter on the brink of financial collapse, observe the violent political contestation that is sweeping the Middle East, note the rapidly shifting balance of power in Asia, and contemplate the tragicomic follies of our so-called leaders in Washington, I do wonder how long it will last, and whether I will look back with regret at the tranquility we have lost.
But tomorrow, I will give thanks for the good that remains, and think about what can still be done to preserve and extend it.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
There's a must-read
op-ed in today's New York Times by
Yan Xuetong, the dean of the School of Modern International Relations as
Tsinghua University. Writing as a self-described "realist," Yan
acknowledges that the emerging Sino-American competition is a zero-sum game (an
idea deemed politically incorrect by many inside-the-Beltway), and plainly states
that "competition between the United States and China is inevitable."
He approvingly quotes past Chinese sages as emphasizing that "the key to
international influence was political power."
Part of the novelty in Yan's essay is his emphasis on political morality. Power is critical, he says, but "the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership." Accordingly, the future struggle between the United States and China will be won by the government that best demonstrates what he terms "humane authority," which is material power fused with moral principle. In his words, "states relying on military or economic power without concern for morally informed leadership are bound to fail." Even more interestingly, he says the essential "humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad."
There's a lot of wisdom in this essay, as well as a subtle warning. On the one hand, Yan offers a neat summary of America's current advantages over China: our model of governance, tarnished though it is, is still more attractive than Chinese-style authoritarianism. America's past efforts to stabilize key regions have won it a large array of allies around the world, although these ties have been weakened by a decade of folly and misplaced aggression. U.S. society remains far more open to talented immigrants, such as AIDs researcher David Ho, journalist Fareed Zakaria, the late General John Shalikashvili, or former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and State Madeleine Albright. Yan offers a set of prescriptions clearly intended for Chinese readers: the country must assume more global responsibilities, open itself up to talented individuals from overseas, and "develop more high-quality diplomatic relationships."
But on the other hand, Yan also believes China "needs to create additional regional security arrangements with surrounding countries," and says its leaders "must play a larger role on the world stage and offer more security protection and economic support to less powerful countries." These words sound innocuous, but they actually reflect China's understandable desire to create a sphere of influence in key areas, and especially in East and Southeast Asia. Why should countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, or Indonesia maintain security ties with the United States, if Beijing is willing to offer beneficial economic ties and "protection?"
This is what all great powers tend to do as they grow stronger: they extend "protection" to weaker states in their vicinity in order to make sure that those states adopt foreign policies that do not threaten the larger power's interests. ("Hmmmm. Nice country you've got there. Would hate to see anything happen to it.") This doesn't mean China wants to conquer its neighbors or incorporate them into a formal empire, because that would be hard to do in an era of nationalism and wouldn't be worth the effort. Instead, the long-term goal is merely to ensure that its weaker neighbors defer to Chinese interests on key issues, including the future role of the United States in the region.
And as I outlined last week, that is why Sino-American competition in the years ahead is going to be primarily a competition for allies. Yan maintains that "there is little danger of military clashes" and that "neither China nor America needs proxy wars to protect its strategic interests." He's right in theory -- neither state needs such things and both would do well to avoid them -- but that is no guarantee that they won't happen anyway.
And to bring this full circle: that is why the latest episode of Congressional dysfunction -- the failure of the inaptly named "supercommittee" -- is so worrisome. The United States possesses the basic ingredients needed to more than hold its own in a future competition with China -- a competition that is already underway -- were it not for our growing talent for podiatric marksmanship (i.e., shooting ourselves in the foot). Whether the issue is the GOP's stalwart effort to protect the super-wealthy, the bipartisan commitment to throwing good money after bad in Afghanistan, or the gradual hollowing out of the essential sinews of an advanced society (schools, roads, power grids, transport hubs, etc.), it is clear that our problem is not a rising China. On the contrary, the real problem is a befuddled and aimless political class, comprised of men and women lacking knowledge, accountability, political courage, or any genuine commitment to the common weal. What they've got in spades is personal ambition, but not much else. If "morally informed leadership" is a prerequisite for success, then we are in big trouble.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
If you're still wondering why the United States is in trouble these days, a good place to start is Bill Keller's piece in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. It's a softball attempt at self-criticism, in which Keller reflects on why he was wrong to favor war in Iraq, and it illustrates a lot of what is wrong with entire foreign policy establishment in the Land of the Free. The tone is mildly sorrowful, but there's only a hint of genuine regret. One gets little sense that Keller has lost much sleep over his error, and he barely acknowledges that the war he and his associates enabled left hundreds of thousands of people dead, created millions of refugees, and squandered trillions of dollars.
