Whatever is your opinion about the issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians, you have to give the Palestinians credit for having hit upon a clever idea to inject into the current impasse. That idea, currently a subject of discussion among Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, is to appeal to international bodies for some kind of affirmation of Palestine as a state on land Israel conquered in the 1967 war. The reactions to this idea, even though it is still just a proposal (apart from an argument already being made to the International Court of Justice that the Palestinian Authority has enough of the attributes of a state to have standing to bring cases before the court), show that the Palestinians have hit a weak spot, or at least a sore one.
Any such affirmation would not bring the Palestinians materially closer to real statehood. The goal of Palestinian statehood has repeatedly been affirmed and supported internationally, and has even been accepted—reluctantly—by the current Israeli government as supposedly an objective of U.S.-sponsored negotiations. So another affirmation almost seems superfluous. And an affirmation would not bring the Palestinians one inch closer to an actual sovereign state on the ground, where the determinative factor is continued Israeli military control of the West Bank supplemented by the daily creation of still more facts on the ground in the form of expanded Israeli settlements.
And yet, defenders of Israeli policy have responded to the Palestinian idea with apparent alarm. In the United States, the defenders have been cranking up their political steamroller in particularly blatant fashion, charging President Obama with being anti-Israel (see Tom Friedman's recent take on how nonsensical that charge is) and daring him to stand up to the steamroller on this issue. Charges of “delegitimization” of Israel, which during recent months have been thrown liberally and indiscriminately at any criticism of Israeli policy, are getting flung in increasingly ridiculous fashion. The principal goal of all of this fuming and flinging is a U.S. veto should the matter come before the United Nations Security Council.
The reaction to the statehood affirmation idea has been so vehement because the idea hits at not just one but several vulnerabilities in the Israeli posture. Israeli opposition to such an affirmation would call into further question whether the Israelis, and specifically Prime Minister Netanyahu, are sincere or not in ostensibly accepting the concept of a Palestinian state. Any forum for a fresh international declaration on the subject would demonstrate anew the almost total absence of support for Israel's expansion of settlements. Most important, an affirmation would demonstrate clearly that the security and legitimacy of Israel is a separate and very different thing from the issue of settlements and occupied territory, despite the strenuous efforts of Israel and the defenders of Israel policy to blur the two.
Far from being part of a “delegitimization campaign against Israel,” as Abraham Foxman charges, an affirmation of Palestinian statehood within 1967 boundaries would implicitly and necessarily reaffirm Israel's legitimacy and right to exist on the other side of those boundaries. John Bolton tries clumsily to blur the issues again when he says in one sentence that a Security Council resolution mentioning 1967 lines as state borders would “call into question even Israel's legitimacy”—which it demonstrably would not—and then shifts the subject in the next sentence in stating that such a resolution would “delegitimize both Israel's authority and settlements beyond the 1967 lines.” The legitimacy of the settlements is very much an issue here, although an international resolution would not delegitimize them so much as it would recognize that they never were legitimate in the first place.
If a U.S. veto of such a Security Council resolution led the Palestinians to turn to the General Assembly, there would be, as Ethan Bronner points out in his article on the subject in the New York Times, a “dark or poetic” symmetry. It was another General Assembly resolution –the one in 1947 that partitioned Palestine between a Jewish state and an Arab state—that Israel has long regarded as the source of its international legitimacy.
One more thing about that earlier resolution: the U.N. partition plan allotted 56 percent of Palestine to the Jewish state and 43 percent to the Arab one. Jewish military success in the subsequent war meant that the new Jewish state wound up with 78 percent of the land and the Arabs with only 22 percent. Palestinian leaders—even when they included Yasser Arafat—long ago gave up trying to claw back the lost 21 percent, even though Israel gained it only on the battlefield and not in any legitimizing international diplomatic forum. That background may help to explain why the current Palestinian leadership is as reluctant as it is to bow once again to superior Israeli power and to let Israeli seizure of land determine the fate of the 22 percent that is left.
If the Palestinians decide to act on their clever idea, the matter ought never to make it to the General Assembly. In the Security Council the proper U.S. vote would be an abstention, denoting an intention to be an honest broker between two peoples who have fought so long over the same land.
(Illustration by Ling.Nut)
Ken Pollack’s article in these spaces about policy toward Iran is worth close attention, mostly because he explains clearly some of the reasons that the use of military force as a supposed solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear program would be folly. Not only would such a resort to war elicit a wide assortment of reactions by Iran and others that would be highly harmful to U.S. interests; such an act would be at least as likely to speed up Iranian development of a nuclear weapon as to slow it down, given subsequent Iranian determination to redouble efforts in that direction. There are additional detrimental consequences that could be mentioned, but the ones Pollack adduces are enough to show that this course of action would be a disaster for the United States.
