Pistachios have long been one of Iran's leading products and biggest exports after oil. Thus when the Clinton administration, during its final year in office, wanted to take a stab at rapprochement with Iran, pistachios figured in the initiative. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave a speech in which, besides acknowledging some of Iran's historical grievances against the United States, she announced the lifting of import bans on Iranian pistachios, caviar and carpets. The initiative did not go anywhere because Iranian leaders took offense at a critical reference in the speech to Iran's “unelected hands,” but it was a reminder of how important the greenish nut in the tan shell, and specifically export of the nut, is to Iran.
Thirteen years and a lot of sanctions later, it was thus somewhat surprising to hear a few days ago that the Iranian regime was imposing a six-month ban on export of pistachios. The official explanation for the move was that it was intended to help hold down the domestic price of pistachios—amid the sanctions-exacerbated inflation that is plaguing the Iranian economy. The domestic price was considered especially important right now, with the approach of the Iranian new year, when many Iranians will be buying a lot of pistachios for their holiday entertaining. A further explanation, not stated officially, was that the regime had tried to jawbone Iranian pistachio producers into accepting what amounted to voluntary price restraints and was not getting the cooperation it wanted. The suspension of exports was an exercise of leverage against the recalcitrant growers.
Either the leverage worked or the regime came to conclude that the export suspension would be self-damaging; according to subsequent reporting the suspension has been revoked. Iranian producers were alarmed that even a brief interruption of exports would mean a lasting loss of market share. Their chief competitor in this market—the country that has been the second-leading producer of pistachios and in recent years has been challenging Iran for the number one spot—is the United States. The two countries that are facing off over a nuclear program and weighty security issues in the Persian Gulf are also the world's biggest competitors on pistachios.
The picture gets more interesting when bringing into it the country that is the largest per capita consumer of pistachios—which also happens to be the country most vigorously stirring the pot over that nuclear issue: Israel. Strange as it may seem now, given the constant Israeli campaigning to pressure and isolate Iran as much as possible, in the recent past the United States has lobbied Israel not to import Iranian pistachios. Israel hasn't officially imported anything Iranian in some time, but the pistachio trade is a leaky one in which it has been well known that Iranian pistachios were making their way to Israeli consumers through Turkey or other routes. Back in the Clinton administration, Secretary Albright was on the case. In instructions sent to the U.S. embassy in Israel three years before she made that speech on Iran, the State Department said, "Reports of Iranian pistachios entering Israel . . . are a source of growing concern. Given the goal Israel has placed on the need for the international community to pressure and economically isolate Iran . . . such imports are unacceptable." The U.S. lobbying of Israel on the issue was not motivated solely or even primarily by a perspective on what it takes to influence Iran. The lobbying reflected lobbying on the U.S. government by the pistachio growers in the San Joaquin Valley of California, who were hoping to get a bigger part of the lucrative Israeli market.
Israel denied there was a significant problem but nonetheless responded by making more of an effort to crack down, so to speak, on illegally imported nuts. Israel also imposed a special tariff on all non-U.S. pistachios, to make price competition between Iranian and U.S. producers more equal than it was. Despite those measures, the issue did not go away, and late in the Bush administration the United States was still raising the matter with Israel. Even without a price advantage, many Israelis apparently prefer the Iranian variety of pistachio. “It's no secret—the taste is better,” says Tel Aviv wholesaler Moshe Mussafi.
The dessert of this story is the news over the weekend, which was a front-page item in Israel, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a government-funded ice cream budget for his residence of $2,700 annually. The ice cream comes from a gourmet shop near the residence, and the prime minister's favorite flavor is pistachio. The play of this story in Israel, especially as exploited by Netanyahu's political opponents, has been that this is an unjustified extravagance when other Israelis are being asked to observe austerity. The Iran angle does not seem to be an issue, and the New York Times article on the subject says that the pistachio ice cream was “presumably not made with an Iranian variety of the nut.” But the taste issue and the difficulties in policing the pistachio trade that have kept the Iranian product coming into Israel for years make it unlikely anyone can say this with anything approaching certainty. It is interesting to reflect on the possibility that the leader who is the most prominent and vocal antagonist of Iran in the world might, as he relaxes with his favorite treat after dinner, be savoring a product that was grown somewhere in Kerman Province.
There is not a clear lesson from this story, but some possible observations come to mind. Messing with a free market for political reasons can have odd effects. Sanctions can have odd effects, or bring odd responses. Policies that supposedly have a large diplomatic purpose are often driven by more parochial interests, especially economic ones. And perhaps something about how pistachios, like politics, can make for strange bedfellows, or at least strange lines of conflict and cooperation.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/MadMaxMarchHare. CC BY-SA 2.5.
Those with a bent for the supernatural might think that cosmic events last Friday were the sending of some sort of message. The earth encountered two asteroids, a known one that passed closely but harmlessly as predicted, and an unknown one that was smaller but still big enough to cause an explosion, estimated at 300-500 kilotons, that injured about a thousand people in Russia. The two objects were on much different trajectories, and NASA's Near Earth Object Program tells us that the two encounters occurring on the same day were “pure coincidence.” If anyone chooses to see the occurrences as a kind of warning, however, that is probably a good thing, because protection from bombardment by asteroids and comets deserves more priority and resources than it currently gets.
The insufficient priority illustrates deficiencies in our political process that manifest themselves in many other ways. One of those deficiencies, which is rooted in a more general psychological tendency, is an inability to analyze properly low-probability events and responses to them. Oh, sometimes it sounds like we are paying good attention to such events. It was just a few years ago that Dick Cheney was saying that even if there were only a one percent chance of something like an aggressive dictator getting his hands on weapons of mass destruction, we need to do something about it. But that comment did not really reflect any analysis. The probability of a problem occurring does matter, partly because of the costs and risks of trying to do something about the problem. Cheney's comment was only a rhetorical device for expressing his preference for doing something about the particular dictator he had in mind.
