In his speech at the National Defense University on Thursday, President Obama made one of the most sensible, realistic, thorough and truthful statements about terrorism and counterterrorism from any senior official, let alone a president. The speech was not a piece of oratorical artwork, and it probably will not have the popular resonance of many of his other utterances. But in the sheer quality of its substance, the speech was one of his best.
The welcome and needed main message was that the United States must and should get off the track of waging a “boundless 'global war on terror.'” Accompanying that message was an accurate description of the terrorist threats that do and do not endanger U.S. interests. The president explained how the main problem is not what is left of the core al-Qaeda group but instead some parts of an assortment of foreign offshoots as well as radicalized individuals in the United States. Many of the foreign groups, including some that have adopted the al-Qaeda brand name, are primarily focused on local matters and do not pose any significant threat to U.S. interests.
Mr. Obama was candid in what can and cannot be done in countering terrorism. We “cannot erase” violent extremism. He talked of some of the vulnerabilities that are unavoidable, including the dangers faced by U.S. diplomats serving in trouble-prone places such as Libya.
The president, in multiple ways, made clear the inherent trade-offs involved in many aspects of counterterrorist policy. This included his discussion of the pros and cons of establishing either a special court or an oversight board to pass judgment on proposed drone strikes against terrorist suspects, while evidently remaining open-minded himself about the different options. It also included his reference to the need to strike a balance between security and “preserving those freedoms that make us who we are.” This aspect of the speech was a needed antidote to the tendency to think about counterterrorism in absolute terms and doing whatever is necessary to provide security.
A needed antidote to the tendency to think of a “war” on terrorism involving military force as a first-choice tool was Mr. Obama's reference to the many different instruments of statecraft that contribute to counterterrorism even if they are not labeled expressly as such. Especially welcome was his forthright discussion of the need to address “underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism.” He included under this category the promotion of democracy, foreign assistance, and—of particular note—the establishment of an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
What the president said about the detention facility at Guantanamo was admirably blunt and indicated a welcome use of what executive authorities he has to get closer to the goal of closure. He discussed how the original purpose of the facility was to keep detainees beyond the reach of any law and how this ignoble objective has hurt U.S. foreign relations by fostering a perception of U.S. disregard for law. He also correctly said that the Congressional restrictions on movement from detainees out of Guantanamo “make no sense.”
The speech serves also as another refutation of the myth that Mr. Obama claims to have dealt a fatal blow to international terrorism. The myth seems to have been born during last year's election campaign amid subliminal fears of Mr. Obama's opponents that whatever successes his administration has had against terrorism might win him votes. The myth has underlain the silliness about talking points on the Benghazi incident, allegedly doctored so as not to contradict the mythical claim about having defeated terrorism. It also underlies some more recent silliness about the White House supposedly wanting to “punish” the Associated Press for stories that indicate there is still a terrorist threat out there. What the president actually said near the beginning of this week's speech was, “Make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists.” When he mentioned the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, he said nothing about his own decision-making but instead attributed the raid's success to the planning and professionalism of U.S. Special Forces and to “some luck.” Even then, he acknowledged the downside of the raid in the form of a “severe” negative impact on relations with Pakistan.
The speech does implicitly remind the listener of some of the negative aspects of the Obama administration's use of armed drones. One of those aspects is unnecessary opacity and slowness in lifting that opacity. It was only the day before the speech that the administration, in a letter from the attorney general to a Senate committee, finally acknowledged all of the U.S. citizens who had been killed, intentionally or otherwise, by drones.
The White House released, as an accompaniment to the speech, a fact sheet describing criteria and procedures to be used in deciding on additional strikes from armed drones. The release is a positive step toward more transparency and gives us the fullest sense yet about the policy and how it is implemented. But the complete policy guidelines remain classified, the fact sheet is vague on several points, and it raises as well as answers questions. For example, it states that the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a “continuing, imminent threat” to U.S. persons. How can a threat that is “continuing” also be “imminent,” except perhaps for a short time before the threat is finally executed? In other places, such as in describing review procedures when a U.S. citizen is involved, the fact sheet essentially says that things will be done legally without specifying the legal principles and standards to be applied. In offering assurances that noncombatants will be protected, a lengthy footnote says that “it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants” but doesn't really eliminate the possibility that many such males will be so deemed.
The biggest hurdle to full implementation of a sensible and defensible counterterrorist policy is probably not these remaining problems in the administration's use of drones but instead the insistence of others, especially in Congress, that counterterrorism is a “war” in which military force is the preeminent tool, the grievances and conflicts that feed extremism are disregarded, the trade-offs involved in buying security are brushed aside, and the stain of Guantanamo is retained.
