The Washington Post's media reporter, Paul Farhi, had an interesting article earlier this week about the life cycle of news stories about “scandals.” The pattern Farhi discerns is that an incriminating report or accusation that quickly pushes a story to the status of “scandal” gets lots of attention, but that subsequent information that undercuts or negates the original version of the story gets much less. And so some stories retain in many minds the elevated status of “scandal” even after the factual basis for assigning that status has crumbled.
Among the examples Farhi cited was the IRS policing of tax-exempt status, in which the later information indicating that the enforcement efforts involved were directed at groups all across the political spectrum received far less attention that the original version of the story, according to which the enforcement was aimed only at conservative groups. Another of his examples was about the White House allegedly leaking classified information about a foiled terrorist plot, with the later, more accurate but less noticed, information being that the leak had actually come from a former FBI agent with a criminal record.
Farhi is writing about this as an issue of how well the press does its job, and there is indeed an issue there. But there are some other consequences of how “scandals” are treated and perceived that also deserve notice. For one thing, the term scandal has been debased. The problem is not just incomplete or erroneous information about happenings that have acquired that label, but also a looser standard for applying the label. A term that used to be reserved for what is legally or morally outrageous is now applied to what is just politically edgy. That's too bad; our useful vocabulary has been diminished, as has our moral sensibility. Teapot Dome was a true scandal; much of what gets that label today is not.
There also are unfortunate effects on policy debate and ultimately on policy itself, in two respects. One is that much of that debate is ill-informed, in the sense of being based on that early and erroneous reporting. Moreover, the public's understanding of many issues reflects an imprinting on whatever was the first version of the issue that came to the public's attention. The problem is thus one of public psychology as well as inconsistent press coverage.
Another consequence for policy and policy debate involves the opportunity costs of so much attention being sucked up by “scandals.” The president and members of Congress are having their time badly diverted from matters that are far more important for the well-being of the republic. Of course, this is often a problem less of inconsistent press coverage than of willful political manipulation. Whatever the exact impetus, the public, press, and Congress alike are because of this diversion paying much less attention to many things that deserve much more attention. A list of those things could go on and on: strategic issues in the eastern Pacific, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and much else.
Despite the many and obvious differences between the United States and Iran as the two countries take tentative baby steps toward a less destructive relationship, there also are some striking symmetries in taking those steps. Policymakers on both sides want an agreement to resolve differences over Iran's nuclear program, are wary or even skeptical about achieving such an agreement, but are nonetheless trying to negotiate one. Both sets of policymakers are having to deal with resistance from hardliners on their own side who would not welcome an agreement. Both are having to fend off accusations that they would be giving up too much in negotiations. For both, the task of managing the hardliners on their own side is made all the more difficult by the statements, and sometimes actions, of hardliners on the other side.
The Obama administration, to its credit, recently has been investing some high-level lobbying time in an effort to stave off a move in Congress to add still more sanctions against Iran to the mountain of them already in place. Such a move would undermine the negotiating effort and reduce the chance of reaching an agreement. It would be a slap-in-the-face response to recent positive movement on the Iranian side and be taken by many Iranians as another indication that the United States does not really want a deal and instead is just stalling for time while sanctions wreak more damage on the Iranian economy.
The Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is making corresponding efforts to stave off efforts by the hardliners on his side to undermine the negotiations. This was clearly the principal purpose of a talk he gave to students on Sunday, in which he said, “No one should consider our negotiators as compromisers...They have a difficult mission and no one must weaken an official who is busy with work.” Khamenei's comments are the strongest refutation yet of the notion that the diplomatic initiative of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif may not have the supreme leader's backing.
While making clear that he does back the initiative, Khamenei also expressed his skepticism about whether negotiations can succeed in the face of the indications of permanent hostility on the other side, specifically mentioning the repeated threats of military attack against Iran. In a comment that mirrors cynical references in the United States to Iran's “charm offensive,” Khamenei said, “We should not trust an enemy who smiles. From one side the Americans smile and express a desire to negotiate, and from another side they immediately say all options are on the table.”
For anyone in the United States who wants to avoid an Iranian nuclear weapon and thus ought to be supporting the negotiations that are the best way to secure that objective, support must include full awareness of the challenge that the Iranian leadership faces in managing hardline resistance inside Iran. In particular, support in this respect means carefully avoiding giving Iranian hardliners any additional ammunition in support of the argument that negotiations are at best a waste of time and at worst a danger to Iran.
Support also means not being turned off by the inevitable hardline utterances on the Iranian side. Some such utterances will come directly from hardliners who do not want an agreement; others will represent part of the hardliner-management effort of leaders who are making the policy and who do want an agreement. So this week, for example, with the anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, there will be more “death to America” chants and songs. This sort of thing, too, is a mirror image of some of what is heard in the United States. It corresponds to the more bellicose war-threatening statements directed against Iran, which has included even the outrageous extreme of a major bankroller in American politics calling for a nuclear weapon to be fired at Iran.
