The alarmism about the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear weapon is unmatched by any comparably intense attention to exactly why such a possibility is supposedly so dire. Among the voluminous opinion pieces, panel discussions, campaign rhetoric, and miscellaneous outcries on facets of this subject, one could search in vain for any detailed analysis of just what difference the advent of an Iranian nuke would make. Most of the discourse on the topic simply seems to take as a given, not needing any analysis, that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be so bad that to prevent it warrants considering even extreme measures.
Recently Ash Jain of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy produced what appears to fill this gap. His monograph, titled “Nuclear Weapons and Iran's Global Ambitions: Troubling Scenarios,” is, at least on the face of it, a serious effort to analyze the regional and global consequences of Iranian nuclear weapons. It is the most extensive consideration of this question I have seen from anyone who clearly believes that an Iranian nuke would be very bad. As such, Jain deserves credit for taking this stab at the subject. As a serious, extensive effort, his paper can be taken as demonstrating the limits of any case about the dangers of Iranian nuclear weapons.
Jain begins by stacking the deck in describing the Iranian objectives that presumably would underlie any use to which the Iranians would put a nuclear capability. Nuclear weapons in the hands of a “pragmatic regime” driven primarily by “a desire to protect and deter outside attack” would be far different, he says, from their possession by an “ideological regime,” which is the label he pins on Iran. This is consistent with much of the alarmist rhetoric, which depicts the Iranian regime as somehow fundamentally different from most governments in how it thinks and operates and what it aspires to. But what exactly defines an “ideological regime” and distinguishes it from a “pragmatic regime”? There is plenty of ideology floating around, some of which has significant implications for foreign policy and international security, and the more one thinks about it, the more one realizes that the regime in Tehran isn't so different after all. This example ought to be too obvious to need pointing out, but we recently had a government right here in Washington that got so influenced by an ideology (in this case, the neoconservative kind) that it launched a major offensive war of choice thousands of miles away, at much cost and misery to the United States. Is this what Jain means by an “ideological regime”?
Jain allows that “some analysts” see the Iranian regime, like many other regimes, concerned with its own survival and with deterring and preventing hostile actions from those who have given it good reason to be perceived as threats—in this case, Israel or the United States. Then he dismisses this view in a single sentence as “inconsistent not only with Iranian activities on the ground but with the longstanding public statements of its own leaders.” But he never actually addresses the record of Iranian activities on the ground. That record in fact shows a lot of pragmatism and even caution. Jain does go on to quote at length the public statements of Iranian leaders—to depict an Iran driven by revolutionary and aggressive objectives—but does not weigh any of this rhetoric against the fundamental interests of defense and survival. He also does not distinguish between what is merely rhetoric or political blather for domestic or international purposes and what represents genuine, active objectives of the Islamic Republic.
None of this, however, is what is most significant about Jain's paper and what it demonstrates about the limits of argumentation about an Iranian nuclear weapon supposedly being a dire threat. Jain does not fall back on the familiar but crude notion of Iranian leaders as a bunch of mad mullahs who are irrational, cannot be deterred, and cannot be trusted not to push the launch button for any crazy reason. Instead Jain takes the more sophisticated approach one more often hears in discussions of this subject among policy elites: that the real danger of an Iranian nuke is not that Tehran would launch a nuclear bolt out of the blue but instead that such capability would somehow lead to other forms of aggressive or dangerous Iranian behavior. The Iran he depicts is not an irrational actor but instead a very calculating one that pursues an assortment of regional and global objectives. And so most of Jain's paper is a scenario-by-scenario rendition of all kinds of nastiness that Iran could conceivably perpetrate, either within its own region or farther field. The possibilities discussed run from strong-arming Persian Gulf states to reduce the U.S. military presence in the region to expanding a strategic relationship with Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.
All of these scenarios are put under the heading “Iran as a Nuclear Weapons State”. And each scenario has a subsection titled “Impact of a Nuclear Capability”. But here's the main thing to notice: nowhere is there any explanation of exactly how and why a nuclear capability would make a difference in Iranian behavior. The most that Jain can offer is to assert several times that because Iran would be “shielded by a nuclear weapons capability” it might do thus-and-so. We never get an explanation of exactly how such a shield should be expected to work. The scenarios are basically just a spinning out of an assortment of things one could imagine Iran doing, some of which have some relationship to things Iran is already doing and some of which are only flights of fancy. Nuclear weapons play hardly any role in these products of imagination.
