As Egypt's transition toward a more democratic polity continues—and it is very much in the U.S. interest that it does—the principal U.S. priority should be not to do anything to screw up that process or to get the United States on the wrong side of it. That means not openly picking favorites in domestic contests for power, not rejecting the outcome of democratic procedures even when we would have preferred a different outcome, and encouraging the generals who are now in charge not to cut short the transition process.
The United States also ought to be thinking about how not only a changed Egyptian domestic scene but also changed Egyptian foreign policy, and especially Egypt's regional activity, can be in U.S. interests. More active Egyptian leadership in the Middle East would be a restoration of the natural role of this most populous of Arab states—one that it once, in the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, exercised with confidence. The days of other Arabs ostracizing Egypt under Nasser's successor Anwar al-Sadat are long over. The Arab League peace initiative of 2002 represented a renunciation of the reasons for that ostracism. But it took the ouster of Sadat's successor Hosni Mubarak, and the discarding of the baggage that had become associated with Mubarak, to enable Egypt to become Egypt again, with a full and active set of regional relationships. The recent Egyptian mediation of a tentative accord between Fatah and Hamas would not have been possible under Mubarak, given his regime's collusion with Israel in strangling the Gaza Strip. Now the Egyptians are getting beyond old animosities dating from the Iranian revolution to restore a normal relationship with Iran. Normal—as in how most states have relations with most other states, especially in their own regions, regardless of the temperature of the relationship. A spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry stated, “We look at Iran as a neighbor in the region that we should have normal relations with. Iran is not perceived as an enemy as it was under the previous regime, and it is not perceived as a friend.”
A weighty regional state with normal relationships throughout its region represents the kind of diplomatic opportunity the United States can ill afford to pass up, or even to fail to play to its full advantage. Egypt may be especially useful as an intermediary with actors—including the likes of Hamas and Iran—with which the United States still has too much of its own baggage, or is still too tied up in its own political knots, to yet have a normal relationship. Egypt is one of three weighty players in the Middle East, each with its own particular kind of weight, that the United States needs to view this way, and it may turn out to be the most important of the three. The other two are Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Saudis face their own political uncertainties. Turkey is unquestionably an important (increasingly so) regional player, but its Middle Eastern role will always be somewhat limited by not being Arab.
Egypt's external transition, like its internal one, is another subject on which the United States can screw up and needs to try hard not to. Screwing up means being piqued over relationships that Cairo forges, rather than seeing as an opportunity the regional leadership of which such relationships are a part. This transition is another one that the United States needs to stay on the right side of.
Image by Mohamed Adel
Those not old enough to remember headlines from a conflict that was troubling the United States nearly half a century ago may not have paid much attention to the passing in Rome this week at age 86 of Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu. But she cut quite a figure in her day (in more ways than one, in her tight-fitting ao dai) and came to personify much of what was wrong with a South Vietnamese regime that the United States was struggling to prop up. Madame Nhu was married to the regime’s internal security chief, who in turn was the brother of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem came to power in 1955, the year following the accord that ended France’s war in Indochina and left Vietnam split between a communist north and non-communist south. Diem was a bachelor, and Madame Nhu functioned as the first lady of South Vietnam.
But she really functioned as much more than that. Strong-willed and outspoken, she was seen as a dominating influence on both her husband the security chief and her brother-in-law the president. Exactly how much influence she exerted on Diem outside of public view is impossible to say, but the outward indications were that it was substantial. Certainly she goaded the president toward the sort of hard-line and narrow-minded policies that made for a legitimacy problem in South Vietnam. The family was Catholic, and Madame Nhu especially became identified with intolerance toward the nation’s Buddhists. Some of the most searing images coming out of South Vietnam in the early 1960s were of Buddhist monks immolating themselves in protest. And among Madame Nhu’s most notorious comments were her reference to the protests as a “barbecue” and her offer to provide more fuel and matches if the Buddhists wanted to continue them.