Attitudes of the American public and elected officials toward intelligence go in cycles. There is an oscillation between two types of perceived crisis. One type is the “intelligence failure,” in which things happen in the world followed by recriminations about how intelligence agencies should have done a better job of predicting or warning of the happening. The recriminations are customarily accompanied by “reform,” or talk of it, which chiefly means finding ways to do things differently from what was done before—not necessarily better, just different. Usually there also are accusations of malfeasance by individuals, even though there is an inherent tension between attributing failure to unreformed institutions and attributing it to individuals who screwed up. Often the response also involves additional empowerment of institutions, in the form of added resources or added authorities.
The other type of crisis involves seeing institutions as too empowered, with the response being to place additional restrictions on them. For U.S. intelligence agencies one of the most conspicuous examples of this phase of the cycle was in the 1970s, with some of the agencies in question already suspect as the nation came out of the Vietnam and Watergate eras, and with the principal response being to erect Congressional and legal checks that are still in place today. Now we are seeing in a somewhat milder form the corresponding phase of another cycle, as the nation comes out of more than a decade of recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which stimulated the most recent burst of empowerment. There is new talk about reducing the powers and scope of activity of agencies and adding more checks and restraints.
The nation tends to lose sight of any phase in a cycle beyond the one it happens to be in at the moment. Memories of these matters are short. Most Americans have already forgotten how in the national mood that prevailed in the first couple of years after 9/11 much of what today gets labeled as a “scandal” would not have been considered at all scandalous.
Similar cycles operate regarding other dimensions involving intelligence, with the same pattern of public and political responses in one phase laying the seeds for a later and different sort of crisis. After 9/11 a leitmotif of the recriminations was that there was insufficient sharing of information across bureaucratic boundaries and between governmental agencies. Then later, with more sharing taking place, an army private or a contract techie could get access to, and publicly compromise, boatloads of information that went well beyond their own areas of responsibility. The chair of the Senate intelligence committee, Diane Feinstein, has acknowledged that the post-9/11 emphasis on more sharing probably has had something to do with the recent problems of megaleaks.
A review of the history of intelligence failures and what has been said about them afterward shows there is no limit to the scope of what might come to be deemed a failure. Anything that is later seen as a surprise outside the intelligence community is interpreted as a failure within the community. It does not matter whether or not the subject matter is something that policymakers had already been focusing on. Intelligence is not just expected to provide answers; it is expected to prevent surprise even if the relevant questions have not been asked, or even thought of, by anyone else. Accordingly, most of the intelligence community's work is not in response to specific questions or tasks levied by the policymaker-consumers, although such levies always take priority. The intelligence agencies constantly have to be seeking not just new information but new insights about new topics or even just new possibilities, if there is any chance that the possibilities will involve something that might bite us in the future.
This is part of the background to why most of the current voluminous discussion about what the president knew or what he directed regarding collection by NSA is uninformed and off the mark. It does not reflect how the intelligence community operates, or how it must operate if both it and the president are to do the jobs expected of them. NSA and the other intelligence agencies conduct their operations according to a rigorous and well-established system of establishing and regularly revising priorities for intelligence collection and analysis. Policymakers are full participants in that system, and there will be no surprises to them regarding the overall shape and scope of the agencies' collection activities. The intelligence agencies also have battalions of lawyers whose job it is to ensure that the agencies operate strictly within the limits set by statute and by executive orders. At the same time we cannot, and should not, expect the president or his senior aides to get so mired in micromanagement that they are approving the turning on of individual switches at NSA or other individual collection efforts. They simply don't have the time for it.
A refusal to recognize these realities flows partly from simple ignorance of how the intelligence process and the intelligence-policy nexus works. The ignorance involves the misconception, for example, that most intelligence work involves receiving a high-level request for a specific answer to a specific question, and delivering a specific collected tidbit in return. Tidbits there are, but the yield from collection aimed at, say, foreign leadership communications is at least as likely to serve as part of the information base for analysts who then, based on a variety of sources, present policymakers with a comprehensive and firmly-grounded assessment of what a foreign government is up to.
The refusal also stems from the incentive of politicians, pundits, and press to frame an issue so that there will be a story either of a lackadaisical, bystander president or of a rogue intelligence agency. Either of those stories is juicier than the reality.
Look back again at the history of what are deemed intelligence failures and we can also see another expectation habitually placed on intelligence agencies: that they ought to be aggressive, creative, and resourceful in going after every piece of information abroad that they can get their hands on and that might help to ward off possible threats or otherwise to inform U.S. foreign policy. This is just the sort of expectation that is usually made of any enterprise, in government or in the private sector, that we hope will achieve excellence. Cracking as tough a collection nut as high-level communications in a foreign government is the sort of accomplishment that in other times and circumstances has been seen as a feather in an agency's cap. Imagine the confusion and consternation when in the current times the feather is described as a scandal.