In this respect Jain's approach is again typical of most of the ringing of the Iranian nuclear alarm bell one hears in sophisticated policy advocacy. The idea is that armed with a nuke, Iran would somehow become more aggressive and troublesome because it would be feeling its oats. (Jain doesn't use this phrase, but I have heard others arguing in the same direction use exactly those words.) The argument really is that vague.
If one is to get beyond arguments that are as mushy as oatmeal and to try to put together a more rigorous analysis, several things would be required to conclude that the advent of a nuclear weapon would change Iranian behavior. One is that there is something Tehran wants to do and sees it as in its interest to do but, as a non-nuclear-weapons state, is not doing now. Second, the reason Iran is not doing that behavior now is that someone else is holding over its head a threat of retribution or retaliation if it were to indulge in the behavior. Third, the other party would no longer wield such a threat if Iran had a nuclear weapon, and the reason it no longer would wield the threat is that it considers it credible that Iran would escalate to the nuclear level whatever matter is in dispute. I have thought hard to come up with plausible scenarios that meet these requirements and have been unable to do so. The last requirement, about credibility of escalation to the nuclear level, is especially hard to meet. I have not heard from anyone else any plausible scenarios that meet these requirements either.
Applying this kind of rigor to Jain's scenarios reveals how inapplicable a change in Iran's nuclear status would be to any of them. To take one example in which he endeavors to mention nuclear weapons beyond the general “shield” notion, he talks about Hizballah and Hamas possibly becoming more emboldened because Iran might extend a nuclear umbrella to these groups. So in the face of Israel's overwhelming nuclear superiority, Iranian decision-makers would be willing to risk Tehran to save Gaza? Could Tehran expect anyone to believe that? Another of Jain's scenarios, which is to create in league with Venezuela a latter-day version of the Cuban missile crisis, stretches credibility even more.
The crude and sophisticated versions of the alarm-ringing are not all that different, because the sophisticated version ultimately depends on the credibility of Iranian leaders, under certain circumstances, actually pushing that launch button. Jain concedes that “the United States might succeed in deterring Iran's use of nuclear weapons, as well as direct military aggression against its allies” but contends that the intimidation, subversion, and other behaviors he discusses “could pose a greater challenge.” The fatal flaw in the argument is that if the use of nuclear weapons is not credible because it is deterred, than the mere possession of such a weapon is strategically incapable of shielding other behavior.
A presentation such as Jain's, given all the extensive scenario-building involving a wide variety of things that most of us can agree we would not like to see Iran do, coupled with the window-dressing about “impact of a nuclear capability,” can create the impression that a lot of awful stuff could really happen as a result of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. But take a second look—bearing in mind that the issue is not how many unpleasant things we can conceive of Iran doing, but rather what difference a nuclear capability would make in its ability or inclination to do those things—and there isn't really any substance there.
One should also note how much all of this type of argumentation is not a matter of what is probable but instead only of what is possible and what Iran “could” do. (Sounds a lot like all that war-selling rhetoric about what Saddam Hussein “could” do with his presumed weapons of mass destruction, doesn't it?) Jain is not being deceptive; he duly acknowledges that he is dwelling in the realm of mere possibilities. But we ought to keep this in mind when we get to what we all know this is eventually about. “At some point,” says Jain in his conclusion, “the costs and risks of more coercive options—including military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities—may have to be weighed against the costs and risks of allowing Iran to obtain a nuclear capability.” Indeed, let there be such a weighing. And when such a weighing is done, let the same standards for assessing costs and risks be applied to the coercive options as are applied to an Iranian nuclear capability. If assessment of the costs and risks of militarily attacking Iran ranged as fancifully far into mere possibilities and bad things that “could” happen as do the discussions in Jain's paper and elsewhere of the costs and risks of an Iranian nuke, then the consequences to U.S. interests of a resort to military force would be seen to be not just very bad but horrendous.
Meanwhile, Jain deserves compliments for making perhaps the most extensive attempt I have seen to construct an argument about the hazards of an Iranian nuclear weapon. As such, his paper enables us to see just what such an argument consists of. No real shield or anything else substantial. Just some oats.