Instead, he tells us that his post-9/11 hawkishness came from "a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the [9/11] attack." Excuse me? I'm all for fatherly devotion, but I also expect people in a positions of authority like Keller's to keep such feelings in check and think with their heads and not just their hearts. And did Keller ever stop to think about the Iraqi fathers and daughters whose lives would be irrevocably shattered by the U.S. invasion?
Keller makes much of the fact that lots of other liberal pundits were hawkish on the war, a group he refers to as the "I Can't Believe I'm a Hawk Club." This defense amounts to saying "Ok, I was wrong, but so were a lot of other smart guys." What he fails to mention is that plenty of others got it right, including the thirty-three international security scholars who published a paid advertisement on Keller's very own op-ed page on September 27, 2002. But did Keller or any other members of the Times' editorial board reach out to them, to see if their opposition to war was well-founded? Of course not.
Finally, Keller's reflections are silent on what the Times has done to prevent similar debacles in the future. Let's not forget that Keller & Co. hired William Kristol, who deserves as much blame for the war as anyone, to write an op-ed column a few years back, long after the Iraq War had gone south. That little experiment didn't work out too well, but it gives you some idea of the Times' learning curve.
To cap it all off, turn to yesterday's Book Review, where the cover story is neoconservative David Frum's review of Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum's new book on how America can get its mojo back. Frum is the former Bush speechwriter who gave us the phrase "axis of evil," and co-author (with Richard Perle) of one of the most comically over-the-top books on the "war on terror." And like Keller, Frum, Friedman and Mandelbaum were all enthusiastic Iraq War hawks too.
There you have it, folks: on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the Times gave prominent place to four people who were all vocal supporters of the invasion of Iraq, a decision that did far more damage to the United States than Al Qaeda ever did. Instead of holding itself accountable for its past misjudgments and looking elsewhere for expert advice, the Times -- like most of the foreign policy establishment -- continues to run on autopilot and recycle the same ideologues. And if the country keeps relying on advice from those who gotten so many big things wrong in the past, why should it expect better results?
Postscript: I did not feel inclined to join the orgy of 10th anniversary reflections this past week, but I did offer a brief assessment on the Belfer Center's website here.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
One of the distinctive features of American democracy is the permeability of our political institutions. It's an incredibly wide-open system, given First Amendment freedoms, the flood of money that corrupts the electoral process, and a wide array of media organizations and political journals that can be used to disseminate and amplify various views, even when they have no basis in fact.
This situation allows small groups of people to have a profound impact on public attitudes and policy discourse, provided that they are well-organized, well-funded, and stay on message. And if you don't believe me, then take a look at the Center for American Progress's new report Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America. It's a remarkable piece of investigative work, showing how small set of right-wing foundations and individuals have bankrolled the most vocal Islamophobes in contemporary U.S. politics, such as Frank Gaffney, Daniel Pipes, Daniel Horowitz, and Robert Spencer.
Here's an excerpt from the press release:
Following a six-month long investigative research project, the Center for American Progress released a 130-page report today which reveals that more than $42 million from seven foundations over the past decade have helped fan the flames of anti-Muslim hate in America…
Over the past few years, the Islamophobia network (the funders, scholars, grassroots activists, media amplifiers, and political validators) have worked hard to push narratives that Obama might be a Muslim, that mosques are incubators of radicalization, and that "radical Islam" has infiltrated all aspects of American society -- including the conservative movement.