Reasonable people can disagree on what to do about Syria, a problem with no good solutions, and particularly about what to do regarding aid to Syrian rebels. There ought not to be disagreement, however, on not letting the United States, a would-be benefactor, get pushed around or have its diplomacy subverted by the rebels, who are the supplicants. Yet that becomes a possibility when we hear the head of the rebel Syrian National Coalition throw cold water on the peace conference that Secretary of State Kerry and his Russian counterpart agreed to arrange and say that his group will withhold agreement to attend until it sees who from the Assad regime might be coming.
In a public statement at this week's “Friends of Syria” meeting, Kerry linked the concept of increased aid to the rebels to any unwillingness by the Assad regime to participate in peace talks. One hopes he has conveyed a converse message in private to rebel representatives. There would be nothing wrong with also making such a message public. It would be part of a consistent policy whereby U.S. decisions about aid to rebels would be governed by the willingness or unwillingness of each side to negotiate and to negotiate seriously.
Amid all the talk about Assad having to go, there is no reason from the standpoint of U.S. interests to consider his departure an end in itself. It is at most a means to achieve other ends, having to do with instability or extremism in Syria. An even more fundamental distinction is between objectives, either ultimate or intermediate, and diplomatic modalities such as who exactly will be sitting at a negotiating table. In general, regardless of the objectives, including parties is better excluding them, which only makes them more likely to be spoilers. This principle goes for outsiders, including Iran.
As for the insiders and specifically the Assad regime, it would be hard to label as peace talks any process in which that regime was not fully at the table in the form of representatives of its own choice. Moreover, think of the incentives—to talk or to fight, to cooperate or to spoil—of the regime's supporters. A wide range of possibilities for a new Syria would share the common feature of not having Bashar Assad in charge. But those possibilities can be very different from each other in terms of the ability of those currently supporting the regime to live useful lives in the new Syria, or to live at all. If they do not believe their interests will be fairly represented in creation of a new order, they are more likely to see the only course as a fight to the death. Anyone who does not acknowledge that reality does not deserve assistance.
Public discussion of the subpoena of telephone records of Associated Press reporters as part of a leak investigation has been impaired by widespread ignorance or misunderstanding of what is going on with this case, as well as by the political environment in which the issue has surfaced. To begin with, none of us on the outside have any good basis for assessing the importance or potential importance of the phone records to this particular investigation. We don't know what other leads the investigators have, and we don't know the breadth of follow-up implied by whatever leads they do have. We thus have little or no ground as uninformed critics for second-guessing how the FBI is handling the case, in terms of obtaining the records at all or of the extent of the records that were subpoenaed.
The damage of leaks appears to be widely misunderstood, given how swiftly many commentators are brushing aside the issue of damage in the current case. Leaking of classified information significantly harms national security because it is awfully hard to run an effective national security operation if what stays secret and what becomes public is determined by any individual with an ax to grind or a personal agenda to push and enough of a wild streak to break the rules. Some commentary has offered opinion on how much the particular leak that is apparently in question in the current case was or was not damaging, but that is too narrow a perspective. Any leak is a blow to the discipline needed to keep secret information secret.
Those focusing narrowly on this single leak ought to think more about what it means in terms of political incentives and what is right or wrong regarding the behavior of political leaders. Although neither the attorney general nor any other official has publicly identified the leak in question, nearly all speculation centers on AP's reporting on an overseas terrorist plot that the United States evidently was able to infiltrate and thus to neutralize. For the Obama administration, this was a good news story; the United States prevented a terrorist attack through effective counterterrorist work. Outsiders would have had stronger grounds for criticism if the administration were not vigorously investigating a leak that had worked in its favor.
A commonly stated myth is that the AP is a “target” of this investigation, or even more preposterously, that it is being “punished.” The actual target of any leak investigation is the leaker; obtaining information about the contacts and activity of journalists is only a way to try to identify that target. It is a simple matter of relative numbers. There are many potential leakers, among the many people inside government who typically have access to information about even fairly sensitive secret subjects—which is why so many leak investigations fail to come up with the culprit. But there is only one news organization that got the scoop.
Political exploitation by domestic adversaries of the administration is a major part of this story, and of course such exploitation is nothing new. This pattern has been intensified by concatenation of the latest leak case with a couple of other developments that have been making the White House's political life more complicated lately. One is a kerfuffle over some talking points composed by committee amid a confusing situation overseas, with the kerfuffle begun during the 2012 election campaign and being dragged out indefinitely to try to damage a possible candidacy in the 2016 election. Another is an inept job by a unit in the Internal Revenue Service in trying to deal with a confusing legal situation regarding political activity and tax exemption. None of these matters have anything to do with each other, but that does not stop those who smell political blood from doing the concatenating. One story is an event, two is a pattern, and three, if you work for Fox News, is a wave of scandals.
The leak case, as with any leak case, also has a broader constituency that is making a fuss and on which Fox and the New York Times are on the same side. Leaks are red meat to journalists, especially ones who work on any kind of a national security beat. And so journalists in general, and the news organizations for which they work, tend to be pro-leak. This means that readers of those organizations' products are reading articles, not to mention editorials, that are slanted in the direction of criticizing vigorous investigation and prosecution of leaks.