Image by Jose Cruz
One of the hoariest arguments about international diplomacy is that talk is a reward and that talking with another government somehow validates, supports or endorses the other regime. This outlook misrepresents the very purpose of the tool of diplomacy, which is not to bestow rewards but instead to advance the interests of the state wielding the tool. To forgo use of the tool doesn’t put anyone else in his place; it only handicaps the statecraft of the government that doesn’t fully use the tool. The argument nonetheless gets heard a lot in the United States, partly because it is so easy to move from the greatness that Americans associate with their own country to the idea that merely getting a conversation with U.S. representatives constitutes a prize and an expression of favor. The argument also is a way of bashing whatever administration currently has responsibility for conducting U.S. diplomacy.
The Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar and Matthew Duss of the Center for American Progress have a perceptive piece on what the diplomatic tool has accomplished regarding a state toward which the talk-as-reward often gets applied: Iran. They describe what talk or the mere willingness to talk has helped to achieve, even assuming the worst about Iranian intentions and even without any agreements being reached with the Iranian regime. A U.S. willingness to negotiate demonstrates that it is not the impediment to a better relationship. It has been instrumental in getting other powers, especially Russia and China, to cooperate further in imposing sanctions on Iran. It has had similar salutary effects inside Iran, in demonstrating that it is the Iranian regime that stands in the way of a better relationship with the West. And it has enhanced the credibility of what the United States says about Iran.
I would add some other advantages of talking with any troublesome regime (which, of course, is what the United States did with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War). Not preemptively forgoing diplomacy because of worst-case assumptions about the other side's intentions opens up opportunities if the assumptions turn out to be not altogether true. The diplomacy increases the negotiating space and permits the striking of deals that range over multiple issues. And talking to the other side reduces the chance of incidents and misunderstandings spinning out of control.
Of course, if one wants an incident to spin out of control because one is hankering for a war, that would be a reason not to talk. We know that George W. Bush thought along those lines when he talked with Tony Blair about how the United States might provoke an incident that could be the excuse for launching what became the Iraq War.
Robert W. Merry's insightful observations about the ingredients in election success or failure for incumbent presidents provide much food for thought, for both supporters and opponents of President Obama. It certainly is true that how voters treat a president up for reelection depends much more on the state of the union that he leads than on accusations that are hurled from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. Most of those who pay attention to the substance of the accusations are already true believers on one side or the other. Most of those in the rest of the electorate who pay any attention are more repelled by the accusations than persuaded by them. Let me offer a few more related observations, by way of extension and refinement, not contradiction.
First, to the extent that a presidential election is in effect a referendum on what has been happening during a president's first term, what voters are reacting to is less the president's performance per se than the overall condition of the republic and the circumstances of its citizens, regardless of how much the president was able to do anything about this. Incumbent presidents and their parties benefit politically from good times and they suffer politically from bad times, no matter what are the detailed causes of the good or the bad. The referendum results thus depend partly on things outside the control of any U.S. official, such as ominous developments overseas. And they depend partly on things for which the president shares responsibility with others, particularly Congress and maybe others such as the Federal Reserve, as is the case with economic conditions and especially unemployment, long known to be a major determinant of election results.
Second, to the extent that the election-cum-referendum does depend on the incumbent president's performance, the nature of that performance in turn depends a lot on the times and the opportunities and challenges that they present to the president. This was a major reason for the contrast between Harry Truman's two terms, as described by Merry. Truman did not somehow become less competent in the latter half of his presidency than he was in the first half. The remaking of the world order after World War II was bound to be seen as one of historic achievements. Second-term happenings such as the Chinese revolution and the Korean War did not provide as much opportunity to get on the right side of history.
Third, notwithstanding how anyone views Truman's first-term achievements, domestic matters and especially the state of the economy trump foreign affairs as an influence on election results. The closest thing to the post-World War II world-reordering moment that we have seen since then was the end of the Cold War. The president in office during that event, George H.W. Bush, did an excellent job of managing the moment. But he became a one-term president, beaten by a Democrat who realized that when it came to winning an election it was the economy, stupid.
