The growing civil war in Syria is a prototypical case of a problem with no good solution. An authoritarian regime appears to have passed the point of being able to reestablish either authority within Syria or legitimacy within the community of nations but retains enough determination and firepower to avoid being toppled any time soon. Opposition elements demonstrate their own form of determination but are not demonstrating unity, effective organization or clear purpose beyond wanting to get rid of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It is much easier to point out the downsides of any proposed response to this situation than to come up with a response that is at all attractive. It is still necessary to consider carefully all the doubts and downsides, not just to shoot down other people's ideas but to know what we are getting into even if we wind up only with the least bad of several decidedly bad options.
Marc Lynch has usefully raised several important questions about one of the more forward-leaning of the options that are within the realm of political feasibility, which is to provide arms to the armed resistance that calls itself the Free Syrian Army. The first question is who exactly would get the arms. Lynch notes that the FSA “remains something of a fiction, a convenient mailbox for a diverse, unorganized collection of local fighting groups.” Other questions include: How would provision of arms affect the Syrian opposition, including its degree of unity and its aims? Exactly what would arms aid be intended to achieve? If it is intended to defeat the regime rather than just to keep the opposition fighters going, how much aid would be needed to do that? How would the regime respond to such external aid? And if the regime falls, what would happen then to the armed opposition groups?
The answers to all of these questions are currently unclear. Similarly probing questions can be asked about other possible options, and the lack of current clarity is not necessarily a reason to discard either the possibility of arming the FSA or any other possible course of action. But more attention should be devoted to trying to answer the questions before making any major new departures on Syria. Besides addressing the questions, several tendencies need to be resisted in formulating policy on the Syria problem.
One such tendency is the emotional urge to “do something” in the face of obvious human suffering and bloodshed. This tendency needs to be resisted because some possible measures that may help to satisfy this urge might only lead to different scenarios in which the humanitarian situation would be even worse (not to mention possibly being detrimental to other policy objectives). This is another application of the general rule that emotion usually does not produce sound foreign policy.
We should not equate getting rid of Assad with bringing about a better Syria. Some of the alternatives might be worse. And even if there is no possibility of the current regime reestablishing authority and legitimacy, how Assad goes will have a lot to do with what comes after.
We also should not equate more forceful options in opposing the regime with greater likelihood of the regime falling sooner rather than later. Consider how different possible endgames look to Assad and to others who are irretrievably associated with his regime. He knows what happened to Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein. If he has to lose power, a negotiated exit may appear less unpleasant than a fight to the death.
Every option has risks and uncertainties, of course, including the option of doing absolutely nothing. But if there is to be any bias, it should be in the direction of taking fewer rather than more new departures. New departures entail more risks and uncertainties because they stir the pot in ways that bring about new and unforeseeable situations. Those who stir the pot generally also assume new responsibilities. The Hippocratic principle of first doing no harm applies to statesmanship as well as to medicine.
Denigrating or opposing the federal government has long been a theme of many American political campaigns, even for candidates who would like to head that government. This year the theme seems to be getting voiced in an especially full-throated manner. The fact that we have been watching a primary contest among candidates hoping to unseat an incumbent president obviously has a lot to do with that. The influence of the Tea Party movement on the Republican Party is also a major contributing factor. Whatever the combination of causes, even candidates who have been deeply embedded in, and politically or financially enriched by, the Washington establishment—Messrs. Gingrich and Santorum come to mind—talk as if they have never had any thing to do with that establishment. The presidential candidate who can most plausibly claim not to be a creature of Washington, Mitt Romney, makes much of that concept as one of the things that sets him apart from others still in the race.
I see no particular pattern among the forty-three men who have held the presidency that correlates being or not being a Washington insider with being a good or a bad president. In any event, many presidents have had mixed resumés that would make it difficult to categorize them as either insiders or outsiders. But some other observations come to mind while listening to this year's anti-Washington rhetoric.