Pollack’s alternative prescription is pressure and more pressure—or to put it less simplistically, to ratchet up and refine the pressure already being exerted on Iran. He describes in detail the refinements he has in mind, but he barely mentions other important issues that, unless they are adequately addressed, leave us exerting pressure amid a vacuum.
One issue is why this Iranian nuclear business should be such a preoccupation in the first place. I.e., what exactly is the danger we are trying to avert, and what makes it so dangerous? I happen to agree with what seems to be the consensus of the vast majority of people west of Khorramshahr (or at least west of Eastport) that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon would on balance be undesirable, and more specifically undesirable from the standpoint of U.S. interests. But that proposition should not just be assumed. Nuclear proliferation has varied and complex effects, some of which are more harmful than others (and some of which may not be harmful at all). Unless we analyze the proposition rather than assuming it, we do not know how serious a danger is involved and therefore to what lengths and at what costs we should be willing to go to avert it. That sort of analysis is missing from nearly all the commentary on this subject, including Pollack’s.
Whenever anyone dares to suggest that we could live with an Iranian nuclear weapon, the usual response is that no deterrence relationship with Iran would be stable because the Iranian leaders are wild-eyed fanatics who could not be trusted not to do something crazy or even suicidal. That response is always just an assertion, not supported by analysis or by reference either to the historical record of deterrence with regimes that seemed crazier than this one or to the Islamic Republic’s own record of behavior. (On the latter aspect, see Bruce Riedel’s recent analysis in The National Interest.)
In the only paragraph in his piece that addresses any of this subject, Pollack takes the different approach of disparaging nuclear deterrence in general, saying there are “no guarantees of success” and “failure is invariably catastrophic”. Of course—but to make that observation as an argument for not tolerating someone else’s nuclear force would mean not only dismissing a lot of Cold War history but also throwing up our arms in despair over nuclear deterrence relationships that we continue to have to this day with the likes of Russia and China.
So the proposition that Iranian development of a nuclear weapon would be a really, really awful thing that we should assume major costs and risks to avoid trundles along as one of those unquestioned bits of received wisdom that in the past has gotten the United States into trouble, including some costly wars. Although Pollack deserves credit for explicitly rejecting the war option in this case, his acquiescence in the trundling plays into the hands of those who have not rejected it and who aver, like Senator John McCain, that “there's only one thing worse than military action against Iran and that is a nuclear-armed Iran.”
Another important issue, which is highly relevant to everything Pollack says about pressure but to which he gives scant attention, is the positive side—the carrot side—of trying to influence the policies of the Iranian regime. In an essay of about 6,000 words with plenty of detail about how sanctions and other pressures can be improved, he mentions this only in very general terms in a couple of brief paragraphs, and even then mostly in the context of making the pressure palatable to third countries.
The benefits that the targeted regime can reasonably expect to receive if it changes its behavior in the desired direction should not be handled as a mere afterthought. It is half of any attempt at influence, every bit as important as the pressure half. If the Iranian regime is ever to change direction in response to even a new, improved, Pollack-designed model of sanctions and pressures, it will not be a simple crying of uncle. It will be because Iranian decision-makers confidently see better days ahead if they change. A cogent strategy of pressure thus needs to include a more detailed analysis of what a reformed Iranian thought process will look like. It also needs some way of building enough trust, which is plainly lacking now, for Iranian decision-makers to believe that the United States is not just seeking to overthrow their regime and will deliver on its promises if Tehran does change policies.
This is related to yet another missing ingredient in both Pollack’s essay and the vast bulk of commentary in this country about Iran: a discussion of how much of the Iranian behavior we find objectionable—including behavior involving the nuclear program—is a response to a well-founded Iranian perception of U.S. hostility and of the United States posing a threat to Iran. Pollack does get into this topic in discussing the ultimate act of hostility—an armed attack—which he correctly notes would lead the Iranians to conclude that rapid development of a nuclear weapon was more necessary than ever. But the current level of open U.S. animosity toward the Islamic Republic, while short of war, is sufficiently high that the same dynamic already is occurring to a lesser degree.
Although Iranian leaders’ assertions that they are only interested in the generation of electrical power are a lie, it is not a foregone conclusion that, unless they are pressured out of it, the Iranians will construct a nuclear weapon. Iranian decisions yet to be made about the direction of Tehran's nuclear program will hinge at least as much on how much U.S. hostility Iranian leaders perceive as on how much U.S. pressure they feel.
