Karin Brulliard's report in the Washington Post about how Hamas has been faring lately among its subjects in the Gaza Strip lends support to Rafael Frankel's recommendation in these spaces to take a fresh look at reaching an extended cease-fire with the group. The report supports the idea by showing just how ordinary a ruling party Hamas has become. It still has significant popular support, but its position as a de facto government has made it the target of grumbling by Gazans. The grumbling is about such mundane things as shortages of electricity and the unavailability of promised housing stipends, as well as Hamas officials being perceived to be enjoying positions of privilege unavailable to the general population. It is not about violence or too much stridency in standing up to Israel, and it is not about Islamization of society, which for the most part the Gazan population has successfully resisted.
The Israeli posture and, in lockstep with it, the American posture toward Hamas are stuck in an unhelpful time warp. It is a posture that simply applies the label “terrorist” to the group and assumes that an unchanging refusal to have anything to do with it is the only appropriate implication. A label is no substitute for a policy or for a strategy. And in this case, it is no substitute for understanding the current character and objectives of Hamas, which are not captured by the label.
Some Israeli officials probably view any damage to Hamas's standing among Palestinians as a salutary effect of Israel's long effort to strangle the group. That would be a misreading. As the Post article indicates, Hamas still profits from controlling trade through the smuggling tunnels that were built in response to the Israeli blockade.
The sources of popular unhappiness with Hamas contain the seeds of possible political failure of the group. And that gets to an important principle in dealing with groups one doesn't like: let them fail on their own. An imposed failure usually redounds to the disadvantage of the imposer.
Although hereditary monarchies with anything more than largely ceremonial roles have dwindled to a only few states, the bequeathing of political power from parent to son or daughter is a remarkably ubiquitous phenomenon. Think about some of the political leaders around the globe we've been hearing most about lately. The big political story out of China concerns recently purged Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, who is a “princeling,” or son of one of the regime's revolutionary founding fathers. Bo's political career seems to be over, but other princelings remain a prominent part of the Chinese political picture today. Next door in North Korea, we are getting used to a third generation of the Kim dictatorship. Kim Jung-Un has just led celebrations of the one hundredth birthday of his grandfather and regime founder Kim Il-Sung, a physical resemblance to whom apparently is one of Kim Jung-Un's political assets.
Among the “republics” of the Middle East, a current focus is on Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who inherited his regime from his father Hafez. In Egypt, if the demonstrators of Tahrir Square had not gotten to Hosni Mubarak first, he might well have bequeathed the presidency to his son Gamal. Elsewhere in the Middle East are most of the few remaining states that are hereditary monarchies in name as well as in fact.
Bequests of political power are certainly not limited to autocracies. In the world's largest democracy, India, the next prospective leader being groomed is Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of Indian founding father Jawaharlal Nehru, the grandson of one other Indian prime minister (Indira Gandhi) and the son of yet another (Rajiv Gandhi). Earlier this month, Rahul lunched with a counterpart leader-being-groomed from Pakistan: 23-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is the son of both Pakistan's current president and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the grandson of another prime minister, and is himself already chairman of the Pakistan People's Party. On the other side of South Asia in Bangladesh, the prime minister is Sheikh Hasina, who is a daughter of the country's founding father and first prime minister.
The United States is no stranger to such family political legacies. The presumptive presidential nominee of one of the two political parties is the son of a prominent governor and national figure in the Republican Party. The immediate past president was son of a previous president (one of three father-son, or grandfather-son, pairs in the history of the U.S. presidency). In the Democratic Party there have been similar family ties, with the Kennedys probably the best known.
Four possible explanations, or combinations of them, can account for the frequency of political power being inherited by the children of political leaders. One can think of them as affecting different stages in the progeny's personal history, from conception to the progeny's own political career. The first explanation is genetic. It may be a factor, although probably a limited one, given the normal genetic variation even among blood relatives and the uncertainty of linking any gene with political success.
A second explanation involves nurturing during childhood. The children of political leaders grow up in an environment in which political sensibility and associated ambition are more likely to be imparted over the dinner table than they are over other families' dinner tables.
