One has to struggle to find any principles or consistency in the ongoing effort at extortion that has involved shutting down government operations and threatening default on the national debt. The most common lines of analysis of what is happening, having to do with such things as gerrymandering and tea party primary challenges and the role of money in politics, have nothing to do with principle. Those lines of analysis are mostly correct and explain most of what needs to be explained. But in the interest of understanding even better what is going on, it behooves us to look for any ideational threads being followed by the extortionists—any even halfway consistent set of beliefs that shows up not only in demands being made about Obamacare or the budget but in other areas, including foreign policy.
There may be such a thread in the form of anarchism, a belief that governmental authority is per se bad and anything that helps to tear it down is good. Some critics have already affixed the label “anarchist” to the extortionists, who naturally do not like it because the word is widely taken to be pejorative. But the labeling in this instance has validity, with regard to both methods and objectives. The method being used is anarchic in that it represents a rejection of long-established procedures for making policy in a representative democracy. The anarchic nature of the objectives is seen in the insouciance with which the perpetrators have brought to a halt functions of government that they don't particularly like, or, more often, that they haven't thought about enough to decide whether they should positively dislike or be indifferent to.
In searching for corresponding approaches to foreign policy, one needs to begin with the caveat that we are not talking about a single clearly defined group of protagonists. Some of those involved in the current extortion support neoconservative foreign policies; others identify more with libertarian ideas and have different preferences regarding the U.S. role overseas. But all are on the Right, and there are some places where the same common thread can be found.
Remember when John Bolton—who was made the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations through a recess appointment after failing to win Congressional confirmation for the job—said that the top ten floors could be lopped off the U.N. headquarters and no one would know the difference? The international system is anarchic in the sense that there is no world government. Bolton's comment (not to mention his conduct in the job) indicated a comfort with that anarchy, and discomfort with attenuation of the anarchy through international law and international organizations. The same attitude comes through in rejecting other attempts to impose rule-based order on parts of the international system, such as with the law of the sea treaty.
Such attitudes underlay the fervent unilateralism of the George W. Bush administration. The unilateralism was a rejection not only of the sort of institution-based order that U.N.-huggers and other liberal internationalists might like, but also of the kind of order based on balance of power that realists would favor. Again, this attitude involved comfort with international anarchy, grounded in the belief that the United States was strong enough to do whatever it wanted anyway.
Correspondence with what is going on in domestic U.S. politics today was even closer with the Bush administration's biggest foreign policy endeavor: the Iraq War (on which libertarians parted company with the neocons). The makers of the war believed that after breaking down the existing order in Iraq—and by doing so, they hoped, breaking down the existing order elsewhere in the Middle East—whatever rose in its place had to be better. This belief was another form of anarchist faith that tearing down governmental authority is inherently good. The belief also underlay the remarkable carelessness in failing to prepare for what would come after the toppling of the old regime in Iraq. Thomas Ricks in his book Fiasco aptly likened the attitude involved to that of the 1960s radical Jerry Rubin when he was asked what would come after the revolution. He would “groove on the rubble,” Rubin replied.
A lot of grooving on rubble is taking place now in Washington. The anarchist tendency apparent today is connected to the methods and habits of one of the energizing forces of the extortion: the tea party, which, as Fareed Zakaria notes, “has no organized structure, no platform, no hierarchy and no leader.”
The tactics being used in the House of Representatives represent a radical offshoot of a much more broadly evident American frame of mind that views what government does as inherently inferior to what is done outside government. Most of the other manifestations of that frame of mind are not at all anarchist, and most reflect principled thinking about such concepts as individual liberty. But this would certainly not be the first instance of an extremist tendency branching out from what is otherwise a reasonable school of thought. One reason the anarchist tendency has been able to emerge as much as it has is that the more reasonable mainstream outlook, with its anti-government tilt, as come to be accepted uncritically as dogma without careful examination of exactly where, for example, free markets work well and where they do not.
The anarchist tendency is only one thread in the current travesty of some members of Congress threatening to harm the economy and the nation if they do not get their way. The explanations of this behavior that have nothing to do with principles still tell us most of what we need to know. This is illustrated by the obsessive opposition to the Affordable Care Act, a law centered on free-market competition in the private sector and not at all like the kind of single-payer system that many on the Left would have preferred. A principled—and smart—opposition would have accused Democrats of stealing good ideas from Mitt Romney and the Republicans and would have urged voters, if they want to go straight to the source of good ideas and not to copy-cats, to vote Republican. But instead we have people who viscerally loathe Barack Obama and whatever he stands for and would rather destroy anything associated with him.
Many episodes, or aspects of episodes, in American foreign policy quickly get pigeon-holed as successes or failures. The label gets stuck to the episode, as a frozen judgment from an earlier time, and then the episode gets repeatedly referred to in such terms. The Western intervention in Libya two years ago customarily gets labeled this way as a success. The basic facts underlying that judgment are that the intervention helped to topple a dictator who was widely loathed, and did so with minimal direct cost to a war-weary American public.
In the ensuing two years, a difficult and unpleasant reality in Libya has displaced many of the hopes and assumptions that prevailed when Muammar Qadhafi was ousted and killed. That is, it has displaced them on the ground in Libya, but not necessarily in the American consciousness. Early dramatic chapters in a foreign policy story generally have more effect on the judgments prevailing in American minds than do less dramatic chapters that are slowly written later. In the case of Libya, that pattern has been accentuated by the competition for attention from other Middle Eastern stories during the past two years, particularly those in Egypt and Syria. Since Qadhafi was eliminated, the foreign policy community in the United States has paid relatively little attention to the dismal scene in Libya.
