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Paul Pillar

The Vietnam War and Lessons of History

Every generation has its own defining historical events that shape its attitudes toward current events. Members of later generations easily become disdainful of what they regard as preoccupations with the past. This pattern comes through in an article by James Mann about the different generations represented in the Obama administration's foreign policy apparatus. Mann divides the administration team into a Vietnam generation, which does not want to repeat the misery of that war, a post-Vietnam generation that believes the first generation's reaction to the war made the Democratic Party look too wimpy and naïve about the use of military force, and a still-younger generation that believes both of the previous two cohorts have over-reacted in their different ways to a long-ago and increasingly irrelevant conflict. The attitude of the third group is bluntly expressed by the ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. Unlike the previous two administrations, says Rice,

We just don’t have that Vietnam hangover. It is not the framework for every decision — or any decision, for that matter. I’m sick and tired of reprising all of the traumas and the battles and the psychoses of the 1960s....What frustrated me about the 2004 campaign was, there we were, relitigating ‘Where were you in nineteen sixty-whatever?’ as the big freaking issue between Bush and Kerry — you know, "Did you serve, did you not serve, what did your swift boat brothers think?"  And I’m thinking, "What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?" 

Given the ridiculous, or outrageous, way that the Vietnam War was swift-boated into the 2004 election campaign, one can understand Ambassador Rice's disgust. She is too quick, however, to dismiss the relevance of what individual personal histories related to that war, among those who served in it and those who had other priorities, may say about the individuals in question. Sure, it's hard for anyone who has come of age in the era of the all-volunteer military to relate to the situation that young males of a previous generation faced, but that hardly means the responses of those males were irrelevant.

Beyond the personal level, there are all the lessons that have to do with larger issues of national policy and the use of military force. Much has been written in this vein in the four decades since the Vietnam War. Different people have derived different lessons, but surely a conflict that had such a tremendous impact on the nation, including more than 50,000 war dead, still has things to teach us. A perceptive piece about lessons that the U.S. military drew, and ones that it should have drawn, appeared in the U.S. Army War College's journal Parameters in 1986. It was written by an army major on the West Point faculty named David Petraeus. He combined observations about topics such as civil-military relations and the future of counterinsurgency with a more general caution, similar to cautions from many historians, against applying analogies from any one conflict to any other single conflict without taking into account the differences between the two.

That such cautions are necessary is ironic in that there was at least as much analogizing during the Vietnam War, by those making policy about the war, as there has subsequently been analogizing from that war. There were comparisons made to how the West stood up to other communist advances earlier in the Cold War, and many made to that most overused of all historical analogies, the rise of Nazi Germany before World War II. In general, the historical analogies invoked during the Vietnam conflict, at least before the costs and casualties mounted to unspeakable proportions, were more uniformly in favor of staying the course in opposing the Vietnamese communists than has been the case in later debates in which historical lessons have been flung back and forth. In the early stages of the American involvement in that conflict, before the introduction of U.S. ground troops, it was very difficult to resist what was a widely accepted belief that the United States had to make a stand in Vietnam.

Petraeus cited approvingly in his article some observations about historical lessons by Paul Kattenburg, a Belgian-born former U.S. foreign service officer with a doctorate from Yale who in the early 1960s was working on Vietnam matters at the State Department. Kattenburg's place in American history rests on his attendance at a single National Security Council meeting in August 1963, at which he argued to his assembled seniors that the U.S. effort to prop up South Vietnam was bound to fail and that the best course of action was for the United States to withdraw honorably. This was before Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening ever cast “no” votes on Vietnam in the Senate, before George Ball was the in-house devil's advocate in Lyndon Johnson's administration, and before Vietnam became a leading national issue. Kattenburg's recommendation was the first time anyone had said anything like that at a high-level policy meeting on Vietnam, and it was so much at odds with widely accepted assumptions that the seniors castigated him rather than coming to terms with what he was saying. Kattenburg paid a price. As Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts observed in their book on the Vietnam War, Kattenburg's “career, like his assessment of the war, was downhill from then on.” Despite having years of experience on Southeast Asia, he was exiled to a post in Guyana and then to a training position before he left the government for academia. He is surely one of the heroes of the Vietnam War story, but one who has been largely unsung beyond aficionados of the Pentagon Papers.

Here's a lesson I will offer from the Vietnam War, in addition to all those other ones. When, on some other issue, some brave soul has a Paul Kattenburg moment, the rest of us—inside and outside government—probably will not realize it because we will be sharing a mental concept so deeply engrained that it will not occur to us even to question it, let alone to give it up. The trick with historical lessons is not just to select one lesson over another when both are being peddled and we know we have a choice, but to recognize when we have a choice to make.

The Next Intifada

A piece by Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group calls attention to the possibility that we may be on the verge of a third Palestinian uprising or intifada. The first intifada, between 1987 and 1993, included many forms of nonviolent resistance against Israeli occupation but took a violent turn in the form of stone-throwing and forceful Israeli crackdowns on Palestinian protests. The second intifada, which began in 2000 and petered out in about 2005, was more violent. Casualties in the second round included about 5,500 Palestinians killed and around 1,100 Israelis (Arabs as well as Jews) also dead. A third round would entail the danger of extending this bloody trend.

The circumstances that Thrall argues could lead to a third intifada include Palestinian disillusionment with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's longstanding attempt to use security cooperation with Israel as a way of winning Israeli confidence and, based on that, hoped-for Israeli willingness to move toward a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However confident Israelis may have gotten about their security, each passing year has shown that this confidence does not translate after all into Israeli willingness to move toward Palestinian statehood. Ironically, notes Thrall, the very success of the security cooperation led on the Palestinian side by Abbas has given many Israelis “the luxury of forgetting that there is an occupation at all.” Many Israelis now evidently believe that they really can enjoy a Jewish democracy and cling to the West Bank, especially if the demographic equation can be altered by hiving off the Gaza Strip.