This constituency tries to suggest there is a First Amendment issue involved. There isn't. There is much talk of how something like the subpoenaing of reporters' phone records has a “chilling” effect on the work of journalists, but no one explains exactly how and why that should be the case. It is not apparent why even journalistic exploitation of leaks would be chilled, and there certainly is no reason to expect any effect on vigorous reporting of other sorts, including on national security matters.
Finally, discussion of the seizure of AP phone records seems to go on without reflecting on who has access to such things in the private or public sectors and how this ought to affect how we think about privacy. Phone companies have complete records of how you, I, the AP reporters and everyone else have used their telephones. Internet service providers have complete access to people's Internet searches and email. Financial institutions have to-the-penny records of people's financial assets and transactions. Some would say that giving access to the government—with the ultimate coercive power of the state—is a different matter from having a voluntary relationship with a commercial enterprise. But short of relying on smoke signals and face-to-face barter, one has to deal with some such businesses. Sometimes even the choice of a particular business is not all that voluntary. As a land-line user, for example, there is one phone company I really have to use. Moreover, when we think about institutional motivations, which should worry us more: the actions of a government institution subject to public oversight and political checks and balances, or a private sector institution motivated by profit?
In this regard it is interesting that the attention to the leak investigation has coincided with another story about journalists and about people involuntarily surrendering some of the privacy surrounding their professional activity. In this latter story, reporters for Bloomberg News were found to have exploited access to information about the activities of subscribers to Bloomberg's financial data service, including when the subscribers were logging in and logging out and what types of data they were accessing. As for how much of a subscriber's relationship with Bloomberg is voluntary, Neil Irwin notes that “if you are a high-grade financial professional, Bloomberg does everything possible to make it hard for you not to subscribe to its roughly $20,000-a-year data terminal.” As for motivation of the institution, Irwin goes on to observe that for Bloomberg, “the terminal business is so lucrative and so important that it can spare no expense to make sure” that when an event happens with any possible business or financial implication, “the news will pop up on a Bloomberg terminal first.” Evidently Bloomberg News was sparing not only no expense but also no qualms about snooping on the activities of its customers.
It would be especially interesting to get AP reporters and Bloomberg reporters into the same room to discuss the techniques and ethics of information-gathering and how they relate to the journalism profession.
The victor in the recent Pakistani elections, Nawaz Sharif, has indicated he places high priority on improving relations between Pakistan and India. Sharif made some significant strides in promoting detente between the two South Asia powers during a previous stint as prime minister, and he wants to recoup ground that was later lost after the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008 by a Pakistani-based group. Wasting no time, Sharif has invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Pakistan to attend Sharif's swearing-in.
This is all to the good, and has received recognition as such in India (although with caution in the case of the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party). Americans, however, need to be prepared for how a successful Sharif may bring about some changes in Pakistani-U.S. relations that may not seem so good in Washington. This is suggested by an editorial earlier this week in a major Indian daily, the Hindustan Times. The editorial said that part of what Indians ought to hope for from a new administration in Islamabad is “a government that will understand that cutting dependence on the United States and China is only possible if Pakistan has a modus vivendi with India.” Note the implication that understandably can raise American eyebrows: a looser Pakistani relationship with the United States may accompany a less hostile Pakistani relationship with India.
Sharif is indeed likely to do a good number of things that will not sit well in Washington. Some of these things he would be doing anyway, but some of them will be related to his attempted rapprochement with India. The political realities he faces include, besides the Islamist militants who have become a bigger part of Pakistani affairs in recent years, a Pakistani military that ended his last prime ministry with a coup and whose main reason for existence is to defend the country against arch-adversary India. The more political risks Sharif takes in improving relations with that adversary, the more he will have to bolster his nationalist credentials elsewhere, including on matters involving relations with the United States.
There will be a tendency in Washington to judge Sharif's performance piecemeal, involving whatever is the latest concern about security in northwest Pakistan or something else. It would be better to take a more strategic view with the big lines of conflict in South Asia in mind. Indian-Pakistani rapprochement is still worthwhile and very much in U.S. interests, even if it is accompanied by greater nationalist testiness in U.S.-Pakistani relations. It is worthwhile partly because stability in the relationship between the region's two nuclear-armed powers is important in its own right. It also is worthwhile because improvement in that relationship will make it easier for Washington to deal with some other regional issues important to it.
The most prominent of those issues involves Afghanistan. The background to just about every Pakistani policy and action about Afghanistan that is unhelpful, including ones involving the continued Pakistani relations with the Afghan Taliban, is Pakistani concern about India. To Pakistan, Afghanistan is its strategic depth in the standoff with India, and it gets apoplectic over any inroads that India itself makes in Afghanistan. The more that the Indian-Pakistani relationship improves, the less intense will be the apoplexy and the less troublesome a player Pakistani is likely to be on issues involving Afghanistan.