By the last year of Diem’s rule, amid a growing Viet Cong insurgency and American frustration with the weaknesses of the regime that was supposed to stand in the communists’ way, Madame Nhu was seen as at least as big a part of the problem as President Diem. American patience with Diem might not have run out as soon as it did if Madame Nhu were not part of the picture. In the end, she was luckier than her husband and brother-in-law. When military officers overthrew the regime in 1963 in a coup that had received an American wink and nod, Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu were killed. Madame Nhu was traveling in the United States at the time; she later lived out most of her exile in Italy.
The Diem regime was an example of an all-too-familiar pattern of a non-monarchical ruling family whose less desirable qualities undercut the regime’s legitimacy. This is all the more a problem when, as with Diem in Vietnam, the regime is looked to as an alternative to an insurgent opposition. The most obvious counterpart today is in Afghanistan, in which the image among Afghans of President Hamid Karzai is being formed in part by the activities of relatives such as his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai.
But before we place too much hope in what can be accomplished by ending a problem of conniving members of a privileged family, we should recall what happened in South Vietnam after Diem’s clan was overthrown. A succession of coups and military juntas followed over the next couple of years, as the communist insurgency continued to grow. Eventually continuity was achieved when Nguyen Van Thieu outmaneuvered his fellow generals and became president, but continuity—along with more than a half million U.S. troops at the peak of the Vietnam War—was not sufficient to keep the communists and their nationalist appeal from prevailing a decade later. The Madame Nhus and Ahmed Wali Karzais do present real problems of legitimacy and stability, but they often are part of conflicts whose outcomes are ultimately determined by forces much larger than themselves.
It's only a preliminary agreement, and given the history of discord between the two parties involved, we should not take anything for granted just yet. But think about the opportunities and implications of the announcement Wednesday by Fatah and Hamas that they have agreed to form jointly an interim unity government for the Palestinians. It means the emergence of a single authority that can speak for and negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians, in both the West Bank and Gaza. It means a commitment by both of the Palestinian parties to a democratic process, with an interim government of technocrats to be followed by elections within a year. The arrangement represents the will of the Palestinian people, in the sense not only that it combines the two parties that together reflect most of the spectrum of Palestinian political sentiment but also that the unity agreement itself responds to recent popular demonstrations in Palestinian streets calling for just such an accord. It also has the backing of important regional actors. Such an agreement has long been a project of Saudi Arabia, although a Hamas spokesman gave primary credit to Egyptian mediators who had been assigned to the task since the change of government in Egypt.
And yet, a label gets in the way, and probably will make this promising development go for naught. The label “terrorist” is affixed to one of the two parties in a way that makes it clear that it never, ever could do anything to shed the label, and that it never, ever will be accepted as an interlocutor, or be part of a coalition that will be accepted. The label thus becomes another rationale for continued inaction, stalemate, and occupation. “The Palestinian Authority has to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu preemptively declared in a televised address. “Peace with both of them is impossible because Hamas aspires to destroy the state of Israel and says so openly.” Actually, Hamas leaders have repeatedly made it clear they are prepared to accept an indefinite truce, or hudna, with Israel. Why should they make any more of a formal declaration than that—how could they be expected to make more of a declaration than that—given that they face an Israel that not only has given no hint of ever being willing to recognize any right of Hamas to exist but also has gone to such lengths to kill the organization that it has resorted to measures that have inflicted substantial suffering even on Palestinians that have nothing to do with the group?
If killing of innocents is what matters, then why should Hamas be out in front in making formal declarations of recognition when Israel has killed far more innocent Palestinians—most notably in Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, as documented in most of the Goldstone report (the portion that Judge Goldstone did not retract)—than anything Hamas has ever inflicted on Israelis? The techniques used by the two sides are different because Israel is the only side that has the power to kill people openly through the used of organized military force.