A third explanation involves the opportunities—in education, in business or in politics itself—that open more readily to the offspring of the powerful and famous (and the rich) than they do to others. The biographies of many political scions indicate this is a strong and probably the strongest explanation. Bo Xilai's 24-year-old son Bo Guagua may have now seen his own political prospects sink with those of his father, but his family relationship certainly seems to have opened opportunities for him. Neil Heywood, the deceased Briton who had close ties to Bo Xilai's wife and whose mysterious death is involved in the current controversies about the family, reportedly told others that he had used his influence to get Bo Guagua admitted to the exclusive Harrow School in Britain (where Heywood was an alumnus). The young Bo is now a student at the Kennedy School at Harvard, where officials decline to say whether his family connections played a role in his admission, issuing only the usual boilerplate about a “holistic” approach that takes leadership potential into account. To the extent this third explanation is in play, that is unfortunate from the standpoint of having the most able political leaders rise to positions of power. The differential opportunities are a matter of privilege, not of merit.
The fourth explanation comes into play once the son or daughter is actually vying for political power and wins votes or deference merely because of the name or known family connection. This explanation clearly has a lot of validity as well. We see the phenomenon at work in, among other things, the role that name recognition plays in American elections. And like the third explanation, this is not a good thing if we want the most able leaders to assume power. It represents a further step away from a political meritocracy. To some extent voting for a name may be a low-cost way to make a political choice, but it also is an unreliable way to make it. Those who, for example, voted for George W. Bush on the basis of what they thought of George H. W. Bush's presidency were in for a surprise.
Given how prevalent the inheritance of political power is, across different types of political systems worldwide, this pattern does not seem to be one that would be subject to correction through political or constitutional engineering. And that's too bad.
President Obama's ripping into Republicans earlier this month for trying to impose a “radical” program on the country drew criticism as being strident and intensely partisan. Whatever one thinks of the president's tone, however, there is no denying that the Republican Party, especially over the past couple of decades, has moved toward the Far Right. We see this in the serial political deaths, disillusionment or marginalization of that endangered species known as the moderate Republican. The next specimen in danger of being shoved aside is Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, facing a challenger in the Republican primary with Tea Party support. The departure of Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would be a significant loss to well-reasoned Congressional consideration of foreign policy.
The New York Times highlights for us a different sort of challenge, but with the same underlying cause, facing presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. As Romney shakes his Etch A Sketch and draws up positions for the general-election campaign, Republicans in the House of Representatives are putting him on notice that they would be uncomfortable with any of that moving-to-the-center stuff. And the House Republicans are making it clear they will assert themselves. “We're not a cheerleading squad,” says Representative Jeff Landry of Louisiana. “We're the conductor. We're supposed to drive the train.”
There once were Republicans who welcomed the label "Radical" and applied it to themselves. They first distinguished themselves as being the most ardently antislavery faction of the party. During the Civil War, they became dissatisfied with a president of their own party—Abraham Lincoln—for moving too slowly toward abolition of slavery. The Radicals' center of power was the House of Representatives, where they were led by Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania.
The Radicals' real heyday came after the war—especially after the election of 1866, when Radical-dominated Republicans achieved veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress. Whereas overrides of presidential vetoes previously had been very rare, now Republicans repeatedly overrode vetoes by President Andrew Johnson of legislation governing Reconstruction of the South. It was the Radical Republicans who thus set the policy on Reconstruction.
That policy treated the South like a defeated foreign power. It featured extended military occupation by federal troops and the banning from political life of those who had participated in the Confederacy. Civilian government in Southern states fell into the hands of Northern carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags. The system started breaking down amid economically related Republican setbacks in the mid-1870s and ended after the presidential election of 1876. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the nationwide popular vote, but the electoral vote was left hanging by confusion of the outcome in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. Under the Compromise of 1877, the electoral votes and the presidency were given to Republican Rutherford Hayes, in return for the withdrawal of the last of the occupying federal troops and certain other concessions to the South, marking the end of Reconstruction.
The Radicals' approach to Reconstruction had logic. However contrary secession had been to the U.S. Constitution, it had nonetheless occurred. The defeat of the Confederacy provided an opportunity to try to root out whatever had underlain both secession and slavery. But Reconstruction was a failure. The Compromise of 1877 was quickly followed by the enactment of Jim Crow laws throughout the South. A system of segregation and subjugation of blacks was established, most of which would not be dismantled until the 1960s.