Another unrealistic aspect of much of the current discourse about this whole affair is the notion that clear lines can be drawn between friends and foes and that clearly different rules can be applied to each. This is unrealistic partly as a matter of foreign policy and how foreign states play in U.S. interests. Every state has varying degrees of shared and conflicting interests with the United States, and nearly every one of them is part of a problem as well as being part of a solution. The other element of unrealism again has to do with expectations placed on intelligence and what comes to be seen as a surprise and an intelligence failure. The biggest surprises occur where previous patterns—which might have been the basis for categorizing foreign states and making different rules for dealing with them—fall apart. The surprises involve instability where we thought we had stability, a threat arising where we didn't think there was one, or a foe appearing where we thought we had a friend.
The preferences and sensitivities of friends have long been a complication for intelligence collection. In the 1970s the shah of Iran was considered a good, close friend of the United States, who did much to sustain the U.S. defense industry with his arms purchases and who was relied upon as a pillar of stability in the Persian Gulf. The collection sensitivity with the shah concerned not so much collecting information on his own government but rather the rubbing of shoulders with the Iranian opposition to better understand it. The shah's government did not like us to do that because it implied a recognition of the opposition and possible fears for the stability of the regime. Then came the Iranian revolution, which now occupies a prominent place on most lists of U.S. intelligence failures, with the principal explanation for failure being inadequate collection of information about the pre-revolutionary opposition.
The oscillation in American attitudes toward U.S. intelligence agencies will continue. The amnesia about earlier phases in each cycle also will continue. When the next big failure occurs, we will have forgotten the dis-empowerment that people are calling for now, and how it may have contributed to that next failure.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of Iraq is in Washington this week, getting away for a moment from the violent mess in his home country. An acceleration of bombings over the past few months has put the killing in Iraq on a pace that if continued for the rest of this year will match or surpass the high level seen in 2008, when an earlier round of civil war was raging there.
The upsurge of violence in Iraq has generated surprisingly little new policy debate in Washington. That's probably a good thing, because there is little that the United States can do, or should try to do, about it anyway. If it is generally accepted that the United States ended its Iraq misadventure nearly two years ago and that there is no political basis for trying to reverse that ending, that is a good thing. At least, it is good as long as we do not lose sight of the principal long-term lessons of what we are witnessing, including the futility of trying to inject democracy through the barrel of a gun and how the overthrow of even nefarious dictators is not sufficient to open the door to justice and tranquility.
Several related reasons probably account for why those who might be expected to stir again this particular pot are not doing so. There are distractions nearby in the Middle East, of course—especially in Syria, about which there has been much effort at pot-stirring back here in Washington. The Syria issue has been soaking up most of the pro-interventionist sentiment lately. That is part of a larger pattern in which those who exhibit such sentiment most strongly are comfortable whacking one target at a time and then moving on to something else (which is part of why the expedition in Afghanistan was given insufficient attention for years while Iraq was the favored target). They do not recognize the Pottery Barn rule, and they are more interested in slaying dragons than in repairing crockery. Besides, the Iraq War is such an unpleasant memory, and has been demonstrating for years why the invasion was such a colossal mistake, that most of those who favored the invasion would rather not dwell on it.
Another factor, which sets Syria apart from Iraq in many minds, concerns the regional sectarian line-up. Much of the sentiment in favor of doing more for the Syrian opposition is fueled by the idea that the Assad regime is an ally of Iran and that anything associated with Iran should be actively opposed. That is a crude and unproductive way to frame thinking about the Middle East, but it does unfortunately frame much such thinking. Maliki, as a Shiite leader who has cuddled up to Iran, is not by that thinking seen worth going to bat for with much vigor, even when terrorists are conducting serial car-bombing in his cities' streets.
Maliki is, however, accepted as a legitimate leader and interlocutor who may be around for some time. (He faces re-election in April.) Here an interesting comparison and contrast is with Egypt. Maliki has acted in at least as much an authoritarian manner, and has ridden roughshod at least as much over his opponents, as Mohamed Morsi ever did during his one-year tenure as president of Egypt. Yet no one seems to be anticipating a military coup against Maliki. The main reason, of course, is that Iraq—where the U.S. occupation authority disbanded the mostly Sunni-led military years ago—has no military establishment with anything like the political and economic clout that the one in Egypt has. But there also does not seem to be any of the kind of American sentiment that, if an Iraqi coup were somehow in the cards, would condone such a coup in the way the coup in Egypt has been condoned. We are seeing the effects of another crude but prevalent way of framing thinking about Middle Eastern conflicts: that Islamists are bad guys and secularists are the good guys. In Egypt, the president was the Islamist; in Iraq the prime minister is more secular than the fanatics who are detonating the car bombs.
Meanwhile Maliki is doing some of his own framing, particularly in blaming trouble in his country on mayhem being exported from Syria and in asking for more U.S. military aid to deal with that kind of security problem on its border. This is a warped view of what underlies the violence in Iraq. Some of the trouble is going across that border west to east, but more of it has moved east to west. The most extreme of the major participants in the Syrian civil war is the group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which arose during the Iraqi civil war and only later moved into the action in Syria. Maliki should be told he needs to spend less time trying to be a player in other peoples' wars and devote more attention to reconciliation and inclusiveness in his own country.