If the particular killing techniques—clandestine techniques that we can all agree constitute terrorism—are what matter, and if we are going to take a “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” approach such as the one the Israeli government takes toward Hamas, then consider the implications for Israel itself. This would mean that neither the United States, nor Egypt, nor anyone else should ever have dealt with Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir, who were directly, deeply involved in terrorist operations in the 1940s, such as the blowing up of the King David Hotel and the murder of United Nations Middle East envoy Count Folke Bernadotte.
And even if all the worst assumptions about Hamas and its ultimate intentions were to be true, what could possibly be lost through testing those intentions through negotiation with a coalition Palestinian government?
An Obama administration serious about negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian settlement would embrace this latest development in Palestinian politics. Sadly, the opening reaction from the White House was the familiar one of getting in line behind Israel, with an NSC spokesman reapplying the terrorist label on Hamas and saying it would not be a reliable negotiating partner. It looks like this latest chapter will just be another in the political tragedy in Washington that helps to sustain a human tragedy in Palestine.
Image by Thephotostrand
The continued demand in Middle Eastern streets for greater political rights is leading to ever more rhetorical scrambling by Israel, and by those in this country eager to come to Israel’s ostensible defense (but who really are defending a certain set of Israeli policies). The backdrop to the scrambling is, as I have described before, a threefold Israeli worry about the regional political upheaval. First, increased popular sovereignty in Arab states gives heightened attention to the lack of popular sovereignty for Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli occupation. Second, continued (and even intensified) criticism of Israel from Arab states that are more responsive than before to popular sentiment belies the Israeli contention that animosity toward Israel is chiefly a device used by authoritarian rulers to distract attention from their own shortcomings. Third, the emergence of new Arab democracies in the Middle East will remove the single biggest rationale—that Israel is the only democracy in the region—for the extraordinary special relationship that Israel enjoys with the United States.
The current rhetoric on behalf of Israel repeats most of the themes that have been heard for years—including the themes about criticism of Israel being a creature of Arab authoritarianism and about how the United States must embrace the only democratic ally it has in the Middle East. But there is a sense of greater urgency in the rhetoric. The articulate Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, recently contributed an argument as an article titled “The Ultimate Ally.” It was a game effort to do part of what ambassadors are supposed to do. But to understand what Oren was talking about, see Stephen Walt’s powerfully argued and thoroughly supported demolition of Oren’s piece. In addition to refutation of the ambassador’s points, Walt reviews some of the high (or low) points in the history of Israeli actions (especially military actions) in the region that, mainly because of the special relationship that necessarily associates the United States with most things Israel does, have heavily damaged U.S. interests.
Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy weighs in with a shorter but just as pretentiously argued article titled “The Long View: The Middle East Needs More Israels.” The article illustrates several of the traits that the argumentative line of which it is a part have long demonstrated. One is a failure to take the long (or broad) view of the consequences of Israeli policies and actions. In bestowing praise on Oren’s piece, for example, Satloff says the ambassador “understates the case for Israel’s value as a strategic asset to America” by not discussing at length “the unique contribution Israel has made to counterproliferation” with actions such as the attack on an Iraqi reactor in 1981. Left unsaid by Satloff was that the Iraqi response to that attack was to speed up Iraqi work on nuclear weapons, while switching to a different and more secretive method for producing fissile material.
Another trait in the argumentation is to knock down straw men. The usual straw man is the imaginary contention that Israel is responsible for all the ills in the Middle East. A newer, narrower straw man that Satloff knocks down is that U.S. ties with Israel are the cause of the current uprisings in Arab countries. (I don’t know of anyone who has contended that.) Yet another trait is to conflate Israel itself, and all that is good about it and even its very right to exist, with certain Israeli policies and practices that are the real causes of criticism and controversy.
The huge, elephant-in-the-room reality ignored by both Oren and Satloff is the voluminous evidence (a sample of which Walt reviews) that anger and resentment over those policies and practices have long shaped the views—including strongly held views of the United States—of ordinary Middle Easterners in the streets, the same streets that have been erupting over the past four months. Views of U.S.-Israeli relations did not cause the eruptions, but the views are those of the same people who are participating in the revolts. The anger and resentment are not merely artifacts—as Satloff puts it in evoking this old chestnut—of “the corruption, venality, torture, and inequality of Arab governments.”