A common cognitive distortion that psychologists have repeatedly observed in their laboratories—and that political scientists have observed in international affairs—is the mistaken belief that when others behave nastily it is because nastiness is in their nature but when they behave nicely they are reacting to something we are doing. Pollack’s piece, with its portrayal of an Iranian regime that is controlled by hardliners hard-wired to be troublesome and of U.S. pressures that could only improve that regime’s behavior and not worsen it, illustrates that distortion, as does much other commentary on Iran. We need to overcome our own blinders before we have any hope of the Iranians overcoming theirs.
(Illustration by Peter Welleman)
I commend Tuesday's op ed in the New York Times by Richard Barrett, who heads the United Nations team charged with monitoring developments involving Al Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban. His comments on Afghanistan are those of an experienced and disinterested observer, not beholden to the policy commitments of any government. His comments also square with observations I recently made on a couple of issues concerning negotiations with the Taliban. My observations were based mainly on historical patterns of negotiating ends to wars. Barrett's observations are based on first-hand monitoring of what is going on in Afghanistan.
One of those issues concerns how combat operations, past or future, relate to the Taliban's willingness to negotiate and to make concessions required for an agreement. I observed that beating up the Taliban militarily even more than they already have been beaten up will not necessarily translate into a more accommodating negotiating position on their part, given that a less favorable bargaining position may make negotiations seem that much less attractive. Military punishment can serve as an inducement to talks, but beyond a certain point the punishment can become counterproductive. Barrett makes a somewhat different but complementary point that the Taliban have taken a lot of punishment already but that a Taliban leadership weakened too much may have trouble carrying through on any agreement. If there is such a thing as a sweet spot—beyond which the productive become counterproductive—in the process of softening up the Taliban, we may already have reached that spot.
Another issue concerns the impediments posed by preconditions and ostensibly nonnegotiable demands. I observed that such preconditions and demands tend to melt into ordinary issues for negotiation once the two sides start talking. Barrett makes essentially the same point in referring to some of the specific issues at hand with Afghanistan. We can expect flexibility, he says, regarding the Taliban's demand for an immediate withdrawal of foreign forces, because the Taliban realize that a hasty departure would mean an increase in fighting as ethnic and clan rivalries re-emerge. On other ostensible preconditions Barrett makes no predictions but envisions a route to compromise—one in which the Taliban accept that taking their members off sanctions lists is a consequence of peace rather than an incentive for it, and in which the Afghan government accepts that the Taliban laying down their arms means exactly that rather than giving up their arms.
In short, there really are some lessons from past wars that we would do well to heed.
Which reminds me of a discussion of the Afghanistan War in which I participated earlier this week and which included a variety of views around the table. The Vietnam War was mentioned, along with its rationale of a domino theory envisioning successive countries falling to communism. Oh, that's not relevant, said a supporter of sustaining the war effort in Afghanistan, because the domino theory was an invalid image of a hypothetical threat whereas in Afghanistan today we face a “real,” immediate threat. Left unsaid was that in the 1960s the widely accepted concept of falling dominoes seemed just as real, just as immediate, and just as threatening as what some see as at stake today in Afghanistan. Forty or fifty years from now, comparable discussions probably will dismiss just as blithely the rationales for war that were voiced in 2010.
And as we think about prosecuting—or trying to end through negotiation—a war that for the United States began as a response to a terrorist attack by Al Qaeda but then became a broader war against the Afghan Taliban, one of Richard Barrett's other observations is worth contemplating:
The Taliban, for all their retrogressive conservatism, are pragmatic Afghans. They have grown up in a culture of negotiation where no one gets everything but no one leaves with nothing. Unlike Al Qaeda, they are a nationalist movement with national objectives, and while they will fight to the last man, they would far prefer to rule.
While we were all watching the seemingly interminable political deadlock in Baghdad following the Iraqi election in March, another piece of related bad news from Iraq was brewing in Anbar province in the west. The Awakening Councils, the U.S.-backed, locally-based Sunni militias that provided a framework for combating—and weaning fighters away from—Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, have been losing members, or at least losing their loyalty. Some members have quit; others have been dismissed by the governmental entities that oversee the operations of the councils. Reportedly hundreds of the fighters have rejoined Al Qaeda, bringing with them their knowledge of government—and U.S.—security operations. Iraqi officials say that many more who remain on the government payroll may be covertly aiding the insurgency.
It is easy to draw the wrong lessons from this discouraging development. It does not mean that that U.S. encouragement and sponsorship of the Awakening was a mistake. To the contrary, such support was one of the more effective, and cost-effective, measures the United States has taken in Iraq. That probably can still be said even if there are more defections.