Against this unpromising current reality, increasing numbers of Palestinians are inclined to perceive effectiveness in some of the violence in the past. Intifada number one, according to this perspective, led Israel to sign the Oslo accords of 1993. Lethal attacks against Israeli forces in Lebanon led the Israelis to withdraw from the southern part of that country. And, according to this same perspective, the violence of the second intifada led Ariel Sharon to pull out of Gaza and stimulated such international responses as George W. Bush declaring support for Palestinian statehood. Even if these perspectives are invalid, such reasoning ought to be unsurprising to Israelis who habitually argue that their own adversaries “understand only force.”

The danger of a third intifada is indeed real, even though the timing of one breaking out is unpredictable. Timing would depend on specific events (such as Sharon's walk on the Temple Mount in 2000) providing a spark that would ignite a combustible atmosphere. It also would depend on how much disillusionment sets in not only with Abbas's strategy but also with the effectiveness of the nonviolent protest methods that Palestinians recently have been trying. Contagion effects from Arab Spring unrest elsewhere in the region constitute another source of unpredictability. Perhaps a third intifada would start, somewhat similar to the first intifada, as largely nonviolent forms of resistance but then, amid a spiral of crackdowns and responses, quickly take a much more violent course.

Despite the uncertainties, outside powers need to anticipate a third intifada. It will be ugly, and it will be contrary to the cause of peace in the Middle East. A new intifada would not be the acting out of anyone's plan for obtaining a positive result but instead would be, like the two previous intifadas, mostly an unplanned and destructive outburst of anger and frustration.

Perceptions of supposed past effectiveness of violence against Israel are based on misinterpretations of the events in question. The Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon holds few lessons for the disposition of territory that many supporters of the current Israeli government consider part of Eretz Israel. Responses by the United States and others to the second intifada involved too many other influences and variables to draw good conclusions. The evacuation of Gaza, regardless of what Sharon's original intentions were, now serves more as a facilitating basis for holding on to the West Bank than as a precedent for giving it up. The first intifada was part of the background to the peace process that began with Madrid conference and the Oslo accords, but so were other factors. One was active engagement of the United States, beginning with the George H.W. Bush administration. The other was inspired leadership by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Since Rabin's assassination in 1995 by a right-wing Israeli extremist opposed to the peace process, we have not seen comparable leadership.

The most likely response by the current Israeli leadership to a third intifada, in addition to forceful crackdowns, would be to use it as a rationale for continued lack of movement toward Palestinian statehood. We would hear that once again Israelis were under immediate physical threat from Palestinians and that no one could expect Israel to take any chances with new diplomatic departures. We would hear again that it would be folly to talk about statehood for a people exhibiting such chaos and violence, which their leaders are either unable or unwilling to control. And so the costs of a new intifada would include, in addition to direct harm to the security and interests of Israelis and Palestinians alike, even greater distancing than before from any hope of ever resolving the underlying conflict.

The prospect of an uprising having such consequences is a further reason why, even though this may not be the “heroic age of peacemaking” in this part of the world, outside and especially U.S. engagement in working to resolve this dispute is important. Only outside involvement has a chance to break the unending cycles of perpetual conflict, one of which is the cycle in which Israelis feel either too secure to care about a Palestinian state or too insecure to permit one.

Image: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Party Facts and Falsehoods

Daniel Patrick Moynihan is credited with the comment, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” Using one's own facts—and too often they are falsehoods—is a distressingly familiar part of American political discourse. What is even more disturbing is how much that falsehoods not only play a role in political competition but derive from that competition. Beliefs, or misbeliefs, flow from political preferences and allegiances, and not just the other way around.

Two different but related processes are at work when this happens. One is the intentional manipulation of beliefs from above, which is most apparent in political campaigns. The other is a form of dissonance reduction, in which members of the public adopt factual beliefs that seem most consistent with their political preferences and allegiances, especially party allegiances.

A recent reflection of these processes is a poll, constructed by Benjamin Valentino of Dartmouth College and administered in April and May by YouGov, that addressed a variety of foreign policy matters. Most of the questions asked for a preference or level of concern. Others asked for a belief, though a debatable belief such as whether a particular foreign country was likely to commit a particular act. A few questions asked for a belief about something on which we know for sure what is true and what is not, and where we thus can definitely identify the misbeliefs. One of those questions asked which of the countries on a list of thirteen have formal treaties with the United States that pledge the United States to help defend the country. The results mostly indicate the well-known general ignorance of the American public about foreign affairs. The country that elicited the most “yes” responses was Israel, which has no such defense treaty with the United States. The one with the fewest “yes” votes (5% of all respondents) was Latvia, which as a member of NATO does have such a formal defense commitment.

Beyond the general ignorance, the party-affiliation effect was visible on this same question. Sixty-five percent of self-identified Republicans mistakenly believed that the United States has a formal defense commitment to Israel, as opposed to 56% of independents and 52% of Democrats. The party discrepancy was more glaring on a couple of other questions. Asked whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded in 2003, an astounding 63% of Republicans said yes (in contrast to 27% of independents and 15% of Democrats). There were no follow-up questions about this, and one is left to wonder whether the believers think the subsequent saga of non-existent Iraqi WMD is a big hoax, or that weapons were quickly smuggled to Syria, or what. Maybe enough time has gone by for myth and reality to fade together.

Then, lest anyone think the birther movement is dead, there was a question about whether Barack Obama was born in the United States or another country. Sixty-four percent of Republicans (compared to 30% of independents and 10% of Democrats) believe he was born in another country. Fifty-six percent of the Republicans say they always believe he was born in a foreign country, and 8% say they used to think he was born in the United States but later changed their minds.

All of this is more reason to cringe when we hear falsehoods flow, about government spending or anything else, in the presidential campaign. They are cringe-worthy not only because many people will be voting this year on false pretenses but also because we are seeing the generation of misbeliefs that will be held for many years to come.