All of the preceding points are ones of continuity. But we also should note one large difference between Truman's time and the present, which is the greatly intensified partisanship that has infected all issues of public policy, including foreign affairs. Those foreign policy achievements in the late 1940s were products of bipartisanship. (Truman's railing against a “do nothing” Republican-controlled Congress had to do with its position on his Fair Deal domestic program.) A key figure was Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Vandenberg was in every respect a partner of Truman regarding the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of NATO and other initiatives. One shudders to think of how Congressional Republicans of today, applying the attitudes and methods of today, would have responded to the same situation. There certainly would not have been any Vandenberg-like concept of politics stopping at the water's edge.
Which brings us back to the political implications of the present day's economic woes. Given how deep was the recession that Obama inherited, how stubborn has been the resulting unemployment, and how strong has been the historical connection between this one economic statistic and the reelection record of presidents, Barack Obama's prospects for November 2012 look grim. Don't think that Congressional Republicans—who have acted as though the end justifies the means and have been quite open that their overriding end is to defeat Obama's reelection bid—haven't noticed these connections. If an Obama-proposed jobs bill has no chance of passage, it is because it runs up against not only Republican ideology but also a Republican interest in sustaining high unemployment long enough to bring down the Democratic president.
I suppose a political lesson in this is that if you leave office, as George W. Bush did, amid unpopularity and bad economic times, you might as well hope that the economic conditions will be so bad that the leader of the other party will suffer political consequences four years later.
The decision by Saudi King Abdullah to grant women the right to vote and to run as candidates in local elections, as well as to appoint women to the national consultative council, the Majlis al-Shura, is a big deal—in the Saudi context, of course. In a kingdom where slow and incremental are the applicable adjectives to apply to any political change, this is one of the bigger changes. It not only is the right thing to do in terms of human rights but also represents the sort of top-down reform that, if it can continue long enough before the Saudi system succumbs to either its own fragility or Arab Springtime winds blowing in from neighboring countries, may help to save the kingdom from some very unattractive scenarios.
Some, including Saudi women themselves, have contrasted this move regarding municipal elections and the Majlis al-Shura with the fact that women in Saudi Arabia still cannot legally drive cars. The issue of driving has gotten increased attention lately, with a few women flouting the law in protest. The ability to drive would have far more immediate effect on the daily lives of Saudi women than the announced political changes. But over the longer term participation in a political process, even in a toothless consultative council, has the potential to draw increased attention to a wider range of possible social reforms.
King Abdullah has shown repeatedly that he recognizes the need for significant change in the system that he heads if that system is to survive. He currently represents the best hope for would-be Saudi reformers. His sense of the direction Saudi Arabia must go is represented most visibly in the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2009. It is the kingdom's first mixed-gender university. The religious police do not operate there, veil-less women attend classes alongside men and women can even (unlike on public streets) drive on campus. One of the main sources of resistance to Abdullah pushing the envelope of social reform any harder than he already has comes from within the royal family, including elements of it that for their own reasons have formed alliances with the conservative religious hierarchy.
Abdullah's other big limitation is his age; he is 87. Next in line for the throne are some of those same elements that are less partial to reform, including his ailing half-brother Sultan and Sultan's not-as-old and not-so-ailing full brother Nayef, the longtime interior minister. Saudi Arabia is one Middle Eastern country whose political future will rest, just as much as those of secular, non-monarchical dictatorships, on the health and other vagaries of individual leaders. We should all wish King Abdullah an unusually long life.
The story that the Obama administration secretly delivered GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrators, commonly known as bunker-buster bombs, to Israel in 2009 is disturbing as well as complex. Any comment on this subject needs to begin with the caveat that anyone who is not privy, as I certainly am not, to details of U.S.-Israeli discussions, much less to the details of the Israeli Defense Forces' military plans, cannot pretend to know all possible facets of the issue. One should also note that provision of munitions to another state has long been used as a legitimate tool not just to bolster someone's military capabilities but also to try to buy influence with the other state. The United States has used this tool in a big way in the past in the Middle East, especially in bestowing major military aid on Egypt, in addition to the even more generous and perennial gifts to Israel, as a way of buying the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Of course, in using aid in this way one always has to consider what return one is getting on the investment. Robert Gates was pointing out the obvious in noting behind closed doors that Israel has been a remarkably ungrateful “ally,” giving Washington little but trouble in return for the extraordinarily generous assistance the United States has bestowed on Israel through the years. With regard to transfers of materiel that incorporate advanced military technology, Israel also has shown little regard for U.S. interests when striking its own deals that have exposed U.S. technology to the likes of China.