More generally, we tend to give too much attention to certain low-probability events that for some reason have come to frighten and fascinate us—which is true of some terrorism scenarios. Meanwhile, other low-probability events we basically ignore, even though the very high consequences if they did occur mean that if we apply good expected-utility analysis we should be paying more attention to them. Richard Posner's book Catastrophe is a useful corrective to these tendencies, describing what good policy analysis ought to look like when addressing low-probability, high-impact events. Among Posner's conclusions is that the danger of asteroid collisions probably ought to get more priority than it has received so far.
Friday's events were enough to elicit some encouraging sounds from politicians, including an op ed from Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ)—a physicist and former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory—and his Congressional colleague Donna Edwards (D-MD). Perhaps more significant, because it comes from the side of the aisle more accustomed to opposing increased spending on anything other than the military, was a statement from Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Although Smith did not say anything about increased spending, he did describe work on this subject as “critical to our future.” Smith said, “We should continue to invest in systems that identify threatening asteroids and develop contingencies, if needed, to change the course of an asteroid headed toward Earth.” One can hope that members of Congress will come to recognize protection from natural threats from outer space as being at least as much “defense” in the most literal sense as much that is funded in the budget for the U.S. Department of Defense.
It will be interesting to see how this issue plays in Russia. Astronomers tell us that hits from asteroids on the order of the ones that caused Friday's air burst and the 1908 Tunguska event (which flattened trees over a wide area farther east in Siberia) are once-in-a-century events. Russia has now taken on behalf of the planet the hits for the twentieth and—so far—the twenty-first centuries. Prime Minister Medvedev made a comment about how Friday's event shows that the whole planet is vulnerable, and a deputy prime minister was arguing for some kind of terrestrial defense system to reduce damage from similar happenings.
One might wonder, however, how much Russians will be inclined to shrug off asteroid hits as just another of the many impositions and hazards they have to put up with. The area around Chelyabinsk, where the meteor struck, has long been one of the worst spots in the world for radioactive pollution. This is because of a plutonium production and reprocessing complex that has had several accidents, including an especially bad one in 1957. The Danish filmmaker Boris Bertram made a documentary in Chelyabinsk called Tankograd (a nickname for the city, after its role as a producer of armaments in World War II) that addresses the radioactivity problem as necessarily a concern for health care professionals who have to deal with the consequences but not a subject that is dwelt upon by other citizens going about their daily lives.
The international dimension—which Medvedev noted—of the threat from objects in space gets to another shortcoming in the U.S. political process. This involves the antipathy some American political persuasions have against almost anything multilateral, especially where decisions of national security are involved. On this subject unilateralism will not work. This is not mainly because of shortcomings in what the United States can do technologically (although we ought to remind ourselves that currently we are dependent on Russian spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the international space station). NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005 successfully crashed a spacecraft into a comet. A bigger need for international cooperation may be in the detection of earth-bound objects. The currently weakest part of that effort involves the part of the sky visible only from the southern hemisphere.
The stickiest issues involving international cooperation and possible American reservations about it may concern decisions about taking preventive action once an earth-bound object is sighted. Even if an object-deflecting system is physically in place and ready to go, how is the decision made to use it? We can hope that any such situation that arises will be a straightforward one in which one can accurately say that what's good for the United States is good for the planet, and the U.S. president gives the order to save both. But one can imagine other situations, such as if the object is discovered too late to be able to keep it from hitting Earth altogether, and the issue becomes one in which intervention might make it more likely or less likely to hit certain parts of the planet.
One of the most oft-repeated, widely accepted and habitually unquestioned beliefs about the Iranian nuclear issue is that if Iran got a nuclear weapon then Tehran would—merely by possessing such a weapon, even if it never detonated one—throw its weight around in the region in ways that it wouldn't or couldn't do without a nuke. A nuclear-armed Iran, according to the belief, would coerce and influence neighbors in untold ways we are not seeing now from a non-nuclear-armed Iran. This belief is shared by a wide variety of people who disagree on other aspects of Iran and its nuclear program. It is held by many people who are firmly committed to using diplomacy to resolve differences with Iran, as well as by people who are itching to launch a war against it. It is held by many people who reject the notion that Iranian leaders are mad mullahs who would nuke Tel Aviv at the first opportunity, as well as by people who peddle some version of that notion.
It is remarkable how a belief that has come to play such a major part in discussion about an issue as prominent as the Iranian nuclear issue has been so automatically accepted and so infrequently examined or questioned. Probably the most prominent questioning of it was in a short piece last year in Foreign Affairs by Kenneth Waltz. But Waltz, despite his long-established reputation as an eminent political scientist, has been preemptively pigeon-holed on this issue as an outlier. He had long ago argued, without specific reference to Iran, that the spread of nuclear weapons has been more of a stabilizing than a de-stabilizing force. His piece on Iran is titled “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.” So, sort of like George Ball in his devil's advocate role regarding the Vietnam War, Waltz with his argument on Iran has been treated as someone to be politely acknowledged but safely dismissed.
A few others have questioned the belief about Iranian nuclear coercion, bucking its entrenched status in the conventional wisdom. I did so a year ago, pointing out how the belief simply does not hold water when well-honed doctrine from the Cold War about nuclear weapons and influence is applied to it. Stephen Walt has also shot down the belief, reviewing how the history of nuclear weapons and attempts at coercion simply does not support it. And yet the image of Iranian nuclear extortion continues to prevail, probably in large part because for most people it seems to make intuitive sense that ownership of something as awesome as a nuclear weapon ought to have a significant effect on the owner's international relations.