Another erroneous conclusion would be that the problems with the Awakening Councils are a reason to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq beyond the agreed deadline of December 2011. Voices in Washington already are calling for such an extension. Do not be surprised to hear the Awakening's troubles used as a further argument for that position. This line of argument is related to common misperceptions about the earlier surge of U.S. troops. The reduction in nationwide violence often attributed to the surge was due at least as much to several other factors, the Awakening being one of them. The Awakening was not facilitated by the surge so much as it was complemented by it.
The political reconciliation among sectarian communities that the surge was supposed to facilitate but never did, and that still has not occurred, is at the heart of the Awakening's current problems. Many in the Shia-dominated central government do not trust the fighters who are part of the Awakening Councils. Many of the fighters are unhappy about not being integrated into the army and police, about pay being late or reduced and weapons being confiscated, and other grievances. Many of them see the government as a threat to their interests or even their lives.
Whatever equilibrium is to reached in Anbar will be reached by the Iraqis themselves. Part of an eventual equilibrium is likely to be continued repulsion among many Sunnis against the tactics and objectives of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which is what gave rise to the Awakening in the first place despite the unresolved sectarian conflict. And before thinking too many thoughts about trying to solve this problem with an extended U.S. troop presence, remember that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia did not come into existence until after U.S. troops occupied Iraq.
Reporting about the initiation of preliminary talks with the Afghan Taliban, and about the Obama administration's acceptance and even facilitation of such talks, has generated commentary and some skepticism about what we can and cannot expect from a dual track approach of combat and negotiation in Afghanistan. Skepticism is not surprising; Americans like to think of war and peace as two distinct states. They like wars to end the way World War II did, with their military forcing the enemy's military into submission and with peace treaties being something for diplomats to negotiate after guns have fallen silent.
But the United States has had plenty of experience negotiating while fighting; its involvement in both the Korean and the Vietnam Wars ended that way, with two years of negotiations in the former conflict and five years in the latter. The War of 1812 also ended that way—despite the slowness of early nineteenth century trans-Atlantic communications, which resulted in the Battle of New Orleans being fought after a peace treaty had been signed. War being an extension of politics by other means, simultaneous exercise of military and diplomatic instruments should be considered the norm rather than the exception. Frustrations and complications experienced in the aforementioned and other wars are not reasons to reject negotiating an end to an ongoing war; they are reasons to learn from earlier experiences and to shape our techniques and expectations accordingly.
A book I wrote some three decades ago on negotiating ends to wars suggests some observations about techniques and expectations, in addition to the general endorsement I already have given to the whole idea of talking with the Taliban while the Afghanistan war continues. An appendix to that book summarized “Lessons for the Statesman at War” derivable from study of earlier wars. It presented 44 such lessons, but I will spare you most of them and instead mention only a few ideas especially pertinent to the current conflict.
One key concept is that it takes two sides (at least) to negotiate a peace agreement, which implies that we cannot just focus on what circumstances would be acceptable to our own side for making peace. We also need to consider what circumstances would be acceptable to the adversary, lest a mutually acceptable opportunity for making peace be missed. A frequently heard argument applied to the war in Afghanistan is that more time is required to soften up the Taliban so they will be in a weaker position in any settlement of the war. The argument overlooks the fact that insofar as such softening works to our side's bargaining advantage and thus to the Taliban's disadvantage, for that very reason it would make the Taliban less likely to want to negotiate and more likely to keep fighting in the hope of restoring some of their bargaining strength.
The need to keep in mind the adversary's calculations in this way applies to negotiating terms and conditions as well as timing. One of the conditions commonly raised regarding Afghanistan, especially given the uncertainties about renewed warfare that would persist even with a peace agreement, concerns whether the Taliban should surrender their arms. Rigid insistence on a precondition that they do so is apt to be a deal-breaker, or at least would unnecessarily delay progress toward a settlement. My Lesson Number 35 is: “Leaving the enemy's capability for future combat intact may induce him to accept terms that he would otherwise reject.”
It would be a mistake to get wound up tightly about preconditions of any sort, whether it be a demand from our side for the Taliban to disarm or a demand from the Taliban's side for a timetable for withdrawing NATO troops. In the settlement of many past wars, kerfuffles over conditions for negotiating are very common but in the end rarely make much, if any, difference. If one side lays an issue on the negotiating table, it is on the table, regardless of how much the other side says it is not yet willing to discuss it because some condition hasn't been met. If the two sides are talking about anything, they are in position to talk about everything. Talks about talks have a way of sliding into just plain talks. Hence Lesson Number 12: “In order to overcome inflexibility caused by the prior imposition of conditions, begin negotiating with a supposedly limited agenda or with an ambiguous understanding about fulfillment of conditions. If both sides are willing to talk, negotiations on all issues will take place anyway.” This is supplemented by Lesson Number 41: “Do not waste time over the agenda. Any agenda will probably be discarded anyway.”