Image: Tore Urnes, CC BY 2.0.
If I were a political adviser to those relentlessly pushing recriminations about the attack last year on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, I think my advice would be, “Give it a rest.” This pseudo-scandal has become so forced, so contrived, and so blatantly driven by motives other than safeguarding the security of U.S. interests that the unending push has already passed the point where it serves any identifiable objectives, even partisan political ones. The subject, about which a panel of inquiry has completed its work and issued its report, is already tiresome; imagine how much more tiresome it will be to voters by 2016 after three more years of it.
A poll on Benghazi released this week by Public Policy Polling suggests that the agitation on the subject is keeping a Republican base agitated but not making wider inroads on public opinion. One has to ask what good it does Republicans to dwell on something that keeps one segment of the population angry about Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton) when that segment was already angry about Obama anyway. When asked whom the respondent trusted more on the issue of Benghazi, 49 percent said Hillary Clinton and 39 percent said Congressional Republicans. On other questions asking for an overall favorable or unfavorable rating, Clinton enjoys an eight-point margin over Congressional Republicans, the same margin as in a similar poll in March.
The poll did show that the angry base has gotten the intended message that there is supposedly a scandal involved. A plurality of Republicans (but only small percentages of either Democrats or independents) said yes to the question of whether this was the “biggest scandal in American history.” By margins of greater than three to one, Republicans polled said it was a worse scandal than Watergate, Iran Contra, or Teapot Dome. That's an interesting result given that in one case the issue involved nuances conveyed in some talking points, while each of the others involved criminal behavior in the form of attempted subversion of an American election with a subsequent cover-up, illegal diversion of arms into a foreign war, or bribery of a cabinet officer to get preferred exploitation of publicly owned natural resources.
The customary ignorance of the American public is no doubt at play. Probably the proportion of the general population that could say today what Teapot Dome was about measures in the single digits. A scandal seems worse if you've actually heard about it. The ignorance factor was suggested by another question in the poll asking where Benghazi is. Ten percent believe it is in Egypt, nine percent in Iran, six percent in Cuba, five percent in Syria, four percent in Iraq, and one percent each in North Korea and Liberia, with another four percent being unwilling to guess. Maybe those who said Cuba have Benghazi confused with Guantanamo. It would be interesting to know what those who said North Korea think the incident was about.
Probably the failure of the agitation about Benghazi to make wider inroads on public opinion is due not only to the tiresome, contrived and partisan nature of the agitation but also to the fact that it never had a logic in the first place. The message being promoted seems to be that the administration was shying away from describing the incident as terrorism in order not to undermine, during the 2012 election campaign, a claim to having success against international terrorists. But when did Barack Obama ever contend that international terrorism has been licked? When the presidential candidates were asked in one of the debates—several months after Osama bin Laden had been killed—what each believed to be biggest national security threat facing the country, Obama replied, “terrorism.” However the incident in Benghazi is characterized, four Americans were killed. There is no way to sugar-coat that, whether the T-word is used or not.
The endless harping about Benghazi has costs beyond, and more important than, wasted time by Republicans who have better ways to try to win votes and defeat Hillary Clinton. Among those costs are the fostering of misunderstanding of some fundamental realities about such incidents and about terrorism. Shortly after the Benghazi attack I mentioned some of those realities, including the inherent hazards of overseas representation and the inability to protect every installation everywhere, and the fact that the details of such incidents are nearly always obscure initially and become clear only in hindsight. As the harping continued other costs grew. These included promoting yet another misunderstanding about terrorism: the idea that popular anger at the United States and the machinations of a group are somehow mutually exclusive explanations for any terrorist incident. Still another is the notion that nonstate violence is worth worrying about if it can be linked to al-Qaeda but is not much of a threat if it cannot. There also is the cost of inducing future secretaries of state and other officials to impair U.S. diplomacy by futilely pursuing a zero-risk approach to overseas representation.
As the pseudo-scandal continues to be pushed, other costs come to mind. An obvious one is the big distraction this entails from useful work Congress could otherwise be doing. Of course, we are no strangers to similarly ineffective use of Congressional time and attention. Probably the Benghazi kick has been no more of a distraction than the House of Representatives voting for the 33rd time (or maybe its more—it's so many there doesn't seem to be an accurate count) to repeal Obamacare. One also needs to consider, however, the drain on the time and attention of officials in the executive branch. Having five different House committees holding hearings on the same subject is an enormous diversion from the main duties of those who are responsible for diplomatic security.