The one event in Libya during the past two years that did get a lot of attention from the American political elite—a lethal attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi—was so completely and crudely seized upon, in the midst of a U.S. election campaign, as a partisan way to try to score points against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that it immediately became useless as input to a well-reasoned consideration of what the incident demonstrated was happening in Libya. Such a consideration would have seen the attack as one indication of how Libya has been during these past two years a deeply insecure and unstable place, laced with violent and extreme elements.
There have been plenty of other indications of that sad reality. Internal security in much of the country has become the function of militias that do not answer to any government and are also the sources of much of the insecurity. The Libyan economy has been paying a big price for the disorder and insecurity. Production of oil is still only a fraction of the 1.6 million barrels per day that it was at prior to the civil war. Disillusionment among ordinary Libyans over the shortage of physical and economic security has grown. Libya today exhibits some of the attributes of a failing state.
Another indication, during the past week, was the unilateral capture in Libya by U.S. special forces of an al-Qaeda terrorist, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai (Anas al-Libi), alleged to have played a major role in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania fifteen years ago. The U.S. and Libyan governments have made contradictory statements about the extent to which the former may have given word in advance to the latter about the operation. This evokes memories of recriminations following U.S. capture of a suspected terrorist in Italy several years ago, but Libya is not at all like Italy. In this respect it is more like Pakistan, only worse with regard to how senior governmental leaders have trouble exerting control and excluding radicals from gaining knowledge and influence. If the United States gave little specific advance warning of the seizure of al-Ruqai, it was with good reason in order not to blow the operation. Say what you want about Qadhafi, but after he started coming to terms with the West more than a decade ago he became a more capable and reliable partner in opposing terrorists of al-Ruqai's ilk than what we have in Libya now.
Based on the internal situation alone it is hard to call policy on Libya a success. Then there are the other disadvantageous legacies of the U.S. and western intervention in the civil war. This includes the distrust of Russia, which believes with good reason that it was the victim of a bait-and-switch in accepting a supposedly humanitarian operation that turned into one of regime change. It also includes the troublesome lesson to Iran, North Korea, and others that even giving up unconventional weapons and international terrorism is not enough to get the United States to live up to its side of a bargain.
Yochi Dreazen writes that the nabbing of al-Ruqai was a personal and professional “triumph” for national security adviser Susan Rice, who was the assistant secretary of state responsible for Africa at the time of the embassy bombings. Perhaps instead of feeling triumphant Rice ought to reflect on how it came to be that a major al-Qaeda operative was living in Libya amid conditions in which the U.S. military had to conduct its own raid to capture him. She and others whose liberal interventionist juices the Libyan civil war got flowing should also think about what this implies concerning the wisdom of the 2011 intervention, and what lessons should be drawn about any similar situations that arise in the future.
The outrageous shutdown of the federal government's operations has multitudinous effects on foreign relations and national security. Some of the effects are easy to see. Others are less discernible or measurable but may over the long term be more important.
Most apparent are the direct effects of work not being done because it takes money that has not been appropriated or would have been done by federal employees who have been laid off. Sometimes this is clearly visible in the form of things such as presidential trips abroad being curtailed. Even this category of consequences, however, goes beyond what is immediately visible and what can easily be counted right away as an opportunity that would otherwise have been seized or a calamity that would otherwise have been avoided. Much of the work of people in the State Department, the Department of Defense, the intelligence community and elsewhere in the government cannot be counted that way even though it is important in contributing to the seizing of opportunities, the avoiding of calamities, and other ways of advancing the national interest. It is work that builds long-term foundations for advancing those interests, maintains preparedness to deal with the unexpected, or contributes to knowledge and information that can be acted upon in the future.
This aspect of what federal personnel do, day-in and day-out, is insufficiently understood. Much public discussion of counterterrorism, for example, is couched in terms of how many terrorist plots have, or have not, been foiled lately. In fact, most of the work of officials in the counterterrorist community does not consist of detecting and foiling ongoing plots. It is nonetheless work that is critical to developing the knowledge of terrorists and terrorist networks that makes possible the preventing or foiling of plots. If the shutdown has a cost in the form of anti-U.S. terrorism, it will less likely be seen in the form of attacks that occur during the shutdown than in ones that take place later.
A more general impact of the shutdown concerns how it may shape the attitudes of foreign governments about dealing with the United States. A concern that commentators already have expressed is that there will be increased reluctance of foreign states to negotiate agreements and commitments with a government whose own house is so out of order. The concern is valid. It represents a cost that may be substantial in the form of lost opportunities for the United States even though it will be hard to prove conclusively a direct connection between the shutdown, attitudes of foreign governments, and a particular missed opportunity. How the shutdown story ends up will affect how much of this type of harm there will be; if the president can confirm the principle of not caving in to disorderly and extortionate houses, this will help the credibility of the United States as a negotiating partner.
Even more general and harder to measure, but ultimately of high importance, are the effects on attitudes not just of foreign governments but of foreign populations, or at least of elites who are sufficiently aware of what is going on in Washington for it to make any difference in their thinking. At stake is the image and standing of the type of political system that the United States—when it is not crippling itself by shutting down its own government—represents. This in turn is important because it affects the political choices foreigners make and the objectives they seek, especially during times of upheaval such as has prevailed in the Middle East for the past three years.
