The South African jurist Richard Goldstone endured much unjustified abuse when he prepared a report that cataloged Israeli excesses during the brutal military operation in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009 known as Operation Cast Lead. The abuse was heaped on him despite the truth of what he described, despite the balanced nature of a report that also described excesses committed by Israel's adversary Hamas, and despite Goldstone subsequently going out of his way to refute other accusations against Israel, relevant to the Gaza operation, that he believed were unjustified. Goldstone gives every indication of being a decent and fair man.
Given that experience, it is understandable that Goldstone would seize additional opportunities to visibly defend Israel, especially at a time when the Arab Spring and the heightened sensibilities regarding popular sovereignty or its absence have sharpened the regional focus on Israel's continued subjugation of Palestinians. It is also understandable that Goldstone, as a South African, would pick up on use of a term that played such a large role in his own country's history. And so he writes that applying the word apartheid to that subjugation of Palestinians is a “slander” against Israel.
Goldstone's op-ed includes a couple of important and valid observations. One is that “Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and the West Bank cannot be simplified to a narrative of Jewish discrimination. There is hostility and suspicion on both sides.” The other is that Arab citizens of Israel—i.e., the Israel of the 1967 boundaries—enjoy political and civil rights and are not subject to anything that could be described as apartheid.
But then there are the subjugated Palestinians in the occupied territories, whose situation Goldstone describes with understatement as “complex.” Earlier in his piece Goldstone refers to a definition of apartheid in the 1998 Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court. The core of that definition is “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.” Even though these words describe exactly the current situation in the West Bank, Goldstone uses two strained arguments to contend that it does not. One is that the roadblocks, the walls, the restrictions on movement, and all the other aspects of the oppression and domination are a response to Israelis feeling threatened by terrorism. This is a dangerous and open-ended rationale, because almost every group of oppressors has used a threat from the oppressed group as justification for its own actions—at least as a public rationale, and often reflecting a genuinely felt threat. Many Afrikaners certainly felt threatened by the black majority in South Africa.
Goldstone's other argument is that the arrangement in the West Bank is not intended to be permanent; Israel, he says, has agreed “in concept” to a Palestinian state. But concepts do not displace realities. After forty-four years of the reality of Israeli occupation, how much longer will concepts suffice? Indeed, introducing the idea of Israeli concepts makes the comparison with South Africa all the more appropriate. Insofar as Israeli prime minister Netanyahu has given any indication of his concept of a Palestinian state, it looks a lot like the bantustans of South African apartheid. Underlying all this is the reality that Goldstone does not mention at all: the continued Israeli colonization of occupied territory that has now reached half a million settlers and is intended to create facts on the ground that will be the basis for making some version of the current arrangement permanent.
It is appropriate to look beyond the present to the future in discussing the use of the term apartheid, because in addition to describing the current situation it can fairly be used to assess the choices Israel must make when facing the reality of demographic trends. Over the long term, Israel cannot be a Jewish state and retain all the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River and be free and democratic. If it chooses in favor of the first two, it will be an apartheid state indefinitely. In thinking about the future, we also should remember that apartheid in South Africa ended—not just as a “concept,” but as a reality. But Israel has still not produced an F. W. de Klerk (and the Palestinians have not produced a Nelson Mandela).
Apartheid has such significance in the history of South Africa—and because of the importance of that experience, in the history of human oppression generally—that it is understandable if a South African would be sparing in applying the term to other situations. Maybe out of respect to South Africa, any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian situation could eschew the term and instead say “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.” But that's twelve words rather than one. And if the one word fits—as it certainly does in this instance—it will be used, and appropriately so.
Image: Carlos Latuff
The obsession with putting pressure, pressure and more pressure on Iran, and subjecting it to isolation, isolation and more isolation, has lost almost all sense of purpose and direction. It has become an automatic, ape-on-a-treadmill imperative. It has become divorced from any apparent attention to exactly what such pressure and ostracism can be expected to accomplish or even what we want it to accomplish. In the process, the anti-Iran campaign has sometimes entailed shooting oneself in the foot.
The latest bullet being aimed at the U.S. metatarsal came out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Monday, in the form of an new version of its Iran sanctions bill. The chair of the committee is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who cut her ostracizing teeth on Castro's Cuba—and we've all seen how much a half century of embargo and attempted isolation from the United States have accomplished there. The sanctions bill would make it illegal for U.S. diplomats to have any contact with an Iranian official unless the president certifies to Congress fifteen days prior to contact that not talking to the Iranian officials “would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States.” It is impossible to imagine any purpose being served by such a provision other than enabling politicians to express once again how much they hate Iran and how implacable they are willing to be toward Iran.