The irony in all this that the extremists examined in this report have gone to great lengths to convince Americans that there is a vast Islamic conspiracy to subvert American democracy, impose sharia law, and destroy the American way of life. Instead, what we are really facing is a well-funded right-wing collaboration to scare the American people with a bogeyman of their own creation, largely to justify more ill-advised policies in the Middle East.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
I was in New York City the past two days and left my laptop in my bag for a change. The main purpose of the trip was to pick up my daughter (who was flying home from a language immersion program), but we did manage to sneak in a benefit concert at the Beacon Theater. Go here for a peek at The Life I Could Have Had if I Had Talent.
Along the way I've been reflecting more on the shooting/bombing in Norway and the debates that have surfaced since last weekend. One of the striking features of Anders Breivik's worldview (which is shared by some of the Islamophobe ideologues who influenced his thinking) is the idea that he is defending some fixed and sacred notion of the "Christian West," which is supposedly under siege by an aggressive alien culture.
There are plenty of problems with this worldview (among other things, it greatly overstates the actual size of the immigrant influx in places like Norway, whose Muslim minority is less than 4 percent of the population). In addition, such paranoia also rests on a wholly romanticized vision of what the "Christian West" really is, and it ignores the fact that what we now think of as "Western civilization" has changed dramatically over time, partly in response to influences from abroad. For starters, Christianity itself is an import to Europe -- it was invented by dissident Jews in Roman Palestine and eventually spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. I'll bet there were Norse pagans who were just as upset when the Christians showed up as Breivik is today.
Moreover, even Christian Europe is hardly a fixed cultural or political entity. The history of Western Europe (itself an artificial geographic construct) featured bitter religious wars, the Inquisition, patriarchy of the worst sort, slavery, the divine right of kings, the goofy idea of "noble birth," colonialism, and a whole lot of other dubious baggage. Fundamentalists like Breivik pick and choose among the many different elements of Western culture in order to construct a romanticized vision that they now believe is under "threat." This approach is not that different from Osama bin Laden's desire to restore the old Muslim Caliphate; each of these extremists is trying to preserve (or restore) an idealized vision of some pure and sacred past, based on a remarkably narrow reading of history.
In fact, any living, breathing society is driven partly by its "inner life," but also inevitably shaped by outside forces. Indeed, as Juan Cole notes in a recent post, most societies benefit greatly from immigration, especially if they have strong social institutions (as Norway does) and the confidence to assimilate new arrivals into the existing order while allowing that order to itself be shaped over time. What is even more striking about conservative extremists like Breivik is their utter lack of confidence in the very society that they commit heinous acts trying to defend. On the one hand, they think their idealized society is far, far better than any alternative, which is why extreme acts are justified in its supposed defense. Yet at the same time they see that society as inherently weak, fragile, brittle, and incapable of defending itself against its cruder antagonists.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
A quick footnote to the tragic events in Norway. Although as Greenwald points out, various unreliable sources were quick to assume that the attacks was the work of al Qaeda or some other Islamist group, there was in fact good reason to suspect from the start that right-wing extremists were really to blame. As I noted back in February, a 2010 study to Europol had shown that the vast majority of "terrorist" incidents in Europe were the work of European anarchist groups, and only a tiny fraction had anything to do with Islam. Here's what I said back then:
In 2009, there were fewer than 300 terrorist incidents in Europe, a 33 percent decline from the previous year. The vast majority of these incidents (237 out of 294) were conducted by indigenous European separatist groups, with another forty or so attributed to leftists and/or anarchists. According to the report, a grand total of one (1) attack was conducted by Islamists. Put differently, Islamist groups were responsible for a whopping 0.34 percent of all terrorist incidents in Europe in 2009. In addition, the report notes, ‘the number of arrests relating to Islamist terrorism (110) decreased by 41 percent compared to 2008, which continues the trend of a steady decrease since 2006.'''
So if journalists and right-wing bloggers had been paying attention, they might have guessed that it was far more likely that a European was responsible. But they didn't, which tell you a lot about their mind-set and motivations.