The poll questions about the relative severity of different scandals brings to mind another cost: a debasing of the currency regarding what really is a scandal and what episodes in our nation's history ought to be thought about and have lessons extracted from them. Another example of this is found in a column this week by the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl. Diehl validly observes that the unending agitation over talking points about Benghazi is a misdirected digression from serious issues that ought to be addressed in a bipartisan manner, such as a failure to “adequately prepare for an emergency in post-revolution North Africa.” One might broaden the point by saying that we also ought to be discussing, again in a bipartisan manner, what assumptions underlay the Western intervention in Libya and whether it ever was a good idea. But then in an apparent effort to achieve some kind of partisan balance, or just to scratch some old itch, Diehl contends there is equivalence between the folderol over Benghazi and the episode in which in the course of selling the invasion of Iraq the George W. Bush administration made a false claim about Iraqi purchases of uranium ore in Africa, with the office of Vice President Cheney doing battle with a former ambassador who investigated the matter.
There is no equivalence at all between these two episodes. The one involving the vice president's office—like Watergate, Iran Contra, and Teapot Dome, but unlike Benghazi—involved criminal behavior. Vice presidential aide I. Lewis Libby was convicted of perjury, providing false statements to investigators, and obstruction of justice. Diehl also gets the other essentials about the episode wrong. Although he writes that what the retired ambassador, Joseph Wilson, said was mostly “grossly exaggerated, or simply false,” the principal thing Wilson said—that no such purchases of uranium ore were ever made—was absolutely correct, with the administration's claim being dead wrong. The reason the vice president's office got so deeply involved in the matter was to try to find ways to discredit Wilson and the agency that hired him because the truths they spoke were complicating the effort to sell the Iraq War.
Although Diehl says we should have had “a serious discussion of why U.S. intelligence about Iraq was wrong,” he fails to mention that on this very matter U.S. intelligence was right, having repeatedly warned the White House against using the temptingly juicy tidbit about purchases of uranium ore. The episode was one of the most salient indications that far from being misled into Iraq by bad intelligence, the war-makers in the administration were determined for other reasons to launch the war and were only using intelligence selectively to try to bolster their campaign to sell the invasion.
And lest we forget, the damage to the national interest from that expedition was many, many times greater than anything involving Benghazi. Now that's scandalous.
Amid much talk lately about “red lines”—to the point that the term would be a strong candidate for cliché of the year—we should reflect on the relative inattention, as Richard Falk points out in a recent commentary, to what used to be one of the most fundamental and important red lines of all. The line in question, which Falk notes the United States once played a leading role in formulating, is “the prohibition of the use of international force by states other than in cases of self-defense against a prior armed attack.”
Falk has been around long enough to rile adversaries on many issues about which he has been outspoken (and I have disagreed with some of his past positions). It was nearly forty years ago that I took a graduate course in international law from him, and he is now in his eighties. But he does speak some uncomfortable truths. Many he has spoken in connection with his current function as the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. Most recently he incurred irresponsible vitriol, including some from U.S. officials, when he noted—accurately—that U.S. policies have something to do with stimulating the kind of violent extremism exhibited by the Boston Marathon bombers. His observation about disregard for the once-prominent norm against aggression gets to another set of truths.
Erosion of respect for this norm, specifically in discussions of U.S. policy, is a recent phenomenon. Throughout the twentieth century the United States largely observed it, and as far as significant warfare is concerned rigorously observed it. Moreover, the United States expended much blood and treasure in campaigns that, whatever other U.S. interests they may have served, were responses to someone else's aggression and ensured that the aggression would not be allowed to stand. World War II was the largest such effort; Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990-91 were others. The U.S. response to the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956 was an example of upholding the norm of non-aggression even when it meant opposing close allies.
The big departure that led the United States astray from this path was the invasion of Iraq in 2003—the first significant U.S. war of aggression since the nineteenth century. Despite the costly unpleasantness that followed the invasion, this episode seems to have had a lasting effect on American debate in extending the range of respectable policy options to include ones that earlier would have been ruled out as being beyond the red line of non-aggression. Most Americans of just a couple of decades ago, even after the Soviet Union imploded, would have been taken aback by how much some beyond-the-line possibilities, such as an unprovoked attack on Iran, are deemed respectable enough to be seriously considered today.
Falk does not discuss non-aggression in absolute terms. He suggests that in individual cases other considerations, such as humanitarian ones, often appropriately come into play. He also appears to accept the frequently-advanced (though not necessarily valid) idea that we are living in an era in which the ubiquity of terrorism means some rules of international conduct need to be revised. His principal lament is that the rule of non-aggression is not being carefully updated but instead simply abandoned. That, he says, means “normative chaos,” which “in a world where already nine countries possess nuclear weapons seems like a prescription for species suicide.”
That's probably putting the point too strongly, but such a world is nonetheless not in U.S. interests. The United States, despite (and as the Iraq War experience suggests, perhaps even because of) its standing as the militarily most powerful state, has more to lose than to gain in such a world.