Although American pro-interventionists have been taking mostly a “been there, done that” attitude toward Iraq, expect to hear more recriminations about how if only the United States had stayed the course the place would not be such a mess today. Maybe Maliki's visit will rekindle some such talk. Don't believe the talk; the depth of the divisions and weakness of the political culture, and the resulting problems in Iraq that would have defied solution by any expeditionary force, are too apparent to deny.
Lindsey Graham and John McCain, the two-thirds of the Three Amigos who are still in the U.S. Senate since the departure of Joe Lieberman, contributed to the opinion pages of the Washington Post this weekend a short reprise of their familiar positions on front-burner Middle Eastern issues: act forcefully to defeat the Assad regime in Syria, be obdurate toward Iran, etc. Nothing new here, but it might be worth reflecting for a moment on one of their accusations: that the administration's “failure in Syria” is part of broader “collapse of U.S. credibility in the Middle East.” Graham and McCain's particular usage of the term credibility exemplifies something broader, too: a habit of associating the concept only with forceful actions, especially military actions, rather than with any other policy course.
This restrictive concept of upholding a nation's credibility does not flow from any dictionary definition of credibility (“the quality or power of inspiring belief”). Whether any given action or piece of inaction tends to inspire belief depends of course on context and on what else the state in question has said or done on the same subject. There is no reason to postulate an asymmetry in favor of forceful action or any other kind of action.
There are valid grounds for criticizing the Obama administration's policies on Syria, especially the overemphasis on the issue of chemical weapons with insufficient advance thinking about what to do if a significant chemical incident were to occur. But the administration's subsequent seizing on the Russian initiative after the chemical incident in August was in a real sense a making good on its own word about viewing chemical weapons as the most important dimension of the Syrian conflict. That is an unjustifiably narrow way of viewing the conflict, but at least the administration was being consistent, and consistency is an important ingredient of credibility.
The Two Amigos write that the president “specifically committed” to them in the Oval Office “to degrade the Assad regime’s military capabilities, upgrade the capabilities of the moderate opposition and shift the momentum on the battlefield.” Those of us who have not been flies on the Oval Office wall cannot referee that one. But publicly the president has not made the sort of commitment that would warrant the Amigos' accusation that he “abandoned” the Syrian opposition.
Another erroneous application of the concept of credibility is the senators' equating loss of credibility with how “Israel and our Gulf Arab partners are losing all confidence” in the administration's diplomacy, with references to recent indications of the Saudi regime's displeasure. Displeasing other states, when there has been no failure to live up to a treaty commitment and when the other states—as is true of both Israel and Saudi Arabia—have major differences of interest with the United States as well as some shared interests, has nothing to do with a failure of credibility. Consistent pursuit of the United States's own interests is much more of a foundation for maintaining credibility.
Graham and McCain do inadvertently give us an example in their piece of how U.S. credibility can be hurt. In referring to the Iranian nuclear issue they say, “We should be prepared to suspend the implementation of new sanctions, but only if Iran suspends its enrichment activities.” This formulation comes out of a letter that eight other senators also signed and that tries to portray this package as a balanced “suspension for suspension” deal. This is a ludicrous play on words. There is nothing reasonable or proportionate about linking a demand for one side to stop completely an ongoing program in return for the other side not piling on still more new sanctions, which doesn't really entail a suspension of anything. The wordplay is unbelievable. If we want the Iranians or anyone else to believe that the United States is serious about reaching an agreement, this sort of silliness damages U.S. credibility.
Image: Flickr/ISAF Media.
One of the best summaries of the escapade involving endlessly dribbled-out secrets stolen from the National Security Agency came this week from Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. As Rogers put it:
A systems administrator with only the dimmest understanding of the legal and technical complexities of vital counterterrorism programs stole and disclosed a mountain of properly classified material. The compromised programs are authorized in law and carefully overseen by Congress, the Justice Department and the courts. Yet these selectively leaked documents, framed hyperbolically by an activist masquerading as a journalist at the Guardian, have created the dangerous misimpression that the intelligence community is lawless. The American people must not accept this absurd myth. Congress also can’t let Edward Snowden’s anarchy paralyze us from addressing real threats to our country.
The damage from the leaks, to U.S. foreign policy and U.S. national interests, mounts with each dribble, and the amount and variety of the damage are sweeping. The most recent inflictions of damage concern relations between the United States and important foreign partners ranging from Brazil to Germany. The visible part of the damage includes public expressions of disapproval by foreign governments and consumption of the valuable time and attention of the president of the United States in efforts to smooth out the ruffles. There probably are related invisible parts of the damage as well, wherever public ruffles affect the non-public work of government agencies, including work that involves international cooperation in tackling shared threats and problems.