Moreover, as Matt Yglesias observes over on his blog, the attacks in Norway also cast doubt on the whole "safe haven" argument that has been used to justify our protracted, costly, and counter-productive effort to reorder political and social relations throughout Central Asia. Norway was far better governed than Afghanistan or Pakistan is likely to be in our lifetimes, yet that didn't prevent a local extremist from perpetrating a horrific crime, inspired at least in part by the hyperventilating hatred disseminated by prominent rightwing Islamophobes here in the United States. Put differently, the United States could stay in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the next century, and it would still be unable to guarantee that this territory didn't contain some hostile cells of extremists bent on attacking the United States or its allies. And even if we could, we obviously couldn't be sure that bad guys weren't in Yemen or Oslo or Bakersfield or Des Moines or Portland or Key West, or anywhere else.
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images
The steadily expanding "phone hacking" scandal in Great Britain is a good reminder that understanding politics requires a healthy appreciation of the role of arrogance and stupidity. What began is a seemingly straightforward example of sleazy journalistic practice has grown into a full-blown scandal, and the circle of guilt keeps widening.
Just look at the repercussions so far: 1) the NewsCorp's bid to take over all of British Sky Broadcasting has been scuppered, 2) NewsCorp CEO Rebekah Brooks has resigned and is now under arrest, 3) long-time Murdoch associate and Wall Street Journal publisher Les HInton has also resigned his post, 4) Prime Minister David Cameron has been badly tarnished, and oh yes, 5) the head of Scotland Yard has resigned in the wake of revelations that it had bungled the investigation (which is a charitable way of putting it). The WSJ and FoxNews have been exposed as shills for their boss (Murdoch), which is hardly surprising but is hardly going to help their reputations.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave....
Gallons of ink (or gigabytes of blog posts) have already been devoted to this story, but one broader element has received less attention amidst all the juicy personal stuff. What the scandal really teaches us is the dangers that inevitably arise when any single company or individual exercises excessive influence in media circles. Why? Because a healthy democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry, and media oligarchs can use excessive influence to skew what the public knows or believes in order to advance their own political objectives. If the Murdoch scandal doesn't convince you, just look at how Silvio Berlusconi used his media empire to drive his political career and look where Italy is today.
Furthermore, politicians are likely to accommodate powerful media organizations that are willing to play hardball, punishing politicians they didn't like and rewarding officials who played along. The NewsCorp was a master at this, and it is no wonder David Cameron and even Scotland Yard became compliant.
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Next week the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, will visit Capitol Hill to tell Congress about our progress there. Judging from this pre-visit story in the New York Times, he'll offer an upbeat appraisal, no doubt tempered with the usual cautions about how there are still challenges to be overcome, that the mission remains difficult, etc. etc. As I've noted before, this is pretty much what one expects any commander to do in such circumstances, so one should approach his testimony with a certain healthy skepticism.
I do hope the Hill staffers who will be preparing questions for their bosses will also read C.J. Chivers's account of the complexities that continue to bedevil our efforts in Afghanistan. Chivers has clearly been talking to soldiers in the field, and his story paints a less optimistic vision than we are likely to hear next week. Here's the revealing hint that the view from the bottom is different from the view at the top:
Officially, Mr. Obama's Afghan buildup shows signs of success, demonstrating both American military capabilities and the revival of a campaign that had been neglected for years. But in the rank and file, there has been little triumphalism as the administration's plan has crested."
Chivers also quotes a U.S. colonel (who requested anonymity) as follows:
You can keep trying all different kinds of tactics," said one American colonel outside of this province. "We know how to do that. But if the strategic level isn't working, you do end up wondering: How much does it matter? And how does this end?"
Needless to say, the problems at the strategic level are quite familiar:
The Taliban and the groups it collaborates with remain deeply rooted; the Afghan military and police remain lackluster and given to widespread drug use; the country’s borders remain porous; Kabul Bank, which processes government salaries, is wormy with fraud, and President Hamid Karzai’s government, by almost all accounts, remains weak, corrupt and erratically led. And the Pakistani frontier remains a Taliban safe haven."
As for the anonymous colonel's last question -- "How does this end?" -- I think the best we can hope for now is that the Obama administration goes in to full spin mode, touting all the progress it has made, and uses that as a justification for a gradual strategic withdrawal. That's one way to interpret Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's own remarks about recent U.S. progress, heralding the likelihood that U.S. troop levels will begin to decline this summer. It's a variation of the old "declare victory and get out" strategy that was once proposed for Vietnam, and if that's what it takes to end this continued drain on our resources and strategic attention, fine by me.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
To what extent should journalists (and perhaps scholars) allow their sense of patriotism to shape what they publish? And more broadly, how should those concerns shape their interactions with government officials? Debate on this issue has been rekindled recently in the case of Raymond Davis, the CIA employee who is now under arrest in Pakistan after an incident where he shot and killed two Pakistani assailants.