U.S. interests are tied to all this in two basic ways. First, when foreigners choose liberal representative democracy this is good for the United States as a matter both of values and of more policy-specific consequences such as those of which the democratic peace theorists speak. Second, the United States has enjoyed standing as the leading and most powerful exemplar of this form of governance. This is a major ingredient of America's soft power—its attraction for those foreigners who ipso facto are more inclined to associate with it, to emulate it, and to follow its lead.
The liberal democratic model has always had competition based on other criteria. Totalitarian regimes have won admiration for making trains run on time. Now in Washington things are not only not running on time but not running at all. Many people in other countries—and this has repeatedly been demonstrated in the Middle East, as well as elsewhere—opt for undemocratic formulas if they see them as more likely to provide services they expect from government, including among other things physical and economic security. When the leading (ostensible) liberal representative democracy shows it cannot provide governmental services, the undemocratic solutions look more attractive by comparison, and the United States loses some of its soft power.
Of course, what has led to the shutdown in the United States is not democracy but instead some very undemocratic behavior. The situation was caused by one political element's decision to pursue its agenda not through democratic methods but instead by threatening to inflict harm on the United States itself. But that distinction may be lost on some foreign observers. The response will be somewhat similar to how many people in the Middle East reacted to the mess in Iraq that followed the U.S. invasion by saying that if that is a birth pang of democracy, they want nothing of it—even though what they were observing was not democracy but instead some of the consequences of an ill-considered military expedition.
If there is more of a foreign turn away from democratic models as a result of the situation today in Washington, it will involve a perverse symmetry. Those who brought about this situation have shown that they have so little regard for liberal representative democracy that they place lower priority on maintaining it in the United States than they do on pushing their particular political and policy agenda. This fiasco thus becomes another example of how unseemly behavior in American politics can stimulate echoes of that behavior in other countries.
It certainly was a whirlwind week for Iranian-U.S. relations. A very good week, too, for anyone interested in the peaceful resolution of differences between the United States and Iran—and anyone genuinely interested in avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon, a goal achievable with assurance only through the peaceful resolution of differences. At a gathering at a New York hotel at which President Rouhani spoke on Thursday, the mood among the many people in the audience who have those interests was bordering on euphoric—there were many expressions of optimism and references to a sea change in relations. That event climaxed when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who strode into the room late in the session, came to the podium to give an upbeat report on the discussions he had just concluded with Secretary of State Kerry and the other P5+1 foreign ministers. Then the next day, as the climax of the entire week, was the presidential phone conversation, which has repeatedly been described by the adjective “historic.”
All well and good, but with the week of euphoria over, any prospects for progress toward an agreement about the Iranian nuclear program face two big impediments. First, of course, are the forces that have opposed all along any agreement between the United States and Iran, will continue to oppose any agreement, and will see the setback they suffered this past week as a reason to try harder to step up their game. Those forces are led by Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and assisted, as Daniel Levy summarizes the line-up, by “American hawks and neoconservatives, Republicans who will oppose Obama on anything, and some Democrats with a more Israel-centric bent.” As Levy further notes, the efforts of these forces “will be concentrated on escalating threats against Iran, increasing sanctions, and raising the bar to an impossibly high place on the terms of a nuclear deal. All this will serve—intentionally, one has to assume—to strengthen hard-liners in Tehran who are equally opposed to a deal.”
The other impediment grows partly out of the euphoria itself, which aids the aforementioned bar-raising and has set the stage for unreasonable standards being applied to Iranian actions over the next several months. We now have a situation somewhat akin to the game of expectations that is played during U.S. presidential primary seasons, in which high expectations are undesirable because subsequent performance is measured against the expectations rather than against some objective standard. When expectations are not met, momentum is lost and a campaign may falter. Expect to hear many comments over the next couple of months about how the Iranians have not met delivered on the expectations placed on them.
A frequent theme of comments already made during Rouhani's time in New York is that talk and tone and a friendly style are fine but what really matters are specific, concrete actions. Of course actions are what matters in the end, but most such comments do not specify exactly what actions we should expect Iran to take now. Moreover, and just as important, they do not specify what Iranian actions would be reasonable to expect in the context of actions that the United States and its P5+1 partners are, or are not, taking. If the expectation is for Tehran to make substantial unilateral concessions or changes in its nuclear activities with nothing in return, then we are dwelling in the same fantasy world of those in the West and Israel who do not want any agreement at all and make unmeetable demands to try to preclude one. If crippling sanctions have helped to bring about the change that has already taken place on the Iranian side—as promoters of still more sanctions are quick to argue—why would, and why should, Iran give up the store or give up anything without getting sanctions relief in return?
The actions that will matter the most will be proposals made at the negotiating table, with the P5+1 and in bilateral U.S.-Iranian negotiations. That necessarily means actions by both sides. Any reasonable objective observer looking at where the negotiations left off earlier this year would conclude that there needs to be at least as much action, and probably more, on the P5+1 side as on the Iranian side. The last proposal the P5+1 made would entail only minor sanctions relief (compared with the vast panoply of sanctions currently in place) in return for substantial restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities that get to the core of Western objectives. The Iranians are justified in viewing this as an offer of peanuts and a demand for meat.