Past or present occupancy of an office in the federal government should not be considered the defining characteristic in determining what sort of relationship someone has had with that government or with the Washington establishment. Two articles about Romney in Monday's newspapers underscore that observation. One describes the very large role that well-established Washington lobbyists play in Romney's campaign and as advisers to the candidate. The other article concerns Romney's performance in heading the Salt Lake City Olympic organizing committee in 2002. The picture the article conveys is mixed, with some testifying to Romney's solid and energetic leadership and others saying that his main contribution was in restoring respectability to a committee that had a public relations problem but was not on the verge of collapse. What caught my eye in this account was that one of Romney's biggest accomplishments as head of the committee was in successfully lobbying the federal government (against the opposition of Senator John McCain and other Republican leaders) for what became the biggest federal funding for any Olympic games in U.S. history, either winter or summer. The federal subsidy for the Salt Lake City games tripled on Romney's watch from $200 million to $600 million. The turnaround expert from the private sector turned around this enterprise with big help from what usually would be called a federal bailout.
Another observation is that making the federal government work well involves some realities of governing that would be hard to learn anywhere else. This is partly, but not entirely, a matter of government being fundamentally different from corporations. Donald Rumsfeld has spoken of how much more readily he could make things happen as chief executive of the pharmaceutical firm G.D. Searle than he could as a cabinet secretary, where leadership is necessarily much more a matter of compromise and dealing with competing interests. Even the more hierarchical parts of the federal government itself do not prepare one fully for leadership in the presidency. Harry Truman said of his successor Dwight Eisenhower, “He will sit here and he’ll say, Do this! Do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the army.”
The management of the nation's affairs in foreign relations, where the handling of competing interests becomes even more complex, is even more a matter of on-the-job training than with domestic affairs. The large majority of things each presidential administration does in foreign policy, especially after the first few months in office, are reactions to problems and threats rather than anything that could have been foreseen during the presidential campaign.
Vaunting detachment from Washington has other downsides. Some longtime observers and former members of Congress have observed that one reason for the bitter partisanship and acrimony that has become routine on Capitol Hill is that fewer members today feel part of a Washington community. There is less socializing with those on the other side of the aisle, and thus less of the comity that this encourages, than used to be the case. More members today have a sense of community only with home constituencies, to which they repair between sallies to do battle in (or against) Washington.
Then there is the problem that being against something doesn't necessarily provide a clear idea of what one is for.
There certainly is something to be said for fresh ideas and fresh approaches, but that is not the same as railing at the federal government. Running against Washington is another pattern in American politics that is a net minus, rather than a plus, in choosing good presidents and good policies.
David Ignatius has a column noting that this month marks the fortieth anniversary of one of the landmark events in the history of U.S. foreign policy: President Richard Nixon's trip to China. Observing the anniversary is appropriate. Nixon's opening to China was one of the truly great foreign policy initiatives by a U.S. president. Regardless of what else it is appropriate to think about Nixon, he deserves much credit for this achievement.
I differ with Ignatius, however, in his couching of the China initiative as a demonstration of the virtues that come from a political leader demonstrating inconsistencies over time. Ignatius even seems to draw a comparison between Nixon's move of four decades ago and the flip-flopping of presidential candidates today. In fact, there is no comparison at all. Sure, Nixon had an earlier reputation as a fervent anti-communist, going back to his days on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. And “Nixon to China” has joined the political lexicon as a phrase applicable to any move by a leader whose previous reputation pointing in a different direction gives him political cover to make the move. But what led to Nixon's China opening was less a change in Nixon's own outlook than in geopolitical circumstances that he was striving to exploit. The careful thought that Nixon put into his China gambit was the antithesis of the flip-flopping and pandering that we hear on the campaign trail today.
Nixon's initiative had its roots in his cogitation while out of power about great power politics and how it could be reshaped to America's advantage. When he entered the White House in 1969 it was with one of the most fully formed strategic outlooks about foreign affairs of any incoming U.S. president. A fundamental aspect of the China initiative that Ignatius does not mention is that it was one leg of triangular diplomacy in which Nixon intended to use the relationship with Beijing to gain leverage in his dealings with the Soviet Union. On the China part of his strategy, Nixon was even ahead of his geostrategic partner Henry Kissinger.