If enacted, this legislation certainly would have practical effects. It would prevent any exploration of ways to resolve disagreement over that Iranian nuclear program that we are supposedly so intensely concerned about. It would prevent soliciting Iranian cooperation in areas, such as Afghanistan, where some Iranian and U.S. interests run parallel, and the Iranians could be helpful rather than causing trouble. It would preclude discussion of miscellaneous matters of interest to Americans such as the recent return of those captured hikers. And it would prevent any diplomacy to keep U.S.-Iranian incidents or crises—the kind that retired joint chiefs chairman Admiral Mullen expressed concern about—from spinning out of control, unless the crisis conveniently stretched out beyond the fifteen-day notification period. (By way of comparison, the entire Cuban missile crisis lasted thirteen days.)
This legislation is another illustration of the tendency to think of diplomacy as some kind of reward for the other guy, rather than what it really is: a tool for our side. The provision is so stupid that one can reasonably hope that even if it survives the committee markup scheduled for this Wednesday, and even if the House of Representatives passes it, it would not survive in the Senate. But regardless of its fate, it vividly illustrates how mindless the pressuring and isolation of Iran has become.
The legislation reminds me somewhat of one of the better known episodes of foot-shooting in American history: the Embargo Act of 1807, promoted by Thomas Jefferson. That embargo was intended to pressure the warring European powers into stopping certain actions that disturbed the United States, such as Britain's impressment of American seamen. All it brought about instead was significant economic damage to U.S. trading interests. One difference between that episode and the present one is that Jefferson was trying to avoid U.S. involvement in a war—although war with Britain came anyway in 1812. The more fervent of the Iran-bashers today do not appear to have a Jeffersonian outlook.
The National Interest will be running on Monday a response to Raymond Tanter's missive on behalf of the Iranian cult/terrorist group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. Given that Tanter goes out of his way to raise my name a couple of times, it would be appropriate for me as well to point out a couple of the more glaring misdirections in his piece.
Tanter's premise, as reflected in his title, is that anything bad you ever heard about the MEK is a product of propaganda from the Iranian regime. Evidently this means that anyone, either inside or outside of Iran, who has ever been critical of the group must have been brainwashed by the propaganda. If that were true, those responsible for U.S. public diplomacy have a lot of valuable lessons to learn from the Iranians; their propagandists must be doing something right.
The Iranian regime flings propaganda as freely as any other regime. And it certainly has had a lot of unfavorable things to say about the MEK. Some of those things may be exaggerated or even outright lies. But one could erase completely everything the Iranian regime has ever said on this subject, and there would remain the large, long, sordid record of what the MEK has done, what it has stood for, and the abhorrent cult it still is. The record extends from the days it was killing Americans while opposing the shah, through when it was in league with the clerical regime and supporting further anti-American terrorism such as the hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, through the long period during which it was working for the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. The record is not based just on what is said by the State Department or an intelligence agency or any governmental component with a policy to support, much less on anything the Iranian regime might say. If you want a recent independently reported portrait of the group, see, for example, this article by Elizabeth Rubin.
Tanter tries to smear critics and criticism of the MEK, including some of the contents of an open letter to which I was a signatory, by saying it “resembles regime propaganda against the MEK.” The MEK has conducted terrorism and other violent acts against U.S. interests and against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Is it any surprise that some of the critical things said about the group from the standpoint of U.S. interests resemble some of what the Iranian regime puts out? (And if it's not brainwashing, then just what is Tanter suggesting is the reason for the resemblance?)
One of the respects in which Tanter's piece diverges most widely from reality is his attempt to argue that the MEK has any support to speak of within Iran. He notes that the group was the source of some revelations about Iran's nuclear program. True—and we ought to remember our reliance on the accident of this weird sourcing when we think about how much confidence we ought or ought not to have in our knowledge of this program—but what does that have to do with popular support? It only takes one person to serve as a source. The most telling indication of the MEK's unpopularity in Iran, as pointed out in the aforementioned open letter, is that the Iranian regime uses that unpopularity as a way to discredit the democratic opposition in Iran, by trying to associate it with the MEK. For the same reason, the leaders of the Green Movement have emphatically said that they want nothing to do with the MEK. Tanter also mentions attendance at pro-MEK rallies in the United States as a measure of support, without mentioning that the MEK campaign has resorted to such measures—used in a rally outside the State Department this summer—as padding attendance by busing in homeless people who don't know squat about the MEK or Iran but come for the free food.