Iraq, United States

Waltz and Iranian Nukes

Sometimes someone with outlying views can usefully illuminate differences among those who appear closer to the mainstream. The very starkness of the outlier's thinking can clarify what is at stake in the mainstream debate, and what does and does not make sense in that debate, even if no one else in the debate adopts positions quite like his. Too often we fail to give a hearing to the insights such people offer, rejecting everything that comes from them simply because they are outliers. Kenneth Waltz, in addition to being one of the great names in modern international relations theory, has always been an outlier when it comes to nuclear proliferation. He tends to see more stability than instability coming from the spread of nuclear weapons. In the newest Foreign Affairs he applies his thinking on that subject to Iran. The advent of an Iranian nuclear weapon would mean more, not less, stability in the Middle East, argues Waltz.

No doubt there will be widespread rejection of what Waltz has to say on this subject because this conclusion is at odds with what the large majority of participants in current debate about Iran believe would be the net effect of an Iranian nuke, notwithstanding major differences among those participants about the best way to reduce the chance of an Iranian nuke ever being built. Such rejection would be a mistake. The issue at hand is not whether an Iranian nuclear weapon would be on balance good or bad, any more than the issue is whether Iranian leaders are nasty or nice. The important policy issues instead involve the relative costs, risks and efficacy of different possible postures and actions toward Iran. In this respect Waltz's insightful comments about the costs and risks—or lack of them—from Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon are important to heed even if one does not go as far as Waltz (and like most of the mainstream, I do not go that far) in arguing that an Iranian nuke would be a net positive. Paying attention to Waltz's analysis is all the more important because the topic of what effect an Iranian nuke would have on Iranian behavior and on security and stability in the Middle East is the aspect of this issue that is most often subjected to unquestioned conventional wisdom rather than any analysis at all (a gap I have endeavored to fill).

Waltz handily disposes of all the hoary, scary and familiar themes about irrational Iranian decision-making, shielding of aggressive Iranian behavior, giving weapons to terrorists, and setting off a surge in further nuclear proliferation. He also provides further nourishing food for thought in noting that “Israel's nuclear monopoly...has long fueled instability in the Middle East” and that “it is Israel's nuclear arsenal, not Iran's desire for one, that has contributed most to the current crisis,” given that “it is easy to understand why Israel wants to remain the sole nuclear power in the region and why it is willing to use force to secure that status.” Waltz certainly is right about the crisis being more a problem with Israel than with Iran; if a war results it will be Israel rather than Iran that starts it. I would disagree with the implications in his language that we can currently assume an Iranian “desire” for a nuclear weapon, or that Israeli use of military force would “secure” its nuclear monopoly (many knowledgeable Israelis realize it would not and would be more likely to stoke Iranian “desire” to build a weapon). I would also observe that the Middle Eastern instability to which Waltz refers owes less to Israel's regional nuclear monopoly than to its regional superiority in conventional armed force.

I disagree with Waltz on one other thing in his piece. He says that “the current sanctions on Iran can be dropped; they primarily harm ordinary Iranians, with little purpose.” As long as all those sanctions have been put in place, rather than just dropping them, let's use them for what ostensibly is their purpose: as leverage in reaching an agreement with Iran about limiting its nuclear program. The failure of the P5+1 to do exactly that is the main reason for the current negotiating impasse. Relief from sanctions is the main reason Tehran has to negotiate. The P5+1 probably could have had a deal by now that would have included the most important restrictions on Iran's program (including no more enrichment of uranium to 20 percent) if the P5+1 had been willing to offer significant (not total) sanctions relief. But instead the sanctions have become an end in themselves—or a way to show toughness toward Iran, or a hoped-for way to hasten regime change. None of those approaches toward sanctions provides any negotiating leverage at all. Anyone who, unlike Waltz, believes that a deal restricting Iran's nuclear program is still worth reaching ought to be sorely disappointed by the way the P5+1 has handled this subject.

Israel, Iran

The Limitless Global War

In a semi-annual report to Congress “consistent with” the War Powers Resolution (a formulation presidents use to abide by the resolution without conceding its constitutionality), President Obama last week acknowledged publicly for the first time that U.S. military forces have been engaged in “direct action” in Somalia and Yemen. The report does not disclose anything that had not already been revealed in unofficial accounts, and the press was inclined to treat the matter as a secrecy issue, noting how grudgingly the administration has been saying anything about the operations involved. But the most important and disturbing aspect of this situation is not so much the secrecy but rather the fact that U.S. military forces are in effect engaging in undeclared hostilities with no effective limits—geographic, temporal or legal.

The ostensible authorization (also mentioned in last week's report on a “consistent with” basis) for these uses of U.S. military forces is the brief resolution that Congress passed in the days immediately following 9/11. That resolution authorized the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” More than a decade after 9/11, any connection between that terrorist attack and its perpetrators, on one hand, and U.S. military operations of today, on the other hand, is tenuous to say the least. The continued loose usage of this resolution as an authorizing document comes close to saying that the president can use military force wherever and whenever he pleases as long as he is able to say it has something to do with terrorism. Government lawyers have tried to make the justification of force not sound quite this loose by propounding the concept that the United States is waging war against an entity called “Al Qaeda.” That entity, the concept implies, is as distinct and identifiable a foe as any state would be and therefore constitutes a sound basis for delimiting an authorization to use military force. Another facet of this concept is that because Al Qaeda operates globally, U.S. military force intended to combat it could be employed anywhere in the world.

Some armed nonstate groups may indeed have a clear and cohesive enough identity that they could be treated as foes for force-authorization purposes just as plausibly as a state could. A current example might be another group that is mentioned in the president's report and which a few dozen U.S. military personnel are helping to counter: Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa. But Al Qaeda, even if it once had that clear and cohesive an identity, no longer does. The name “Al Qaeda” originally applied to an identifiable group, one led by Osama Bin Laden that conducted the 9/11 operation and certain other terrorist attacks. But that group is barely recognizable, in the form of remnants in the frontier area of northwest Pakistan, even if it is surrounded by some other groups that, although they may have similarly radical inclinations, are different entities. Earlier this month, there was considerable crowing about the killing by a missile-equipped drone of the supposed occupant of the hot-seat job that used to be known as the “Al Qaeda number three”—and since the elimination of Bin Laden last year has been promoted to number two—with much commentary to the effect that there isn't much of anything left to the command structure of this group besides the current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The evidence captured in the raid that killed Bin Laden a year ago showed that for some time he had been more of a source of exhortation to followers than a director or manager of an organization's operations.