The failure is related to some parallels between the Radical Republicans of the nineteenth century and those of today, and not just in having their power centered in the House of Representatives. Both have exhibited self-righteousness and an unyielding commitment to what they regard as just causes. Some of the causes, such as the abolition of slavery, are indeed just. But the self-righteousness has led in each case to destructive inflexibility. This has partly taken the form of clashes—emotional, hateful clashes—with a president. (The Radical Republicans of the 1860s tried to tie Johnson's hands with legislation inhibiting his ability to remove his own cabinet members; when he acted contrary to the legislation, the House impeached him.)
Over the longer term, the destructiveness has extended to the Radicals' own presumed goals. The segregated South that emerged from Reconstruction was certainly not what the nineteenth-century Radical Republicans were aiming for. A narrow, short-term attitude that emphasized a punitive treatment of white Southerners (especially white Southern Democrats) overlooked the reactions that such treatment encouraged. Given that Reconstruction treated the defeated Confederacy as if it were a foreign country, it is not surprising that some of the parallels with the present involve foreign policy. In particular, the myopia that corresponds to the attitudes that underlay policy on Reconstruction is an inability or unwillingness to understand how some assertions of American power encourage reactions that over the longer term are harmful to U.S. interests.
In May 1968 in Paris, negotiations began to end the Vietnam War, which already had been raging for several years. A partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, a step that the administration of Lyndon Johnson had taken two months earlier, was the precipitating event leading to the initiation of talks. Once inside the same room, the negotiators were immediately seized with a procedural disagreement involving the status of the South Vietnamese government and the communist fighting force in the south, the Viet Cong or National Liberation Front. This disagreement had implications regarding the seating arrangements in the conference room. It was not until the following January that a compromise was reached. It had taken eight months for the negotiators to agree on the shape of the conference table. It would be four more years before the actual peace agreement was signed.
The Paris talks were aimed at ending an ongoing war, one waged at great cost to the United States and, even more so in terms of numbers of casualties, to the Vietnamese communists. Many other international negotiations, not involving an ongoing war, take even longer to yield meaningful results. The Vietnamese negotiations nonetheless have some parallels with the process of negotiating a resolution of the disagreement over Iran's nuclear program. Both involve highly salient issues of the day, not some long-running and little-noticed diplomatic talkfest. In both, some of the biggest U.S. problems have involved an unruly ally. (The obstinacy of the South Vietnamese government was a major reason it took so long to resolve the disagreement over seating arrangements.) And both negotiations were absolutely necessary to resolve the matters in dispute. Neither the United States nor North Vietnam had the ability to resolve their conflict militarily. And neither Iran nor the Western powers have any unilateral solutions to the issues that separate them. The difference is that the Vietnam negotiations were aimed at ending a misguided war, while the most important purpose of the talks with Iran is to prevent such a war from beginning.
Against the backdrop of past negotiations such as the Vietnam talks, the meeting held this weekend in Istanbul is properly seen as just the first step in a process that will require additional steps. (As for procedural issues, it is remarkable how readily Iran dropped its earlier balking over holding the talks in Turkey, especially given what the conflict in Syria has done to Turkish-Iranian relations.) Much more negotiating time will be required to yield substantive results, especially of a more permanent and final nature, even if interim understandings—which also can be important—are reached in the meantime. Given the nature of the issues, sound and lasting agreements must get into painstakingly negotiated technical details such as monitoring arrangements to ensure that agreed limits to the enrichment of uranium are observed. Time also is required for the negotiating process itself to build trust, bearing in mind that Iran has at least as much reason to distrust the West as the other way around.
The predictable spinning of the Istanbul talks from those anxious to declare diplomatic failure and get on with the war they really seem to want is contrived, with their motivations fairly transparent. The concept of a limited window for diplomacy to yield results is fallacious when the subject is an Iranian nuclear program that dates back to the days of the shah and which has been the subject of repeated overestimates of how close Iran was to building a nuclear weapon. The notion of a window is an artificiality that has mostly to do with the saber rattling of the Israeli government and its attention to the U.S. electoral calendar. Expressed concern about Iran dragging out negotiations loses sight of how, amid ever more onerous sanctions on Iran, Tehran has more reason for concern about the West dragging out negotiations.