Tanter precedes a reference to me with the odd statement that “Intelligence communities are targets of Iran's disinformation.” Odd because I have been out of the intelligence business for more than six years, and anyone who views my thinking as having any connection with judgments that an intelligence agency would reach today will be disappointed and wasting their propaganda resources. Tanter later mentions me again as someone who ought to be concerned about the “political motivation” for having the MEK on the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, or FTOs. It is true that the listing process is not immune to policy considerations, but that has been much more a matter of avoiding the listing of a group that really ought to be on the list (the Provisional Irish Republican Army of fifteen years ago is the example that comes to mind), than of including on the list a group that should not. Not listing someone means simply not initiating the listing process. Listing a group requires a lengthy process of review by the Departments of State, Justice, and Treasury and the intelligence community, according to the criteria specified by law.
Tanter seems to believe that a group has to have committed terrorist acts within the previous two years to be kept on the list. Not true. (Having been directly involved in the laborious process of compiling the required administrative records for the initial listings after enactment of the law in 1996 that created the FTO list, I know a thing or two about this subject.) Two years used to be the interval between recertifications of listed groups, and it is now the period after which a group can petition for delisting. But no terrorist acts have to have been committed during that period; retaining the capability and presumed intent to commit them is sufficient to stay on the list. If performing terrorist acts recently was a requirement to stay on the list, many of the 49 groups currently on the list would have to come off. Lebanese Hizballah, for example, probably would be one of them. I expect that many of the pro-MEK campaigners would be among the first to scream if that happened.
There is indeed a large amount of political influence that is being exerted in an effort to affect a decision about the FTO list, and it is almost all coming in the form of the large and well-funded campaign to delist the MEK. In fact, the campaign is extraordinary, and nothing remotely resembling it has ever been waged on behalf of any other group on the FTO list. Whatever is being said in the opposite direction is only a modest reaction to the pro-MEK campaign itself. Here is what I said on the subject two months ago, after that rally outside the State Department:
The secretary of state should pay no heed to what Melvin Santiago and the other hungry homeless outside her office window are saying, or to what the high-paid hired guns are saying, about the MEK. Nor does she need to pay any attention to what people like me are saying about the group. She should keep the windows closed and just pay attention to the terms of the law and to what officials in the departments and agencies involved say about whether the terms of the law still apply in this case.
If Raymond Tanter really wanted to inform us about political influence being exerted on what ought to be administrative and legal decisions, he could shed more light on the campaign of which he is a part. In particular, he could help us understand where all that funding is coming from. It evidently is coming from quarters who would like to stoke ever more tension and animosity between the Iran and the United States. I have a guess who that might be, but so far it is only a guess.
One of the most misleading and distracting formulations that has been applied to the countering of terrorism is the notion that this effort is a “war.” The notion was in full bloom with the Bush administration's “war on terror.” Terrorism being a tactic, this concept, as Zbigniew Brzezinski once observed, makes as much sense as a “war on blitzkrieg.” The “war” idea also ignores several other realities: that military force is only one of several tools that can be used for counterterrorist purposes (law enforcement resources and the criminal justice system being a couple of the others); that counterterrorism does not entail a struggle against a single identifiable foe, as a real war does; and that counterterrorism does not have identifiable beginnings and endings, as real wars do.
Applying the “war” notion to counterterrorism has several negative consequences. It overly militarizes counterterrorism itself, encouraging excessive reliance on the military instrument. It invites the tendentious association of counterterrorism with unrelated military adventures or misadventures, as happened with the Bush administration's Iraq War. It further invites the open-ended use of extraordinary and even extra-legal methods, as occurred with the Bush administration's practices on detention and interception of communications. It elevates terrorists from the status of criminals to that of warriors.
The Obama administration sensibly discarded the term “war on terror,” but the “war” view of counteterrorism lives on and continues to have negative consequences. The most recent, and in a sense the most extreme, application of this view is found in efforts by Republican members of Congress to bar the use of civilian prisons and courts to handle terrorist suspects. These efforts do not involve the expansion of any counterterrorist tools or resources. Instead, they involve a prohibition on the use of certain tools and resources—ones that have been used effectively for years to handle many terrorist cases. How could such a prohibition be expected to improve counterterrorism?