Al Qaeda—certainly given how that term is generally applied today—is less a group or organization than it is a brand name and a set of ideas. Those ideas are a combination of radical salafism, faith in the use of violence and animosity toward the United States. To the extent there are personal or other types of ties between the remnants in South Asia and violent Islamist radicals elsewhere, there is not necessarily a correlation with use of the Al Qaeda name. Some have seen advantages in adopting that brand name, and others have not. Western use of the name covers a diffuse set of individuals, cells and groups with widely varying objectives even if they share to comparably varying degrees the Al Qaeda ideas. In short, there is not a distinct entity called Al Qaeda that provides a sound basis for defining and delimiting an authorized use of military force. To say that we are “at war with Al Qaeda” is not at all comparable to declaring war on the Republic of Ruritania.

The shaky justification, used by each of the last two presidential administrations and leaning on a thin Congressional expression passed amid the shock and anger right after a terrorist attack more than ten years ago, means we have been denied the sort of proper public debate and consideration that ought to precede any authorization to use military forces overseas. That means defeating the sound purpose of the War Powers Resolution, regardless of what one may think about the constitutionality of that particular legislation. One reason such a debate and consideration is all the more important to have when U.S. forces get engaged in places such as Somalia and Yemen is that there is ample evidence—even if we limit our purview to counterterrorism—of how the application of U.S. military force can be counterproductive in breeding more radicalism, more anti-Americanism and more terrorists. This has especially been an issue with the drone strikes, but it can also apply to military engagement on the ground—just as it has in Afghanistan.

Another reason the use of military force in such places as Somalia and Yemen needs the kind of careful preauthorization consideration that has been lacking is that employing force there means getting enmeshed in complicated local conflicts that can easily be no-win situations for the United States. In both of those countries there are many different fault lines and animosities, such as the southern Yemeni resentment over northern domination ever since the two Yemens merged in 1990. The United States has an interest in Yemeni-based violence that can harm U.S. persons or property. It does not have a vital interest in most questions involving the internal ordering of Yemen itself.

Adding to the confusion about these issues is the increasingly sloppy use of the term “Al Qaeda”—by much of the Western press, among others—in describing events such as fighting in southern Yemen between Islamist insurgents and the government. We read about “Al Qaeda” gaining or losing control of territory, as if street fighters trying to gain control of Jinzibar are the same people who build bombs to put aboard U.S. airliners. They aren't the same people—notwithstanding the individual “links” that are habitually cited as the reason to apply the Al Qaeda label to people who really are more interested in who controls those streets in Jinzibar than in any of Bin Laden's ideas about attacking the far enemy as a way to wage global jihad.

We probably also are seeing a consequence of the unrealistic American zero-tolerance standard of counterterrorism, combined with political opponents who are poised to pounce whenever that standard is not met. President Obama and his counterterrorist aide John Brennan know the political consequences if an attack originating in Yemen takes place and opponents can charge that the administration did not do enough to prevent it with measures up to and including the use of military force. The near-miss attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner in December 2009 weighs heavily on them. And thus U.S. force is being put to use in more conflict-ridden lands in ways that might kill a few more terrorists but also raise costs and risks that Congress and the American public have never carefully considered.

Jalili's Briefing Book

Many of the inadequacies in how the United States has been approaching negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program reflect either a refusal or an inability to take into account the perspective of the Iranian regime. This sort of reverse perspective is important for success in any negotiation, no matter how much the party on the other side of the table is either respected or loathed. Underlying the failure to take this perspective in the nuclear talks has been a tendency to treat the talks less as a true negotiation than as a forum for Tehran to cry uncle in response to increasing pressure. This tendency has become apparent in numerous ways, even among commentators who ostensibly want the talks to succeed. For example, a recent piece by Dennis Ross (who until recently had a major role in shaping policy toward Iran) begins by stating that the “ultimate goal of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran” is: “Determining whether Iran is willing to accept that its nuclear program must be credibly limited in a way that precludes it from being able to turn civil nuclear power into nuclear weapons.” That's the “ultimate goal”? Isn't the goal of a negotiation instead to reach an agreement rather than deadlock? In this case that means striking a deal that satisfies western concerns about nuclear proliferation while also satisfying Iran's minimum requirements consistent with keeping its nuclear activities peaceful. A reduction of the “goal” to a one-sided test of Iranian willingness to meet a one-issue Western demand is a very different concept.

One hopes that the thinking going into the current round of these negotiations is more realistic about what it will take for these negotiations to succeed. The signs from previous rounds, and from much of the public discourse heading into this week's round, are not very encouraging in that regard. Of course we do not know the details of the thinking and strategy of the Iranian side either. But in the interest of filling some of the void in reverse perspectives, here is a plausible reproduction of the key points in the strategy document that the Iranian government has prepared for its negotiators (no endorsement of these perspectives is implied—the only implication is that we ought to think hard about them):

Subject: The Moscow Talks

The Islamic Republic's principal objectives for the meeting with the P5+1 in Moscow remain essentially unchanged from the meetings in Istanbul and Baghdad. Those objectives are to make progress toward an agreement that will curtail the economic warfare that the West is waging against the Islamic Republic, to achieve recognition for our right to a peaceful nuclear program including the enrichment of uranium, and to avoid damage to the prestige and standing of the Islamic Republic with either domestic or foreign audiences. Over the longer term, a further objective is for the negotiation to be a step toward normality in our relations with the community of nations. For now, however, we must concentrate primarily on what it will take to reach an agreement that satisfies our minimum objectives, taking into account the West's acute and narrow focus on our nuclear activities.