For competing perspectives on this incident, see Jack Goldsmith here and Glenn Greenwald here. Both writers make useful points and I recommend the whole exchange, but one passage in Goldsmith's post leapt out at me:
For a book I am writing, I interviewed a dozen or so senior American national security journalists to get a sense of when and why they do or don't publish national security secrets. They gave me different answers, but they all agreed that they tried to avoid publishing information that harms U.S. national security with no corresponding public benefit. Some of them expressly ascribed this attitude to "patriotism" or "jingoism" or to being American citizens or working for American publications. This sense of attachment to country is what leads the American press to worry about the implications for U.S. national security of publication, to seek the government's input, to weigh these implications in the balance, and sometimes to self-censor."
Nationalism and patriotism being what they are, I don't expect reporters and commentators (or academics, for that matter) to be able to completely disassociate their personal attachments from what they think or write. But when they do let those biases in -- and especially when they do so explicitly -- then the rest of us are entitled to question their judgment on those matters. More generally, here's what disturbs me about the idea that national security journalists consciously adjust what they say in response to their patriotic feelings.
First, it is a common error to equate "patriotism" or "love of country" with deference to or support for the policies of the government. In fact, the main justification for a free press in a democracy rests on the assumption that it will take a skeptical, even adversarial, attitude towards the government and its policies. Such skepticism is needed given the information advantages that government officials normally possess: they can classify embarrassing materials, leak secrets selectively, and curry favor with sympathetic journalists by offering them unusual levels of "access." The more you dilute the basic confrontational attitude between journalists and officials, the more the vaunted "Fourth Estate" starts to resemble a Xerox machine that just repackages facts, arguments and justifications offered by those in power.
I'm in New York today, to appear at a symposium at the Open Society Institute. We'll be discussing Evgeny Morozov's new book Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and I'm looking forward to hearing how Evgeny and the other panelists view the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. If you're so inclined, you can watch a live-stream of the event here.
I won't be blogging from the road on this (short) trip, but I would also call your attention to Thanassis Cambanis's piece on the case for a more restrained U.S. grand strategy that appeared in the Ideas section of the Sunday Boston Globe. Most of his attention is on the recent writings of Barry Posen, John Mearsheimer, and Andrew Bacevich (deservedly so), though he does drop in a brief reference to yours truly. My only question is: Why does he think I'm "ornery"? Acerbic, maybe; judgmental, perhaps; but "ornery"? :-)
There is an awful lot of unpredictable stuff going on right now -- Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, etc. -- and I haven't had time to comment at length on the "Palestine Papers" that were leaked to Al Jazeera and released earlier this week. So here are a few quick reactions, based on a less-than-complete survey of the documents (which you can find here), and some perusal of the commentary surrounding them.
For starters, a caveat. As with the various WikiLeaks revelations, it's a mistake to view these documents (which detail all sorts of confidential negotiations) as "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." For one thing, the leaked documents are the Palestinians' record of these events, and even if they are being scrupulously honest (and they probably were, insofar as these were internal records), the other participants might have seen or heard the conversations differently. You know, the old Rashomon effect. As far as I know, nobody has successfully impugned their accuracy (the PA tried to do so at first, but soon dropped that approach), but these exchanges are hardly the sum total of the diplomatic record. They offer lots of revealing information, but they need to be read in context and supplemented with other sources.
Second, the above caveat notwithstanding, the documents put to death the idea that Israel has no Palestinian "partner for peace." On the contrary, they reveal a PA leadership that is desperate for peace -- sometimes to the point of being craven -- and getting no help at all from the Israelis and precious little from the United States. They keep offering various concessions and trying different formulas, and get bupkus in return. Indeed, even when they might think they've obtained something of value -- such as Condi Rice's pledge that the 1967 borders will be the baseline for negotiations and territorial swaps -- they find that the next set of U.S. negotiators take it away with scarcely a backward glance.