Those still stuck in the intuitive mode ought to consider the findings of a study reported in the current issue of International Organization by Todd Sechser of the University of Virginia and Matthew Fuhrmann of Texas A&M. Their study is partly a rigorous quantitative version of what Walt did, as an examination of the historical record of attempts at coercion. They used a comprehensive database covering both nuclear and non-nuclear would-be coercers and spanning the entire nuclear age and more. Their finding: possession of nuclear weapons does not help in coercing other states. This is true whether or not explicit threats to use the weapons are made (they seldom are).
Sechser and Fuhrmann accompany their quantitative results with the key analytical points that explain those results. Nuclear weapons are great for deterring a catastrophic action—one that would extinguish one's regime. But they are not very useful in imposing one's will regarding other matters. They are less useful for that latter purpose mostly for reasons examined many years ago by Thomas Schelling when he contrasted deterrence with—his newly coined word—compellence. It is very difficult to threaten credibly the use of nuclear weapons to coerce change to a situation that the threatener has already been living with. And the very awesomeness of nuclear weapons means great costs to anyone who uses them, even if the use does not start a full-scale nuclear war.
Given the stakes involved in the Iranian nuclear matter—with talk still out there about the “military option”—it is irresponsible for so many people who talk about the subject to be relying on intuition rather than on analysis and the historical record.
From time to time we hear news from Israel that reflects growing religious intolerance there. An attention-getting story from a little more than a year ago concerned ultra-Orthodox men in the community of Beit Shemesh spitting on an eight-year-old girl and calling her a prostitute because her modest dress was not modest enough to suit them. An immediate thought such incidents engender is how remarkably similar this is to the religious intolerance displayed by Muslim fundamentalists, including ones in Arab countries surrounding Israel. There is the same effort to impose sectarian preferences on a larger society. And there is the same gender discrimination involved in efforts to constrain and subjugate women.
The very high birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox—and thus their growing demographic and political weight—underlies increasing intolerance in Israel. But there is more to it than that, in a state that defines its existence and character in terms of single religion or ethnicity. This definition not only implies second-class status for citizens not of that religion but also enlists the power of the state in the sectarian aims of whoever gets to specify in more detail the nature of the dominant religion.
It is that same power of the state, which was not involved in the incident with the spat-upon schoolgirl, that is the most noteworthy aspect of an incident this week at the Western Wall. Ten women, including two American-born rabbis, were arrested by Israeli police for praying there while wearing prayer shawls traditionally used by men. This was not a demonstration by the women or an attempt by them to disrupt the peace. It may be disturbing enough for some that even a rabbi could not pray as she wished at a Jewish holy site. What should be even more disturbing is that police on the public payroll are enforcing such intolerance.
This incident and others like it inspire two further observations. The first is just to underscore the irony of the convergence of behavior by religious fundamentalists in Israel and those in Muslim-majority countries. Israel, given its current political direction, has walled itself off from its neighbors and accepts estrangement from them. Israelis say we should be concerned about increased political roles assumed by religious fundamentalists in neighbors such as Egypt. And yet at the same time there is an increasing amount of behavior in Israel, supported or condoned by state power, that looks just like the behavior of those other fundamentalists.
The other observation is that this convergence with one of the more intolerant and ignoble aspects of life in the Middle East is part of a divergence of Israel from the values of its superpower patron, the United States. The notion of shared values has always been a leading rationale for the extraordinary patronage bestowed on Israel. That notion always has been flawed, and it is becoming decreasingly credible. One of the basic flaws involves religion, with one state defined in terms of a particular religion and the other based on a separation of church and state. Of course, there are fundamentalists in the United States who try to erode that separation, whether it is school boards messing with textbooks, employers wanting their personal religious beliefs to shape national laws regarding health care, or a fervently Christianist candidate (Rick Santorum) making a serious run for the presidency last year. But overall the establishment clause of the First Amendment is still operative.
A federal court in Minnesota reaffirmed that clause last month in dismissing a lawsuit contending that Hebrew National kosher hot dogs are not really kosher. That's not the business of courts, this court properly decided. What makes a hot dog kosher is a religious question to be decided by rabbis in the private sector entities that certify such things. In the United States it is not a matter for judges, police or anyone else on the public payroll, any more than proper wearing of a prayer shawl would be a matter for them.
Freedom of the press is another First Amendment freedom where Israel diverges significantly from the United States. There is an irony here, too, in that there is freer discussion in Israel, including the Israeli press, than there is in the United States about basic issues of Israel's direction and its relationship with the United States. But on many other subjects the Israeli military censor heavily restricts what can be reported, as demonstrated by a story this week about a Prisoner X who mysteriously died in a high-security Israeli prison. In the most recent press freedom index calculated by Reporters Without Borders, Israel ranks 112 out of 179 nations worldwide. The United States is 32nd.
Then there is the issue of gender equality. In the United States the status of women has been improving at least since enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment. In many ways Israeli women enjoy more equality than in many other countries, but with the growing impact of religious fundamentalism on gender issues it would be hard to say that current trends in Israel are going in the same direction as the United States.
Finally there is the issue on which there is the greatest divergence, which concerns political rights for all regardless of ethnicity or religion. True, there are elements in the United States that are trying to mess with this one too, by making it harder for some segments of the population to exercise their right to vote. But with the United States there is nothing remotely comparable to the wholesale denial of political rights for entire ethnic groups that there is in territory controlled by Israel.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Michael Jacobson. CC BY-SA 3.0.