It remains highly uncertain how much desire there is in the West and especially the United States to reach any agreement with us at all. It is even more uncertain whether there is sufficient willingness in the West, and again especially in the United States, to take the steps necessary to reach an agreement. Some vocal figures have been quite open about wanting the negotiations to fail. Others do not openly admit such an aim but insist on conditions so extreme that they obviously would preclude any agreement. This position is characteristic of the Israeli government. Given that this government is the dominant influence on how our nuclear activities get discussed in the United States, similar positions are being voiced in public debate there and in the U.S. Congress. Some in the United States evidently would welcome a war with the Islamic Republic (for reasons our analysts have not entirely been able to figure out, given the very heavy damage such a conflict would inflict on the Americans, and given how recent has been their disastrous experience in Iraq). This still appears to be a minority view, but it may gain support the more that pro-war elements portray such a war as the only alternative to the Islamic Republic obtaining a nuclear weapon—notwithstanding the current peaceful nature of our nuclear activities.

A more widely held viewpoint in the United States is a desire to undermine the Islamic Republic, coupled with a belief that the economic warfare, commonly referred to as sanctions, will precipitate a collapse of the political order in our country. For many in the United States this appears to be what the sanctions are mainly about. Accordingly, we need to be wary of the significant likelihood that the United States and its Western partners are stringing out the negotiations in the hope that the economic pressures will have such a destabilizing effect. Such a stringing-out strategy obviously implies continued obduracy regarding the West's position at the negotiating table.

The Moscow talks will be the latest test of the West's seriousness and willingness to reach an agreement. Insofar as the meetings in Istanbul and Baghdad were similar tests, the test results were not encouraging. We need to continue to give the other side, however, every opportunity to demonstrate that it really wants an agreement. This does not imply a change in our basic negotiating posture. After all, we already have made quite clear our willingness to back away from enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level. This ought to be the most important possible concession for Westerners, if all of their concern about a so-called Iranian “break-out capability” is to be believed. What the P5+1 put on the table at Baghdad was clearly unacceptable, with no mention of any easing of the economic warfare beyond some spare parts for airplanes. It was unacceptable even without taking into account the blatant inconsistency of placing demands on the Islamic Republic regarding nuclear activities that are not placed on others. As our wayward former colleague Hossein Mousavian put it, the implied trade would be “diamonds for peanuts.”

Although our basic posture may not change, there are things our negotiators at Moscow could effectively emphasize. One is to insist that the P5+1 side do what it has not yet done, which is to specify exactly what would be required for the economic warfare to wind down. Emphasizing this will not only help explore what possibilities there may be for future mutual concessions but also will call the West's bluff as to what the sanctions really are all about. Our negotiators also should use every opportunity to get the P5+1 team to realize that despite the extremely narrow Western focus on our nuclear activities, the two sides are engaged in a much larger bargaining relationship. Although the P5+1 rebuffed our suggestions at Istanbul regarding other topics to discuss, their negotiators need to be reminded that there are many ways in which the Islamic Republic can either help or hinder what is in Western interests. Similarly, the P5+1 negotiators need to be aware that although inspection arrangements with the International Atomic Energy Agency are being discussed in another forum, they really are part of the same overall bargaining relationship. Although we have been quite forthcoming in opening up our nuclear facilities to IAEA inspection, we are not going to give up all of our bargaining chips regarding something like admission of inspectors to military facilities if we are getting nothing in return.

Our negotiators need to keep uppermost in mind the costs and dangers of appearing to bow to the West with one-sided concessions made under pressure. Doing so would be a blow to the power and prestige of the Islamic Republic. It would likely produce internal political difficulties, especially in light of the very broad support that a peaceful nuclear program has among our citizens. There are limits to what even the Supreme Leader could accomplish politically in such circumstances. One-sided concessions under pressure also would be likely to elicit only more pressure—and indeed much commentary in the United States appears to regard sanctions in exactly this way. Given that we still do not know whether most of the economic warfare ever would stop no matter what we do or what we concede regarding the nuclear program, we have to insist up-front on something specific and significant before we make any further concessions.

The Obama regime's posture toward the negotiations is shaped overwhelmingly by two short-term considerations. One is to lower the risk of Israel starting a war, which would be highly damaging to American interests. The other consideration is the president's effort to get reelected. Both of these objectives imply an interest in keeping the negotiations going for the next few months but in maintaining hardline demands—and refusing to reduce economic pressure on the Islamic Republic—so as to stay reasonably consistent with Israel's extreme hard-line posture. This unfortunately will encourage continued inflexibility by the P5+1 at the negotiating table. The only hope for more U.S. flexibility in the next few months is if Obama concludes that reaching at least an interim agreement with the Islamic Republic would not hurt and might even help his chances for reelection. There is a basis for such a conclusion, although that does not seem to be the dominant thinking so far in Washington.

There may be greater hope for some flexibility on the part of the European portion of the P5+1, especially given Hollande's election in France. Europe's severe economic difficulties may work in our favor. Those difficulties should weaken support for an all-pressure posture toward the Islamic Republic because of the effects on the price of oil—either because of sanctions or because of market reactions to anti-Iranian saber-rattling (what has been referred to as the “Netanyahu gasoline tax”).

These are admittedly just slivers of optimism amid much continued reason for pessimism about the West's willingness to reach any agreement with us. Time is not on our side, and there is little or no prospect for easing of the economic warfare regardless of what we do or say in Moscow. But a fair agreement that accepts a peaceful nuclear program is still in our interests. It is thus also in our interests to continue negotiating as long as there is any hope for an agreement, while taking care not to inflict damage on ourselves needlessly without getting anything significant in return. We also can maintain hope of more reasonableness in the future if more in the West come to see what is in their own interests.

Political Chaos in Egypt

Entering this week, the political situation in Egypt already was tenuous, to put it mildly. The composition of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution was still contested and up in the air. The first round of a presidential election yielded what most observers considered the most polarized possible result, in which the remaining candidates were Ahmed Shafik, Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister and the presumed favorite of the military and counterrevolutionaries, and Mohamed Morsi, the official candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Then on successive days came two additional jolts. On Wednesday martial law was reimposed. On Thursday the constitutional court, while upholding Shafik's candidacy, invalidated the election of a third of the legislature and declared that the entire legislature must be dissolved. This double whammy, especially the dissolution of the parliament, seemed to be such a reversal of what had been accomplished in the prior sixteen months that observers inside and outside Egypt are talking in some of the most pessimistic terms heard since protests began early last year. It is reasonable to doubt whether what we are witnessing in Egypt can still be described as a transition to democracy.