Nixon personally planned the negotiating approach toward China, inventorying on his yellow legal pad the objectives of each state and where they might find common ground. It was a thorough thought process that—especially in taking account of the perspectives and interests of the other side—is sorely missing from much of what passes for public debate about foreign policy today. Nixon and Kissinger's super-close-hold manner of handling the initiative, in which even Secretary of State William Rogers was kept in the dark, had its disadvantages. Some signals from the Chinese were missed, and there were some avoidable stumbles in the drafting of what became known as the Shanghai Communiqué. But to the extent the result was a positive accomplishment, which it was, the credit was all Nixon's.
This history differs starkly from the foreign policy rhetoric of today's campaigns because it had a firm strategic foundation and was not flip-flopping, and also because it certainly was not pandering to popular public images of a foreign power. And that gets to one of the ingredients of a great foreign policy decision: not that it represents a departure from what the statesman who makes it said in the past, but that it is a departure from what may be well-entrenched popular perceptions—of foreign powers, of perceived good guys and bad guys in world politics, and of what is and is not possible in shaping relations with each. That is apt to require some political courage, which is another ingredient that is often lacking today.
Although the assassinations of Iranian scientists have until now been followed by no indication of responsibility other than smug comments of satisfaction from officials of the most likely foreign state perpetrator, now NBC offers something more specific. According to a report by Richard Engel and Robert Windrem, the assassinations have been the joint work of Israel and the Iranian cult-cum-terrorist group Mujahedin-e Khalq. According to the report, the partnership has involved Israel providing financing, training and arms to the MEK to accomplish the hits, as well as to commit other acts of violent sabotage inside Iran. The story tracks with accusations from officials of the Iranian government, who say they base most of what they know on interrogations and captured materials from a failed assassination attempt in 2010. Such accusations by themselves would be easy to dismiss, of course, as more of the regime’s propaganda. But the NBC story cites two senior U.S. officials, speaking anonymously, as confirming the story. A third official said “it hasn’t been clearly confirmed yet,” although like the others he denied any U.S. involvement. The Israeli foreign ministry declined comment; the MEK denied the story.
With or without confirmation of details of this story, the assassinations are terrorism. (The official U.S. government definition of terrorism for reporting and statistic-keeping purposes is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”) The extra twist in this new report is the use by Israel—already widely believed to have been responsible for the murders—of the MEK, a group with a long track record of terrorism that has included American victims. Other parts of that record, including the MEK having been an arm of Saddam Hussein's security forces, have meant the group has almost no popular support within Iran. Anyone in Israel, the United States, or anywhere else hoping for a salubrious regime change in Iran would be foolish to have anything to do with the MEK.
Even more important than what is foolish is what is immoral. Terrorism denies the high ground to anyone who uses it, including the use of it in disagreements with Iran. It also hastens the slide through mutually reinforcing hostility into what may be a far more destructive form of violence (i.e., a war). Although the United States has not been involved in the assassinations, the nature of its relationship with Israel, both real and perceived (President Obama commented the other day about staying in “lockstep” with Israel on Iran), means that Israel's actions suck the United States farther down the slide.
Amid all the reasons for dismay and outrage over this, there is also an irony. One of the oft-repeated rationales for the conventional wisdom that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable is that it would somehow turn Iran into a regional marauder that would recklessly throw its weight around the Middle East in damaging ways. Well, there is an example of a Middle Eastern state that behaves in such a way, but it isn't Iran. This state invades neighboring countries, ruthlessly inflicting destruction on civilian populations, and seizes and colonizes territory through military force. It also uses terrorist group proxies as well as its own agents to conduct assassinations in other countries in the region.