None of this damage is due to the NSA programs that are the subjects of the leaks. All of the damage comes from the leaks themselves. Even if a foreign government somehow were to learn through its own capabilities of U.S. collection of signals intelligence aimed at its agencies or leaders, its response would be quietly to intensify efforts to bolster its own communications security. To do otherwise and to raise a stink about the matter would risk further compromising its own counterintelligence capabilities and damaging a relationship it would not be in its own interests to damage. It is only when such collection activity is made public through a leaker, with all of the embarrassment and public pressures that are triggered by such a revelation, that leaders feel obliged to take conspicuous umbrage, with all of the further damage that entails.
There is no way to undo the damage that already has occurred. The current episode is an occasion for redoubling efforts to prevent similar damage from future would-be leakers and their collaborators. This involves, among other things, ending nonsensical references to governmental efforts to preserve security as “going after whistleblowers.”
We also need to avoid compounding the damage by shying away from doing worthwhile things, either as executive branch operations or as legislation, because leakers have scared us away from doing such things. Chairman Rogers made the observation quoted above in the course of expressing disappointment with a Washington Post editorial that suggested the political atmosphere following Snowden's leaks makes it unrealistic to pass legislation enlisting government help for private companies in defending against foreign cyber espionage. Rogers is correct in stating that Congress should not be freed of its responsibilities on this subject, and that American companies should not have to fend entirely for themselves when the threat is often coming from foreign governments.
A later Post editorial, while saying several sensible things on the broader subject of foreign intelligence collection, again unfortunately exhibits a pattern of being scared by leakers. In referring to reported collection against communications involving the president of Brazil, the Post says:
But the potential benefits of collecting intelligence on nominally friendly leaders has to be weighed against the potential blowback if the operations are exposed — which in the Internet era has become increasingly likely. It seems unlikely that anything gleaned from Ms. Rousseff’s e-mail is worth the trouble it has caused.
We are partly seeing the effects of the cleverness of the activist who is masquerading as a journalist, who started his dribble of leaks with revelations about collection within the United States that is directed against terrorism, before moving on to leaks about very different forms of electronic collection, collected for very different purposes. The starting focus on terrorism has led to the habit of evaluating almost anything NSA or the intelligence community does by asking how many terrorist attacks the intelligence prevented. Actually, access to the email of an important foreign leader, if such access were to be gained, would be quite useful to U.S. policymakers in a number of respects. And again, the “it” in the reference to “trouble it has caused” properly refers to the leaking, not to the intelligence collection.
More fundamentally, if we were to resign ourselves to giving up anything that would cause a flap if exposed, on the grounds that “in the Internet era” exposure is likely, this would mean ceasing most collection of the entire intelligence community—all of it except what is directed against open source material. Most intelligence collection is kept secret because most of it assuredly would cause flaps if exposed. This is true not just of NSA's electronic activities. Human espionage, for example, almost always involves the violation of some other country's laws. If we were to abandon all of this, the damage from leaks would be exponentially higher. We would be the losers, and foreign-based activists dedicated to undermining U.S. foreign policy would be the winners.
Primitive opposition to the recently signed arms trade treaty surfaced again last week, in the form of a letter signed by fifty U.S. senators led by James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jim Moran of Kansas, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. As with any time a group of American politicians says anything having to do with firearms, the Second Amendment gets invoked. But the treaty has nothing whatever to do with the Second Amendment or rights contained within it. The treaty not only has no effect on well-regulated militias but also no effect on gun ownership by individual Americans.
The treaty's stated purpose is to establish “the highest possible common international standards” for regulating the international trade in conventional arms and to combat the illicit trade in such arms, thereby contributing to the further goals of “international and regional peace, security and stability,” “reducing human suffering,” and promoting “cooperation, transparency, and responsible action” by the parties to the treaty. In short, it has to do above all with curbing the flow of munitions across international borders and into the hands of the likes of Joseph Kony or Charles Taylor. But the political subtext in the United States evidently is that the gun lobby gets nervous whenever “arms” and any conjugation of “regulate” appear in the same document (even though that is true of the Second Amendment itself).
Actually, there is one place where the treaty could be said to get into Second Amendment matters. Right up front in the preamble, the treaty reaffirms “the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional system.” One would think this reassurance would be enough, but the objecting senators complain that this is only a “weak, non-binding reference” rather than a recognition of “fundamental individual rights.” So the senators would be more comfortable with having an international treaty determine what are the fundamental individual rights of Americans, rather than leaving it to America's own legal and constitutional system to do that? They had better be careful what they wish for.
The senatorial letter has some other comparably misdirected complaints. The letter notes, for example, that it is possible for the treaty to be amended by three-quarters of the parties if complete consensus for amendment is not achieved. But the letter does not mention that no amendment shall apply to a state until and unless it explicitly accepts the amendment, and that as with most international conventions there is provision for a state to withdraw from the treaty altogether.