The even bigger worry about the bunker busters concerns what they would be used for. The one possible use that looms above any others one could conceive of is an attack on Iran and specifically its nuclear facilities. Providing the bunker busters was a mistake insofar as it increases Israel's ability to initiate a war with Iran in this way. Even more serious (because Israel probably could develop the bunker-busting technology on its own, albeit at greater expense), is that providing the bombs could be interpreted as a green light to go to war. Even more serious than that (because Israel, notwithstanding all that aid, does not wait for green lights from the United States anyway), is that the use of U.S.-made bombs to initiate war with Iran would accentuate the already-existing association of the United States with any Israeli action and intensify the resulting damage to U.S. political, economic, and security interests.
Providing the bombs was a bad decision by the Obama administration. One can imagine some of the thinking behind it. The administration was attempting to save a possible negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by trying to get the Israeli government to stop what was slowing killing that possibility—viz., the continued construction of settlements on occupied and disputed land. So the bombs were one more way to attempt to buy this kind of influence (an unsuccessful attempt, as with so many similar attempts toward the Israelis). There is also Obama's related political need to show that he really is a friend of Israel. Helping to fill this need may have been the motivation of whoever inside the administration leaked the story (which the Israelis had wanted to keep secret). The Bush administration had promised Israel that it eventually would get the bombs but, to that administration's credit, held up delivery because of Israel's transfer of advanced military technology to China.
The unwise transfer of the bunker busters is another reflection of the tendency to think of support to Israel in only one dimension. In fact, the core of Israeli security and well-being is usually quite apart from the topics that become matters of public discussion or controversy, be they penetrating bombs or West Bank settlements. It is consistent with U.S. interests to maintain a relationship with Israel that helps provide for the defense of Israel and its citizens. This is why, as I have argued before, the United States ought to be most generous with help on measures, such as the Iron Dome anti-missile system, that are most defensive and have the least chance for damaging side-effects.
We need to get away from the pseudo-reasoning, which is currently appearing as red meat in the Republican presidential campaign, that Israel is an ally, that this ally ought to be supported, and that support means doing whatever the Israeli government says it wants us to do, regardless of what this means for U.S. interests or even for Israel's own interests. This pseudo-reasoning promotes diplomatic mistakes such as what we have been seeing with the current unpleasantness at the United Nations. It also promotes military mistakes, including the provision of bombs that might become literally the first shots in another war highly damaging to the United States.
I thank Trevor Thrall and John Schuessler for adding additional insights to my recent comments on how those who sold the Iraq War got so many Americans to believe what should have been unbelievable. I will stretch the commentary out one more round, with the justification being that the Iraq War has been one of the costliest blunders (in human, material, and security terms) in U.S. history and warrants additional mulling over in the interest of trying to lessen the chance that anything comparable will recur.
Of course public ignorance and ideology had much to do with why even many Democrats swallowed the war-sellers' messages. But that doesn't make the turnabout in public beliefs as a direct result of the sales campaign any less impressive. The specific issue I mentioned—whether the Iraqi regime was in league with al-Qaeda—was not an issue at all for the overwhelming majority of Americans before the sales campaign began. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, polls indicated that very few Americans thought Iraq was involved.
The unsavory story of how Democrats, not just Republicans, in Congress handled the Iraq War issue is well told by Tom Ricks in a chapter of his book Fiasco. Readers can also get an account in the relevant chapter of my own recent book. The Bush administration's “feint” (as Schuessler aptly calls it ) toward the United Nations was probably less about keeping Democrats on board than about keeping the British government (and to some extent Secretary of State Colin Powell) on board. Before the war resolution was passed (with the support of most Senate Democrats), the Senate voted on a substitute resolution sponsored by Carl Levin that said Congress would support the use of military force but only if an additional U.N. resolution calling for Iraqi cooperation with international inspectors was not adequately observed or enforced. Levin's resolution was defeated in a vote that was a near mirror image of the vote on the resolution endorsing the war, leading Lincoln Chafee—the only Republican senator to vote against the war resolution—to observe later that most senators “were immune to persuasion” and “their minds were made up.”