The foreign policy speech that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) gave at the Heritage Foundation last week has received significant attention, and appropriately so. Robert Merry's mostly sympathetic treatment in these spaces describes the speech as “seminal.” Paul's statement indeed represents a significant divergence from the foreign policy thinking that has come to dominate the political party to which he belongs. An interesting comparison, however, is provided by Robert Kagan's less sympathetic take on the speech. Kagan commends Paul's desire to spark a serious foreign policy debate in his party and in the country, but he sees Paul as hewing to more conventional views, and breaking less specific new ground, than Paul might want us to believe.
Kagan underestimates the full implications of how Paul's speech, even if it was light on specific policy prescriptions, departs from the neoconservative-dominated thinking that is currently part of the Republican mainstream. After all, it only takes one equivalent of the Iraq War not to be launched to make a big difference. Moreover, some of where Paul was less bold in the speech than he might otherwise have been can be attributed to observing the limits of political viability, perhaps with a future presidential run in mind. In noting, for example, Paul's subscribing to the mantra of “keeping all options on the table” for dealing with Iran, Kagan observes, “A true dissenter would have the temerity to declare that a nuclear Iran, although unfortunate, is nevertheless tolerable and that the military option ought not to be on the table.” Kagan's observation is correct, and the true dissenter's view on this subject would also be correct. But that view unfortunately is still politically incorrect enough to endanger the electability of anyone who expresses it. Unless we expect Barack Obama to challenge that bit of political correctness (and we should), it is probably unfair to expect Rand Paul to challenge it.
Kagan, however, accurately puts his finger on a central theme in Paul's speech that is not a departure at all—from what is mainstream thinking not only in his own party but across the political spectrum. On this theme, Kagan writes,
Paul sounds conventional. He calls himself a “realist,” but unlike many realists, he sees the overriding threat to America as “radical Islam,” which he describes as a “relentless force” of “unlimited zeal,” “supported by radicalized nations such as Iran” and with which the United States is indeed at “war” and will be for a long time. Unlike critics during the Cold War, who argued that anti-communist “paranoia” produced a self-destructive foreign policy, Paul embraces the dominant “paranoia” of the post-9/11 era. He...shares the average American’s view that radical Islam is today what Soviet Communism was during the Cold War — “an ideology with worldwide reach” that must, like communism, be met by “counterforce at a series of constantly shifting worldwide points.”
In the speech, Paul does indeed play up the comparison to communism and the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, repeatedly invoking George Kennan. He also does some of the homogenizing of purported threats that became familiar during the Cold War. Although at one point he chides those prone to lumping very different scary Muslims together—by noting how many Americans still mistakenly believe Iraq was responsible for the 9/11 attack—he does a lot of lumping himself. The Iranian regime, Saudi Wahhabists and terrorist cells in Western Europe are all put under the single label of “radical Islam.”
But this subject isn't anything like the challenge from the USSR and communism during the Cold War, and “radical Islam” really does involve a lot of paranoia on our part. There is nothing remotely comparable to a superpower armed with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. There are no “radical Islamist” states or possible states that have any chance of challenging U.S. military power even locally, let alone globally. There is nothing that at all resembles the parallel political and military threats to Western Europe when it faced both Red Army divisions on the Elbe and communist parties that commanded many times more support and parliamentary seats than “radical Islam” could ever hope to achieve. There isn't even as much international and transnational connectivity and unity of purpose on the adversary side as there was during the Cold War—and even that was less than we, to our cost and discomfort, believed at the time. There is no “radical Islam” Comintern.
The paranoia and the framing of “radical Islam” as a single grand threat has two main sources (in addition to more parochial but politically significant drivers, such as the Israeli government). One is the enormous national trauma inflicted by a single terrorist operation: 9/11. Look at the history of American public opinion and discourse about “radical Islam” and how it changed in a single day from insignificance to an overriding national preoccupation. The preoccupation really was about terrorism, and terrorism that was not the product of states or foreign insurgencies. And the preoccupation was about the death toll of 9/11, not about some less emotional and more objective measure of how even terrorism poses a threat. There was plenty of official attention prior to 9/11 to threats from radical Islamist terrorism. But it did not become a big national concern and continuing preoccupation until one bunch of terrorists hit a high-casualty jackpot on the U.S. mainland.
The other major source is the strong urge to define foreign policy in terms of a simplifying, seemingly easy-to-understand grand theme—even though the world presents lots of problems and challenges that do not really fit under any one grand theme. Standing up to some single named threat or adversary is the kind of theme that can most readily fill this role. Confrontation against Soviet communism provided the requisite theme for more than four decades. In the decade after that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, would-be George Kennans fumbled for some new grand, all-defining theme. No one really came up with anything that caught on among grand strategy aficionados. Meanwhile, the general public didn't worry too much about this conceptual gap while enjoying the prosperity of the 1990s. Then along came 9/11 and instantly both the grand strategists and the public had a new theme that readily caught fire. Initially that theme was defined as a “war on terror.” Then after enough people came to realize the silliness of postulating a war on a tactic, it elided into a war of sorts against what most Americans saw as the face of terrorism, which was “radical Islam.”
Let us, along with both Merry and Kagan, welcome whatever energizing of foreign policy debate comes from Rand Paul's speech and any other statements like it. There is enough meat and enough difference in what he says that if his views could displace, or even significantly erode, the dominant neoconservative influence in the Republican Party this would be a very significant (and positive) development. But a truly sweeping redo of thinking about U.S. grand strategy and America's place in the world will have to await a loosening of the embrace of the dominant paranoia of the post-9/11 era. Until that happens, ideas such as Paul's will always be at a political disadvantage compared with the tough-guy stance of those arguing that we should forcefully confront the object of that paranoia wherever and whenever it appears.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0.