Of course, it won't improve it. Instead, it would be a new impediment to counterterrorist investigations. If enacted, it would lead to awkward and ineffective procedures such as the FBI having to interrupt an investigation that had just gotten under way in order to turn a suspect over to military custody.
Earlier incarnations of the “war” notion were an indirect, lexicographical way of arguing for greater use of military force. Propelling the latest moves is some combination of two other drivers. One is sheer ideological momentum, driven in turn by the habit of referring for years to a “war on terror.” The other, far more calculated, motivation is to come up with something that can be used to portray Barack Obama as being soft on national security. The Republicans will have a hard time doing that, amid counterterrorist successes such as the killings of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki and Obama's striving to sound tough on Iran. The “war” concept of counterterrorism gives them something to grasp at and to put into play in the election campaign.
And so yet another important function of government, like many others, has been turned into either an ideological gesture or a campaign talking point.
Image: German Federal Archives
However much the hyping of the alleged plot involving the DEA informant and the Iranian-American used car salesman in Texas may have been motivated by a desire to look tough on Iran in the eyes of the American public, it is having unhelpful effects on the attitudes of the Iranian public. An interesting report by an independent Tehran-based journalist who uses the pseudonym Yasaman Baji describes the “deep and complex nationalist feelings” the story is stimulating among Iranians. A more specific consequence is to increase the credibility of the Iranian regime and to reduce that of the United States. “For the first time since the disputed 2009 election,” writes Baji, “both supporters and opponents of the government are responding in similar fashion, voicing considerable scepticism about the charges and questioning U.S. intentions and objectives regarding Iran.”
One element in this attitudinal shift is that Iranians find the idea of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps plotting to assassinate a Saudi ambassador in Washington simply too hard to believe. “Why should it give a pretext to the United States now?” asked a 55-year-old shopkeeper. The other element is that the “verbal attacks against Iran” that “have intensified over the last two weeks” have made believable the regime's propaganda about U.S. intentions toward Iran. One unnamed political activist is cited as saying that until very recently, many in the general public and in the politically active portion of it “trusted the spoken words of the U.S. president and officials more than those uttered by Iranian officials.” Now, however, “the continuation of hostilities, sanctions, and in particular the recent allegations have changed people's views, since they are beginning to feel that the long-term U.S. objective is the destruction of Iran.”
All of this is a complication for pro-democracy forces inside Iran. One active member in the Green Movement said the work of Iranian oppositionists had become much more difficult because they had to “fight for freedom and democracy inside the country and against foreign threats in the international arena.”
Baji raises one optimistic note, which is that Iranians may become more insistent that the regime follow policies that do not “create the context for the acceptance of conspiracies by enemies” and “give the United States, Saudi Arabia, or other countries any pretext for harming the country.” We can hope this may happen. In the meantime, the latest burst of anti-Iranian militancy in the United States is as deaf to the effects on the Iranian public, and as counterproductive regarding Iranian hostility toward the United States or the prospects for changing Iranian politics, as previous bursts have been.
Some of the recent bloody unpleasantness in Libya reminds us that the world does not divide as neatly into white hats and black hats, good guys and bad guys, as we would like it to. We would like it to divide that way because it would be easier to deal with, conceptually and psychologically, if it did. Policy makers would like the world to divide that way—or at least often talk publicly as if it did—because that makes policies easier to sell. So both the menace from adversaries and the goodness of clients or allies tend to get oversold. And what is not good about clients or allies tends to go unmentioned.
The real world's messier and more complicated lines between good and evil, and between who should be supported and who should be loathed, inevitably and inconveniently appear. They are doing so today in Libya in a way that adds extra irony to how the NATO intervention there was sold. The undeniable negative qualities of Muammar Qaddafi, a dictator easy to loathe, were not enough. Added to the pitch for intervention was the prediction of atrocities by the regime if it were left in place. We don't know if the predictions would have come true—there was little or no basis for the more sweeping prognostications of city-wide bloodbaths—but since the beginning of the Libyan civil war opponents of Qaddafi have accumulated a record of violent violations of human rights that should be every bit as disturbing as actions of the former regime. Significant attention has been focused on how Qaddafi died amid the fury and confusion of the dictator's final minutes. Worthy of at least as much attention is what appears to be systematic slaughter of others associated with the old regime, followed by a lack of any apparent effort to investigate what happened.