In this sense, the documents also expose the bipartisan and binational strategy that Israel and the United States have followed under both Bush and Obama: to keep putting pressure on the Palestinians to cut a one-sided deal. And if you thought George Mitchell was acting like an evenhanded mediator, think again: He keeps leaning on the Palestinians to get back to the table, to accept a less-than-complete settlement freeze, etc., yet there's no hint of any pressure on the Israeli side.
Third, I can't make up my mind about the PA itself. A good case can be made that they've become complicit in the occupation and that the much-heralded "Fayyadism" -- building state institutions, emphasizing development and normalcy, and cracking down on "extremists" -- has put them in the role of doing Israel's dirty work for it, but with little to show for it. (That's a familiar strategy for a colonial power: find local elites who like holding positions of power and use them as your local agents). And the fact that Abbas and Fayyad have exceeded their terms of office yet refused to hold new elections reinforces that case. Yet I'm reluctant to condemn them for this response, both because the Palestinians do need more effective institutions and because they had precious few cards to play. Another intifada was only going to make things worse.
Fourth, these releases can also be read as the final obituary for the Oslo peace process. Lord knows it had been on life support for years, and most analysts have already understood it was going nowhere. In that sense, these documents aren't really revelatory: They merely confirm what most of us had suspected ever since Obama began walking back from the Cairo speech. But what I've argued before is now abundantly clear: The Palestinians aren't going to accept anything less than a viable state (plus at least symbolic acknowledgement of a "right of return"), and Israel isn't going to offer them anything remotely close to that. (See Jeremy Pressman here for further details on the difficulties.) It's equally clear that the United States is incapable of acting like an honest broker on this issue, despite its importance to our broader security position. That means no "two states for two peoples," which in turn means that some future U.S. president is going to face some really awkward choices.
And if we step back and take a larger and longer view, it begins to look like the U.S. position in the Middle East, which seemed so dominant after the fall of the USSR and the first Gulf War, is now crumbling. Hezbollah just formed a government in Lebanon, possibly after the United States convinced former PM Saad Hariri to go back on a compromise deal over the U.N. tribunal investigating the murder of his father. Iraq is now governed by a Shiite government with extensive links to Iran and is denying the U.S. any future military role there. A democratic government in Turkey, while not anti-American, is charting an independent course. The Mubarak government in Egypt, long a close U.S. client, has been shaken, and even if it survives the current turmoil, its long-term status is up for grabs.
The problem is this: The United States has no idea how to deal with a Middle East where the voice of the people might actually be heard, rather than being subject to the writ of various aging potentates. And having followed policies for decades that are unpopular with most of those same people, we may be about to reap the whirlwind.
There's been a lot of thoughtful reaction already to the appalling shooting in Tucson, much of it focusing on what it says about the polarized state of American politics and the violent and overheated rhetoric that has been a staple of right-wing political discourse over the past decade or so. I don't have anything deeply profound to add to this discussion, but I do want to offer two thoughts.
First, when something horrific like this happens, we can only hope that we learn something from an otherwise awful event. In my course on the causes of war, I tell students that learning valuable lessons from the history of human conflict is a way to make the losses suffered in war worth something; it is a way of at least partly redeeming the sacrifices that others made. The greatest benefit we could derive from the Tucson madness would a lot of genuine soul-searching within our political establishment, and especially among the pundits and media figures who have made hateful and violent rhetoric a key part -- and in some cases, the only distinctive element -- of their discourse. And frankly, I don't know what's worse: when politicians use extreme and demonizing rhetoric to advance a political agenda, or when media figures use hateful and violent rhetoric merely to make a buck. If this tragedy helps delegitimize such behavior, and restore some measure of civility to our political discourse, we will all have gained something from a tragic and senseless event.