Besides fearing being on the wrong side, as in 1991, of a war that turns out to be successful and popular, Democrats in Congress were mostly anxious to get the war issue out of the way and leave as much time as possible between the vote and the 2002 elections. This accounted for the quick procedure in which there were not even any committee hearings on the war resolution. Their schedule also drove the production of what became the infamous intelligence estimate on unconventional weapons programs, which was a three-week rush job. (Very few members of Congress bothered to look at the estimate anyway.) Other, more carefully produced, intelligence assessments that presciently described how the task in Iraq after Saddam's fall would be long and difficult rather than quick and easy received no more attention in Congress than they received from the Bush administration policymakers.
My earlier observation about the lasting damage to public understanding resulting from the mistaken beliefs instilled by the Bush administration's war-selling campaign has to do with more than the blunder of the war itself. It has to do with, among other things, understanding what helps to drive anti-U.S. Islamist terrorism. It is not driven by regimes such as Saddam Hussein's; it is driven by anger-inducing actions such as the Iraq War itself and U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Any “Iraq syndrome” that sours the American public for the time being on more foreign wars of choice does not correct for that sort of damage to understanding. The syndrome may reduce the chance, for a while, of more stupid wars. But it is a very blunt and imprecise safeguard, since it implies lack of public support also for wars that may not be stupid.
John Bolton's anti-Obama missive in these spaces—in which the former Bush administration official tries to tie the current president to a globe full of miseries but especially to problems in the Middle East, where Bolton says that Obama's “failings as president” are “most evident”—is a history-erasing attempt to shift blame for failures that, to the extent they reflect U.S. responsibility at all, are far more the doing of the team of which Mr. Bolton was a part. Many examples could be drawn from Bolton's tendentious tour d'horizon—for example, the nuclear program of North Korea, which detonated its first nuclear device during the George W. Bush administration. But since Bolton emphasizes the Middle East, let us just note a couple of the more obvious bits of blame-shifting involving that region.
Regarding the much-discussed Palestinian statehood initiative, Bolton says this initiative “likely came about because it [the Palestinian Authority] had become so committed to some kind of UN action it could not reverse course without being humiliated.” Bolton blames the whole situation on Obama's “passivity and mixed signals.” As anyone who has opened a newspaper and followed any news out of the Middle East for some years can see, the initiative came about because after 44 years of post-conquest Israeli occupation and nearly two decades of off-and-on diplomacy on the subject, the Palestinians were no closer to getting the state that the U.N. partition plan of 1947 had promised them. Instead, with the continuing Israeli colonization of the territories, the Palestinians saw that statehood was becoming an ever more remote possibility. Much of this happened during the eight-year watch of Mr. Bush, who effectively enabled the unilateral Israeli creation of more facts on the ground, who did not want to be bothered by peace diplomacy, who was more interested in pursuing a different project in the Middle East, and who made a feeble stab at getting a peace process back under way only late in his administration after the other project went awry.
Bolton laments that Iran has “marched inexorably forward with its nuclear weapons program” (is it marching any more now than it was throughout the eight years of the Bush administration?) and that President Ahmedinejad will be “this week's real winner in New York.” Well, Iranian influence in the Middle East certainly has increased in recent years. And by far the single biggest reason for that increase was that big Bush administration project in the Middle East, the Iraq War.
President Obama is indeed making a couple of mistakes about the Middle East and especially the Israeli-Palestinian issue. One he already has made was to back away from his initial insistence that the Israeli colonization project must stop. One he is about to make, depending on what direction the diplomacy in New York takes in the next few days, is to veto a Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood. Bolton says if the Palestinian initiative goes forward there would be “no option” but to cast a veto. Nonsense. The only reason the veto would be cast is fear of the political power of the lobby that punishes American leaders for differing with the preferences of the Israeli government, regardless of where U.S. national interests lie. I wrote earlier why a veto would be a moral and policy mistake. It may also be a political one; as David Rothkopf observes:
Once again, the transformational Obama has been sold out by the political Obama. The fact that the President is unlikely to receive credit for his stance with Jewish voters might be seen as a bitter irony associated with the calculated shift. But it's not. It's a recognition that Jewish voters ... like healthcare reform advocates and those hoping for a break from Washington business as usual and those seeking true financial services reform and those seeking economic policies that can produce growth for all segments of American society ... are not suckers. They recognize when they are being played and pandered to and they distrust leaders whose most dependable trait is their willingness to shift their positions to suit their momentary political needs.