In John Brennan's confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, committee chair Diane Feinstein (D-CA) said she would explore with Congressional colleagues the possible creation of a special court to review candidates for assassination by armed drones. The idea is worth exploring. Such a judicial mechanism could be a way of meeting the well-justified concerns of many that the drone program is too much a matter of executive discretion. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can serve as a successful model of how such a court might work. If we are to involve the judiciary before tapping a person's telephone (even when the target of the tap is a foreigner), why shouldn't we involve courts before killing the person?
Even if a drone court does not materialize, Congressional consideration of one would give a healthy boost to the hitherto insufficient discussion and debate about applying the rule of law to aerial assassination. Before establishing any such court, however, Congress should carefully weigh one other thing such a court would do and some things it would not do.
Creating the court would further institutionalize—in an even more prominent way than “playbooks” used within the executive branch—assassination of individuals overseas as a continuing function of the United States government. Is that something Americans really want to do, and is it consistent with what Americans think they stand for?
A court would not weigh the pros and cons of either individual killings or the entire program on any criteria other than those that could be made justiciable. Presumably the court would make judgments regarding whether evidence presented to it shows that a given individual is willing and able to participate in anti-U.S. terrorist attacks. One could not expect a court to weigh whether on balance the killing program is reducing the terrorist threat to the United States more than it is increasing it by stimulating more angry individuals to resort to terrorism. That troubling question has been hanging around now for years, going back to before armed drones were the heavily relied upon tool they have become and to when Donald Rumsfeld ruminated aloud about whether we were creating more terrorists than we were eliminating. We still lack a satisfactory answer to that question that would constitute a justification for the drone program. (It is presumably this lack that leads David Brooks to suggest creating, in addition to a court, “an independent panel of former military and intelligence officers issuing reports on the program’s efficacy.”)
A court also would not consider other damage (or conceivably benefits) to U.S. policy and interests that goes beyond terrorism and the creation of more terrorists. We were reminded of the broader consequences when the Pakistani ambassador complained publicly this week that drone strikes were a clear violation of international law and her nation's sovereignty and threatened U.S.-Pakistani relations. Of course, we need to apply many grains of salt to such a complaint from the envoy of the country where Osama bin Laden was living under official noses and where other reporting suggests that at least some of the drone strikes have been privately welcomed by Pakistani leaders even though they publicly complain about all of them. Nonetheless, widespread negative reactions to the strikes and their collateral damage affect popular attitudes, in Pakistan and elsewhere, toward the United States and ipso facto affect the posture of governments toward the United States.
A couple of years ago I gave testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which I mentioned the two-faced Pakistani approach on this subject, with private attitudes not always matching the public rhetoric. The one point on which the committee chairman, John Kerry, differed with my testimony was that he believed, based on his own conversations with Pakistani officials, that genuine attitudes toward the drone strikes were more strongly negative than I may have suggested. I take his comment then as a good sign that the new secretary of state will give proper attention to the broader consequences of the aerial assassinations.
John Brennan, unlike Chuck Hagel, does not appear to have said things publicly that the Israel lobby has taken as a call to arms. Also unlike Hagel, he is not seen as a turncoat by diehard supporters of the Iraq War who are unwilling to admit a mistake. And so this week we will not see a repetition of last week's farcical circus that posed as a confirmation hearing. But there can be legitimate reasons for members of Congress to use a confirmation hearing to dwell on issues other than the nominee's fitness to fill the office for which he has been nominated. One such reason is that Congress and the public have been given no other good opportunity to examine the basis and rationale for a major program or policy, especially a controversial one. That is the situation regarding the use of armed drones to kill people.
A Justice Department white paper—leaked, not officially released by the administration—is the closest thing to an authoritative public look we have been given regarding the legal justification for the drone campaign. Despite repeated requests from members of Congress, the administration refused, until the evening before Brennan's hearing, to share with Congressional committees the more formal underlying legal memoranda. Some excellent critiques of the strained reasoning in the white paper have been written, including by James Joyner in these spaces and by Rosa Brooks. They have pointed out the vagueness and shakiness that characterizes the paper on matters ranging from what constitutes an imminent threat to who has the authority to issue an order to kill.
Without repeating the excellent points in the critiques, I would only note one of the implications about which Americans do not seem to be aware: that accepting this rationale for the campaign means signing up for a war that is endless in both time and scope.
The white paper returns again and again to the notion that the United States is “in an armed conflict with al-Qa'ida and its associated forces.” The idea, in other words, is that the United States is fighting a war against a supposedly coherent, identifiable enemy, just as when it fought wars against Nazi Germany or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Without that concept of a war, the whole legal case and everything it says about due process and rights of accused citizens and all the rest falls apart.
But whatever is represented by the term “al-Qa'ida and its associated forces” isn't anything like Germany or Iraq. It is a will-o'-the-wisp of an enemy. The original al-Qa'ida that Americans came to know and fear after 9/11 is a decimated residue in South Asia. Various other violent groups in other regions have, for various reasons of their own, decided to adopt the al-Qa'ida brand. That brand name represents not a coherent, identifiable enemy but instead an ideology, which isn't even necessarily the main driver of behavior for many of those who use the brand name. Al-Qa'ida is a variable and inchoate set of ideas that involve a mixture of Sunni radicalism and violence as political action, with a transnational tinge. Americans ought to be concerned about how—with the white paper stating that targets of the drones do not need to be directly involved in any known terrorist plots—the killing program comes close to the handing down and carrying out of death sentences, even on U.S. citizens, without any involvement of a court and at the say-so of “an informed, high-level official,” for holding a set of ideas.