As the United States approaches what I hope is the final phase of its already long involvement in this war and formulates a negotiating position for ending (or exiting) it, we need to bear in mind that sunk costs really are sunk. Especially given the nature of the war in Afghanistan, in which many fighters in the Taliban's ranks have taken up their arms relatively recently in response to our operations and occupation, we need to heed Lesson Number 26: “Resist the tendency to think of past costs as an investment in a war in which the effects of violence on the enemy are not really cumulative.” And before getting too fussy about what we demand in peace negotiations, amid the hazard of getting stuck even longer in a quagmire, we should heed as well Lesson Number 25: “Remember that your next military decision will be followed by still another, and that the total cost of the war may exceed the value to you of any particular settlement terms.”
I recently pointed out the illogicality of focusing on any one impediment to Israeli-Palestinian peace as the “main” problem while disregarding other impediments. But if I had to nominate right now a single problem that, more than any other, is hindering progress in what currently passes for a peace process, that problem is that the process has fallen into thralldom to the Israeli political right, including the extreme right. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu searches for ever new ways of pandering to—or outflanking—those Israeli elements farther to the right than he is, while proposing package deals ostensibly designed to get peace negotiations off the ground. In the process he has merely shed all pretense to principle in favor of principle-less bargaining, the main result of which will be to provide an excuse when proposed packages are rejected and the process breaks down.
Netanyahu's most recent offer was of a new moratorium on construction of settlements if the Palestinian leadership would explicitly recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. In so doing, he was offering to bend—slightly and temporarily—on an issue on which he had been justifying his obstinacy on grounds that a halt to settlements is an unacceptable precondition to negotiations (even though creating facts on the ground unilaterally through construction of settlements is the antithesis of settling matters through negotiations). With his new offer he is trying to impose a new precondition that, in addition to placating or outflanking the Israeli right, prejudges the sticky issue of right of return. Understandably and unsurprisingly, the Palestinians rejected this artificial linkage, noting that they had long ago recognized Israel and were not going to get into the business of defining its character or ethnicity.
Another recent move by Netanyahu's government is to support legislation requiring a national referendum before any territory could be surrendered in a peace agreement. The Palestinians, who have talked about holding a referendum on their own side, have not specifically objected to this. But the clear purpose is to throw up one more hurdle that, the Israeli right hopes, would improve their chances of killing any deal requiring Israel to yield occupied land to the Palestinians. Danny Danon, a leader of the right wing of the Likud Party, makes no secret of this, saying, “Anything that adds another barrier to the prime minister seeking to give away land is a good thing.”
All this maneuvering leaves it unclear what Netanyahu really wants, and whether he is best described as a hardline right winger himself or instead as a political pragmatist and opportunist who merely wants to dominate those who unquestionably are hardline right wingers. But such questions about the inner Benjamin Netanyahu may not really matter. The actions of the outer Netanyahu mean that Israeli government policy on issues critical to any possible Israeli-Palestinian peace is effectively the policy of the hard right. Given the way the politics of influencing U.S. policy on the Middle East work, the policy of the current Israeli government gets equated with Israeli interests. And being accommodating to Israeli government policy gets equated with support for Israel, with everything that implies regarding how the concept of support for Israel sets severe limits on U.S. policy. The result is effectively U.S. accommodation of the fringe of one party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For all that gets said about the United States and Israel holding important values in common, this fringe is repugnant to important American values. It represents an intolerant, narrow-minded nationalism that is insensitive to the claims of others, disdainful of the costs of that insensitivity, opposed to self-determination, and opposed to the whole idea of negotiating a peace agreement. Prominent portions of this fringe are so eager to discriminate on the basis of religion and ethnicity that equal rights even for some of Israel's own citizens make them uncomfortable. And if you want a taste of how this fringe sometimes views the United States, look at the image in Tuesday's New York Times of Israeli rightists throwing shoes and eggs at a picture of President Obama.
The holding hostage to the Israeli right of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is sufficient reason to be profoundly pessimistic about any chance the current round of that process will yield results. Resolution of the conflict is so important that every chance must be pursued, and the Obama administration should not abandon its current efforts. But progress is unlikely until and unless the rightist-dominated making of Israeli policy changes. Regime change in Israel should be an objective of U.S. policy.