Something else in the letter of opposition is noteworthy because it actually involves foreign policy and the transfer of arms across international boundaries, rather than spurious threats to domestic rights. The letter says that the treaty “includes language that could hinder the United States from fulfilling its strategic, legal and moral commitments to provide arms to key allies such as the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the State of Israel.”
A report in the Times of Israel identifies the language in question as a prohibition on exporting arms if the exporting state “has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a Party.” The treaty goes on to require exporting states to assess whether a prospective export of arms would “undermine peace and security” or could be used to commit or facilitate a “serious violation” of international humanitarian or human rights law or international conventions on terrorism and transnational organized crime, and that if it determines there is an “overriding risk” of any such consequences it should not authorize the export.
This raises two questions for the letter-writers. First, exactly what exported arms do they have in mind that would be used for war crimes or breaches of the Geneva Conventions or in the United States's own judgment would lead to violations of human rights law or any of the other listed offenses? Second, why would it be in U.S. interests to export arms that would have such consequences?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has just had a tantrum. A day after winning one of the rotational seats on the United Nations Security Council, the Saudis announced they would not take the seat. This move undoubtedly has annoyed and even angered many others in member states and at the United Nations, not least of all in states that campaigned unsuccessfully for one of the non-permanent seats on the council. Diplomatic heads are shaking over this unprecedented situation. The closest thing to a precedent was a boycott of council proceedings in 1950 by the Soviet Union, which came to regret its tactic when in its absence the council authorized a U.S.-led intervention in Korea. But the Soviets had a permanent seat not to be filled by anyone else. It is unclear after the Saudi announcement whether the General Assembly will be picking a replacement member for the Security Council or there will be an empty chair.
Some predict that the Saudis, like the Soviets, will come to regret their move, and that prediction probably is correct. Although some Saudis may have genuinely believed that an unusual move such as this would help direct attention to their favored issues, plenty of smart Saudi officials would recognize multiple flaws in the tactic. Annoyance with Saudi Arabia probably will be a stronger international reaction than than any felt need to pay more attention to the Saudis' favorite causes. Action on the issues of high concern to Riyadh is stymied by factors other than merely insufficient attention to them. It also is not entirely clear exactly who or what is the target of the Saudis' disapproval. Ostensibly it is the Security Council itself, but according to some interpretations the Saudis are trying to express disapproval of U.S. policies.
A different and credible way to look at the Saudi move is as simple pique, less a matter of any calculation than of emotion and frustration at high levels, probably the level of the king. In this respect it is the result of a flawed policy-making system that does not do a good job of weeding out high-level emotion. The United States probably has done a better job of weeding such stuff out. Think of a short-tempered Harry Truman and all of the angry letters that he wrote but never got sent.
An explanation involving more calculation is that the Saudis had second thoughts about how casting votes at the Security Council would force them to be more specific and open in their preferences. This is different from the sort of behind-the-scenes influence with which they are more comfortable and is better suited to the type of power they wield. That still does not explain or excuse, of course, their earlier decision to seek the council seat.
The proper posture for the United States and others to take is a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger disapproval of what the Saudis have done, with the disapproval based on procedure rather than substance. Substantively some of the Saudis' favorite causes and positions are consistent with U.S. interests, and others are not. But the United Nations Security Council serves a useful function regardless of one's position on any of the issues it addresses. Shunning it, especially in a way that screws up the long-established procedures for filling seats on the council, does not help the council do its job any better. And it would be a mistake to encourage the notion that an absence of talk and engagement about controversial issues is better than the alternative.
The attempt to play chicken with government operations and the nation's creditworthiness, and the shutdown and anxiety in financial markets resulting from the attempt, already have harmed U.S. foreign relations and interests overseas. This is part of a much broader array of major costs and damages that will be adding up for a long time. But if you are interested in avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon—the focus of negotiations this week in Geneva—at least the way the crisis of governance in Washington ended provides a silver lining to this sorry chapter in American political history. This is because if President Obama is going to reach an agreement to keep the Iranian nuclear program peaceful and to make that agreement stick, he needs to demonstrate the ability and willingness to rein in destructive behavior in Congress that would preclude such an agreement.
The administration will need Congressional cooperation to undo sanctions that were erected supposedly to induce the Iranians to accept just such an agreement. The president can accomplish some rollback of sanctions on his own authority, and that might be sufficient for some sort of partial, interim, confidence-building deal. But it would not be sufficient, and would not be a fair trade, for the concessions and restrictions we want from Iran in a comprehensive and lasting agreement. Nor would it be sufficient for the president, as has been suggested, merely to be lax in the enforcement of legislatively impose sanctions. Besides showing disrespect for the law, this would hardly reassure the Iranians that an agreement would stick. They would understandably fear that what one U.S. president might decline to enforce the next one would.