Americans ought to be concerned as well about other things regarding the drone campaign; the endless and limitless nature of the program that is implied by the legal rationale for it is certainly one of those things. More groups can and probably will adopt the al-Qa'ida brand. Some of those groups may not have yet come into existence. And terrorism, which has been used for millennia, will be around indefinitely. Of course, most Americans did not think they were signing up for an endless war. But unless the basis for it is circumscribed and justified with more precision than it has been so far, an endless war is what they got.
The American public, and its habits of thinking about terrorism, deserve much of the blame for getting in this situation. Thinking of counterterrorism as a “war” is the original mistake. There were more parochial political interests that pushed this idea, but it resonated with the Jacksonian fibers in the American public, which readily adopted it especially after 9/11. The problems with the counterterrorism-as-war notion have been on display with the handling of suspects who are captured and incarcerated. They are also on display, as reflected in the Justice Department memo, with suspects who are to be killed.
Another unfortunate habit of public thought is the zero-tolerance outlook toward terrorism, which has motivated officials to push legal and moral envelopes, and to incur other costs and international political damage, in order to insure that even if they cannot prevent all terrorist incidents on their watch they at least can say afterward that they did everything possible to avoid them. Witness the uproar even after a non-fatal near-miss, such as the attempted attack by the underwear bomber in December 2009. This week's nominee was the principal official who after that incident had to go before the cameras and issue a mea culpa on behalf of himself and his colleagues.
Although public attitudes laid the groundwork for a limitless killing program, public attitudes are doing little or nothing to help impose better limits. This involves another respect in which the drone program is different from traditional wars: there are no direct American casualties (and even the monetary costs are very small compared to those traditional wars). Therefore, whatever concerns about the program get expressed at this week's confirmation hearing, they will not involve political forces anywhere near as strong as those associated with either the Israel lobby or cognitive dissonance about the Iraq War.
If a political motivation is to be engaged, it will have to involve senior people in the administration and especially the president himself thinking along a line suggested by Jack Goldsmith, an assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush administration. In an op ed calling for a newer and sounder statutory basis for activities such as the drone strikes, Goldsmith observes that the absence of such a basis
is unfortunate for the president, not only because he increasingly acts without political cover, and because his secret wars are increasingly criticized and scrutinized abroad, but also because he alone will bear the legacy of any negative consequences — at home and globally — of unilateral, lethal, secret warfare.
Any suggestion that the United States should exercise tough love with Israel (as distinct from the soft, unconditional, even if unrequited, variety of love that instead prevails in American politics and policy) is bound to elicit immediate and vigorous responses. It is thus no surprise that such responses were triggered by a recent column by David Ignatius that discussed how secretary of defense-designate Chuck Hagel admires Dwight Eisenhower and especially Eisenhower's firm response (as described in a well-received book by historian David Nichols) to the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 that we know as the Suez crisis. Ignatius writes:
It’s impossible to read Nichols’s book without thinking of recent tensions between the United States and Israel over the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. . . . What’s interesting about Eisenhower is that, while sympathetic to Israel’s defense needs, he was also determined to maintain an independent U.S. policy and avoid a war that might involve the Soviet Union.
Given the well-deserved respect and admiration for Eisenhower, the suggestion that his strong rejection of the tripartite invasion at Suez 57 years ago holds policy lessons for today is dangerous stuff in the eyes of those who favor the unconditional, obeisant type of love. Alexander Joffe and Michael Doran are two of those quick to respond by telling us: no, no—Nichols, Ignatius, Hagel and the rest of us are drawing the wrong lesson from the Suez crisis. Actually, Joffe's and Doran's responses demonstrate some other lessons about the uses, and misuses, of history.
A rather fundamental lesson concerns the importance of getting not only the facts but the sequence of facts right. I have commented before on how failure to do so is an all-too-common characteristic of policy discourse. Joffe fails to do so when he makes a statement such as: “Egypt’s economic warfare against Israel, including closure of the Suez Canal and Straits of Tiran, went unchallenged by the United States, which was courting Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.” There certainly was U.S. courting of Nasser in the years and months preceding the summer of 1956. The biggest part of the courtship was an offer to finance the Aswan high dam. But the courtship was essentially over before Nasser's actions that triggered the Suez crisis. The United States withdrew its offer of financing the dam one week before Nasser made the speech in which he spoke the codeword that was the signal to the Egyptian military to seize the canal. It was on the day of that speech—not before—that Nasser also closed the Straits of Tiran.
A misuse of history that both Joffe and Doran exhibit is to treat large swaths of policy as an undifferentiated lump and to evaluate the entire lump as either good or—as they both treat Eisenhower's policy in the Middle East—bad. Joffe generally dumps on that policy, and Doran's main point in his piece is that Eisenhower “came to regret those policies.” Certainly there is plenty to criticize in the U.S. handling of Middle Eastern matters during that period and in the early Cold War thinking that underlay the policy. But neither Joffe or Doran zero in on Eisenhower's stern rejection of the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion or why there was a problem with that particular aspect of U.S. policies in the region.
Much of what is regrettable, and has been regretted, from that swath of U.S. policy has to do with things other than Israel and Arab politics. The state of relations with the British and French were probably a more significant problem for the United States back then than relations with Israel. Relations with the Europeans were already dicey. It was just two years earlier that John Foster Dulles had spoken of an “agonizing reappraisal” of U.S. policy toward the European powers after the plan for a European Defense Community fell apart—after a French rejection, which in turn had been heavily influenced by a British decision to stay out of the proposed community.
Other motivations and miscalculations of Dulles and Eisenhower had to do with matters other than the inter-Arab dynamics that Doran in particular emphasizes. The immediate peeve with Nasser that led to withdrawing the offer about the Aswan dam was not about Arab politics or the canal but instead about Egypt's recognition of the People's Republic of China. And the main U.S. miscalculation regarding the dam project was the mistaken belief that without U.S. sponsorship the project was too big for Egypt to pull off even with Soviet aid.