Whether or not all of the pessimism is warranted, the second round of the presidential election is about to take place amid what has to be among the least propitious circumstances any country could have for selection of a head of state. In addition to all the polarizing tensions that already have been evident since the contest became one of Shafik versus Morsi, the winner will take office in the absence of a new constitution and thus not knowing what the powers of his office are supposed to be. Nor does anyone seem to know at the moment who, or what, will be exercising legislative power following dissolution of the parliament. It also is uncertain what effect, if any, the court's invalidating of the legislature will have on the status of the smaller constituent assembly.

The next near-term chapter of this story will hinge on the outcome of the second round of the presidential election. A victory by Shafik has the greatest potential to trigger an upsurge of unrest and violence, if many Egyptians come to see it as affirmation that a hoped-for revolution has been effectively reversed. There is some talk of Morsi perhaps being made prime minister under a Shafik presidency, although that would depend on understandings yet to be reached between the Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Possibly a Shafik win would be a first step toward a power structure similar to that in Algeria, in which the president is an important player but has only partial autonomy from the military-dominated pouvoir, which more or less corresponds to what in Egypt is more often called the deep state. There would be less likelihood of violence and severe instability with a Morsi win, but that would be only the first stage in a long process of bargaining and maneuvering between the Brotherhood and the military.

As we watch this story unfold with confusion and fascination, we should bear in mind several general points. First, it would be foolhardy to base hopes or expectations, let alone policies, on any one prognosis of where Egypt goes from here. This past week alone was reminder enough of the fundamental unpredictability of what is happening there.

Second, we should not assume that the actions of the major players reflect coherent and firm strategies and objectives. The players are making up strategies as they go along. That is true of the SCAF, whose members probably are unsure of just what they want during the coming years beyond the more parochial interests of the military itself. It also is true of the Muslim Brotherhood, even without taking into account the differences of view within the Brotherhood.

Third, to the extent there is still any basis for hope for something that could be called a democratic transition, such a transition would be a very long-term process of developing a new political culture. There has been a surreal aspect to much of the discussion of recent events centered on legal reasoning and what is or is not constitutional—surreal in that what the constitutional order in Egypt ought to look like is part of what is uncertain and in dispute. A true transition would entail years of slowly developing new habits of trust and compromise.

Fourth, there is very little that anyone on the outside can do to influence the events in Egypt, notwithstanding the continued high importance that the coming political history of that country will have for interests of the United States and others. The most important thing for outsiders is to avoid missteps that would needlessly burn bridges to any of the major Egyptian political actors.

Image: alhussainy

Democracy
Algeria, Egypt

The Cleaving of Palestine

Those wanting to keep discussion about the Palestinian territories off the front pages have mostly been successful during the two years since a lethal encounter at sea between Israeli forces and a Turkish-based flotilla attempting to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Just enough international outrage followed that incident to lead Israel to relax somewhat its strangulation of the strip. This was especially true regarding the import of items into Gaza, which previously had been severely restricted—in the name of “security,” although the blockade included a host of consumer items with no conceivable security implications. Despite that relaxation, as reporting by Donald Macintyre describes, Israel is still stifling the Gazan economy. This is particularly the case with exports, which are at less than two percent the level of more than five years ago. The Israelis are permitting only extremely limited exports, mostly of produce, to a few European and Middle Eastern markets. They have cut off would-be Gazan exporters from what had been by far their biggest markets, in Israel and the West Bank. This completely reverses what had once been an Israeli policy of encouraging economic integrating across Israel and the occupied territories.

To the extent that the strangulation of the Gaza Strip has been a form of collective punishment intended to undermine the rule there of Hamas, it has manifestly failed. Hamas is as firmly entrenched there as at any time since it won a free all-Palestinian election in 2006. Moreover, some of the very restrictions that Israel continues to impose have probably strengthened rather than weakened Hamas. Many goods and materials that Israel bans as imports into Gaza simply come in through tunnels from Egypt, enriching tunnel operators with ties to Hamas. The severe restrictions Israel places on foreign travel by Gazans also probably do Hamas a favor by limiting the sorts of foreign ideas and contacts that might ultimately weaken support for the group.

The Israeli postures toward the remaining parts of the blockade and toward Hamas itself are clearly not all about security. Israeli military officers admit privately that as far as rocket firings into Israel are concerned, Hamas has in recent times primarily been a force curtailing the firings (by smaller militant groups). As for the severe restrictions on exports, Macintyre relates the story of one of the lucky few Gazan producers who with much difficulty has gotten permission to sell some of his goods (in his case tomatoes) outside the strip. He trucks the tomatoes in question through Israel and the West Bank and across the Allenby Bridge into Jordan, from which they are shipped to Saudi Arabia. To do this he has to meet all of the stringent security checks and requirements imposed by the Israeli military. Obviously there would be no more of a hazard to Israeli citizens if the tomatoes were eaten by consumers in Israel or the West Bank than if they are consumed in Saudi Arabia. Something else is going on here.

For Israeli leaders seeking to put off indefinitely a Palestinian state and the associated yielding of land in the West Bank, having Hamas to fulminate about serves a useful purpose. The terrorist card can always be played as a rationale for political and diplomatic inflexibility. By issuing threats against the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority whenever it makes any move toward reconciliation with Hamas, Israel helps to sustain a fissure in Palestinian leadership that in turn is a basis for justifying still more inflexibility on grounds that Israel doesn't have a Palestinian interlocutor who can speak for all Palestinians. So from the standpoint of such Israeli leaders, policies toward the Gaza Strip that may actually help Hamas are not necessarily a bad thing.