Even before getting to the point of striking a deal, Congressional action can scuttle the prospects for one or at least make it far harder to reach an agreement. The imposition of still more sanctions, and the rattling of more sabers through legislation that refers to military force, are the sorts of Congressional actions that would be a slap in the face of a new Iranian administration that has just placed a constructive proposal on the negotiating table, would feed already understandable Iranian suspicions that the United States is interested only in regime change and not in an agreement, and thereby would weaken the Iranian incentive to make still more concessions. Unfortunately legislation for more sanctions and more saber-rattling has already been introduced in Congress.
Pushing back against the promoters of such legislation involves some of the same perpetrators who had to be pushed back to avoid default and to end the shutdown. All of the co-sponsors of a bill from Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) that is a thinly disguised authorization for launching a war against Iran were among those who this week voted against the resolution that ended the funding and debt crisis.
Mr. Obama's demonstration of backbone this month will help on the Iran issue, but there still are other reasons to question whether the administration will similarly show sufficient fortitude on behalf of an agreement to keep the Iranian nuclear program peaceful. For one thing, the president does not have the unanimous support of his own party, as he did in the standoff that just ended. A significant number of Democrats, not just Republicans, have come under the sway of those determined to prevent an agreement. Also, even those who consider the Iranian issue important have to admit that avoidance of default (and keeping the U.S. government running) is about as serious a matter as the president is likely to face, and he cannot be expected to give as much priority to every issue as he did to that one.
Besides political capital it also takes time and attention to tend directly to a foreign policy initiative, and to keep beating back unhelpful behavior in Congress that threatens to undermine the initiative. The attempt of Congressional miscreants to play chicken has taken a toll here, too. The president skipped a couple of East Asian summit meetings to deal with that problem in Washington. Secretary of State Kerry subbed for him, which meant Kerry had that much less time and attention to devote to other matters that are his responsibility, such as the Israeli-Palestinian talks (remember those?) and the Iranian nuclear negotiations.
That senior policymakers have only so much energy and so many hours in a day is an understandable drag on many things we expect them to do. But Obama and Kerry have to muster the time and attention for what is happening on these other issues and particularly Iran, not only at negotiating tables in the Middle East or Geneva but also on Capitol Hill.
Perhaps the most successful U.S. diplomacy of the past half century was the management by Richard Nixon, aided by Henry Kissinger, of relations with other major powers in the early 1970s, and in particular the triangular diplomacy involving the Soviet Union and China. Although some of what Nixon and Kissinger did was specific to the issues and circumstances of the great power politics of their time, their performance holds some transferable lessons. We should think carefully about the major attributes of their diplomatic approach and strategy.
They were not stuck in a bipolar mold, even though the Cold War was widely perceived as a world-shaping bipolar confrontation. They did not conceptually divide the world into good guys with whom to cooperate and bad guys to be opposed or shunned.
They did not let diplomacy be limited by repugnance over someone else's domestic policies. The U.S.S.R. of the 1970s was a sclerotic and intolerant dictatorship, and China at the time was still wracked by the volatile extremism of the Cultural Revolution.
They had no particular attachments to other states that got in the way of their diplomatic maneuvering. Alliances were tools to be employed when appropriate in pursuit of U.S. interests, not impediments to that pursuit.
They used relations with each power as leverage in managing U.S. relations with other powers. The Soviets probably would have preferred that there had not been a rapprochement between the United States and China, but it was not up to the Soviets to determine that. The U.S. administration did not let any foreign state veto initiatives it made toward other foreign states.
The lessons can be applied to global great power politics of today, but the lessons also are scalable. They can be scaled down to a single region. The great power diplomacy of Metternich, an object of Kissinger's early studies, was practiced within the confines of Europe. Moreover, the principles apply not just to triangular contexts such as the U.S.-Soviet-Chinese dynamic of the 1970s but to situations with more than three centers of power and action. Applying those principles to any region in which there are such multiple players, each of which is important to U.S. interests, is the best way to advance U.S. interests in the region in question.
The Middle East of today is such a region. It is more fractured than Metternich's Europe or Nixon's global great power world, but it has several players that each present to the United States elements of both conflict and cooperation. Each has interests that parallel those of the United States, but each also has other pursuits and practices that cause problems for the United States. The players could be counted and grouped in different ways, but the principal ones are fairly obvious.
There are, for example, the Persian Gulf monarchies and especially the most sizable and significant one, Saudi Arabia. On one hand the Saudis share with the United States interests in the physical security and stability of the Gulf region, stability in the oil trade, and checking extremist violence. On the other hand they have an agenda that diverges from that of the United States and leads to some sharp disagreements with Washington and even troublesome behavior, such as with how the Saudis' sectarian concerns shape their policy toward Syria and how their opposition to democratization (and hang-up about the Muslim Brotherhood) shapes their policy toward Egypt.
There are the Arab republics, which demonstrate a wide range of current problems and opportunities but of which Egypt is the most important by virtue of size and weight. The shared interests with the Egyptians center on stability and countering violent extremism, as well as other ones having to do with military cooperation. The divergent interests currently have mainly to do with Egypt's sharp turn away from democratization and political rights. The problem in this regard for the United States is not one of American repugnance over someone else's domestic policies but instead of the United States being associated in many other people's minds with this type of harsh authoritarianism.