Meanwhile, let us not forget, despite the spirited efforts of the likes of Bolton, what policies have led to or exacerbated the messes in the Middle East that Barack Obama inherited.
A front-page story in Tuesday's Washington Post discusses how advances in military technology make possible complete automation of killing on the battlefield. This would take delegation to machines a couple of steps beyond what we see today with the use of drones to hunt down militants in places like northwest Pakistan. The current use involves remotely piloting the drones and, after video of a potential target is transmitted back to human monitors, another human with sufficient authority makes a decision to fire a missile and kill the target. In the fully automated scenario, the drones and perhaps ground-based robotic systems would be programmed to identify targets according to specified criteria and, if the criteria are met, to make the kill without further human intervention.
The fully automated mode unsurprisingly raises concerns, some of which might be evocative of Michael Crichton's 1970s thriller Westworld, in which lethal robots go out of control and start killing unsuspecting humans. Doesn't something like the use of lethal force in a situation in which targeting information is ambiguous and the repercussions of collateral damage significant—conditions which apply to the Pakistan theater where most of the drone strikes have occurred—require human judgment? The better question to ask is: how is such human judgment to be exercised? What are the standards or criteria according to which the human involved is making decisions? The killing of terrorists using the drones is a tool that should not be given up, but one of the principal shortcomings in their use to date is opacity regarding the criteria used in each individual decision to shoot or not to shoot. Some of the uncertainty no doubt concerns whether a potential target is really who he is believed to be. But even if uncertainties about identity are resolved, what determines whether a particular individual should be subject to this form of long-distance execution? The only thing preventing the whole process from being arbitrary and capricious is a clear set of criteria that answer that question.
Programming a robot weapon to make those determinations instead of a human forces the criteria to be clear. A vague sense of what makes someone enough of a bad guy to be bumped off from high altitude is not the sort of basis for decision that can be translated into computer code. In practice, full automation is never going to replace all operations like the drone strikes in Pakistan, because of unexpected opportunities and attributes of potential targets that cannot all be anticipated in advance. But forcing the construction of explicit standards for pulling the trigger would enable the entire effort, even the part involving humans, to be put on firmer moral and legal ground.
We all know to take with a big chunk of salt what presidential candidates say in primary election campaigns. They have to appeal to the party's base to get the nomination, the rhetoric will change once the general election campaign begins, etc. Sure, but ephemeral rhetoric can have lasting results, and not just in the sense of who gets the nomination. Michele Bachmann's comment, in an effort to whack away at Rick Perry's support, about how the HPV vaccine might be associated with mental retardation has caused understandable concern among health professionals that the remark will discourage use of a vaccine that has been proven to reduce disease, including some forms of cancer (and about which there is no evidence of association with autism or other forms of retardation). On foreign policy, a dominant theme in the Republican campaign has been to portray oneself as more militant toward worrisome states than one's opponents. Never mind what policies would or would not advance U.S. interests, seems to be the campaign strategy; just sound more angry and belligerent than anyone else about states we know Americans and especially that base don't especially like.
The states concerned take notice. And even though they have their own pieces of salt to put some of this rhetoric in perspective, there still may be negative effects on relationships and on U.S. interests to which those relationships are pertinent. The overseas edition of China's People's Daily has taken critical note of how Mitt Romney has changed his tune on China since he was governor of Massachusetts, when he talked of how the U.S.-China relationship “should be bridged instead of building a wall.” Now, notes People's Daily, Romney seems to be looking for opportunities to “attack China.” His inconsistent positions “demonstrate the bad trait of U.S. politics.” Of course, we don't need a Chinese newspaper to inform us that Romney is a flip-flopper, but the impression left goes beyond Romney. The Chinese article calls the United States “a country that is constantly looking for an opponent.”