The negotiations that mattered most in hammering out a peace accord on Vietnam were not the ones that took place openly over that laboriously agreed-upon conference table but instead the secret talks beginning in August 1969 between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, for which they would later share a Nobel Peace Prize. We do not know if any secret talks are taking place between the United States and Iran. If there are, I hope they stay secret, so they can make progress without interference from troublesome allies, domestic naysayers in both countries and others with an interest in sabotaging them.
Much commentary about the impending talks with Iran on its nuclear program brings to mind Pogo Possum’s comment that we have met the enemy and he is us. Among the impediments to success on both sides of this negotiation, some of the most prominent ones are on our side. Remarkably, this has been noted by some who could never be accused of being soft on Iran. But the impediments are simply treated as a given, and as a reason to resign ourselves in advance to pessimism about negotiations. It is as if something were preventing us from changing what is actually in our power to change. And it is as if when we tie ourselves in political knots in ways that make it difficult, though not impossible, to change, this is somehow the Iranians’ fault. This self-crippling approach toward dealing with Iran starts with the de facto surrendering of U.S. freedom of action to the Israeli government, but it does not end there.
Consider a recent piece by Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on what attraction a deal with the P5+1 would or would not have for the Iranian leadership. Clawson’s analysis is quite perceptive regarding the unattractiveness to the Iranians of the prospect that concession on their part would be met not by the lifting of any current sanctions but only by a suspension of movement toward still more sanctions. As Clawson correctly observes, “avoiding prospective sanctions is not a particularly tangible incentive for Iranian leaders—that is, they would have trouble justifying an agreement to their constituents by simply saying, ‘It's a bad deal, but if we did not take it, life would be even worse.’”
But Clawson says nothing about the obvious inference that more flexibility is needed on the P5+1 side, instead simply taking the inflexibility as a given. He notes, for example, that “Congress has been particularly reluctant to end sanctions it has enacted into law,” without also noting that it is in Congress’s power to change by law whatever Congress has enacted into law. “As for UN sanctions,” says Clawson, “the United States is reluctant to let Security Council resolutions expire because reintroducing them would be very difficult.” The United States, of course, just as it has pushed hard and successfully for the Security Council to impose harsh sanctions, can push just as hard for the expiration, lifting or reimposition of sanctions.
Clawson attempts to portray some of the lack of economic attractiveness for Iran of striking a deal with the West as being outside the influence of Western governments. But it isn’t. He says that “a number of major international companies that withdrew from Iran in recent years did so at least in part because of the poor business climate,” and that “Iran has a poor record of attracting international investment.” Well, imposing economic sanctions on a country has a way of doing that. And the sanctions, as well as more direct governmental discouragement of investment in Iran, have been around for a long time. Have we forgotten how the Clinton administration, while it was working hard to discourage European economic relations with Iran, killed a deal that Conoco had reached to develop offshore Iranian oil fields?
Taking U.S. inflexibility as a given is a backdrop to another prominent theme in pre-Istanbul commentary, much of which is clearly designed to lay the groundwork for making a later judgment that “diplomacy has failed.” The Washington Post's lead editorial on Thursday is an example. The editorial writers express a pro forma belief that “military action is neither necessary nor wise in the coming months,” thereby being able to portray any later endorsement of a war as a reluctantly arrived at last resort. They make no secret of where they are going, though, stating up front that the negotiations in Istanbul may be the “last chance for a peaceful settlement” in the “negative sense” that “hardly anyone thinks” that a deal will be struck. The pessimism is based on what has been reported of the Obama administration's position toward the talks, but even that position is not obdurate enough for the Post's editorialists. They express concern that any near-term deal that would trade restrictions on Iran's enrichment activity for a freezing of further sanctions and maybe some easing of existing ones—which in fact would be a decidedly beneficial stepping back from the brink of a senseless war—would “allow the regime breathing space,” and according to the Post, that would be bad. Following the Post's advice of no Western concessions at all short of complete stoppage of enrichment would be the perfect formula for making “failure” of diplomacy a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One should bear in mind, amid such advance spinning of the talks, three important points. One is that for diplomacy to succeed requires at least as much attention to inducing flexibility on the U.S. side as in inducing it on the Iranian side. Fareed Zakaria starts to get to this problem when he says, “The administration has handled its allies, Russia, China, the United Nations and even Tehran with skill. To succeed, however, it has to tackle its most formidable foe, with whom it has not had much negotiating success: Republicans.” The problem, however, goes beyond Republicans, who have tried to exploit politically an attitude of inflexibility that extends beyond their own ranks.