There is Israel, where again there are shared interests involving counterterrorism, as well as some involving military and technical cooperation. The divergent interests have to do most of all with Israel's clinging—for religious or economic reasons the United States does not share—to occupied territory seized in war. The United States shares in the opprobrium and the costs, including ones involving the motivation of extremist violence, of this occupation, which is widely considered in the Middle East and beyond as profoundly unjust. The Israeli proclivity for quick use of military force in surrounding territories and states also is contrary to U.S. interests, both because of similar opprobrium and because of the destabilizing effects within the region of such military action.
There is Iran, which still has some of the same basis for parallel U.S. and Iranian interests as there were at the time of Nixon and the Shah. Today there are, for example, important shared interests regarding stability in Afghanistan and Iraq. Divergent interests have mostly to do with Iran's relations with clients and allies elsewhere in the region, which have helped to shape its policies in places such as Syria.
Nixon and Kissinger worked a bit of their multipolar magic in the Middle East during and in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East war. Their deft diplomacy managed to strengthen a security relationship with Israel while also shepherding Egypt's remarkable turnaround from a Soviet to a U.S. ally—while also keeping the Soviets out of the action in other respects.
But since the late 1970s (and since Jimmy Carter's follow-up at Camp David of Anwar Sadat's grand redirection of Egypt), U.S. policy in the Middle East has mostly been stuck in an inflexible and essentially bivalent mold. Partly this has been a reversion to Americans' traditional Manichean way of looking at the world. Partly it has been reflexive reaction to outside events. 1979 brought the double whammy of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, thrusting the Cold War itself back into Southwest Asia and leading to the Carter Doctrine in the Persian Gulf, and the Iranian revolution, leading to a new bête noire for America, ready to assume that role fully once the Soviet Union collapsed. Later we had feckless attempts to align and mobilize regional “moderates” who disagreed among themselves about matters most important to them against “extremists,” and George W. Bush's reductionist for-us-or-against-us framework for thinking about Middle Eastern politics and much else.
The frozen-frame distrust and hostility between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran is certainly one of the biggest hurdles between the situation we have now and the sort of enlightened, flexible, multipolar Middle East diplomacy that would be far better at protecting and advancing U.S. interests in the region. That in turn is one of the biggest reasons the nuclear negotiations with Iran, resumed this week under new Iranian leadership, are so important. The nuclear issue has to be tackled now because it has assumed, for better or worse, an outsize salience. But an agreement on this issue also would help to lead to a more normal relationship in which Washington and Tehran would deal with all of the issues that either divide them or on which they can make common cause, and in which they deal with each other as one of several relationships each has in the region rather than as a single all-consuming fixation. A more normal relationship with Iran would provide the United States useful leverage in managing its other relationships with Middle Eastern states, whether those states are customarily counted as foes or as allies. It is this sort of liberation of American foreign policy in the Middle East that ultimately will be much more important than details about spinning centrifuges, break-out capabilities, and the like.
A second very large hurdle is closely related to the first one. It is the passionate U.S. attachment to Israel, leading to the abetting of damaging policies by the Israeli government and based on fears, habits, and taboos in domestic American politics. The two hurdles are related because it is the Israeli government that is leading efforts to torpedo any U.S.-Iranian agreement and to prevent any deviation from unremitting punishment and ostracism of Iran by the United States. With recent tentative signs of slight thawing in the frozen U.S.-Iranian relationship, the Israeli effort has intensified. Benjamin Netanyahu's language on this subject has become so strident and extreme, with unrelenting talk of apocalyptic, messianic regimes and how one state is determined to destroy the other, that he is demonstrating some of the very qualities that he attributes to the country that is the object of his calumnies.
This second hurdle is the more formidable one, greater even than the legacy of the many years of mistrust and non-communication between America and Iran. Such a legacy can be overcome, if not continually reinforced by an outsider. The United States did not even recognize the Soviet regime until fifteen years after it came into power. It would take World War II to bring about cooperation with Stalin, and several more decades of Cold War before detente under Nixon. The opening to China was more than twenty years after the People's Republic was created, and full diplomatic relations were not established until several years later under Carter.
Some have argued that emulation of Nixon should go so far as the kind of presidential trip he made to Beijing. That certainly would be quite a boost toward getting U.S. Middle Eastern policy into a new and much more productive phase. It certainly would be dramatic; it would make believers of some who questioned why Barack Obama was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and it would provide great material to John Adams, the composer of Nixon in China, for a new opera. But it is very unlikely to happen, and it shouldn't be necessary. What the United States needs is not Nixon's drama but rather observance of Nixon's strategic principles, including the principle that none of the foreign interlocutors of the United States should have a veto over the shape of relations with any of its other interlocutors. Observe those principles, and U.S. interests in the Middle East will be far better served than they have been for a long time.