If that concept sounds strange in light of the usual pattern of deference to whatever the Israeli political system serves up, as well as the democratic aspects of that political system, ask yourself how much hesitation there is in Israel to using available levers to influence American politics and political outcomes as well as U.S. policy. Another reference point is how the United States responded to the result of the Palestinian election of 2006, which by all accounts was as free and fair as any election in Israel (or in the United States). The response was to reject completely the result of that election and to acquiesce in Israel's unsuccessful attempt to strangle the election winner into irrelevance with a suffocating blockade of the Gaza Strip. Whatever the United States might do to try to influence the shape of the regime in Israel would be mild, to put it mildly, in comparison with that attempt to determine who should speak for the Palestinians.
The practical difficulties in shaping and implementing a U.S. policy of regime change are admittedly formidable. The policy should not be, lest it risk being counterproductive, a declaratory policy. Instead it should be a basis for shaping, behind the closed doors of policymaking councils, a strategy toward managing U.S.-Israeli relations—including carrots, sticks, and public messaging—in a way that improves the prospects for change.
Insofar as future elections to the Knesset might be an avenue for change, the electoral math in recent elections is not encouraging.The Israeli electoral system, which facilitates even fringe parties winning seats, is another challenge. Most of the Israeli electorate is sophisticated, however, and would understand messages built around the idea that, while the United States firmly supports Israel's security, the nature of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the benefits of that relationship to Israel will depend on whether Israel is governed by people who pursue policies that are constructive and conducive to peace or by people who do not.
Future elections are not the only possible avenue to change. Negotiations over the composition of Israeli governments are another. It was not a foreordained conclusion after the last Israeli election, for example, that the hard right Yisrael Beiteinu Party would become part of the government and the centrist Kadima Party would not. Nor is it foreordained that the government line-up should stay that way.
Some of the issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians involve sentiments that are broadly shared across the Israeli political spectrum and are not solely a function of the power of the right. But I believe there is sufficient fairness, flexibility, and decency among Israelis generally to make peace possible. Those qualities are not now being represented by those who make, or who effectively exercise a veto over, Israeli policy. To have any reasonable chance for peace, that has to change.
Nuclear terrorism has long been well established as the number one, scariest, most cited threat in any litany of national security dangers. Its place at the top of the list of such dangers was one of the few things on which George W. Bush and John Kerry could agree in the presidential candidates' debates in 2004. It has become de rigueur for other commentary on national security policy to do the same. The absolutist manner in which this specter has been treated, with lots of attention to how awful such an event would be if it occurred but very little about its probability of occurring, has distorted deliberations about national security, including deliberations about which particular aspects of terrorism ought to be receiving the most attention.
There have been sober and careful treatments of nuclear terrorism, but they have been vastly outnumbered by the hyperventilated treatments of the subject. It was therefore a pleasure to hear a renowned intellectual heavyweight apply his characteristically precise analysis to the topic on Wednesday at a conference at the New American Foundation. Thomas Schelling, who shared the Nobel Prize in economics in 2005 for his application of game theory to the study of conflict and cooperation, described how there is much more to the prospects of terrorists ever getting their hands on fissile material, and to what might impede illicit transfers of such material, than the physical safeguards that get most of the attention. Schelling took as his departure point the subject studied by this year's winners of the Nobel economics prize. That subject is “market search”--what it takes for buyers to find sellers and vice versa, and why they so often (as in labor markets, the specific field in which the prize-winners did most of their work) fail to make contact with each other. In his talk, Schelling explained why it is likely to be very hard for any would-be seller of fissile material to make the necessary contact with a prospective terrorist buyer. The problem is somewhat similar to that facing a thief who has stolen a well-known work of art, which cannot be marketed openly and for which there would be very few potential buyers. In the case of possible deals struck with terrorists, there are the added complications of physical danger to the seller.
Governments can capitalize on the search difficulties in this particular market to make an already very unlikely transaction even less likely. Such action would be among the many different things governments can do, but which most commentary about nuclear terrorism overlooks, to keep this feared event from ever happening. It was reassuring to hear Schelling's presentation, both as grounds for dampening fears about nuclear terrorism and as an example of how even a hyperventilated topic can still be the subject of careful, cogent analysis.
Despite the heavy costs of the war in Afghanistan and the major problem it has become for the Obama administration, the war is playing little role, as Albert Hunt notes, in the midterm Congressional election campaign. Hunt attributes this disconnect partly to “the dominance of the economic concerns facing many Americans.” He also sees it as “a matter of political convenience: Democrats with reservations about the war do not want to criticize an already beleaguered president, and Republicans want to appear muscular and tough without providing any plan or specifics.”