The Iranians, too, have expectations and want to see concrete actions. With the change that has taken place on their own side, they understandably have all the more expectation for change on the other side. Having been given much reason to doubt whether the United States really wants an agreement or instead is just using negotiations to stall for time while sanctions inflict still more damage, the Iranians have been looking mostly for two things. The first is assurance that the objective of the United States involves acceptance of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a legitimate interlocutor and as the owner and operator of a peaceful nuclear program. President Obama went a long way toward addressing that topic—in his address to the United Nations General Assembly and in his remarks following the phone call with Rouhani—by explicitly disavowing an objective of regime change and accepting the concept of a peaceful Iranian nuclear program.
But that is still just talk, not action. Apart from publicly assigning to the secretary of state the responsibility for making something happen, we unfortunately have yet to see from the administration the sort of specific, concrete actions that would make things happen. That gets to the second big thing the Iranians are looking for: major sanctions relief in return for the sorts of nuclear restrictions that are being demanded of them. Amid all the talk about “testing” Iranian intentions, Leslie Gelb correctly observes that “Obama has to test himself as well and put some smart compromises on the table to jump-start serious negotiations. According to administration officials, however, he hasn’t gotten close to this approach yet.” There is too much of an attitude in Washington that the ball is still in the Iranians' court.
In thinking about whose half of the court the ball is in right now, we should note that this whole issue is not an issue because the Iranians made it one or wanted it to be one. They are doing with their nuclear activities what several other nations have been doing and that they believe with good reason they have a right to do as well. They had no reason or desire to make a stink about it. The issue is a big stinking issue because people outside of Iran have made it so, and it is outside Iran that much of the action needs to be taken now to resolve the issue.
Benjamin Netanyahu will not support any agreement between the United States and Iran. Or to be more precise, he will not support any agreement that is at all reasonable and in both U.S. and Iranian interests and thus has any chance of being negotiated. Give Netanyahu credit for consistency: he has long made it abundantly clear that he has no use at all for any negotiations with Iran or for any settlement of differences with Iran, on the nuclear issue or on anything else.
Netanyahu thus is doing what he can to destroy the prospects for an agreement. This includes his usual scare-mongering as well as rhetorical tactics such as trying to equate Iran to North Korea. He has depicted Iranian President Rouhani as representing nothing new and ordered a boycott of Rouhani's speech at the United Nations before he heard a word of what the Iranian said. In particular, Netanyahu is making demands that he knows would be deal-killers and suggesting that anyone who does not agree with those demands is endangering the security of Israel. Perhaps if a fantasy agreement somehow were reached in which the government of Iran declares that it has been evil and mistaken all these years, agrees to demolish all facilities having anything to do with its nuclear program, invites teams from the Israeli Defense Forces into Iran to perform the demolition, and has President Rouhani agreeing to use his Twitter account not only to convey Rosh Hashanah greetings but also to recite lyrics from Hatikvah, then Netanyahu would announce his support for the agreement.
To understand Netanyahu's posture one needs to realize that it is not only, or maybe even primarily, about a possible Iranian nuclear weapon. It is partly a matter of heading off any rapprochement between Iran and the United States, which would weaken the Israeli claim to being America's sole reliable and important partner in the Middle East. It is partly a matter of sustaining the Iranian nuclear issue as the regularly invoked “real problem” in the region that serves to divert attention from matters the Israeli government would rather not talk about or be the subject of international scrutiny. And it is partly a matter of Netanyahu riding a topic he has made a signature issue of his own in Israeli domestic politics and a basis for his claim to tough-guy leadership.
It is pointless to talk about how an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 could be fashioned to win Netanyahu's acceptance, because such acceptance will not be forthcoming. Anyone interested in the peaceful resolution of differences with Iran needs instead to view Netanyahu—and the Israeli Right of which he is a part, and those in the United States who unthinkingly and automatically follow his lead—as irredeemable spoilers and to think about how their efforts at spoiling can be countered.
One way to counter them is to talk directly to Netanyahu's bosses: the Israeli people. Ordinary Israelis, most of whom have not performed strategic analysis about what an Iranian nuclear weapon would or would not mean and instead approach the subject on a more emotional level, have genuine and understandable concerns about such a weapon if one were to materialize. They would have understandable concerns even without their leadership incessantly stoking fears about the subject. The Israeli people need to be spoken to about what is the best way to achieve their objective of avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon. They need to have explained to them why a negotiated agreement with Iran is that way, and why their prime minister's way is not. This will not cause the prime minister to end his efforts at spoiling, but it might energize other voices in Israel and help to make the spoiler-in-chief's efforts less credible, reduce any Israeli backing for Netanyahu taking the ultimate spoiling step of launching his own military attack on Iran, and lead those in the United States who really care about Israeli security to think again about falling in line behind Netanyahu.
This is certainly not the only important issue on which Netanyahu's government is acting contrary to the interests of Israel and its citizens. It would be great to hear more plain speaking by American leaders on those other issues, and on how Israelis are not being well-served by their own leaders. Unfortunately we have not heard much of that, but the Iranian nuclear issue is as good a one as any on which to start. Ideally Israelis would hear such a message from the very top of American leadership.
The Israeli government has complained about a paucity of trips to Israel by President Obama. So it could hardly stand in the way of a trip even if it knew it was for this purpose. Netanyahu's government also could hardly deny him the privilege of addressing the Knesset for this purpose. The government let it be known it was unhappy Obama did not address the Knesset on his last trip to Israel. And of course Netanyahu has been given the privilege of performing before the U.S. Congress, with members repeatedly jumping up and down out of their seats as if they had ants in their pants.