One new data point about this is in polling results from Egypt released this week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. By a margin of 54% to 36%, Egyptians believe that Egypt’s treaty with Israel should be annulled. This does not foretell any move toward an Egyptian-Israeli war; universal recognition of Israel’s overwhelming military superiority would see to that. The question was the only one about Israel in the survey, and as such probably indicated less about the treaty itself than as a barometer of popular sentiment toward Israel or Israeli policies. The point is that these are ordinary Egyptians speaking, not one of those corrupt and venal regimes. The same survey sample that gave this answer also said, by 77% to 13%, that Hosni Mubarak’s departure from power was a good thing.
Satloff is right about the Middle East needing more Israels if this means all the good things about Israel: the prosperity, the make-the-desert-bloom ingenuity, and support for liberal democratic values for at least a portion of the population. He is wrong if this means continuation of the 44-year-old occupation and the highly destructive actions that reflect a futile quest for absolute security even when it means absolute insecurity for others. It is the latter Israel that is the source of all that anger and resentment, and that also is the object of the criticism that Satloff, Oren, and others try so hard—harder now more than ever, as the Middle Eastern unrest has put them in a defensive crouch—to discredit or dismiss.
A proposal with bipartisan support of leadership in the Senate would trim by about 200 the number of positions in the executive branch that would require Senate confirmation. Supporters of the measure point to the often long time required for confirmation and to the many vacancies that invariably persist well after a new president takes office. Opponents argue that removing the Senate's role of advising and consenting to these appointments would add too much to presidential power unchecked by the legislative branch. Neither supporters nor opponents seem to be addressing a big underlying question: why should such a large proportion of the government be dismantled each time the presidency changes hands?
The United States is almost unique among advanced democracies in having a huge number of political appointees, filling jobs that change occupants with each change of presidential administration. The number of such positions, which has been growing faster than the federal government as a whole (and only some of which require Senate confirmation), was up to about 3,000 when President Obama entered office . The prevailing pattern in other democracies is a far smaller political layer, typically comprising in each department a minister, a couple of junior ministers, and small personal staff, atop a bureaucracy that extends up to someone with a title such as permanent undersecretary.
The atypical U.S arrangement makes for major disruption with every change of president, and not only for reasons having to do with Senate confirmation. The sheer number of appointments, whether or not confirmation is required, leads to numerous vacancies for months after inauguration day. The system seems to assume that the tasks of government start from scratch every four years, but of course the great majority of governmental tasks, and the problems and challenges related to them, do not follow any such schedule. Thus even without the vacancies, much time, knowledge, and efficiency is lost every time such a large proportion of the upper (and not so upper) levels of the executive branch cleans out its desks.
The huge political layer has other serious drawbacks, including a blurring of the distinction between elected political masters and an apolitical civil service. The blurring means much of the business of the government is being directed by people who are far removed from any electoral mandate but also not part of a tradition and ethic of diligently serving whoever is the political master of the day. The blurring breeds resentment and misunderstanding between the appointed in-and-outers and professional bureaucrats. And it represents a partial politicization of the bureaucracy itself, with all that implies regarding dangerous intermingling of information and advocacy.
An argument sometimes made in defense of the huge political layer is that changing the staffing of a large proportion of the government means bringing in fresh ideas. But there are much less disruptive ways of getting fresh ideas, such as consultancies that government departments use all the time already, not to mention simply listening to larger public debate about leading issues. Besides, the circles from which many of the in-and-outers come, including law firms and ideologically defined think tanks and advocacy groups, are not necessarily fonts of fresh thinking.