Specific incidents of such violence, fully worthy of the label atrocity, could not have been predicted, but something along similar lines could have been expected. As Donald Rumsfeld once observed, stuff happens. As Rumsfeld and his colleagues failed to do in an earlier intervention, one should anticipate the stuff. But discussion of atrocities before the intervention in Libya was all focused on what the Qaddafi regime might do, not on what would happen when it was falling or after it fell.
The intervention is now water over the dam. There is little the United States or NATO can do, or should try to do, to directly and physically affect what will continue to be a messy and often violent course of events in Libya. The biggest lesson to draw from the experience is to do a better job of anticipating the nasty stuff, and drawing the appropriate policy conclusions, the next time an intervention in someone else's civil war is being considered.
Meanwhile, we should not try to frame what is going on now in Libya in terms of oversimplified divisions between good people and bad people, and between who deserves support and who deserves condemnation. Actions, not people, should be individually judged. The transitional government will need support, mostly in the form of advice in constructing a civil and political order, if Libya is to avoid unending, bloody disorder. But it also needs to be called to account when it does not do as much as it can to stop atrocities occurring under its nose.
Image by ليبي صح
The recent announcement by the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) that it is ending terrorist operations altogether is more significant than anyone not closely following Basque nationalism might suspect. ETA has killed more than 800 people in a terrorist campaign that dates back to Francisco Franco's time. The group did not say it would disarm, and it did not express regret for past activity. But it did really say it was quitting terrorism; it was not merely announcing another of the many cease-fires that it has declared and then abandoned. Perhaps the closest equivalent to its declaration was a statement in the 1990s by the leading German leftist terrorist group, the Red Army Faction, that it had found terrorism to be a dead end and was going out of business.
ETA isn't exactly going out of business, and the issue of Basque separatism, or at least demands for greater autonomy, will persist. The Spanish government will have a hard time defusing the issue, partly because it would be hard to expect it to grant even more autonomy than the Basque region already enjoys. But what it should not do is follow the example of the government of Sri Lanka, which, since its military victory over the Tamil Tigers, has shown insensitivity toward the needs and sentiments of the Tamil population.
ETA's step has some lessons for the handling of other violent groups, even ones with goals and circumstances much different from ETA's. One is that cracking down physically on a group is not necessarily incompatible with influencing its decisions in a direction that moves it away from violence. The weakening of ETA through the operations of Spanish and French security forces was probably a major factor behind its announcement. The Pakistani government ought to take notice instead of complaining that U.S. policy toward the Haqqani group, and the demands it makes on Pakistan regarding the group, appear to vacillate between cracking down and negotiating.
Another lesson is that even seemingly incorrigible terrorist groups are capable of learning from others and changing their ways. ETA's announcement followed an appeal by an informal, unofficial group of negotiators who included Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams. One can hope that ETA will follow the example of the Sinn Fein's longtime terrorist wing, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, in eventually giving up arms and violence completely.
A final lesson is that most victories in counterterrorism, even when coming in a distinctive or unusual form such as ETA's announcement, will be incremental and unclear. That is not a reason to dismiss them. It is a reason to attempt to build on them.
Imagine if, as public and Congressional discussion about the prospect of going to war against Iraq reached a peak in the autumn of 2002, it somehow could have been foreseen that nine years later there would still be debate about U.S. troops in Iraq, and about whether to keep them there even longer than nine years. The prospect of U.S. involvement in a war in the Middle East dragging out that long would have killed the possibility of neocons being able to conduct their great experiment in trying to inject democracy through the barrel of a gun—notwithstanding even the post-9/11 militant mood of the American public that, in the real world of 2001-2003, made it politically possible for the neocons to launch their experiment. The war would never have happened. Recreating our own thoughts from a decade ago, free of the political and emotional baggage accumulated during the course of this long expedition, provides necessary perspective in assessing what is being said today about keeping U.S. troops in Iraq or finally bringing them home.
With President Obama's announcement Friday about Iraq, we can look forward to an extra reason to celebrate during the year-end holidays. This long national nightmare will finally be ending. The return of the last combat troops from Iraq will be a good time to reflect on the nature and broader consequences of what future historians will regard as one of the biggest blunders in U.S. history. That reflection can consider how a small number of determined advocates of war were able to use the post-9/11 political milieu and scary themes about dictators giving weapons to terrorists to get enough people to go along with their idea. The reflection also can consider the full range of costs and damage to U.S. interests, from the more than four thousand Americans dead and tens of thousands wounded, to the trillions of dollars of direct and indirect fiscal and economic losses, to the tarring of America's standing abroad and the boost the war gave to America's extremist enemies.