Second, those of us who do some or all of our work in the blogosphere should do some soul-searching ourselves. Rhetoric in the blogosphere is a lot more combative and even violent than what you'd typically read in your local newspaper, or what you'd read in a scholarly journal. And this isn't just a monopoly of the political right: You can find some pretty hot language coming from bloggers on the left as well. Bloggers like to use verbs like "demolish," or "eviscerate" when discussing those with whom they disagree, as in "Smith offers a new justification for the war in Afghanistan, and Jones shreds it here." Or we get into heated exchanges that degenerate into name-calling and various forms of character assassination. Sometimes editors make this worse by going for edgy or combative headlines to titillate readers and drive up page-views. Edginess is part of what makes the blogosphere entertaining, I guess, but is it also contributing to the coarsening of our political values and the erosion of any sense of shared identity, humility, and common humanity? And don't get me started about the flame wars that occur in the "comments" sections, where people exploit anonymity to voice all manner of vile accusations.
I've tried to avoid that sort of thing in my own postings, but I suspect you could find a few places where I went further than I should have. So as we mourn the victims, hope for the survivors, and reflect on what this says the state of our country at this moment, let's spend some time looking in the mirror. Words matter, people, and if we are all going to be part of a public conversation, we owe it the society of which we are part to conduct it in a spirited, frank, but civil manner. Or we will reap what we sow.
Postscript: I'm leaving for an extended trip to Southeast Asia today, to attend some meetings at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and to give a series of lectures there and in Vietnam. It's my first visit to the latter country, and I'm thrilled to have the opportunity. Blogging will be erratic while I'm on the road, although I'll try to squeeze a few posts in when I can.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
I spent a half-hour yesterday on Warren Olney's KCRW radio show To the Point, discussing defense spending and deficit reduction. The other participants were Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker (the political writer I'm most jealous of because he writes so damn well), William Hartung of the New America Foundation, and Chris Littleton, co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council and a committed member of the "Tea Party" movement. If you're interested, you can get a link to the entire broadcast here.
The main topic of discussion was whether efforts at deficit reduction are going to include taking a major whack at defense spending. The general view on the panel was that you can't make serious efforts at deficit reduction without cutting DOD, if only because it occupies such a large percentage (i.e., more than half) of federal discretionary spending. Not surprisingly, a lot of the discussion then focused on what the new Congress would actually do and why there is still such resistance to trimming America's very large defense outlays.
For me, however, the most interesting part was listening to the Tea Party representative, Chris Littleton. His views were easily the most extreme of the group and bordered on what would normally be disparaged as "isolationism." He articulated this view very well, I thought, and was particularly good at countering the claim that such views are unpatriotic. He also acknowledged that Tea Partiers are far from unified on this issue: Some favor more hawkish defense policies while others believe the United States is badly overextended, should get out of the business of policing the world, and sharply cut back defense spending as part of an overall effort to shrink the size of government. (He would obviously place himself in the latter group).
As readers of this blog probably know, I also think U.S. defense spending is excessive and that our foreign policy should be more restrained. I don't go nearly as far as Littleton did, however, and I think the Tea Party's basic idea that the United States should drastically shrink the public sector is a Very Bad Idea. If we followed its prescriptions, we would quickly learn that all sorts of public services (good public schools, museums, snow removal, safety nets, police and fire, etc.) make life a lot better for all of us and that life without them would be pretty grim indeed.
But I came away from the conversation with a new appreciation for what the Tea Party may -- repeat, may -- bring to the national debate on foreign policy. Right now, there is still an overwhelming consensus inside the U.S. foreign-policy establishment for continuing to run the world, a consensus that includes liberal interventionists of the Madeleine ("Indispensable Nation") Albright variety and virtually all neoconservatives. And as I've noted before, there is significant imbalance of power inside Washington, generally favoring those who want to do more overseas. The result is that the United States tries to do more than it should, finds it much harder to set clear priorities, and tends to miss opportunities to "pass the buck" to others. If the rise of the Tea Party creates some significant domestic opposition to that tendency and helps generate a more lively public debate on fundamental issues of grand strategy, the country as a whole may end up with policies that make a lot more sense in the long run. It won't be Mr. Littleton's agenda, but it also won't be the outdated strategy we've been following since the end of the Cold War.
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This is a follow-up to my previous post on the death of Jawahar Abu Rahmah. I'm trying to get ready for a trip to Southeast Asia and hadn't intended to write about it again, but subsequent events deserve a brief commentary.