The chief consequence of the remaining export restrictions is to add to the political division an ever-deepening economic and social division between Palestinians. Preventing the selling of Gazan goods in the West Bank is part of a huge wedge that Israel is driving between the two parts of the Palestinian territories. The longer that businesses struggling to survive are separated from their traditional markets, the less likely that old patterns of commerce will ever be reestablished. With Gazan professionals prevented even from attending meetings in the West Bank, Gazan students barred from attending universities there and travel of any sort between the two Palestinian territories extremely restricted, Palestinian nationhood is being sliced apart.

All of this is at odds, of course, with a future that would involve the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state. The cleaving of Palestine, like the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied territory, is another way of establishing facts on the ground that make a viable Palestinian state less feasible and the negotiated establishment of one more difficult.

The current Israeli treatment of the Gaza Strip is more consistent with a future that is a modified version of the status quo, the modification having to do with events in Egypt. Despite additional Israeli fulminations about Islamist ascendancy in post-Mubarak Egypt, a dominant role for the Muslim Brotherhood—which will be all the more apparent if Mohamed Morsi wins the Egyptian presidential election—presents further possibilities for any Israeli vision involving an indefinitely fractured Palestinian nation. A Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas—which began as a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood—will naturally gravitate toward a Brotherhood-dominated Egypt as long as it is denied other directions in which to gravitate. And that means even more separation from Palestinian brethren in the West Bank.

For Israeli leaders who do not want to give up land for a Palestinian state, this alternative of a riven Palestine may appear to be a way to square the often-noted demographic circle in which faster-reproducing Palestinian Arabs are on the verge of outnumbering Israeli Jews. That demographic prognosis pertains to all of mandatory Palestine between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. But the Gaza Strip is a a 139-square-mile patch of misery that Israelis have been less interested in than the rest, apart from the few Israeli settlers whom Ariel Sharon was able to remove when he evacuated the strip several years ago. Most Israelis probably would be happy for Gaza to be Egypt's problem, as it was before 1967. Strip away the strip from mandatory Palestine, and you also strip away 1.7 million Arabs, allowing Jewish Israelis to retain their majority in the rest for a much longer time. This does not imply that a fully binational state is in the future of the Jews and Arabs concerned. But for some Israeli leaders it may make indefinite perpetuation of the current apartheid arrangement appear more feasible.

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Conservative Foreign Policy, Then and Now

Anthropologists have only partially constructed the evolutionary paths of modern mankind and of human species that have died out. There is not necessarily direct progression from known species of one era to those of a later one. The same is true of the varieties of homo politicus americanus, even though the fossil record is more complete because it is more recent. Contributing to confusion is the application of similar labels to very different sub-species at different times. Such thoughts arise in reading Jacob Heilbrunn's insightful commentary on the revisiting of the Richard Nixon story by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. As Heilbrunn correctly points out, it was the Right and not just the Left that distrusted Nixon, with backward-looking liberals having perhaps more reason than conservatives to remember favorably many of Nixon's policies. But the meaning of Right and Left in the United States has changed significantly since Nixon's time.

The lineage of the conservative opposition to Nixon included Senator Everett Dirksen, who when nominating the conservative Robert Taft at the 1952 Republican convention pointed down at Thomas Dewey and said, “Don't take us down the path to defeat again.” It included Barry Goldwater telling conservatives at another Republican convention eight years later—conservatives who were not happy about Nixon getting the presidential nomination—to “grow up” if they wanted to take control of the party. It included Goldwater's winning of the nomination four years after that, Ronald Reagan's primary challenge in 1976 to Nixon's successor Gerald Ford, and Reagan's eventual electoral triumph in 1980.

But any ancestral lines from Reagan to the Right of today are at best tenuous and muddled. On many domestic and fiscal policies, it is hard to see any lines at all. According to former Reagan adviser Bruce Bartlett, Reagan's tax increases, which he endorsed in return for spending cuts, totaled the equivalent of $367 billion in current dollars. This past weekend Jeb Bush commented that both his father—Reagan's vice-president and successor—and Reagan himself would have had a hard time winning a nomination from today's Republican Party.

On foreign policy, it is misleading to describe Reagan's approach, as Heilbrunn does, as having “essentially repudiated the Nixon-Kissinger approach to foreign affairs by substituting a combination of the old rollback doctrine and neoconservative anticommunism.” Reagan's underlying assumptions about the USSR had something in common with those of George Kennan, in that they both foresaw the crumbling of the Soviet system from within due to that system's inherent weaknesses. Reagan did give the process a nudge by declaring an arms race, knowing the United States could always outspend the Soviets. There also were proxy wars, but they were much less a factor in the eventual crumbling. Stoking the Afghan insurgency may have been partially an exception, but that started as a project of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Jimmy Carter, whom no one can accuse of being neoconservatives. There was nothing in Reagan's policies anything like the neoconservative trademark—seen most clearly with the Iraq War—of trying to use U.S. military force to inject American values directly into benighted foreign lands ruled by loathed regimes.

Like Nixon and Kissinger, Reagan engaged with the chief foreign adversary of the day. And as with Barack Obama, a long-term (beyond any one presidency) objective of that engagement was the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. Some of the senior figures in Reagan's administration—though not Secretary of State George Shultz—did not seem to believe Reagan really envisioned a nuclear-weapons-free world, and in any case did not accept that objective themselves. Cold Warriors such as Caspar Weinberger and William Casey seemed content, or even anxious, to wage that war forever.

In the two decades since the presidencies of Reagan and the elder Bush, a different subspecies, now bearing the label “conservative,” has evolved and has come to dominate a major portion of the American political environment. It is markedly different from previously dominant creatures who carried the same label as recently as twenty-five years ago, although one can find bits of genetic material from the likes of Weinberger or Casey.  The curious disjunction between the elder George Bush and the younger George Bush epitomizes the remarkable transition involved. Political anthropologists still have a lot of work to do in helping us to understand the evolution of this newer breed. Some attributes of the breed, such as a close link to revealed religion and a fixation on matters of the pelvis, may be rooted in larger societal trends or be reactions to those trends.