For now, however, there is the immediate subject of bringing home those remaining troops. In response to any doubt that this is the right thing to do, the main question to ask is: if not after almost nine years, then when? Given that the troops' return merely fulfills an agreement that the previous U.S. administration reached with Iraq, one could also ask: if not George W. Bush, then who? Yet another question is: if the purpose of being in Iraq is supposedly to help another nation in need, why would we want to stay if the other country doesn't want us? Iraqi preferences have varied, of course, but being unwelcome is a very large part of what the misery of this war has been about, including the stimulation of armed resistance to what was seen as a foreign occupation. Discussions in recent months about possibly extending the U.S. military presence beyond this year took the odd form of the United States doing most of the asking and Iraq doing most of the resisting.
This is hardly the first war that exhibits the common tendency to think that just a little more persistence will make the difference between a win and a loss. But this tendency is no more logical than a gambler on a losing streak doubling down on his bets. There is no reason to believe that the next year or two of war will be more productive than the previous year or two or three. As with other lights that have been seen at the end of other tunnels, this kind of incremental thinking is a prescription for winding up with far greater costs than would justify even something that could be described as a win. We are dealing in the realm not of logic but of psychology, especially with the common but mistaken human inclination to treat sunk costs as investments.
The president's announcement will set off a new round of recriminations and debating points. Opponents of the president and proponents of the war will stake out positions to enable them to say, in response to anything nasty that happens henceforth in Iraq, that the problem was we withdrew too soon. Republican presidential candidates are of course among the first out of the blocks in doing this. Mitt Romney fired off a strongly worded statement that referred to the president's “astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq.” (What transition are you referring to, governor? From Maliki to someone else? How long will that take? And what could U.S. troops do about it?) Michele Bachmann said, “In every case where the United States has liberated a people from dictatorial rule, we have kept troops in that country to ensure a peaceful transition and to protect fragile growing democracies.” (Kept them there how long? And which countries are you referring to, Ms. Bachmann? Will we be stationing troops in Libya?)
Then there are the intellectuals who have had the biggest professional and psychological investments in the Iraq War. Only some of them have acknowledged the war was a mistake. There is a lot of cognitive dissonance to relieve. We already saw the relief process begin several years ago, when the war first went unambiguously sour and the scapegoating began. Some of those outside government who had been the most fervent proponents of the war also became the harshest critics of how the war was conducted, with the Bush administration as a whole and Donald Rumsfeld in particular being scapegoats. The message was that the war wasn't a bad idea; it was just executed poorly. Now there will be the added message that the war was still supposedly a good idea, but it just wasn't waged long enough. Frederick Kagan has fired an early shot along this line under the heading of “Obama abandons Iraq.” The most noteworthy thing about Kagan's shot is that it is centered around the notion that withdrawing U.S. troops will undermine containment of Iran—noteworthy because the Iraq War itself has provided the single biggest boost to Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf region.
President Obama inherited multiple messes, at home and abroad, from his predecessor. Some of those messes, especially the lingering effects of the Great Recession, are proving hard to clean up. But congratulations, Mr. President, for bringing to a conclusion the biggest overseas mess you were given.
A big deal is customarily made out of the death or capture of any notorious former leader, no matter how far from the top he had already fallen. Pulling Saddam Hussein out of his spider hole set off a “we got him!” burst of glee. Similarly with the death of Osama bin Laden, who, at the time he met the SEALs at Abbottabad, had not fallen as far as Saddam but was no longer able to initiate and direct terrorist operations. Now we see a similar reaction with the grisly demise of Muammar Qaddafi after a couple of months of hiding.
It is not hard to see the reasons for celebrating the end of the line for has-been leaders. One is satisfaction, rooted in a sense of either justice or revenge, in seeing a bad person get his due. Another reason is the tendency to view conflicts as if there were some critical nub, the status of which determines the outcome of the contest—just as checkmating the king determines the outcome of a game of chess. NATO and the rebels in Surt have finally checkmated Qaddafi.