More calculation would have to be devoted to the timing of delivering such a message, relative to where negotiations with the Iranians stood. But were such a public message to be delivered, it ought to contain passages similar to these:
My friends, the people of Israel--
You need make no apologies for having strong concerns about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Anyone who knows anything about the history of the Jewish people and what has been inflicted upon them in the past, or who has listened to outrageous and hateful rhetoric about Israel from some past Iranian leaders, can appreciate those concerns. The United States not only appreciates them; it shares them.
Even the closest of allies have differences—sometimes over goals, sometimes over the best ways to achieve those goals. The governments of the United States and Israel have their differences. But there is no difference over a commitment to the security of the State of Israel. And there is no difference over the objective of avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon. On these matters, there is no daylight between us.
The commitment of the United States to the objective of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon is demonstrated by the extraordinary measures it has taken, by itself and as a leader of international coalitions, toward that end. Those measures have included in particular one of the most comprehensive sets of sanctions ever imposed on a state—sometimes at economic and other cost to the United States.
So we agree on the goal. All that remains for us, Israelis and Americans, to talk about is the best way to achieve that goal. All those sanctions I just mentioned begin to point to that way. For if the sanctions are not to be just a spiteful way of inflicting pain on a country we may not like, but instead are really going to be put in the service of our shared goal, then they have to be used as leverage. That means using them to obtain an agreement that gives the Iranians the sanctions relief they seek in order for us to gain what we seek: arrangements that will assure us that Iran's nuclear activities will not be used for any military purpose.
A negotiated agreement is the only way we can obtain such assurance. Whatever you or we may think about Iran, it is a sovereign state that neither one of us can control. We will get what we want from the Iranians only as part of an agreement in which they get much of what they want. The shape of such an agreement has been apparent for sometime, even though distrust and politics on each side have prevented us from getting there until now.
There is simply no other way to achieve our shared goal. Other paths not only would not achieve it but would entail major other costs and risks as well, to Israel as well as to the United States. Threats and pressure alone will not do the job. Iran is a proud state, as is Israel and as is the United States. Just as neither you nor we would give in to demands some other state might make of us under threats and pressure, we should not engage in wishful thinking that Iran would do so.
The use of military force would not do the job. It would not erase technical know-how. Worse, it would almost certainly lead the Iranian regime to take a decision which, according to the Israeli and U.S. intelligence services, it has not taken, which is to build a nuclear weapon. Rather than achieving our goal, the goal would be thrown beyond our grasp. Iran under those circumstances also probably would renounce its international obligations regarding nuclear activities and would end all international inspection arrangements on its territory. This would be the opposite of the enhanced inspection measures which, under a negotiated agreement, would provide our most direct assurance that Iran's nuclear activities were being limited to peaceful purposes.
Worst of all, the use of military force would condemn Israel to unending warfare with another major regional state. That is not something I would wish on you, our Israeli friends, any more than I would wish it on Americans.
Image: Adapted from Flickr/zeevveez. CC BY 2.0.
Debate about U.S. policy toward Syria has clearly exhibited some of the downsides of a reality about any discourse on foreign policy: that everyone is free to criticize anyone else's position or recommendations, but the incumbent president is the only one who has to come up with a real policy and try to make it work. The Syrian issue is an especially troubling demonstration of some of these downsides because it is one for which, as I have observed since early in the conflict, there are no good solutions. It is far easier to knock down someone else's ideas about this issue than it is to defend any ideas of one's own. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post has noted how President Obama's handling of the Syrian situation has been roundly criticized by many people who never get around to declaring what they would do instead if they had the responsibility for making policy. A contribution to debate that is all criticism and no positive alternatives is unhelpful not only because it does not directly get us any closer to a workable policy. It does not even get us indirectly closer to an improved policy; the best policy option is not necessarily the one that is least often the target of vocal, public criticism.
The discourse on Syria has exhibited other significant defects, some of which Sargent touches upon. There has been a confusion of process with outcome. This is what President Obama seemed to be complaining about when he said he wasn't trying to win “style points.” The problem with this particular focus on decision-making style is not only that it may be unfair to an incumbent trying to deal with an intractable situation. It is that some of the methods likely to win points with pundits and the public are less likely than other methods to arrive at sound policy. We like our leaders to appear decisive and resolute. We do not like them to appear vacillating and uncertain. Those preferences are understandable; they are connected to the very nature of leadership. The trouble comes when the yearning for decisiveness means criticism of the very sort of thoroughness and deliberation that is necessary to consider options carefully in the interest of arriving at the best (or least bad) option. The benchmark at the opposite end of this spectrum is the decision to launch the Iraq War, made by a president who trusted his gut and had no policy process at all to consider whether the war was a good idea.
Obama has been charged with short-circuiting his own habitually thorough decision-making by taking a walk with Denis McDonough around the south lawn of the White House and suddenly deciding to throw the question of an attack on Syria into the lap of Congress. But rather than abridging or cutting corners in the policy-making process, this was a move to make it more thorough, by involving in that process the legislative branch—which, by the way, is supposed to have war-declaring power under the Constitution.
This gets to another unhelpful conflation in debate and criticism about policy toward Syria, which is a confusion of motives with results. Did Mr. Obama make his move to Congress not out of some scruples of a former constitutional law professor but at least as much to spread responsibility to his political opponents and get buy-in for what would be a costly and risky military move? Of course he did. And when he made his other big change on Syria and ran with the Russian proposal on chemical weapons, was he grasping a lifeline that helped him to get out of the consequences of his own earlier mistake when he talked about use of chemical weapons as a game-changing red line? Yes again. But this is another example of how popular yearnings about leadership style conflict with what may be necessary to arrive at better rather than worse policies. We don't like to see our leaders change their minds because this looks indecisive, and pundits criticize this as vacillation. But changing one's mind and one's policy course may be necessary to adapt to new circumstances, to take advantage of new information, or as in the present case, to prevent previous mistakes from being compounded.