This political evolution can be considered part of an overall rightward lurch in American politics, but some of the most important characteristics involved cannot best be described in right-vs.-left terms. There are, for example, certain uses of the imperial presidency, with regard to which, as Heilbrunn aptly puts it, “next to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Nixon was a piker.” Perhaps the most salient set of characteristics comprises a self-righteousness, an associated denial of legitimacy to political opponents, and a further associated resistance to compromise. These were the characteristics to which Jeb Bush was referring when he observed that Reagan, “based on his record of finding accommodation...as would my dad” would have had difficulty winning acceptance amid “an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement, doesn't allow for finding some common ground.” Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, in their recent work on dysfunction in the American political system, put it succinctly and bluntly:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

The contrast between old and new is just as stark between some present-day Congressional leadership and Everett Dirksen, who as Republican leader in the Senate—although he was a strong conservative on fiscal matters—worked closely and effectively with his Democratic counterparts and also was a key source of support for major aspects of Lyndon Johnson's foreign policy.

The attributes of the new breed of conservatism have major implications for the foreign policy postures of today, including the positions of this year's presumptive Republican presidential nominee. The self-righteousness and resistance to compromise show through. Those positions include unbridled confidence in the all-purpose efficacy of U.S. military power, spending to expand that power substantially without regard to either specific uses of that power or fiscal implications, acceptance of permanent conflict with adversaries (including even the legacy Cold War adversary, Russia), rejection of engagement with adversaries, and contracting out a major portion of U.S. foreign policy to the government of Israel. (“The actions that I will take will be actions recommended and supported by Israeli leaders.”) This is very different not only from what Richard Nixon did but also from what conservatives who opposed Nixon favored.

Leaky Thinking About Secrecy

The leadership of the House and Senate intelligence committees issued a joint statement Wednesday that expressed concern over recent leaks of information about sensitive activities overseas, called on the executive branch to do more to detect and deter leaks, and declared an intention to consider new legislation that somehow would help to combat leaking. The committees summoned Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI director Robert Mueller to discuss the matter on Thursday, and there is talk about the possible need for a special counsel. I wish the committees well. If anyone has any good ideas for new procedures or penalties to ameliorate the problem, bravo. But as the committee leaders put it with understatement, “the problem of leaks of classified information is not new.” The sad fact is that most leaks are inherently difficult to investigate and police. Meanwhile, the revelations and accusations that stimulated this statement involve some misconceptions about government secrecy and some unhelpful conflation of different issues.

Even though Democratic and Republican leaders agreed on the committee statement, the issue of recent revelations about national-security matters has been, like just about everything else in Washington, politicized. With a Democratic administration in office, it has been the Republicans' turn to accuse the administration of disclosing national-security accomplishments as a way of burnishing President Obama's public image in an election year—which the president forcefully denied in comments to reporters on Friday. The previous Republican administration was no stranger to politically motivated disclosure, the most notorious example of which involved revelations about the identity and status of a covert CIA officer as part of an effort to discredit the message from her retired ambassador husband, who had written publicly about the phoniness of one aspect of the Bush administration's public brief about Iraq.

In one of the recent cases, the Obama administration held a conference call with outside commentators about a foiled terrorist plot but failed to inform the intelligence committees about the plot until after it was reported in the media. This was an embarrassing misstep that no doubt accounts for the Democratic as well as Republican leaders signing on to the sort of statement the intelligence committees released.

Public revelations reflect a highly selective slice of national-security matters, but the selection is often not a matter of puffery about an administration's accomplishments or other high-level manipulation. Failures are more likely than successes to become publicly known, given the inherently more visible public footprint of many failures. And many more revelations reflect the personal agenda (or neuroses, or resentments) of an individual leaker.

The fact that leaks reflect the individual agendas of misfits or anyone else with the moxie to violate the rules is one reason that leaks are bad. They have nothing to do with public accountability, or at least any form of accountability that is sufficiently orderly and dedicated to the nation's interest to be worthy of that term. Meanwhile, there is all the other damage that is caused to work performed on behalf of national security, from impeding the conduct of diplomacy to blowing sensitive military or intelligence operations. And yet, leakers sometimes get viewed as laudable whistle-blowers. Maybe the traditional American aversion to secrecy among their rulers has something to do with it.

The interests of the press, for which leaks are lifeblood, have a lot to do with it. The press's dependence on leaks naturally affects the way the press treats leaks as a subject of its reporting. A front-page piece by Scott Shane of the New York Times about secrecy brands as “inconsistency” and “contradictory behavior” the aggressive prosecution of leakers by the administration led by Mr. Obama, who while a candidate denounced his predecessor's secret prisons and coercive interrogation techniques. There is nothing contradictory or inconsistent about it. The use of torture should not have been a private prerogative of the executive branch, but the proper and most reliable check against this is oversight by the people's representatives in Congress, not the random initiative of some disgruntled rule-breaker. A problem was that the briefings on this subject by the Bush administration were so constricted that proper oversight was impeded.

There are serious issues of public accountability and policy direction that involve the matters that have been the focus of recent revelations. One involves targeted killings through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Although many details of such operations are appropriately kept secret—and random revelations of the details are not helpful—the public and the Congress still know too little about the criteria applied to such operations and the calculations about how they do or do not serve the variety of national interests at stake. Attention is needed not to juicy details but to higher-order policy (and legal and moral) considerations.

Then there is the waging of cyberwar. Leaks of the sort that underlie David Sanger's remarkable reporting on this subject are also damaging, and to the extent the intelligence committee leaders' statement is a response to these particular leaks, it is an appropriate response. But cyberwar is war. That is how the United States treats it with respect to how responsibilities for it are organized in the Department of Defense. And war, of all things, should not be initiated and conducted as a private prerogative of the executive branch. To do so is a serious offense to our constitutional order.

The executive and legislative branches have a lot of work to do about these matters. Leakers have nothing to contribute to that work except more damage and confusion.

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April 19, 2014