The most common justification for the layer is that each president needs like-minded people to ensure that his policies are followed. But that argument assumes away the concept of an apolitical civil service, a core mission of which is to do exactly that. The current system actually makes it less likely that the president's preferences and policies (and the understanding of those preferences and policies among the members of the American public who elected the president) will be followed. Those 3,000 appointees are not clones of the president, or even of his political and policy thinking. The appointees have their own preferences and agendas, which often differ in significant ways from others in the same political party and others who supported election of the same president. Which potential appointees get the jobs and thus the opportunity to act on those preferences and agendas is the result of a haphazard process that involves luck, having the right contacts, or signing up with the right candidate during primary season. None of that has much to do with fulfilling an electoral mandate won in November.
The biggest actual reason the huge political layer has persisted is that many of those jobs are rewards for support in an election. If those rewards were not available to any candidate, U.S. democracy would be at least as strong as it is now. But no presidential candidate wants to be the only one to deny his supporters that incentive. So we probably are stuck indefinitely with the current disruptive and cumbersome system for staffing much of the government.
The allied military intervention in Libya, which may still be in only an early chapter of a possibly long story, already has displayed multiple decision-making pathologies. Some of those pathologies resemble patterns observed in earlier wars, or the in the run-up to earlier wars. There is, for example, the phenomenon of a mighty power (the United States) getting half-dragged into a conflict by lesser allies (France and the United Kingdom), which brings to mind the European crisis of 1914, in which the actions of Serbia and Austria-Hungary dragged Russia and Germany into what became World War I. Then there are the ghosts of past genocides and non-interventions, which constituted the other half of U.S. decision-making. This has been more a matter of emotion than of clear-eyed consideration of costs and benefits. It is the sort of redemptive, analogy-laden “never again” attitude that also has been in evidence in other decisions about war and peace, similar to the repeated invocations of Munich and the pre-World War II diplomacy that have contributed to earlier wars.
Other pathologies are associated with the piecemeal nature of the Libyan intervention, which already has gone from no-fly zones to offensive strikes on government forces to allied advisers on the ground and now to U.S. missile-armed drones in the air. The incremental involvement, along with the rationalizations for the escalation, have been described as mission creep, and it is indeed that. Enlarging one's objectives in the course of a war is not ipso facto irrational. Vyacheslav Molotov referred to the “logic of war” in explaining why the Soviet Union expanded its territorial demands during the Russo-Finnish War; the military effort the Soviets needed to break through the Finnish lines was large enough to bring additional objectives into reach. But what has been happening with Libya is not the logic of another war; it's just plain mission creep, born out of confusion and disagreement from the beginning of the crisis as to what the mission ought to be.
A couple of other pathological patterns associated with incremental escalation of a war are likely to become more apparent as this conflict wears on. One is the tendency—irrational but common—to treat sunk costs as an investment. Another is the belief—incorrect but also common—that the more deeply the United States sinks into a conflict the more its credibility and standing will be damaged if it extracts itself from the conflict with anything other than a clear victory. That belief has figured into the prolongation of several wars, most recently the one in Afghanistan.
Another pattern associated with incremental involvement in a war is more logical than irrational, but the logic can still have a destructive overall effect. Each individual step on the ladder of escalation may be quite justifiable; it may entail a small incremental cost in return for increasing the chance that the whole expedition will end in a win rather than a loss. In Libya, each step may seem a small additional price to pay if there is reason to believe it might be just enough to make the difference between Qaddafi staying or leaving. But when all the steps are put together, they may add up to costs and consequences that outweigh even the value of a win.
In Libya, there may yet be a good number of steps to be taken. And the appropriate metaphor is probably not steps up a ladder but rather steps down into a bog. A departure by Qaddafi may be seen as a win, but that still would leave the question of what the allies should do about chaos in his wake (an op ed by Michael Chertoff and Michael Hayden raises important questions about this). An imperative to extend the intervention beyond Qaddafi would be driven by the dangers of chaos and power vacuums (including exploitation by radical Islamists) and by a sense of responsibility based on the Pottery Barn rule. And what about humanitarian considerations of the sort that supposedly were so important in getting us involved in Libya in the first place? If there was a moral imperative to save Libyans from violence not of our own making, what about our moral obligations when Libyans are endangered by violence that results from a situation that is partly of our own making?