Both Joffe and Doran exhibit the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy by implying that what they describe as the failed state of U.S. policy in the Middle East by the end of the 1950s, with expanded Soviet influence and the 1958 coup in Iraq, somehow flowed from Eisenhower's firm line on Suez. That is not credible. It is hard to believe that a leader of Nasser's charisma and rabble-rousing skill would have been any less able to stoke anti-Western Arab nationalism if the tripartite invasion had been allowed to stand. More likely, letting it stand would have made it even easier for him to do the stoking by providing an additional emotional cause about Western imperialism and subjugation of Arabs.
If there is any suggestion that smacking down Nasser during the Suez crisis would have nipped his nationalist cause in the bud, consider what happened eleven years later when he suffered a defeat that was even more humiliating, because it happened at the hand of Israelis unaided by any Europeans. When Nasser offered his resignation after the 1967 war, the popular response was tens of thousands of Egyptians swarming in the streets, expressing their love for Gamal and beseeching him (successfully) to remain in power.
As for the canal, does anyone think that if London and Paris had gotten their way in 1956 then ownership and control would have ceased to be a prominent issue (one readily exploitable by rabid Arab nationalists)? By way of comparison, the United States agreed in the 1970s to transfer ownership of the U.S.-built Panama Canal, a transfer completed in 1999.
Joffe and Doran both evidently view history through a lens in which rosters of friends and enemies are predetermined and fixed, without regard to how interests and behavior evolve over time or to how one's own interests are affected by specific actions of the predetermined friends and enemies. When Joffe writes that a historical lesson one might draw is “how incommensurable promises to unreliable partners interested solely in extracting money and weapons from superpowers inevitably end in failure” I first thought he could be talking about Israel—but then, realizing that what Israel extracts from the United States is much more than money and weapons, he was probably talking about Egypt.
Doran writes that after the Suez crisis the United States “was paying a heavy price for having broken the only immutable rule of a realist foreign policy: Support your friends and punish your enemies.” I know no self-respecting realist thinkers who would phrase their outlook in terms anything like that. They would instead echo the words of one of Britain's most astute—and realist—statesmen, Lord Palmerston, when he spoke of having no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.
Doran states that part of that “heavy price” was that “when the United States became mired in Vietnam, Britain and France refused to help.” It is strange to hear the Vietnam War invoked in what purports to be a defense of realism. The most prominent academic realist of the day, Hans Morgenthau, was also one of the most prominent opponents of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam—and was well before the United States got “mired” there. It also is strange to hear talk about getting help from France—which not many years before had finally extracted itself from a long, losing expedition in Indochina and was entitled to say “been there, done that”—and Britain, which in the late 1960s was trying to shed defense and military obligations “east of Suez” rather than taking new ones on.
Both Joffe and Doran fail to observe an important principle in applying lessons from history, which is to take account of things that have since changed as well as things that remain the same. In 1956 both the State of Israel (established in 1948) and Nasser's regime (begun with a military coup in 1952) were young. Most of the problems that each would cause for the United States were still in the future. Neither Joffe nor Doran makes any mention of the biggest change that would shape that future in the Middle East, which was the war in 1967 that led to Israeli occupations that continue to this day, with all of the highly charged issues about Israeli colonization and lack of a Palestinian state flowing from them. Doran dwells in a long-gone past when he talks about a Middle East in which amid a conflict between “status-quo Arab powers” and “revisionists” Israel was “more an asset than a liability.” Perhaps in some alternate history—in which the 1967 war and the later occupation and everything associated with it never happened—that might be a sensible way to look at the Middle East. But in the real Middle East of today it is a fantasy. It is a fantasy in, for example, the current struggle between revisionists and a status-quo power in Syria, where, in words I quoted the other day from the Lebanese Daily Star, the Syrian people “are decidedly unenthusiastic about seeing Israel enter into the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad in any way, shape or form.”
The Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 was a foolish scheme, based on deceit and rooted partly in pique and archaic colonial thinking in London and Paris. President Eisenhower was entirely correct in firmly opposing it. And yes, as long as we heed lessons about the proper way to apply the lessons of history, that episode in the history of U.S. foreign policy does provide a useful input to thinking about how to handle some current Middle Eastern problems, especially ones that involve Israel.
As budgetary battles proceed with competing rhetorical salvos about what parts of government spending are unreasonably large, or are most out of control, or are the “real” reason for burgeoning deficits (actually, every part of the budgetary equation, on both the expenditure and the revenue sides, is just as real as every other part), one welcomes the occasional breath of fresh semantic air on the subject. Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, using data compiled by Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight, observes that the figures usually adduced to present spending on “defense” or “national security” understate by a long shot actual federal spending that is appropriately put under such labels. The figure most often cited is the “base” budget of the Department of Defense, which was $535 billion for FY2012. But military and defense expenditures go well beyond that, including such things as the development of nuclear weapons, which is done in the Department of Energy, or training of foreign military forces, which come under the international affairs section of the federal budget. Add in all those other things and the total is more like $930 billion rather than $535 billion. And that's just current expenditures, not taking into account follow-on effects such as additional interest to be paid on the national debt.
Probably the most egregious bit of military-related budgetary legerdemain has been the practice of keeping the operational costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan separate from the main Pentagon budget, as if those costs should not count as much because they are, well, sort of temporary. And so the base budget figure continues to get cited as “defense spending” even though it excludes the main, and costliest, activities in recent years of the U.S. military. This practice makes as much sense as if I were to calculate my health care costs and to exclude stays in the hospital, instead only including recurring expenditures such as dental check-ups.