Second, policy makers can change policies, tactics and even attitudes, no matter how deeply engrained those attitudes seem to be. This is what political leadership is about. If policy makers want a politically attractive argument that can help to sell a deal with Tehran that involves easing of sanctions in return for restrictions on, but not ending of, enrichment, they can start by pointing out how much the sanctions have increased gasoline prices in the United States.
Third, the absence of a deal after Istanbul or later rounds of talks is likely to say no more about Iranian obduracy—although that will be the focus of countless commentaries—than about our own.
Debate over foreign policy is usually far removed from the scientific method, but that doesn't stop many who engage in the debate from drawing strong inferences based on limited data. If the latest policy approach to a problem doesn't bring quick and desirable results, then the conclusion is drawn that the approach is unwise or at least defective. Such conclusions are often employed tendentiously, of course, for the sake of attacking someone else's policies or someone else's administration. But the conclusions, however unjustified they may be, have a couple of more basic sources.
One is a short collective memory, coupled with the tendency to ascribe to incumbents responsibility for whatever problems are preoccupying us at the moment. We see this reflected in the tendency to treat a presidential election as a referendum on how things have been going for the nation lately (more with respect to domestic policy than foreign affairs). It is reflected in the inclination to throw the current bums out, even if the previous bums might not have done any better. This is a general pattern, going well beyond the United States and involving different methods for changing governments. It is exhibited, for example, in Pakistan, where a pattern of alternating every few years between military and civilian rule continues as Pakistanis periodically get fed up with whoever has been ruling them most recently.
The other source is more peculiarly American: a belief that the right policies ought to be able to solve even the most difficult problems. Americans have a hard time believing, given how successful their nation has been at so many things, that some problems are intractable even for a superpower.
North Korea, and particularly its weapons programs, is an excellent example of an intractable problem. Several aspects of the "hermit kingdom" make it so. At the core of the policy dilemma that North Korea presents to outside powers is its proclivity, which it has honed into an art form, of misbehaving as a way of getting attention and rewards. The trick for outsiders, which is difficult to perform, is to find ways to induce better behavior in the future without rewarding misbehavior of the recent past. The United States does not have the keys to this particular kingdom. If any outside power has the keys, it is China, but Beijing's interests in North Korea only partially parallel those of Washington.
North Korea is about to conduct a rocket launch that it describes as intended only to launch a satellite but that many outside observers say is a disguised test of a long-range ballistic missile with a military mission. There is also talk, especially from the South Koreans, of the North possibly being on the verge of a third underground test of a nuclear weapon. So not surprisingly, and consistent with the usual tendency of inferring that a policy is unwise if it does not bring quick positive results, critics of the Obama administration charge that its most recent tack on Korea was a mistake. That tack was an agreement reached with Pyongyang two months ago that offered food aid in return for a ban on further tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
The criticism misses several things. Hardly anything was given up in the deal reached in February. The food aid would consist of nutritional supplements that would be difficult for the regime to divert from the civilian population to the military and that meets a legitimate humanitarian need entirely apart from the weapons issues. Not to have taken this initiative would have missed an opportunity to test North Korean intentions following the leadership succession from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. A policy of not engaging Pyongyang was tried for several years under the previous administration, without success in preventing North Korea's first nuclear tests. Most important, there is no reason to believe that not concluding the agreement would have brought about any better results today. An anonymous senior administration official understandably complained, “There's a lot of 'shoulda, coulda, woulda' now from outsiders.”
Those who have more of a right to criticize are ones who are proposing something that has not been tried before and offer analysis on why the alternative they are proposing has a better chance of getting favorable results. Ted Galen Carpenter did so recently in these spaces in arguing for normal relationships with North Korea and Iran.
The Egyptian presidential-election campaign is getting more interesting all the time. It certainly offers more variety than the presidential-election campaign in the United States, which consists of an incumbent and a bunch of other guys who all say that Barack Obama is the worst thing ever to infect the American body politic and that it will take a severely conservative candidate to root him out of office. In Egypt, a more diverse spectrum of candidates are vying for the top job. And they are vying for it despite not knowing what powers a yet-to-be-written constitution will confer on the new president.