The outstanding recent example of the failure of decision-makers to look ahead at the burdens that would follow the forceful overthrow of a dictator is, of course, the Iraq War. The intervention in Libya will not cause damage to U.S. interests as severe as that enormous blunder, but it threatens to become one of the more distracting enterprises of Barack Obama's presidency, despite Mr. Obama's clear reluctance to step into the bog.
There is an unreal, artificial aspect of systems to warn the public about terrorist threats, the latest U.S. version of which the Department of Homeland Security announced this week. But American attitudes toward terrorism make some such system a political necessity. The public expects the government to be on top of terrorist threats, and a warning system is one way to look like it is. The public also wants to feel it is being kept informed rather than being kept in the dark. Such systems cater to the notion that a well-functioning government security apparatus ought to be able to recognize and to counter any terrorist threat.
So for the foreseeable future there will be some such public warning arrangement, with each version designed to mitigate the principal complaints about the previous one. The current version discards the much-maligned stoplight chart with its five color-coded levels of threat. In response to observations that the threat level in the old system rarely seemed to change, the new system incorporates a sunset provision that leads to cancellation of a warning after a predetermined period unless it is specifically renewed.
No amount of tinkering with the design can overcome the inherently self-negating element of any such warning system. If the authorities had detailed enough information to satisfy the public yearning for specificity, they probably would have detailed enough information to roll up the plot and preclude any warning at all. Even if the information is semi-specific regarding possible targets, there still is a self-negating element; a public warning that narrows the threat to certain types of targets is a cue to the terrorists to aim at a different target.
The sunset clause would seem to make sense, but there is a partial phoniness about that, too. Timing is only one type of possible information about terrorist plots. It does not speak directly to the credibility of other types of information. If the specified time period comes and goes without an attack, we are left to wonder whether the information about timing was inaccurate, or the plotters adjusted their plans in response to the public warning, or there was no plot at all.
The new system may be about as good an arrangement as we are likely to get if there is to be any warning system at all. The system probably is not quite as vulnerable to criticism as the stoplight chart. But with the passage of time, there will be renewed dissatisfaction. The public will complain about the lack of specificity in the warnings. The public also will complain about a lack of clarity regarding what the public is supposed to do in response to the warnings. With each alert that is not followed by an actual attack, there will be skepticism and bemusement regarding what the fuss was about. And when there is an attack, no amount of warning will prevent the inevitable recriminations.
Lieutenant General David M. Rodriguez, who has been directing day-to-day military operations in Afghanistan under the top U.S. commander, General David H. Petraeus, will not be moving up to replace his boss when Petraeus rotates out this summer. Rodriguez will still be getting a fourth star—by becoming head of Forces Command back in the United States—but his not taking over in Afghanistan disappoints many who respect him highly for his knowledge of, and experience with, the war effort in Afghanistan. It seems it's a matter of public relations. According to Greg Jaffe's report in the Washington Post, “the decision to bypass Rodriguez for the top job reflects a determination among senior Pentagon officials that the war needs a commander who can make the case for the increasingly unpopular conflict to Congress, the news media and skeptics in the White House. In Washington, Rodriguez is seen as a savvy fighter but a so-so salesman.”
That's too bad, and not only because it means losing Rodriguez's experience in the campaign in Afghanistan. Opinions about the war in Congress and among the American public ought to be formed based on the U.S. interests at stake in the conflict, the extent to which the mission the U.S. military performs in Afghanistan does or does not contribute to those interests, and whether progress is being made in accomplishing that mission. Views should not be formed based on the sales ability of the commander.
Americans have had other experiences with image-blessed military commanders affecting their perceptions of a war. The top U.S. commander in Vietnam through the entire period of escalation from an advisory presence to a force of more than a half million troops, General William Westmoreland, was the general from central casting. Square-jawed, handsome, and trim, he inspired Americans' trust in what the U.S. military was doing in that war, until the costs became too great to overlook that his strategy was not working.