Restoring, respecting, and fostering a norm of non-aggression is in the interest of the United States even if one does not approach the subject, as Falk does, with an emphasis on international organizations and international law. Even the most hard-boiled realist, focused like a laser on U.S. national interests, can see the benefit to the United States of having such a norm. This leads to part of an answer to the question that Danielle Pletka posed and Jacob Heilbrunn highlighted as a fair question to realists: what do they want, as distinct from what are they against? They ought to want a world in which states do not start wars whenever and wherever they feel like it.
China this week got about as far as it ever has gotten into the Middle East peace process by hosting back-to-back visits by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was still only, as the New York Times coverage put it, a dipping of China's toe into that process. The odds are that Beijing will not be wading much farther into that water any time soon. The new Chinese leadership certainly has plenty on its plate right at home, including uncontrolled corruption, near-catastrophic environmental degradation, and the need to adapt to a slowdown in economic growth. Moreover, continued festering of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not hurt Chinese interests as severely and directly as it hurts the interests of the United States, because of the latter's association with the Israeli occupation and other controversial Israeli actions.
But if President Xi Jinping and his colleagues nonetheless were to involve themselves more deeply in efforts to resolve this conflict, we should applaud them, for several reasons. The principal reason is that the outside power that has now been looked to for decades as the peace process's deus ex machina—i.e., the United States—continues to demonstrate that it is too politically crippled to perform that role. The combination of an Israeli government devoted to continued colonization of conquered and occupied territory and of political forces in the United States devoted to an unquestioning, right-or-wrong backing of that government have had this crippling effect. Barack Obama has already dispelled any hope that things would be appreciably different in his second term. His secretary of state clearly wants to try to make new things happen, but the president seems in effect to have told him, “Good luck, my friend, in seeing what you can do, but don't expect much help from me with the heavy lifting.”
A second reason to welcome greater involvement by the Chinese is that their own positions and posture toward the conflict are substantively very sensible, reasonable, and in line with the characteristics that any plausible settlement of the conflict would require. Prime Minister Li Keqiang was on target when he told Netanyahu that “the Palestinian issue is a core issue affecting the peace and stability of the Middle East. When Li said, “As a friend of both Israel and the Palestinians, China has always maintained an objective and fair stance,” he was more truthful than if a similar claim were made by the United States, which as Aaron David Miller has accurately put it, has more often functioned as Israel's lawyer. Xi presented to Abbas a “plan” that called for establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 boundaries and with East Jerusalem as its capital, with full respect for “Israel's right to exist and its legitimate security concerns.” About the only editing one might want to do to the Chinese formulation would be to refer explicitly to the possibility of land swaps, as in a recently restated version of the Arab League peace plan.
A further, subsidiary reason greater Chinese involvement with this issue would be good is that it is the type of constructive global engagement that it would be good to see China practicing in general. It would bring China closer to carrying its fair share of the weight of dealing with sticky international issues, and might encourage positive habits that would have spillover effects on otherwise unrelated issues.
Another outside power that one might expect to take up the peace process slack that the United States has proven unable to take up is the European Union. Some of the possibilities were raised by an open letter published last month by the collection of former senior officials known as the European Eminent Persons Group. The letter is admirably clear and blunt in detailing what needs to be done—and the deficiencies in what has been done so far, including by Europe. But there are limitations to what the Europeans are ever likely to do, some of which are mentioned in Mitchell Plitnick's look at the eminent persons' initiative. The letter-writers are only former officials, after all.
The EU has the impediments to action that come from still being a collection of governments and something less than a full federation. The Europeans also have some historical baggage of their own on Arab-Israeli issues that may make it easier for the Israel lobby to reach across the Atlantic and slap them down, as in a derisive dismissal by Elliott Abrams of the eminent persons' letter as a “useful reminder of European attitudes.” A similar dismissal would be more difficult to direct at China.
In any case, anyone looking for leadership on this issue from a non-U.S. outside power should not place all his hopeful eggs in one basket. An earlier phase of the endless and fruitless Middle East peace process involved a “quartet.” Maybe it's time to try a European-Chinese duet.
If President Xi needs additional incentive to take some action and some risks on this subject, how about this for a motivation: personal leadership on this subject would be a good way to distinguish himself from all those colleagues of his who dye their hair the same shade of black and wear identical suits. It would give him a historical legacy beyond all the problems back home that he shares with the collective leadership.
Xi ought to aim for a Nobel Peace Prize. Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin won the prize for their work on the subject even though what they did failed to bring lasting peace, and Jimmy Carter also got a Nobel in large part for his work on the same subject. Barack Obama won the prize just for getting elected and not being George W. Bush. If Xi dove into the subject and made any progress at all, he would have a good chance of making it to Oslo, and deservedly so.