The Egyptian race discombobulates commentators who customarily deal in simplistic portrayals of good guys versus bad guys and make arguments for supporting the good guys. What is one to make, for example, of the latest entrant into the race: Omar Suleiman, who was Hosni Mubarak's longtime intelligence chief and briefly his vice president? One might say he represents an old order dragging down the new, but he also was a trusted interlocutor of the United States who was closely associated with still-valued things such as maintaining the peace with Israel. He is just the sort of multifaceted candidate who confuses pundits to whom both the “freedom agenda” and Israel are important.
Then there is Hazem Abu Ismail, the white-bearded candidate who represents the Salafists, the harder-core portion of the much-feared Islamists. Currently his main problem is the recent revelation that his late mother had acquired U.S. citizenship. That reminds me of a comment recorded by NPR from a Republican voter who said that Obama should be disqualified from the presidency because “in the Constitution it states that you have to have two parents that were born in the United States.” The U.S. Constitution doesn't say that, of course, but the current Egyptian electoral rules do say that a presidential candidate and both his parents can have no citizenship other than Egyptian. So Abu Ismail appears to be headed for disqualification. Should we regret that or welcome it? For an Egyptian president to have an American mother seems like a plus for the United States.
Staying with the Salafists but going beyond the presidential candidates, there are other interesting details about personal inclinations. My favorite concerns the member of parliament for the Salafist Nour Party who, with his face in bandages, claimed that he been the victim of an assault. It later came to light that he instead had undergone plastic surgery on his nose. Plastic surgery is a no-no for ultra-conservative Salafists. The member resigned his seat.
Then consider presidential candidates who have been associated with the Muslim Brotherhood—i.e., the part of the Islamist spectrum that is more moderate than the part with the leaders who have American moms or get nose jobs. There are more than one such candidates, but the officially endorsed candidate of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is Khairat al-Shater, who, besides being the Brotherhood's deputy leader, is also a multimillionaire businessman. Whatever he may represent regarding a goal of instituting a more Islamic social order in Egypt, he has made a lot of money in a largely secular economy.
The overall picture is one of political leaders with cross-cutting interests. Political scientists have a word for this; it is called pluralism. It is a pattern that helps make any democracy, including a newly emerging one, healthier and more stable than it otherwise would be. It means that destabilizing divisions are tamped because compromises are made within the minds and hearts of individual leaders (and many individual voters). It means that simplistic assertions about who are good guys and who are not, and whom we on the outside ought or ought not to favor, are misdirected. It means we should not get especially alarmed about any one possible outcome of the Egyptian election. And it is one of the reasons that attempts at blanket criticism of Obama for how he has reacted to events in Egypt, or in some other locales of Arab Spring turmoil, tend to dissolve into the kind of self-contradiction that includes criticism both for supporting Mubarak and for not supporting him.
We ought to hope that the description in a New York Times report of the U.S. position going into negotiations with Iran about nuclear activities does not fairly represent what U.S. and other Western negotiators will bring to the table. Perhaps we can take heart in the absence of a good reason to expect that leaks to journalists of negotiating positions will be complete and entirely accurate. Leaks, after all, are designed for various audiences, and not necessarily the one that will be faced across the conference table. Nonetheless, it is disturbing to read of an approach that probably would diminish rather than enhance the prospects for movement toward an agreement that satisfies Western interests. The lede of the Times story is that the Obama administration and its European partners will open the talks by “demanding the immediate closing and ultimate dismantling” of Iran's uranium-enrichment facility at Fordo. This is the newer of two such Iranian facilities and the one that—because it was constructed, no doubt at substantially higher cost, inside a mountain—is relatively less vulnerable to armed attack. This demand echoes Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak's recent singling out, amid more talk by Barak in the same interview about possibly resorting to military force, of closure of Fordo as a key Israeli objective.
The Western message to Tehran seems pretty clear: we might be willing to tolerate some sort of Iranian nuclear program, but only one consisting of facilities that would suffer significant damage if we, or the Israelis, later decide to bomb it. In other words, we insist on holding Iranian nuclear facilities hostage to armed attack. Not the sort of formula that inspires trust among Iranian leaders and gives them much incentive to move toward an agreement.