The emphasis placed on the fate of an already deposed leader, however, including one deposed as a result of a lost war or military intervention, overlooks that very few such leaders have the skill, charisma and luck to have any chance of again having a significant effect on world affairs. Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the few. After he busted out of the scene of his first exile, Elba, it took the Duke of Wellington, Marshal Blucher and a lot of troops at Waterloo to put him out of business once and for all. In contrast, Saddam Hussein in the spider hole wasn't having any effect worth mentioning on the course of events in post-Saddam Iraq, or any real hope of having such an effect. As for Qaddafi, his death hardly makes a difference for the course of events in Libya over the coming months.
Let Libyans celebrate the ex-dictator's demise anyway; they've earned the right to do so. For those of us outside Libya, the intense focus on what just happened at Surt is harmless if it is used as a peg for analysis of the tasks still ahead in Libya. Much of the commentary in the first twenty-four hours after the event has tried to do so, with comments focused on, “now the real work begins.” The only thing wrong with that kind of comment is that the real work in forging a post-Qaddafi Libya actually began at least a couple of months ago. More detrimental is the use of the ex-dictator's death as a way to score the policy or performance of our own leaders. Such scoring is happening right now. But whatever is good about President Obama's policy toward Libya would have been good even if Qaddafi had not died this week, and whatever is bad about it is still bad despite the death.
Excessive celebration of this one event risks detracting attention from the magnitude and difficulty of the task that Libyans face in building a new national order. It also risks accentuating the disappointment and disillusionment resulting from the difficulties encountered in that task. Look at how much disillusionment there is next door in Egypt today, eight months after Hosni Mubarak was ousted. Libyans, unlike Egyptians, do not face an entrenched military left over from the old regime. But they face an even greater adversary in the form of the atomized, almost insitutionless society and politics left by Qaddafi, making it doubly hard to provide the essential services of government and to resolve the inevitable conflicts of interest that will become increasingly apparent in Libya.
Richard Cohen's column in Tuesday's Washington Post, under the headline “Dangerous behavior from Iran,” deserves scrutiny, and not just to pick on Cohen (although he deserves to be picked on for this kind of work). The column exemplifies several of the types of distorted thinking and non-thinking that were critical in pushing the United States into an enormous blunder of a war eight years ago and are threatening a repeat performance with another of the countries in the same part of the world that has a four-letter name starting with “I.” Moreover, the column by Cohen—who on most matters other than stumbling into disastrous wars can be considered a liberal—illustrates how the arguments and attitudes that have greased the skids on which the United States can slide into such a war are not the exclusive province of neocons or others who are the prime movers of such misadventures.
The column begins, unsurprisingly, with the outrage du jour: that strange plot involving DEA informants and a used car salesman in Texas. Cohen has a nifty way to dispose of the chief reason skeptics have found it hard to believe this was an officially instigated Iranian operation—namely, the disconnect between the crazy nature of the plot and the careful tradecraft that the Iranians have consistently exhibited. “I agree” the plot was crazy, says Cohen. “But so is Iran.” It's a rhetorical twofer: not only is the bizarre plot kept in play, but it is done in a way that pushes the main theme of the anti-Iran agitators, which is that Iranian leaders are supposedly irrational and thus cannot be trusted not to do crazy things with whatever capabilities they have, especially a capability as momentous as a nuclear weapon. “The mistake with Iran,” says Cohen, “is the tendency to think its leadership is rational.” But like others who invoke this theme, Cohen adduces nothing in the record of behavior by the Islamic Republic that suggests irrationality and ignores the fact that the record is overwhelmingly one of caution and careful calculation.
Oh, Cohen cites a record, and like most others who do, it concerns Iran's past terrorist operations. But invoking the terrorist record ignores that these very operations were carefully targeted responses to what Iran's adversaries were doing, with every indication that the Iranians were fully mindful of consequences. There were the assassinations (which pretty much ended a decade and a half ago) of expatriate dissidents, which served to eliminate a political threat to the leadership of the Islamic Republic. Cohen tries to make an argument that the assassinations exemplify sloppy methods (even suggesting at one point that a stabbing is somehow sloppier than other methods of killing people), with the Iranians not covering their tracks well. With hits on individual Iranian dissidents, part of the purpose was not to cover tracks but instead to send a message to other would-be oppositionists. When the target was foreign, the track-covering was careful and effective. With the bombing of the U.S. military barracks at Khobar, Saudi Arabia in 1996 (which Cohen also mentions), the tracks were so well covered that Iranian involvement was not established until years later.