Given that I have criticized some of President Obama's moves on Syria, I ought to respond to Sargent's challenge to put up or shut up and say exactly how I would have done things differently. I would have followed all along a policy of non-intervention, for the fundamental reasons that there is no U.S. interest clearly served by one particular outcome of the Syrian civil war than another outcome, that it would be difficult or impossible for U.S. action to achieve a particular outcome of that war anyway, and that U.S. intervention would be more likely to increase than to decrease the overall violence and destruction associated with that war. I would have endeavored to articulate this reasoning, clearly and publicly. I may have won some style points for consistency, although I also would have been pilloried on the Washington Post editorial page and elsewhere for not doing more about the suffering in Syria.
I would have made greater efforts to internationalize consideration of Syria's political future, with full participation of both Russia and Iran. I would not have elevated the significance of chemical weapons far above that of the other sources of 100,000 deaths and other casualties in this war, and I would not have portrayed use of these weapons as a game-changer. I hope that after the chemical incident on August 21st I would have had the diplomatic agility to work with the Russians on an initiative to get Syria to surrender its chemical munitions, which should not have required threats of a U.S. air war. I can't say I would have been that agile, but if so we may have gotten to a situation similar in important respects to where we actually are now. Once again, style is not the same as outcome.
Image: White House/Flickr.
The op ed from President Hassan Rouhani in the Washington Post should be read carefully on at least four levels.
The first is as one measure of the overall earnestness and seriousness with which the current leadership of Iran is approaching relations with the United States and with the rest of the outside world. Can you find an unreasonable phrase anywhere in the piece? I can't.
The second is as a contrast with what we had become accustomed to hearing under the eight-year tenure of Rouhani's predecessor. The contrast is so sharp one would never guess, if we did not already know it was so, that such pronouncements were coming from successive presidents of the same country, separated not by a coup or revolution but instead by a peaceful election. Rouhani's piece in the Post adds to the numerous other indications over the past several weeks that his election marks a profound change in attitude and approach in Tehran.
Third, Rouhani's statements about what Iran wishes to do on issues of high concern to both it and the United States is consistent with what any dispassionate and well-reasoned analysis would arrive at as necessary to facilitate resolution of these issues. On the nuclear question, any resolution will have to recognize—and provide assurances to the West of being limited to—a “peaceful nuclear energy program.” On the more pressing issue of the Syrian war, Rouhani's statement of his government's “readiness to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition” should be acted upon, both because Iran already is a player, for better or for worse, in the Syrian situation and because working together in addressing the Syrian situation can have beneficial spillover effects in dealing with the nuclear question and other issues.
Fourth, the article contains sage advice about other aspects of the American approach to foreign policy, including on matters that do not directly involve Iran. As with Vladimir Putin's recent missive, Americans ought not to need foreign presidents to point out truths about their own policies and approach toward the world, but they are truths nonetheless. Among Rouhani's observations that are too often forgotten, or never appreciated in the first place, in American discourse is that the world is for the most part not a zero-sum place and that dealing with other nations involves simultaneous competition and cooperation. He correctly observes that a unilateral approach that “glorifies brute force and breeds violence” does not solve shared problems such as terrorism and extremism. He notes that too often “security is pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others, with disastrous consequences.” A glaring example of this in the Middle East that does not directly involve Iran but is condoned by the United States comes readily to mind.
Perhaps the most trenchant of Rouhani's observations is:
We and our international counterparts have spent a lot of time — perhaps too much time — discussing what we don’t want rather than what we do want. This is not unique to Iran’s international relations. In a climate where much of foreign policy is a direct function of domestic politics, focusing on what one doesn’t want is an easy way out of difficult conundrums for many world leaders. Expressing what one does want requires more courage.
This aptly describes how some foreign policy issues—certainly including the Iranian nuclear issue—get addressed in the United States. One of the biggest deficiencies in American discourse about that issue is that it goes little beyond declarations of how badly we don't want an Iranian bomb, with almost no sense of what we do want other than to hurt Iran and no vision for the future other than, by implication, perpetual hostility.
The new Iranian administration has opened a door to a better relationship, and one better for the United States, about as widely as such doors ever are opened. The United States would be foolish not to walk through it.
Image: Office of the President of Iran.
Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran, he and his appointees have piled up indication upon indication, in their words and their actions, that they strongly want a new and improved relationship with the West and that they will do what they can to bring one about by facilitating a mutually acceptable agreement regarding Iran's nuclear program. Only those outside Iran who are determined to subvert the prospect of a better relationship with the Islamic Republic can deny that there now is a major opportunity for achieving one and specifically for settling the nuclear issue in a manner fully protective of U.S. interests.
Legitimate questions have been raised about how much flexibility can be expected from the Iranian side when, under the convoluted Iranian constitution, it is not the president but the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last say on many issues. But it would be impossible for Rouhani, who has had a close and longstanding relationship with Khamenei, and the president's administration to do and say everything they have over the past few weeks if this ran against the wishes of the supreme leader. Now Khamenei, in addition to past indications of his views such as placing a religious imprimatur on a rejection of nuclear weapons, has given more direct evidence that he also is thinking in terms of a different course for U.S.-Iranian relations. He gave a speech to commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that paralleled in important respects a speech that Rouhani had just given to the IRGC. Khamenei indicated that he is quite in favor of “correct” diplomacy as long as Iran's honor is protected. “Heroic flexibility” is how the supreme leader's own staff translated into English the concept that he was propounding.