Besides terrorism, there also is, as with any prototypical rogue state, a nuclear weapons angle. This state, unlike Iran, has never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or admitted an international inspector to any of its nuclear facilities. Even though it has had a sizable arsenal of nuclear weapons for decades, it has kept its nuclear weapons program completely out of reach of any international scrutiny or arms control regime and does not even acknowledge the program's existence. It also is so intent on maintaining its regional nuclear weapons monopoly that it is using terrorism to strike at the nuclear program of a country that doesn't even have one nuclear weapon and probably hasn't made a decision to make one.
One could almost argue that this record of behavior supports that conventional wisdom about what an Iranian nuke would do to Iran's behavior. But actually it doesn't. The behavior of the state in question is made possible not by nuclear weapons but instead by its conventional military superiority over its neighbors and by the cover provided by a subservient, protective great power whose policies it is able to manipulate.
The United States needs to distance itself as much as possible from this ugliness, for the sake of adhering to its own principles as well as trying to avoid sliding any further toward catastrophe. It was good that Secretary of State Clinton quickly disavowed the most recent assassination, but distancing requires something more. Forget the lockstep business. Israel is out of step with American policy because it evidently is out of step with American values and American interests. Washington needs to proclaim loudly and repeatedly that the sort of terrorism that the NBC report describes is the antithesis of how differences with Iran ought to be settled, and that those differences need to be settled through diplomacy. Then negotiate like we really mean it. Two distinguished retired U.S. diplomats, William Luers and Thomas Pickering, have recently provided some excellent instruction on how to do that.
One of the latest efforts by members of Congress (especially, but not exclusively, Republicans) to impede the executive branch's conduct of foreign policy concerns the possible transfer of several Afghan Taliban out of the detention facility at Guantanamo as part of the process of negotiating an agreement with the Taliban. Specifically, the move would entail transferring five senior Taliban from Guantanamo to Qatar as a good-faith gesture. One anonymous Republican member of Congress forecast strong opposition if the Obama administration attempted this transfer, saying, "If they do that, then all hell breaks loose. There's just no way."
Opposition to this move probably reflects a combination of several misconceived and unhelpful beliefs:
That negotiating is mutually exclusive with fighting. A substantial modern history of warfare, including the U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam, demonstrates that not only are they not mutually exclusive, but negotiating while fighting may be the only way out of a war with even a hope of a satisfactory outcome. This belief is related to a more general one...
That diplomacy is a reward that should not be bestowed on enemies. This attitude merely handicaps ourselves by removing one of our tools of statecraft. The late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said it best: you negotiate peace with your enemies, not with your friends.
That we need not and should not make concessions to an adversary to achieve peace. Negotiations that are conceived as all taking and no giving seldom work. The transfer of the five Taliban hardly even merits being considered a concession. It would be only an act of good faith to help make a negotiating process possible.
That the Afghan Taliban are international terrorists. The Taliban are an insular group concerned with the internal political and social structure of Afghanistan with no affinity to the transnational terrorist ideology of al-Qaeda. The prime objective of negotiations with the Taliban should be to eliminate any possibility of future alliances of convenience between the Taliban and the likes of al-Qaeda. The Taliban have given plenty of indication that such an outcome is achievable.
That something better than a very messy compromise is achievable in Afghanistan. This is related to the belief that prolonging U.S. involvement in the combat in Afghanistan can somehow achieve what a decade of such involvement to date has not achieved. A spokesman for House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon reacted to the possible Taliban detainee transfer by saying, "It would seem that the Taliban are free to wait the president out and recoup their senior leaders without obtaining any real guarantee for a peaceful, stable or free Afghanistan.” Eschewing negotiations and prolonging the war would guarantee a peaceful, stable or free Afghanistan? This war certainly has given no reason to believe it would.
That Guantanamo ought to be a roach motel where detainees check in but never check out. If the prospect of a settlement to end the war in Afghanistan is not worth letting five detainees out of Gitmo, then what ever would be worth it?