After the initial press reports cited in my original post, IDF officials mounted a wide-ranging challenge to the story that Ms. Abu Rahmah died as a result of inhaling tear gas. In particular, an IDF spokesman (who apparently met with a select group of sympathetic bloggers and questioned whether Rahmah had been at the rally), noted some alleged inconsistencies in the medical records, and suggested that Rahmah might have been suffering from other illnesses, including cancer. The clear implication was that the IDF's actions had nothing to do with her death.
This transparent attempt to evade responsibility was immediately countered by Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard, who represents the Abu Rahmah family, by Noam Sheizaf of the website +072mag, and by Jonathan Pollack of the Popular Struggle Coordinating Committee. You can read or listen to their responses here, here and here. By late yesterday, YnetNews had reported that other IDF spokesmen were criticizing the initial attempt to spin the story, saying that army officers "were quick to make assumptions before all facts had been checked."
I have three quick thoughts. First, although the details of this incident have not been fully resolved, there's little reason to doubt that Ms. Abu Rahmah died at least partly because she inhaled tear gas at the rally. In this regard, read the insightful commentary by Jerry Haber here and here. Second, we've seen this pattern of behavior before, most recently in the Israeli response to the Goldstone Report and its initial reaction to the Mavi Marmara incident. In each case, an embarrassing incident was met with a cloud of disinformation and denials, most of which do not stand up to scrutiny and which were gradually abandoned as more facts come to light.
Third, Israel's behavior is neither surprising nor unique in this regard; plenty of other states act the same way when they are engaged in an illegitimate enterprise and confronted by embarrassing revelations about it. When the Iran/Contra scandal began to unravel during the Reagan administration, for example, its protagonists didn't come clean voluntarily. Instead, they kicked up enormous clouds of dust to justify or conceal their actions. When the Bush administration was priming the country for the invasion of Iraq, it ended up telling various lies in order to make the case for war. When France was waging a brutal colonial war in Algeria, it told repeated untruths about it too. Authoritarian governments like the bad old Soviet Union made "disinformation" a household word, precisely because they knew that the truth would undermine their cause.
The Israelis have kept the Palestinians under military occupation for nearly 44 years, while steadily seizing more and more land, and using their superior military power to stifle any form of resistance. This policy requires concealing what is really going on, and forces the IDF to work overtime to spin unpleasant realities. The problem is that the more you conceal things, the more corrosive it is to the body politic as a whole, and the more discredited you are when the truth comes to light. As it will.
There was a brief flap last week when the Nixon Library released a tape of a conversation between Henry Kissinger and the former president. At one point, Kissinger says "the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern."
A number of pundits have already explored what these disturbing remarks tell us about Kissinger himself and his relationship with Nixon, but Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush who is now a columnist for the Washington Post, has decided that the real culprit is the entire "realist" approach to foreign policy. Not only does he consider realism to be a "sadly limited view of power, discounting American ideological advantages in global ideological struggles," he claims that "repeated doses of foreign policy realism can deaden the conscience."
Such statements tell us two things: 1) Gerson hasn't read many (any?) realists, and 2) Gerson hasn't spent much time reflecting on the morality of his own government service. If he had, perhaps his own conscience would be a bit more troubled.
For starters, to use Henry Kissinger as a stand-in for all realists is bogus and intellectually lazy. Most academic realists thought the Vietnam War a foolish waste of U.S. resources, for example, yet Kissinger prosecuted that war with enthusiasm during his tenure as national security advisor and secretary of state. Similarly, most contemporary realists opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but Kissinger supported it (as did Gerson). Before indicting an entire school of thought on foreign policy, therefore, you'd think Gerson would have spent some time familiarizing himself with what realists actually wrote.
Furthermore, Gerson is wrong to claim that realists are indifferent to moral concerns. (See here for a thoughtful discussion of this issue). Realists emphasize the role of hard power and are generally skeptical of idealistic crusades, but not because they think morality has no place in human affairs. Indeed, most realists that I know are deeply moral individuals who wish that humans (and states) behaved in a more ethical fashion; unfortunately, history makes it abundantly clear that bad behavior is commonplace and that prudent leaders have to take that possibility into account.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.