The island kingdom of Bahrain has stuck out as a kind of sore thumb in the Persian Gulf ever since the Arab Spring got under way. It is the only one of the six monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council that has seen major political unrest during these past two or three years. It also is a place where U.S. objectives don't really fit together. Two principal attributes of Bahrain underlie these observations.
One is that it has a Shia majority, constituting about 70 percent of the Bahraini population, but is ruled by a Sunni regime. In that respect it is like Iraq before Saddam Hussein's ouster and unlike the other GCC states, which all have Sunni majorities. Economic patterns correlate with religious ones; Bahraini Shia are generally less well off than their Sunni countrymen.
The other attribute is that Bahrain has a major military relationship with the United States, including being the home of the Fifth Fleet. This fact evidently has dominated the thinking behind U.S. policy on Bahrain. It has been a major disincentive against rocking boats regarding political and economic rights of the Bahraini people. When Saudi Arabia sent forces across the causeway to help the Bahraini regime quell Shia unrest, the United States did not make an issue of it.
In this part of the world a major expressed U.S. concern is, of course, Iran and Iranian influence. Bahrain is of special interest in this regard because of a keen Iranian interest in the place. There have been Iranian statements, going well back before the advent of the Islamic Republic, describing Bahrain as rightfully a province of Iran. During early years of Islamic Republic's history there certainly were Iranian efforts at subversion in Bahrain. In more recent years, however, there is no indication that Iran is trying to topple the Bahraini regime. Iranian influence comes in a softer form as a champion of greater rights for the majority of the population.
This week Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi gave Iran's soft power a new twist by stating that the Bahraini government had requested secret Iranian mediation between itself and its domestic opposition. Salehi said Iran was willing to use its good offices for this purpose but only openly, not secretly. The Bahraini foreign ministry denied that Bahrain had made any such request of Iran. It is impossible to know whom to believe, but it is plausible that Manama might have communicated with Iran about the need to use its influence with the Shia majority constructively. If Iran really were to contribute openly to political reconciliation in Bahrain that would be good, and would be the antithesis of clandestine subversion.
If the United States really is concerned about Iranian influence in this corner of the Persian Gulf, it is not shaping its relations in a way that effectively counters that influence. Whatever other purposes the Fifth Fleet may serve, there is not a plausible external military threat to Bahrain that the fleet defends against or deters. Meanwhile, concern about protecting this military equity has led the United States mostly to turn a blind eye to the unresolved internal conflict that is the real danger to the Bahraini political order and which has helped Iran in posing as a friend of the majority of Bahrainis.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Abadi Moustapha. CC BY 2.0.
Expressions of angst over Syria have entailed several themes, one of which concerns possible “spread” of the Syrian civil war into nearby states. Lebanon, for reasons of physical and ethnic geography, is most often mentioned as a locale of such spreading. But at least as useful as speculation about what the Syrian civil war may do to Lebanon is to reflect on how current events in Syria are echoing an earlier civil war in Lebanon. We have been through much of this before—thirty years ago, when Ronald Reagan was president.
By the early 1980s Lebanon had been suffering several years of combat among sectarian militias, reflecting disagreement over the fairness of old power-sharing agreements among the confessional communities. The biggest stirring of this already turbulent pot came in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon. The principal Israeli targets—declared targets, at least—were fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization who had been in Lebanon ever since being kicked out of Jordan a decade earlier, after losing the Black September confrontation with King Hussein. A small multinational force of U.S., French, and Italian troops entered Lebanon in August 1982 and supervised the extraction of the PLO to Tunisia before itself withdrawing to ships in the Mediterranean.
Israeli objectives were not limited just to booting the PLO out of Lebanon, however, and Israeli forces remained enmeshed in the sectarian fighting, besieging Beirut. Menachem Begin had ideas about trying to maintain a client to the north in the form of the pro-Israeli Christian government of Bachir Gemayel, who became president about when the PLO was leaving. Three weeks later Gemayel was assassinated, triggering the most horrid blood-letting of the Lebanese war. At least several hundred—and by some outside estimates perhaps something closer to 2,000—Palestinian civilians were slaughtered in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The massacre was carried out by the Christian Phalangist militia, which was allied to and supplied by the Israelis. Israeli forces, whether wittingly or not, facilitated the massacre by maintaining a cordon around the area of the camps, and fired illuminating flares that enabled the Phalangists to continue their work by night.
The massacre stimulated the Reagan administration to organize a new multinational force that eventually included 1,800 U.S. marines as well as French and Italian troops. The force initially had some success in acting as a buffer between contending elements. But the intervention later became a textbook example of the near-inevitability of getting drawn into ever costlier commitments and endeavors in any situation as messy as Lebanon at that time. U.S. military engagement included not only the marines on the ground but also combat between carrier-based U.S. aircraft and Syrian forces (which had originally entered Lebanon as part of an Arab League peacekeeping force). At one point even the 16-inch guns of the battleship New Jersey were brought into action.