Two major pieces of context should be remembered in thinking about negotiating positions on the Iranian nuclear issue and how Tehran is likely to approach the negotiations. One is that Iran—unlike nuclear-weapons states to its west and east, including one very hostile to Iran—is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and subjects its nuclear facilities to international inspections. These are parts of the global nonproliferation regime, which also embodies a right to peaceful nuclear programs. Demands being levied on Iran but not on others thus constitute a glaring double standard. Repeated references to the need for Iran to “live up to its international obligations,” as mentioned by the National Security Council spokesman on Friday, refer not to any universal obligation but instead to Iran-specific United Nations Security Council resolutions that were pushed by the United States and that embody the double standard.
The other contextual factor is that getting any international agreement requires each side to have confidence that the other side is serious about reaching a settlement and that, if an agreement is reached, the pain and costs of not having an agreement will end. Amid the overwhelming and unrelenting emphasis on inflicting ever-greater pain on Iran through draconian sanctions, not to mention all the saber rattling about possible use of military force, there is no shortage of incentives on the negative side of the ledger for Tehran to want an agreement. The doubts concern the ledger's other side, which has to do with how Tehran perceives the West's intentions and seriousness about an agreement as well as what an agreement would or would not mean for Iran.
The Iranians have good reason for doubts. There is ample reason for them to believe—a belief reinforced by the experience of Qaddafi in Libya—that ultimately the main Western interest is in regime change. In the near term, they also have reason to wonder whether, if they start making significant concessions, they will see any significant lessening of the sanctions. (There is no mention of that in the Times story.) And although the Obama administration does want a deal, demands that can easily be interpreted either as deal breakers or as having been selected with a military attack in mind tend to raise questions about that, too. Relieving such doubts ought to be a major objective of the United States and its P5+1 partners in planning their approach toward the talks.
The Obama administration has placed high stakes on negotiations with Iran. In dealing with the immediate problem of an Israeli government with an itchy trigger finger, the administration has signed on to the Israeli position of an Iranian nuclear weapon being unacceptable. The United States ought to place heavy emphasis on negotiations with Iran in any case. There is still ample unexplored negotiating space for reaching an agreement with Tehran. But given the stakes, the administration cannot afford to risk messing up the process by focusing on demands that seem to have more to do with simplifying the task of Israeli military targeteers than they do with anything else.
A recurring theme in foreign-policy debates is the damage to national credibility that supposedly would result if a state backs away from anything that could be seen as a commitment. Commitments in this context need not be anything as formal as a treaty of alliance. They could be seen to be established by a leader's rhetoric or to be implied by an ongoing endeavor such as a military expedition. An argument frequently heard, as it was during the Vietnam War and now during the war in Afghanistan, is that backing away would so damage U.S. credibility in the eyes of other nations or other actors abroad that the United States would no longer be believed when it expresses some other commitment. And because of that, goes the argument, the ability of the United States to protect its most important interests would be diminished.
The trouble with such an argument is that it simply does not reflect how states tend to assess the credibility of other states. Such assessments are based on how important a particular interest is believed to be to the other state, much more so than how the other state behaved in the past when dealing with some lesser interest. That is how we in the United States routinely estimate the behavior of other nations. The fact that the other guy once backed away from an interest that was not vital to him does not lead us to think that he will not defend to the death an interest that is.
Commitments do matter, however, in a way that our very preoccupation with them suggests. They matter because of their role in our own internal debates. Because we believe that backing away from a perceived commitment would be damaging, anyone seen to be doing so is vulnerable to a charge of harming the nation's interests. This points to a tactic for getting support for a measure that might not otherwise get it. First, elicit an expressed commitment to achieve some objective. Then, later, argue that one's preferred measure is the only way to achieve the objective and to uphold the commitment. Further argue that failure to take the measure and thus failure to uphold the commitment would severely damage the nation's credibility.
Something like this has been happening with the issue of Iran's nuclear program. When commenting a few weeks ago on a draft Senate resolution that would declare the advent of an Iranian nuke to be unacceptable and to reject any policy involving containment of a nuclear-armed Iran, I noted that this is just the sort of declaration that sets the stage for its proponents later to demand the United States take whatever steps are needed to fulfill the commitment of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, even if this means starting a war. This process already has begun. The resolution has not yet been adopted, but President Obama's statement that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable—part of the high price he paid to buy time before Israel starts a war with Iran—is enough for the tactic to be employed. In a group discussion about Iran I attended this week, someone asked rhetorically how, if the United States allows Iran to build a nuclear weapon, anyone in the region will believe anything that the United States says in the future. The implication was that the United States needs to spare no risk or cost to prevent the given eventuality, not because the eventuality is unacceptable but instead because we have declared it to be unacceptable. It seems to go unnoticed that if this is a problem, the problem lies in having made any such declaration in the first place.