Hunt's observations are valid, but the politics of the war in Afghanistan constitute only the latest example of a recurring pattern involving America's wars. The pattern is not necessarily one of inattention to the war of the moment; some past wars, after all, have become major issues in American politics. Rather, the pattern is the more subtle one of collective obeisance to concepts that become accepted as common knowledge and are politically hazardous to challenge. In the case of Afghanistan, it is the concept that the fight in Afghanistan is about keeping America safe from Al Qaeda terrorism. The Vietnam War involved the concepts of successive countries falling to communism like dominoes and of grave damage to the standing and credibility of the United States if it backed away from an existing commitment (the latter concept also being heard today regarding Afghanistan). The launching of the other currently ongoing war—the one in Iraq—was different from these other two in that the driving concepts were not previously existing strands of public opinion but instead were manufactured through a tremendous sales campaign by the war-makers in the Bush administration. That campaign was so effective in getting Americans to think of an invasion of Iraq as part of a “war on terror” (and even leading, through a rhetorical drumbeat more than specific allegations, a majority of Americans to believe that Saddam Hussein had been personally involved in 9/11) that, manufactured or not, the effect was comparable to the common knowledge associated with those other wars.
Exactly how this type of stifling received wisdom plays out politically varies, depending on the other circumstances surrounding each war. As Hunt's observation suggests, the salience of economic or other issues seizing the electorate's attention is a pertinent variable, as is the political standing of the president of the day. Conscription, which spreads the pain of war more widely than an all-volunteer force, accounts for much of the difference in how the American public has reacted to the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. If we still had the draft, we would be hearing far more about the current war in the election campaign than we have so far.
Even without conscription, we are entitled to hear much more than we have from Congressional candidates on issues of war and peace, especially in light of the role played by Congressional actions in past wars. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964, ostensibly a response to a murky naval incident, was used by the administration of Lyndon Johnson as authorization for the entire Vietnam War. The Bush administration got a resolution passed by Congress in the fall of 2002 that it similarly used as a sanction for the Iraq War. The war in Afghanistan has never gotten its own resolution but is one of a wide variety of measures, associated in varying degrees with counterterrorism, that still gets hung on a resolution that Congress passed following 9/11.
Political convenience has led most members of Congress to devote scant attention to these resolutions, notwithstanding the huge consequences of what they supposedly were authorizing. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was rushed through with only cursory hearings. The main political challenge Johnson was facing at the time was from the right (as represented by Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate whom Johnson would defeat three months later), and Democrats were happy to vote for a measure that made them appear resolute in standing up to communism. The Iraq War resolution got even less attention, getting passed without any committee hearings at all. Republicans fell in line with the wishes of the Republican president, and Democrats wanted to get the vote over with as quickly as possible so they could get back to campaigning on issues they thought gave them more of an advantage. Very few members of either party scrutinized the case the administration used to sell the war, much less the likely consequences of occupying Iraq.
Autocracies have their own characteristic weaknesses, of course, regarding decisions of war and peace. They tend to be even more prone than most democracies to having their foreign and security policies warped by the idiosyncrasies and weaknesses of individual leaders. But the destructive effects of broadly shared but possibly invalid common knowledge are at least as likely to show up in competitive political systems. Even in such systems, the destructive effects are only a possibility, not a necessary consequence. Some democracies have been more prone to this sort of thing than others. The United States seems to be one that is more prone. The erroneous but very influential view about credibility being severely damaged by backing away from a losing effort is probably most apt to be found in a superpower, especially one with the exceptionalist attitudes that characterize American public opinion. And the intense partisanship that increasingly has infected the making of foreign as well as domestic policy in the United States amplifies the tendency of our legislators to follow politically convenient paths rather than critically examining the received wisdom and thinking harder about what really is or is not in the national interest.
Arab League foreign ministers, meeting Friday in Libya, didn't make much news in taking a position on the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The ministers endorsed the decision by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to stop the talks in the face of resumed Israeli construction of settlements in occupied territory. The League also appealed to the United States “to pursue its efforts to prepare adequate grounds and circumstances to resume the peace process and put this peace process back on the right track, including stopping settlements.” The ministers did not declare any deadlines but said they would meet again in a month to reconsider the issue. So the peace process stands about as it did before the Arab ministers met, which is to say at a standstill. The ministers merely gave us one more reminder of how critical the U.S. role in this process is.
Amid this pause in the action, we might reflect for a moment on why the Arab League should involve itself at all in this dispute, and what it means that it gets involved. The dispute, after all, is supposedly between Israelis and Palestinians, not Saudis or Libyans or anyone else. One thing that it means is that the Arab League, although historically largely feckless, is the closest thing the Palestinian side in this conflict has to an ally and source of support. It is thus the counterpart of—but in reality a ridiculously lame substitute for—the enormous support the Israeli side has enjoyed for years from the United States.