Those striking back at the increasingly resented foreign forces used methods against which jet fighters and battleships are of little use. In April 1983 a truck bomb was detonated at the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63 persons. Six months later, another truck bomb was used against barracks housing U.S. troops (along with an identical and simultaneous attack against French troops). 241 U.S. servicemen were killed in that bombing—the deadliest terrorist attack against U.S. citizens until 9/11. Congressional pressure on the administration to withdraw from Lebanon increased. The last U.S. forces left in February 1984. The Lebanese civil war continued for several more years until sheer exhaustion, and a new political accord brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria, brought it to an unsatisfying end.
Some parallels between that experience and the current situation regarding Syria are obvious. There is the overall complexity of the conflict and the presence of bad guys all around. There also is Israel taking advantage of a neighboring state's civil war to pursue its own objectives, whether those are to smash a Palestinian force or to intercept long-established Hezbollah supply lines, regardless of how much its actions stoke and escalate the war. And if much of the discourse in Washington about Syria since the (presumed) Israeli attacks there over the past few days are any indication, there again is the pattern of Israeli actions increasing the chance of the United States getting sucked into the mess.
Let us hope that those eager to get into the mess will reflect more than the statesmen of 1982 did about how this all will end. Moreover, those who talk about damage to U.S. prestige or credibility also ought to think about that aspect of the experience in Lebanon. Withdrawing the U.S. troops in 1984—although it was the least bad thing the Reagan administration could have done at the time—was a U.S. defeat by Hezbollah. There is no way to sugar-coat that conclusion. It was just the sort of caving in to bad guys that we so often hear that we need to avoid. And it could have been avoided in Lebanon if the United States had not gotten involved in the mess in the first place, or at least if Israel had not—in its futile pursuit of absolute security for itself regardless of the insecurity it causes for everyone else—made the mess worse.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/James Funk. CC BY 2.0.
The lead article in the current International Security, by Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard, addresses the now firmly entrenched idea that over the past two or three years China has become markedly more assertive in its relations with other countries than it was previously. That China is “newly assertive” has become so broadly and automatically accepted that it gets expressed often enough to have become a cliché. “Newly assertive” is a descriptor that routinely gets inserted before “China,” just as easily as “long-suffering” routinely gets inserted before “Chicago Cubs fans.”
Johnston closely examines the evidence for the supposed new assertiveness and finds it wanting. The notion of new assertiveness by Beijing overstates actual change in Chinese policy and overlooks the complexity of the issues on which the assertiveness has been perceived. Johnston sees maritime disputes as the only area where one could make a case for increased Chinese assertiveness. On other matters over the past couple of years China's policy has not changed, has become more moderate, or has been an understandable response to changes in conditions that Chinese policymakers face.
Johnston's article has applicability that goes beyond China; he discusses the process of how such conventional wisdom comes into being even when the original empirical foundation for it is weak. He sees it in large part as a process of traditional journalism and the blogosphere playing off each other. A more general and more widely descriptive observation would be that it is a process of certain propositions acquiring acceptance simply as a result of frequently being voiced by others. Because acceptance for this reason means the proposition gets expressed even more times by even more voices, we have the ingredients of a self-sustaining chain reaction. Politicians as well as journalists and the blogosphere all play in the chain reaction.
One can think of other notions with current policy relevance that are sustained by similar chain reactions. This is true of much conventional wisdom about Iran, for example, starting with the idea that Iran is definitely seeking to build nuclear weapons. Note how often one sees reference to Iran's “nuclear weapons program,” even though that label is a misnomer. Another example is the usual description of the Palestinian movement Hamas as “dedicated to the destruction of Israel” or some similar formulation, despite the ample evidence of the actual objectives of Hamas leaders that shows that to be a mischaracterization as well.
The phenomenon at hand is not just a matter of there being many important issues on which people disagree, with people on one side of the issue having a more popular view than those of the other side. Naturally people who have studied a particular issue in depth will be especially annoyed by what they regard as widely mistaken beliefs on that same issue. Johnston singled out the notion of new Chinese assertiveness because he is a China specialist who studies Beijing's policies and behavior and understandably has his own well-formed views on that subject. But when a notion achieves the status of conventional wisdom, a qualitatively different phenomenon arises. It is no longer just a matter of one view outvoting another view, but instead one of the self-sustaining chain reaction. The conventional wisdom acquires a life of its own, ever more divorced from whatever empirical reality may have been the original basis for it.
The damage of this type of conventional wisdom goes well beyond the irritation that comes from any cliché. Conventional wisdom constrains policy choices. More specifically, conventional wisdom that entrenches a negative view of another international actor promotes policies that risk becoming self-fulfilling prophecies of the most destructive sort. Security dilemmas arise. A belief that the other side is obstreperous or difficult encourages policies toward that side that make it more likely it will respond in a way that really is obstreperous or difficult.