Khamenei also—and this is where his speech most resembled Rouhani's—said the IRGC should not get immersed in politics. This admonition indirectly recognized the potential of hardliners in the Guard and elsewhere in the regime to be spoilers. Even the supreme leader cannot necessarily carry the day if such hardliners are given sufficient ammunition.
Unfortunately some outside Iran, led most conspicuously by the current prime minister of Israel, are doing their best to give them ammunition. Benjamin Netanyahu continues his effort to stoke perpetual hostility between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Last year in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly he entertained us with cartoon bombs. This year he will make demands that include what he fully knows would be deal-stoppers (specifically, an end to all Iranian enrichment of uranium). His efforts are most conspicuously being aided in the United States by Senator Lindsey Graham, who is so amenable to letting Netanyahu lead the United States into a war with Iran that, even before any negotiators have had a chance to sit down following Rouhani's election, he has announced his intention to introduce a resolution calling for such a war.
The late Abba Eban, the silver-tongued Israeli foreign minister, once famously said that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The circumstances, and Palestinian preferences and policies, that underlay his remark changed greatly long ago. But his apothegm might apply to much of the history of the U.S.-Iranian relationship. It would, tragically, apply all the more if the current opportunity is missed, either because of the ammunition being supplied to Iranian hardliners or because the side led by the United States simply does not put on the negotiating table the sanctions relief necessary to strike a deal.
No matter how the next chapters of the Syrian chemical weapons story play out, a conclusion repeatedly being drawn from the story is that threats of military force work. Both those who have an innate fondness for the making (and executing) of such threats and the Obama administration—eager to describe its handling of the Syrian issue as a success—have their separate reasons for pushing this conclusion. Expect to hear it a lot in the coming days.
The conclusion is a simple one with intuitive appeal, flowing naturally to many people ever since as children they witnessed schoolyard bullies getting their way by threatening to beat up other kids. The sequence of events over the past month does make it appear that the threatened use of U.S. military force was a leading reason for the departures that Syria and Russia took over the past week regarding chemical weapons (although Eliot Cohen offers an interesting challenge to this view, noting other important factors that shaped the Russian and Syrian decisions). The danger of the commonly accepted conclusion comes from promoting a simple belief that “threats work” without considering all of the other reasons that lead them to work or not to work, and then to apply that belief to situations where they probably will not work. The situation most often invoked, of course, is Iran and the issue of its nuclear program. The simplistic belief about the supposed universal efficacy of threats of military force thus accentuates an already widely held and mistaken assumption that the more that Iranians fear a military attack the more likely they are to make concessions about their nuclear activities.
A large corpus of scholarly work has addressed the subject of military threats and sought-after political or diplomatic outcomes, a subject that usually comes under the heading of coercive diplomacy. This research by political scientists has not arrived at some single grand conclusion that military threats do (or don't) work. Instead, the research has concerned the numerous conditions and variables that increase or decrease the chance they will work. The political scientists have had plenty of material to examine; successful and unsuccessful examples of the use of threats can be found throughout history. This is true both of threats of armed force that never materialized and ones that did. In modern U.S. history, for example, the Vietnam War and especially the air war against North Vietnam was a large and conspicuous example of a failed attempt to use armed force to get an adversary to change its policies—in this case, to get the North Vietnamese to abandon its objective of uniting all of Vietnam under its rule.
Among the other variables that matter are whatever other pressures and constraints, besides the threatened military force, the targeted regime is experiencing. Failure to take such variables into account is a shortcoming of the frequent references to the air wars in the Balkans in the 1990s as supposedly having been successful in breaking the will of Slobodan Milošović. The references routinely ignore what else was going on at the time, such as what Croatian forces were doing on the ground in Bosnia. In Syria today, the Assad regime is engaged in an intense civil war and waging a struggle both domestically and internationally not only for its legitimacy but for its very existence. Nothing remotely resembling that is true of the government in Iran.
Of particular importance are the nature of the specific issues in dispute and what they imply for the priority that each side places on them, the determination of the target regime to maintain its stance, and how defensible that stance is internationally. Here again there is a big difference between the Syrian and Iranian situations. The Syrian regime not only possesses but also, it appears, lethally used a weapon that is the subject of a near-universal prohibition. The type of (not quite so universally prohibited) weapon that is supposedly the concern with Iran is one that Iran does not possess, has never used, and hasn't even decided to build. The Iranian program that is the focus of concern is one that the Iranians believe, strongly and correctly, they are entitled to maintain under international law and the relevant international control regimes.
An added aspect of the issue involved in the Iranian case is that to the extent there is any interest in Tehran in someday developing a nuclear weapon, probably the most important motivation would be a hope that such a weapon would help to deter foreign military attack on Iran. Threatening an attack is thus more likely to stoke than to diminish any interest in such a weapon.
Among the reasons that threats of armed force often not only do not work but may even be counterproductive—stiffening the resolve of the decision-makers on the other side—is that regimes do not like to be bullied. They are even more likely than schoolkids to push back, once they have gotten their nationalist dander up. Another, somewhat related, reason is that domestic politics are affected by such threats, with hardliners being empowered or incumbent decision-makers having to modify their policies to avoid losing out to the hardliners.