In an interview broadcast during NBC's Super Bowl pregame show on Sunday, President Obama made a couple of statements that were disturbing, even if politically unsurprising. In a portion of the interview about the danger of Israel touching off a war with Iran, the president said, “My number one priority continues to be the security of the United States, but also the security of Israel.” Wait a minute—shouldn't the security of the United States be the number one priority of the president of the United States? Rather than merely sharing the top spot on the priority list with some foreign country's security? This comment was part of an unscripted interview, and perhaps the language of a prepared speech would have come out differently. But the president said what he said.
Elsewhere in the same interview, Mr. Obama said that in dealing with Israel regarding the issue of Iran, “We are going to make sure that we work in lockstep.” If working in lockstep means that Israel defers to U.S. interests and preferences, that would be fine for the United States. But of course the deference nearly always works the other way around. For a glaring recent example involving President Obama, recall how he caved to Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the continued Israeli construction of settlements in occupied territories. So this statement is disturbing as well.
Any national political leader in the United States should be expected to give clear, consistent, overwhelming priority to U.S. interests—never equating, much less subordinating, them to the interests of any foreign state. Relationships with foreign governments can be useful in advancing U.S. interests, but they are always means, not ends. I have discussed this principle before. Suffice it to note that the policies of the current government of the foreign state in question are not only not to be equated with U.S. interests but are seriously damaging those interests, whether through risking war with Iran, undermining efforts short of war to resolve differences with Iran, or associating the United States with a highly salient and unjust occupation. Even with an alternative government that was less destructive (to Israel's own interests, let alone to those of the United States), the interests of the United States should not be equated with the interests of this foreign state any more than to those of Denmark, Thailand, Argentina or any other foreign country, no matter what fondness individual citizens may feel toward those or other places.
The president's statements before the Super Bowl are mild compared to the efforts of most of his Republican opponents to outdo each other in subordinating themselves to the wishes of the Israeli government. One of the best indications of what is shaping the environment in which these candidates operate comes from the lips of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who is Newt Gingrich's biggest bankroller and is likely to open his wallet to Mitt Romney's campaign once Romney nails down the nomination. Speaking to an Israeli group in 2010, Adelson said that when he did military service as a young man it was "unfortunately" in a U.S. uniform rather than an Israeli one. He said he hoped his son would become a sniper for the Israel Defense Forces. Adelson concluded, “All we [meaning Adelson and his Israeli wife, who did serve in the IDF] care about is being good Zionists, being good citizens of Israel, because even though I am not Israeli born, Israel is in my heart.”
Speaking as someone who feels fortunate and proud to have worn a U.S. uniform when performing military service, I find it deeply distressing that such sentiments are playing such a large role in determining U.S. policies and perhaps the U.S. presidency.
The West and especially the United States are still paying a price for the messy habit of conflating regime change with other objectives, even the laudable objective of saving lives. Last October, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. The Russians in particular made it clear they were determined not to fall again for what they regarded as a bait and switch on Libya, in which a NATO military intervention that received multilateral support on humanitarian grounds quickly morphed into support for toppling the Libyan regime. Last Saturday saw a replay at the Security Council: another resolution on Syria, and another double veto by Russia and China. It's not as if the Russians and Chinese are throwing vetoes around with abandon these days. The vetoes on the Syria resolutions are four of only five vetoes that have been cast at the council in the last couple of years (the United States used the other one a year ago against a resolution criticizing continued Israeli construction of settlements in occupied territories). Despite efforts to word the most recent resolution on Syria in a way that would assuage Russian and Chinese concerns, all the talk about seeing the backside of Bashar al-Assad, in addition to the experience with Libya, makes it easy to see why Moscow and Beijing were still not buying.
The crisis in Syria is certainly a difficult case, and I do not pretend to have an attractive alternative strategy for dealing with it. But any policy ought at a minimum to satisfy a couple of criteria that too often have been overlooked. One is to consider carefully the broader, indirect follow-on effects of any action being proposed, whether military or diplomatic. Another is to be clear about the objectives we intend to achieve. Clarity is required not just to avoid annoying the Russians but also to have a good sense of whether our objectives are likely to be achievable and do not contradict each other. This is especially important when the mix includes regime change, which is the strongest possible deal-killer for whatever regime is to be changed.