Now consider a different sort of commitment expressed by the leader on the other end of this issue: Iranian supreme leader Khamenei. He has said that possessing nuclear weapons is a sin. This posture has evoked comment in the United States, mostly in the direction of downplaying the significance of this religiously based posture and emphasizing that pragmatic considerations leading Iran to view possession of a nuclear weapon as advantageous would trump any fatwas about the weapons being sinful and that the supreme leader can always revise his ostensibly religious pronouncements to fit circumstances. It is interesting to note that some of the same people who say pragmatism would overcome this particular religiously based posture also contend that religiously based fervor or fanaticism would trump pragmatism when it comes to how Iran would behave if it did get the bomb.
Pragmatic considerations will indeed carry more weight than religious views about sin in governing Iranian decisions about whether to build a bomb. But Khamenei's publicly declared posture about the sinfulness of nuclear weapons is nonetheless significant in the same way that publicly expressed commitments by our own leaders are significant: in affecting what policies can be sold to internal and domestic audiences. If the supreme leader determines that it is in his regime's interests to strike a deal with the West that would clearly rule out an Iranian nuke, his statements have made it more feasible for him to win internal backing for such a deal—by underscoring publicly that Iran never wanted nuclear weapons anyway and is morally right not to want them. Leaving himself this kind of out is a reason for optimism in what the coming negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 can achieve, notwithstanding all the other hurdles and roadblocks that the negotiations will have to overcome.
Obama Image: SyalAntilles
Khamenei Image: www.kremlin.ru
A reminder of how human history, including the portion of it involving political and public affairs, sometimes hinges on otherwise minor twists and turns is the coup d'etat two weeks ago in Mali, which has since become the target of regional isolation and ostracism. A group of junior army officers led by a captain named Amadou Sanogo deposed the government of Amadou Toumani Touré and declared itself to be a National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State. Sanogo, who says he will be happy to go back to the barracks soon and be a company or battalion commander, promises early elections.
Most coups, and certainly most that succeed, are the result of plans carefully constructed by determined plotters. That evidently was not the case with last month's coup in Mali. The event began with discontent in the ranks of the Malian military over the government's handling of a rebellion by Tuaregs in the north of the country. The rebellion has surged in recent months—leading the other day to a Tuareg capture of Timbuktu—probably facilitated by an influx of arms from Libya following the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. When the Malian defense minister visited a military camp a few miles outside the capital of Bamako and failed to respond adequately to grievances about the response to the rebellion, soldiers started firing in the air and stoning the minister's car. As things got out of hand in the enlisted ranks, most officers at the camp fled. An exception was Sanogo, who soon found himself at the head of a revolt that made its way to the state broadcasting station and the presidential palace. A spontaneous protest had transformed into a mutiny and then into a coup.
There probably are more turns of history than we realize that hinge on such spur-of-the-moment responses to unsettled circumstances. These and other accidents of the moment can, in the right circumstances, make the difference in something as significant as a government falling or not falling.
Besides reminding us of this reason for the unpredictability of history, the incident also is a reminder of how readily loyalties can shift. It would be easy to dismiss a coup in Mali as merely business as usual in the less developed world. But the lines between that world and our own are not always clear and thick as far as this subject is concerned. Mali had been scheduled to have an election later this month, and many were anticipating a peaceful transfer of power from Touré to someone else. And how should we regard such questions as they apply, say, to Turkey? The accepted wisdom about Turkey seems to be that military coups there are finally a thing of the past. But the past in question is not very distant, and the arrow of time does not always run in one direction as far as the coup-making propensity of militaries is concerned.
We might also note that it was fifty-one years ago this month, in the next country to the north of Mali—i.e., Algeria—that four French generals staged a putsch that they intended would lead to a takeover of the government of France. It took Charles de Gaulle, donning his World War II uniform and appealing once again to the patriotism of his countrymen, to defeat the coup attempt.
Image: State television of Mali