A little role-reversed thinking should make these dynamics easy for Americans to understand. What would be the political impact in the United States if it became the target of some other country's threats of armed attack? Would American hardliners cower and be silenced, and would there be a surge of sentiment in favor of making whatever concessions the threatener wants? Of course not. The result would be the opposite. One of the downsides of American exceptionalist thinking is a failure to understand how many foreigners' responses to what we do are basically the same as how we would respond to similar acts from them.
In Tehran, President Rouhani has to contend with his own hardliners. Bullying Iran with threats of armed attack does not help him to do that. The conventional American wisdom, now amplified by simplistic conclusions extracted from the Syrian episode, that threats of armed force will help bring about more accommodating Iranian positions on the nuclear issue is almost certainly wrong. Not only wrong, but counterproductive. That is all the more true because such threats feed the suspicions of Iranians, who already have been given ample reason to hold such suspicions, that the United States is interested not in an agreement but only in regime change.
Different elements in the United States will continue to push the mistaken conventional wisdom about the efficacy of threats for their different reasons. The Obama administration wants to continue to portray its Syria policy as a success and also wants to placate a rightist Israeli government that appears to have little compunction about starting wars. Many Americans, including many members of Congress, voice the conventional wisdom because they simply do not know better. Then there are those who do know better but continue to promote military threats because they do not want an agreement with Iran and understand how such threats may help to kill the prospects for one.
Vladimir Putin's op ed about U.S. policy toward Syria unsurprisingly did not go down well with many American readers, principally because it was coming from Putin. They undoubtedly see an issue of whether Putin has the moral and political standing to be so preachy with Americans. As Steven Lee Myers reminds us in the New York Times, when Putin took back the presidency a year ago he “moved aggressively to stamp out a growing protest movement and silence competing and independent voices” and since then has “promoted nationalism with a hostile edge, passed antigay legislation, locked up illegal immigrants in a city camp, and kept providing arms to the Syrian government.” Speaker of the House John Boehner said he felt “insulted” by Putin's piece, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez said that upon reading it he “almost wanted to vomit.”
Okay, we don't like to be lectured to, about anything, by the ex-KGB man who is boss of Russia. But put aside the author's resumé and think about the substance of the article. There are, to be sure, some grounds on which to criticize it. Notwithstanding weaknesses in the Obama administration's intelligence case about the chemical weapons incident, Putin expresses too much confidence in the alternative hypothesis that Syrian rebels and not government forces used the weapons. He perhaps is also a little far-reaching in spinning out some of the more dire scenarios that could result from a U.S. military strike.
But much of the rest of what Putin is saying makes sense, and it would behoove Americans to think about it. He talked about the costs, which the United States would share, of doing end-runs around the United Nations Security Council on matters on which the council ought to be involved. He restated the principles of international law regarding use of military force and self-defense. He observed that in a world in which there is less respect for law and more reliance on force, there would be more people seeking to protect themselves by acquiring weapons of mass destruction. He noted how any military attack would claim some innocent victims and would constitute an escalation of the Syrian war. He observed that this war is not a struggle for democracy but instead a religiously-infused contest in which there are intolerant extremists on the rebel side. He pointed out how past U.S. reliance on brute force fosters negative attitudes toward the United States, and how it has failed to impart stability in the places it has been used in recent years.
The part of Putin's piece that Americans perhaps found more irritating than any other was his final comment about American exceptionalism. Americans get especially upset about this sort of comment because it sounds to them like an affront to the very nature of America and not just particular American policies. Probably an extra annoyance was Putin's final line invoking religion, especially coming from someone who used to work on behalf of godless communism.
But what Putin actually said here involved one of his most valid and valuable points. He said that encouraging exceptionalist thinking is dangerous because countries differ from each other on all sorts of dimensions, and there is no basis for saying that any one country's differences sets it apart in a way that does not apply to any other countries. He was not impugning the motivation of exceptionalist thinking in the United States or anywhere else—he specifically said “whatever the motivation”—but instead was pointing out undesirable consequences of such thinking.
This closing part of Putin's article was a direct response to the closing portion of President Obama's speech on Syria on Tuesday. Even the final God-invoking line was a reflection of the Obama speech. Given that a “God bless” closing has become obligatory in speeches by U.S. presidents, why can't a Russian president invoke divinity at the end of his public statements, too?
What the U.S. president said about exceptionalism in that final part of his speech was shaky enough that it shouldn't need a Putin to expose the weakness of it. Mr. Obama said that when “we can stop children from being gassed to death”—never mind for the moment that a U.S. military attack would not be stopping any such thing—“we should act.” He said, “That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.” Really? After all that has been said and felt through the years about an exceptional America, evoking a sense that this country represents a higher plane of basic goodness, what it comes down to is the will and wherewithal to fire off a bunch of Tomahawk missiles?
Exceptionalist thinking has more extensive and fundamental drawbacks than what is represented in this one paragraph in Obama's speech. Three years ago I enumerated some of those drawbacks. They include such things as an inability to understand the causes of anti-Americanism, an overestimation of the inclination of other countries to follow a U.S. lead, and a failure to understand the limitations of what the United States can accomplish overseas. These and other drawbacks are apparent in much discussion about the current Syrian problem.
It would be fortunate if this problem, and the embarrassment of having to rely on Putin to help get the U.S. fat out of this particular fire, had the compensating advantage of getting more Americans to think seriously about the downside of exceptionalist thinking. That is not likely to happen, even if the message were coming from a messenger less disagreeable than Vladimir Putin.