Maybe there is something about humanitarian motivations tugging at heartstrings that muddies thinking, but we have been seeing a lot of it lately on Syria. Robert Pape of the University of Chicago has contributed far-reaching analysis on topics such as the war in Afghanistan and the effects of foreign military occupation on terrorist motivations, but he takes a much narrower perspective in an op-ed in the New York Times. The situation in Syria leads Pape to mull over whether there ought to be a humanitarian standard for outside military intervention short of stopping an ongoing genocide. He decides that military intervention in Syria is not warranted for now, but he bases that judgment only on slender operational grounds. He refers to several earlier military interventions made ostensibly in the name of humanitarianism, including NATO's effort in Libya, as successes. Such a judgment about Libya is questionable and not only because it is doubtful that the widely assumed mass slaughter of innocents by the regime would ever have occurred in the absence of intervention. The continuing messiness in Libya has included atrocities on the anti-Qaddafi side. Most important, the Western intervention to topple a ruler with whom a deal had been reached that got him out of international terrorism and ended his programs to produce weapons of mass destruction has sent the worst possible message to other regimes with which the West has had similar concerns. We are seeing some of the negative consequences now with Iran and North Korea. As for effects on Syria, the handling of Qaddafi not only encouraged the lack of cooperation from Russia and China but also set an unattractive example for Assad and his supporters.
I agree with Pape that intervention in Syria would be unwise, but not just for now and not only because the struggle there has so far not shaped up in a way that has yielded, as he puts it, “a viable, low-casualty military solution.” Sectarian divisions in Syria would make the aftermath of even a low-cost regime-toppling intervention messier than Libya. The whole Alawite power structure, not just Assad and his family, would see themselves fighting not only for power but for their lives. Stirring this sectarian pot would, as happened with the Iraq War, set in motion more disturbances elsewhere in the region.
The United States should refrain from any such pot stirring and concentrate on areas in the region where its own current policies already are tipping the scales and associating the United States with local clients. Major aid recipients are a good place to look, and there are an obvious couple of such places where the aid raises questions of abetting behavior that is damaging, for human rights or other reasons. One place to start is the $1.3 billion in annual aid to a military-controlled Egypt that has recently subjected American officials of prodemocracy organizations to criminal investigation and barred them from leaving the country.
Although Christopher Preble is right that Secretary of Defense Panetta’s statement about NATO forces transitioning out of a combat role in 2013 is long overdue and leaves important unanswered questions about U.S. troops in Afghanistan during the next three years, this transition is definitely a step in the right direction. Some of the questions that still need to be asked involve why any further costs and casualties should be incurred to obtain some result that is ill-defined and may not be achievable anyway. But as each week on the calendar goes by, the difference between the most prudent possible withdrawal from this expedition and what the Obama administration seems to have in mind gets less and less.
The war in Afghanistan has long been an endeavor that, having missed the obvious off-ramp following the ousting of the Taliban from power and the rousting of al-Qaeda from its Afghan haven in the early weeks of the war, continues because we couldn’t seem to find any other off-ramp. We stay in it because we’re in it. Preble references one of his own pieces from three years ago in which he appropriately asked, has the war “become an interest in itself? (That is, we must win the war because it is the war we are in.)” For an almost caricatured illustration of how this indeed is how the war has come to be seen, see the response by Kori Schake to this week’s announcement by Panetta:
The White House appears set to use progress against al-Qa’ida as justification for accelerating an end to the war in Afghanistan. Since the president has concluded that we aren't fighting the Taliban, just al-Qa’ida, no need to stick around Afghanistan until the government of that country can provide security and prevent recidivism to Taliban control. The president will declare victory for having taken from al-Qa’ida the ability to organize large scale attacks, and piously intone that nation building in Afghanistan is Afghanistan's responsibility. This policy will not win the war in Afghanistan.
Yes, nation building in Afghanistan is Afghanistan’s responsibility. And yes, the war has been about fighting al-Qaeda. Maybe memories have dulled over ten years, but that’s how this expedition began. Had something to do with a terrorist attack in the late summer of 2001.