Then there were the bombings by Lebanese Hezbollah against Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s. As I briefly noted a few days ago, these operations were specific retaliatory responses to Israeli actions in the Middle East, each of which preceded the response by only a few weeks. The bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 responded to Israel's assassination of Hezbollah secretary general Abbas Musawi. The bombing of the Jewish community center in 1994 was a response to Israel's kidnapping of Lebanese Shia leader Mustafa Dirani and bombing of a Hezbollah training camp in eastern Lebanon. This kind of tit-for-tat retaliation is the epitome of carefully calculated use of the capacity to inflict deadly harm. The experience with Hezbollah in South America, far from demonstrating that Iran or its clients are apt to strike out irrationally, instead demonstrates a pattern of keeping a lethal capability in reserve and not striking out until being struck themselves.
Cohen plays the usual religion card in trying to establish the irrationality idea, referring to Iranians as “fervid Shiites.” The card is ultimately just another instance of religious stereotyping and prejudice. Is the fervidness of those Shiites, and the implications for public policy—including the use of military force—any greater than what one can find with, say, many fundamentalist Christians in the United States? Or with the religious right in Israel?
In referring to those feared possible Iranian nuclear weapons, Cohen raises another common specter—of an Iranian nuke touching off a spurt of proliferation throughout the Middle East. And like others who raise it, he never considers why the sizable Israeli nuclear arsenal, which has existed since the 1970s and involves at least as much antagonism and unresolved issues as anything having to do with Iran, should not have already touched off such a spurt. Speaking of Israel, Cohen goes on to note that while “few in the West take Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad's threats to exterminate Israel seriously,” the “Israelis have some experience with the irrational and its consequences” and do not dismiss such threats. Cohen doesn't say explicitly what the implication of this observation ought to be for U.S. policy. That the United States should fall in line with the posture of a state whose own view of Iran is in large part driven by emotion and—dare one use the word?—irrational fears? It shouldn't, but unfortunately to a large extent that is what is happening.
Cohen concludes his column by circling back to that weird alleged assassination plot. It would be an “incalculable mistake,” he says, for the United States to see the plot as “the reckless act of some runaway intelligence chief.” He invokes no less an authority than the traitor in a John le Carre novel, who observes that intelligence agencies are “the only real measure of a nation's political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.” That's right, says Cohen, and so the assassination plot “offers an insight into the entire Iranian regime. It's too reckless to be allowed a nuclear arsenal.” How's that for the conclusion of a compelling piece of analysis? The caper involving the used car salesman and the DEA agent shows that Iran cannot be permitted to have a nuclear weapon; a fictional character in a novel says so.
With analysis like that it is not surprising that when reality finally intrudes, Cohen has a tendency to forget some of his own arguments. After three years of the ugly reality of the Iraq War—which Cohen had supported—he wrote a column calling for more leaking by government officials. He said, “Among other things, the consensus at the CIA was that there was no link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. And while the spooks of Langley more or less concurred that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, they also thought his nuclear program was years away from fruition. In short, there was no urgent reason to go to war. I wish I had known that.” Amnesia must have set in before that last comment, because here's what Cohen had written in a column in March 2003, a week before the U.S. invasion:
In the run-up to this war, the Bush administration has slipped, stumbled and fallen on its face. It has advanced untenable, unproven arguments. It has oscillated from disarmament to regime change to bringing democracy to the Arab world. It has linked [Saddam] Hussein to al Qaeda when no such link has been established. It has warned of an imminent Iraqi nuclear program when, it seems, that's not the case.
This was an accurate and perceptive capsule assessment of the Bush administration's case for war. And yet, Cohen still favored launching the war, referring (again, accurately) to Saddam Hussein's continued ambition to acquire nuclear weapons once the pressure was off. What was not considered, of course, was the misery and mess that would follow the toppling of Saddam. Cohen became part of a drumbeat, initiated by the neocon promoters of the war and amplified by other opinion-shapers such as himself, that came to portray the Iraqi dictator as such a grave threat that he had to go. The drumbeat beat away any concern about post-invasion messes, or about the non-imminence of an Iraqi nuclear weapon or the lack of an alliance between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda.
What leads the prime movers of the Iraq war, many of whom are also among the most active agitators for war against Iran, to promote such folly is a question for another day. Their promotions are successful only if they get many others beyond their ranks, including the Richard Cohens of the world, to sway to their beat. They did it once, beginning about ten years ago. As frightening as it is to think about, they could do it again.