There is, admittedly, a sense in which the Iraq War should not be counted as “defense” spending. The war was not an act of defense; it was offense. But that, of course, is not the reason for the practice (begun by the administration that launched the Iraq War) of separating costs of the war from the main defense budget. The reason had much more to do with wanting to understate the actual amount the United States spends on its military.
Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have shown how the true total cost of an endeavor such as the Iraq War goes far beyond what shows up in the federal budget and includes various secondary economic effects. Even just sticking to the federal budget, there are very large costs that do not show up in any one year's current budget. A big part of the follow-on cost of recent wars is the long-term care of military veterans, especially grievously wounded ones. Such costs are proportionately greater than for previous wars. Thanks to body armor and a splendid military medical system, many who would have died in earlier conflicts instead survive—but they are still maimed.
Misleading budgetary labeling is by no means confined to military spending. Grouping some government programs under the label “entitlements”—which are programs or obligations where expenditures do not reflect specific Congressional appropriations but instead are determined automatically by such things as how many people happen to qualify for a statutorily defined benefit—can be justly criticized on several grounds. One is that there is wide variation among such obligations or programs, and no reason that a single standard with a single label should apply to all of them. Another is that “entitlement” is a loaded term that implies an agreed moral obligation even when there might not be one. The term also implies—especially when contrasted with other parts of federal spending, which bear the label “discretionary”—that Congress's hands are tied in changing this even if they really aren't. George Will has said that all federal spending is discretionary other than interest on the national debt. In one legalistic sense he may be right, although if one accepts that position then the extortion-facilitating device known as the debt ceiling—which treats as an option non-payment of interest on debt already incurred—looks all the more foolish and unwarranted.
Applying a common moral sense of “entitlement” to federal expenditures does not produce a classification that corresponds to the budgetary categories of entitlements and discretionary spending. Wouldn't we all agree, for example, that wounded veterans are entitled to government-paid long-term care? And yet medical programs of the Veterans Administration come under the “discretionary” label. (And that care constitutes a big chunk of the military-related expenditure that usually does not get included as “defense spending.”)
There also is wide variation in the amount of discretion entailed in different government activities that are on the “discretionary” side of the ledger, even without getting into the questions of political feasibility that inhibit changes to many of the “entitlement” programs. Much that is labeled “discretionary” is necessary for what has come to be widely expected as a function of government. Elimination of some of these activities would immediately be seen as a crisis—e.g., the air traffic control system operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (which gets much of its funding from a trust fund based on taxing tickets for air travel but also draws money from the general treasury). And turning back to military matters, some of these civilian activities are far less discretionary than was that very expensive war of choice in Iraq.
Also back on military matters, we should note that “entitlement” is not the only loaded term when discussing budgetary categories. “Defense” and “national security” are loaded as well. They are labels that presume a priority and importance that things not bearing those labels are presumed not to have. But the labels are affixed to some activities, including some very expensive activities, that are more offensive than defensive and whose contribution to the security of the nation is at best a matter of conjecture or debate.
Israeli warplanes inflicted some kind of damage on the outskirts of Damascus on Wednesday, but there were different versions as to exactly what. The Syrian government says it was a scientific research facility that was attacked. American sources say the target was a convoy carrying antiaircraft weapons into Lebanon for use by the militia of Hezbollah. Israel isn't saying anything.
Speculation about the actual target and about Israeli purposes doesn't have to end there. This is the Middle East, after all, where no analysis about someone's motives is complete without going further than this in the way of conspiratorial and convoluted explanations. As an editorial in Lebanon's Daily Star points out, shipments of something like the antiaircraft weapons into Lebanon are hardly new. Thus the “immediate question” is, “Why now?”
Surely, one might think, the Israelis must have considered the effects their strike would have on the course of the current civil war in Syria. By moving closer to realizing the oft-expressed fears about this war spreading across international borders, maybe Israel was hoping to spur Western governments into a more active intervention in Syria on behalf of the rebels. Or perhaps the motive was the opposite; Israel may have more to fear from a new Syrian regime dominated by some of those same rebel elements than it does from the devil-they-know Bashar Assad. An Israeli airstrike in Syrian territory may have been just the sort of thing to give at least a temporary boost to Assad—as suggested by how the Syrian regime played up the attack, whether or not its version of the target was accurate.
The less convoluted explanations are more plausible. The strike is part of a well-established pattern of Israel using its military might to beat down anything and anybody that could possibly challenge it, and of paying little regard in the process to larger consequences—to its neighbors, its friends, and even its own long-term interests. It is part of the pattern of seeking absolute security for Israel even if it means absolute insecurity for others. Beating down others in ways that facilitate more Israeli beating down in the future is part of the pattern. That lends credibility to the version of this week's airstrike that has as the target advanced antiaircraft weapons bound for Lebanon. The more such weapons are kept out of Lebanon, the more easily Israel can continue to violate Lebanese airspace with impunity.
Even though Israelis may not consider larger consequences, such consequences nonetheless happen. The Daily Star points to a couple of them:
One of these losers is the Syrian people, who are decidedly unenthusiastic about seeing Israel enter into the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad in any way, shape or form. The other losers would be neighboring states such as Lebanon, if it is swept up into the violence because of the possible—and not yet proven—role of Hezbollah in the affair.
And for the United States, there also is the consequence—given the nature of the U.S.-Israeli relationship—it incurs from any Israeli action, of being closely associated with that action. Or as the Lebanese editorialists ask, “If the Israelis are actually responsible for Wednesday’s incident, is it likely that they took the step with the knowledge of their chief ally, the United States?”
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Alexey Goral. CC BY-SA 3.0.