Here’s Schake’s definition of a win in Afghanistan: “It is the enemy ceasing to contest our objectives that constitutes winning.” That’s pretty much in the same spirit as saying we must win the war because it is the war we are in. It leaves unclear not only what our objectives are but, at least as important, whether they should be our objectives in terms of U.S. interests that are or are not at stake.
This being a political silly season, there is of course other sniping at the administration’s announcement. If Barack Obama does something, then by definition it must be wrong in Republican eyes. Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, trotting out one of his favorite terms to apply to the president, says it is “naïveté” to announce in advance any drawdown of troops. This is an odd stance given that Romney himself has endorsed a withdrawal of nearly all U.S. and NATO troops by 2014. As Jay Bookman observes, the only way to interpret Romney’s comment is as “meaningless noise on the campaign trail” from someone who is trying “to pump himself up as a strong-willed military leader.” When asked earlier how he would end the war in Afghanistan without negotiations with the Taliban, which he has rejected, Romney said, “by beating them.” No further word from the former Massachusetts governor on just how he would do that.
The concept of beating the Taliban is put in perspective by findings that came out this week in an internal NATO report based on interrogations of thousands of captured Afghan fighters. The report indicated that the Taliban does not feel as if it is being beaten. Moreover, it is getting help from those whose cooperation NATO would need to prevail: elements of the Afghan army and the Pakistani intelligence service. The report also indicated that neither aggressive raids nor the surge of U.S. troops spurred the Taliban into talks.
Perhaps the most significant finding from the interrogations was that the Taliban rejects dealing with al-Qaeda. The specific reasons cited were that such dealings would invite Western forces to target the Taliban and that al-Qaeda no longer has much to offer these days. The Taliban is an insular group that has never shared al-Qaeda's goals despite a previous alliance of convenience. Short of any international terrorist connection, the United States has no significant interest in the internal organization of Afghanistan and no reason to continue fighting a war over it.
Many international negotiations start with diplomatic dances that involve—ostensibly and/or really—preconditions to the negotiations themselves. Preconditions, or complaints about them, can be used for various purposes. A party that does not really want to negotiate can impose arbitrary conditions that it does not expect the other side to accept. Complaining about preconditions is a way of arguing that the other side doesn't really want to negotiate. Preconditions also might be manipulated to placate domestic constituencies or to try to gain an early advantage in the substance of the negotiations.
What functions as a precondition is not to be equated with what is explicitly labeled as a precondition. And attempts to manipulate the terms of a future agreement should be distinguished from what is necessary to negotiate any agreement at all. Israel, for example, portrays itself as wanting to negotiate without preconditions with the Palestinian Authority and complains about the PA imposing a precondition about ceasing the expansion of settlements in occupied and disputed territory. But the PA understandably sees the continued unilateral colonization of disputed territory through settlements as directly contrary to the whole concept of bilaterally negotiating the future of the disputed territory. Israel's no-conditions posture quickly melts away when the subject is negotiation with Hamas, even though the prior declarations about Israel that are being demanded of Hamas (besides the fact that Israel itself has never made any similar declarations about Hamas) are not needed for those two parties to negotiate agreements on issues that divide them—as demonstrated by the complicated agreements they have already reached on exchanging prisoners.
In the standoff between Iran and the West over the Iranian nuclear program, Iran has been seen in the West as more of an imposer of preconditions because of its insistence on recognition of its right to enrich uranium. But look more closely at the meager stabs at what passes for Western-Iranian diplomacy, and it is apparent that the West is playing this game just as much. Peter Jenkins, a former British permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, has an informative piece at Lobelog.com that explains how the P5+1 (or EU3+3, as the Europeans like to say) is in effect imposing a deal-precluding condition. Jenkins, in addressing why coercion through sanctions ever should have become necessary to get Iran to the negotiating table, quotes a key passage of the letter that EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton sent to Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in October and was made public several days ago:
We remain committed to the practical and specific suggestions which we have put forward in the past. These confidence-building steps should form first elements of a phased approach which would eventually lead to a full settlement between us, involving the full implementation by Iran of UNSC and IAEA Board of Governors’ resolutions.