Probably more dangerous is the rhetoric coming out of the Republican campaign about Iran—more dangerous because it propels a vicious circle of mutual hostility and threat perception that already has seen many rounds of escalation. Republican extremists and Iranian hardline extremists feed off each other's militant rhetoric. This is a rhetorical line that is likely to get only worse during the general election campaign. As Trita Parsi notes, “Whatever hawkish line Obama adopts, the Republicans will find a way to 'outhawk' him. As the memory of the Iraq invasion slowly fades away, Republican strategists calculate, the American public will return to rewarding toughness over wisdom at the ballot boxes.”
What I would like to reward at the ballot box is a candidate who demonstrates a sense of responsibility in realizing that campaign rhetoric has consequences that go beyond firing up a base or winning votes generally. Besides, if what a candidate says is all for electoral effect, how do we know he or she won't pursue policies once in office that are just as crazy as the campaign rhetoric?
The fulminations over the attempt by the Palestinian Authority to receive at the United Nations a multilateral affirmation of the principle of Palestinian statehood have been so viscerally unrelenting that one should pause to note just how contrary to logic, to evidence, and even to language these fulminations are. First is the idea that action by the United Nations, which is as non-unilateral as international politics ever gets, is somehow “unilateral.” This is a use of language that is something out of the stories of either Lewis Carroll or George Orwell, in which words mean whatever the user wants them to mean, even if that is the opposite of what they generally mean. Then there is the notion that such action by the United Nations is somehow a threat to, replacement of, or rejection of bilateral negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. As Abu Mazen has repeatedly pointed out, it is no such thing. Nothing that takes place at the U.N. will draw any boundaries or settle any of the specific issues. All the final settlement issues would still be there to be negotiated bilaterally. Nothing that happens in New York will mean any less (or any more) negotiating work for Israeli and Palestinian diplomats.
All that could possibly result from action by the Security Council or General Assembly this month would be a partial leveling of the diplomatic playing field as Israel and the Palestinians address those issues in dispute and a reaffirmation of what the United Nations, the United States, the other members of the quartet, the Palestinians, and the Israelis—even, grudgingly, Benjamin Netanyahu—have all said should be the product of a peace process: a Palestinian state to live side-by-side in peace with the State of Israel. If, as many indications unfortunately suggest, Netanyahu and his government do not really accept that product or any Palestinian entity worthy of the name state, let him end the charade and say so.
The Israeli government has talked about “dire consequences” if an initiative at the United Nations goes forward. But the only negative consequences would be any that Israel itself chooses to impose, out of spite, revenge, to make a point or for whatever reason. The only reason Israel would be discomfited by U.N. action is the embarrassment that would come from a demonstration anew of how offensive the Israeli policy of clinging to, and colonizing, captured territory—the action that really is unilateral, and that really does damage the prospects for a negotiated settlement by creating even more facts on the ground—is to the community of nations. And the only reason the United States would veto any such action is that it is considered political poison within the United States for political leaders to go against strong preferences of the Israeli government, however inconsistent those preferences may be with the United States' own best interests.
None of this is about any threat to the security, integrity or legitimacy of the State of Israel. It is about Israel's continued grasp of occupied territories and the embarrassment that comes from Israeli policies toward those territories that are an affront to the sense of most of the peoples and countries of the world about what is right and just.
Although Israel's own policies have made the United Nations an inhospitable place for itself, Israelis would do well to remember that the closest thing to an authorization for the creation of their own state was an action by the United Nations. Any new action this month would effectively merely restate what that action back in the 1940s already stated: that two states should emerge from the mandate of Palestine, one for Jews and one for Arabs. The history and nature of the dispute between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine makes a United Nations role very appropriate, even if the specific issues still have to be settled through bilateral diplomacy. A less narrow-minded and more constructive approach by Israel and the United States would have embraced that role in response to the Palestinian initiative rather than pretending that the initiative is some kind of negotiation-killing rogue act, which it is not.
A U.S. veto of a Security Council resolution affirming Palestinian statehood would add to the harm the United States already has incurred by reflexively covering for whatever are the policies of the Israeli government of the day. It would be a direct, explicit rejection of what the United States has long said it supports: establishment of a Palestinian state. The harm of a vote against sovereignty for the Palestinians would be amplified by coming at a time when the demands for popular sovereignty by other Arabs throughout the Middle East are louder than ever before. A U.S. veto would be both shameful and damaging to U.S. interests.