Another thing it means is that the Israeli-Palestinian problem has enormous region-wide resonance and inspires strong region-wide emotions. There have long been many other indications of this resonance. The Arab identity that most denizens of the Middle East share with the Palestinians, coupled with a strong sense of injustice over the occupation, means that many Arabs feel themselves to be parties to the dispute and not just sympathetic observers of it. And the issue of Israeli settlements that underlies the current impasse isn't even the principal basis for such feelings. Disposition of the holy sites in Jerusalem is an even stronger basis for inspiring strong feelings in the region (and beyond), because it involves religious as well as ethnic identities. King (and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has indicated in the past that on most issues in dispute with Israel, whatever is good enough for the Palestinians would be good enough for him, but that the holy places in Jerusalem is a matter in which all Muslims, not just Palestinians, have a stake.
We shouldn't need reminders from the Arab League, but the League reminds us of how important the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to issues, sentiments, and relationships across the Middle East.
The uselessness to the public of the recent vague official alerts about possible terrorist attacks in Europe has been noted by several commentators. Our government told us not that we should revise travel plans but that we should take sensible precautions such as being aware of our surroundings. Sounds like standard advice for any foreign traveler, terrorist threat or no terrorist threat. The public consequently is as bemused as it was by those stoplight charts about levels of terrorist threat for which former homeland security czar Tom Ridge was criticized when he introduced them.
So why do governments put out such useless advisories? The direct reason is that political leaders and other government officials do so to try to mute the inevitable recriminations if a terrorist attack actually occurs. There still will be recriminations, but at least the government will be able to say that it was not caught flat-footed. The more fundamental underlying reason has to do with the attitudes that we, the public, have toward terrorism and toward what our government ought to do about it. The main reason the incentive is so strong for officialdom to try to mute recriminations is that the public expects perfection in counterterrorist performance. As Jonathan Evans, the head of Britain's internal security service, MI5, observed, American media [although it's really not just the media but Americans in general] assume "that terrorism is 100 percent preventable and any incident that is not prevented is seen as a culpable government failure." Evans, who appropriately described this assumption as "nonsensical," lamented that the attitude had begun to infect some British thinking, as reflected in the United Kingdom's own vague terrorism alert this week.
Such alerts also perform a reassurance function for the public. They encourage us to think the comforting thought that, although there are terrorist dangers out there, the authorities seem to be at least somewhat on top of the situation. Given the general perception that we live in an era of terrorist danger, the public would be disturbed if it did not get one of those advisories every now and then. If it didn't get any, the public might start to think that the government was asleep at the switch.
The public perception that the alert fosters does not correspond to reality. The bad news is that the very issuance of such an alert indicates that the authorities are not fully on top of the situation, in the sense that if they had sufficiently detailed information about any terrorist plots, they would have rolled up the plots and there would be no reason for an advisory. The good news is that the advisory, the attention, and the enhanced security countermeasures that often go with them may cause any real plotters to call off their plans and to look for another time and place to attack. When no attack comes, we the public do not know if it is because of that sort of effect on terrorists' thinking or because there never was a plot in the first place. Often the authorities don't know either.
This is but another instance of the public being prone to having very inaccurate perceptions of terrorist threats, and how they vary over time. The public thought the terrorist threat was far higher on September 12, 2001 than it had been on September 10, but the actual threat did not suddenly skyrocket like that. The public perceptions, or rather misperceptions, are a function mostly of how much time has transpired since the last big terrorist attack, and to some extent of what other problems may be on our minds.
Much of terrorism and counterterrorism has to do with what is going on inside our minds. In fact, that's what terrorism is fundamentally all about--influencing the emotions and perceptions of an audience much wider than the physical victims of terrorist attacks. We could mitigate the impact of terrorism enormously by cultivating more resilient and realistic public attitudes about it. But we have hardly even tried to do so. There are several reasons for that, including the sway of the "war on terror" concept, with anyone who argued that terrorism is a problem to be managed rather than a war to be won being pilloried as a weak-willed softie.
It is politically very difficult to cultivate resilience and realism on this subject. Look what happened to President George W. Bush when he once let out a sensible comment that a "war on terror" could not really be "won." His political opponents immediately pounced on his remark, and he quickly backtracked to the customary rhetoric about winning. Maybe Americans will adopt a more realistic attitude toward terrorism and counterterrorism, and be stronger for it, only after being steeled by additional terrorist attacks. According to Bob Woodward's latest book, President Obama made a comment something along those lines--and look at how his political opponents pounced on that remark.