Jenkins aptly explains the effect of this Western posture:
Dr. Jalili and his advisers could be forgiven for interpreting these sentences to mean that there is no point in turning up for talks unless they are committed to satisfying UN and IAEA demands in full. It looks as though the real goal of sanctions is not to get Iran back to the negotiating table, but to get Iran to give way on the demands that it has spent the last six years declining to concede.
In other words, the West is imposing crippling preconditions, which have centered on suspension of all of Iran's uranium enrichment. The rest of Jenkins's piece is also worth reading, partly for explaining why the no-enrichment demand no longer is useful in supporting nonproliferation objectives.
The Western powers would be well-advised to drop anything that functions as a precondition to negotiations, whether it is labeled as such or not, and to start talking substance in detail with the Iranians. Of course, some argue this would risk letting the Iranians string out negotiations while those centrifuges keep spinning (rather like the Palestinians' concern about the Israelis stringing out negotiations while those settlements keep getting constructed). But the risks, as well as the preconditions game, run in both directions. Amid escalating sanctions and all the talk in the West about regime change, the Iranians have at least as much reason to be worried about the West stringing out negotiations while sanctions cause more damage and Iran grows weaker.
What is needed now are not precondition games but serious, broadly scoped negotiations. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta offered advice about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that certainly applies there but also to the differences between Iran and the West: “Just get to the damn table.”
A feature article in Monday's New York Times reports that an effort at a radio astronomy observatory in California to search for extraterrestrial intelligent life has recently resumed operations after a gap caused by a funding shortfall. The article cites the conclusions of some scientists involved in the search that, based on the discoveries of planets orbiting stars other than our sun, there are likely to be many civilizations, maybe thousands, in our galaxy. The idea of finding and contacting intelligent beings outside our world has always had fascination on several dimensions, from the astronomical and biochemical to the philosophical and poetical. As a political scientist, I think about questions involving the interaction of polities. What political issues may arise if the international system that we have always regarded as embracing everything and everybody is suddenly only a subset, confronting entities outside that system?
For example, who in such a situation should speak for the Earth? The scientists doing the searching probably would have the first opportunity to speak, but why should they be allowed to take the lead in any subsequent dialogue? That would be sort of like letting technicians who manage a diplomatic cable system determine the substance of what the United States says to foreign states. Should the political authority in whatever state hosts the contact effort (right now that would be the United States) have the right to determine what is said to the beings in another world? If not, who would have that right? If we receive a message equivalent to “take me to your leader,” what should be the response? Should the extraterrestrials be patched in to a meeting of the United Nations Security Council? Or how about a G-20 summit?
Perhaps we can draw lessons from instances in our own world's history of systems that were formerly thought of as the whole shebang but then, with more interaction with those outside the system, collectively became an entity participating in a larger shebang. Most Europeans long thought of power politics as chiefly involving interaction with other Europeans, but now the European Union is an entity playing in a larger system. Possibly even more instructive would be historical episodes in which interaction began with an outsider so unknown and foreign to previous experience that he may as well have come from outer space. The improbable conquest of Mexico by Hernan Cortes depended on divisions among the tribes in that land and a belief among Aztecs that he represented a long-anticipated deity. We on earth are divided today and vulnerable because of that. What could keep us from suffering the same fate as Native Americans in Mexico?
Of course, any dialogue with an extraterrestrial civilization currently seems so remote that the whole subject perhaps can be safely left to the astronomers for now. Those astronomers are still just looking for some indication of a narrow-band signal, as the first step in searching for a signal with artificially made and intelligible content. But it may be a useful thought experiment to consider how we would respond to some of these questions. Thinking about how we would represent the interests of the Earth and its inhabitants as a whole might help in finding reasonable solutions to some of our earthbound problems, even if an extraterrestrial is not listening in.
Image: Kathleen Franklin