Descriptions of Rodriguez suggest an image that is the antithesis of Westmoreland's. Jaffe's article says Rodriguez typically wears a “rumpled, slightly baggy uniform.” In meetings with his staff he fiddles with “smudged, bent reading glasses.” He is a hesitant communicator who uses reminders to himself on index cards when he talks with visitors. He tries to control his swearing. (An aide once counted 92 expletives the general used in a two-hour staff meeting.)
Petraeus has enjoyed a highly favorable public image ever since he came to prominence as a division commander in Iraq, and that image has not always served the public interest as well as it has served Petraeus's interests. Petraeus is unquestionably a very talented military leader. But the tendency to treat him too often not as General Petraeus but instead as Saint David has meant taking for granted things that his commands have been up to that ought to be viewed with greater skepticism and open-mindedness. More important, it has meant equating the mission assigned to Petraeus and his command with larger U.S. interests that go well beyond the command's purview.
In choosing a commander, I would go with the guy in the rumpled uniform and bent reading glasses any day, as long as he had proven himself to be an excellent military leader. I will form my own conclusions about a war, without the aid of a salesman in uniform.
Last month I wrote about the consequences that would—or would not—flow from a change of regime in Syria, an objective that has been the subject of increasing agitation on the American right. I pointed out how the agitators are likely to be disappointed because much of what they find objectionable in Syrian policies and behavior has less to do with Bashar Assad or Baathists or Alawites than with Syrian national interests that would continue to shape Syrian perspectives no matter who was in charge in Damascus. While the benefits of regime change are thus overestimated, I also noted, “There is underestimation of how much worthwhile business could be conducted with the incumbent regime, however distasteful it may be.” In a full-throated call for regime change, Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal refers to that last statement, along with further remarks about Syria by the secretary of state and other members of the “U.S. foreign policy establishment,” as “fellow-traveling” and “making excuses for the Assad regime,” which he finds “distasteful” and “absurd”.
Stephens addresses neither the overestimation nor the underestimation side of what I discussed, preferring instead just to compile a list of Syrian behaviors he doesn’t like. But the one assertion in his piece that caught my eye was that “Hafez Assad turned down multiple offers from several Israeli prime ministers to return the Golan Heights.” Perhaps, as with Jon Kyl’s remarks about Planned Parenthood, Stephens did not intend this to be a factual statement. But before too many misimpressions get formed about the reasons for deadlock over the Golan, it would be useful to review the relevant historical facts. One meticulously researched treatment of the subject, by Jerome Slater, appeared several years ago in the journal International Security.
Slater goes back to the first round of Israeli-Arab combat, in 1948, in which he notes that Syrian actions were motivated far less by anti-Israeli rejectionism than by three other factors. One was inter-Arab rivalry and specifically Syria’s intention to limit expanded influence of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. Another was to respond to the Israeli expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from territory (particularly in the Galilee region) that was supposed to be part of the Palestinian state provided for in the United Nations partition plan. The third was concern over exactly where the border between Palestine and the Golan was to be.
Following the armistice of 1949, governments in Damascus made repeated offers of peace to the new state of Israel. In 1949 the Syrian regime of Husni Zaim proposed to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that in exchange for permanent access on an equitable basis with Israel to the waters of the Jordan River and Lake Tiberias, Syria would sign a peace settlement with Israel and would permanently resettle in its own territory 300,000 of the Palestinian refugees. Despite urgings from the United States and from U.N. mediator Ralph Bunche (and from senior Israelis such as Abba Eban), Ben-Gurion refused even to discuss the offer. Zaim was succeeded as Syrian leader by Adib Shishakli, who continued Zaim’s moderate policies (including giving high priority to improving relations with both the United States and Israel). Shishaki renewed Aim’s peace proposal, upping the offer by stating that Syria would absorb 500,000 Palestinian refugees. Again Ben-Gurion refused to negotiate.
Ben-Gurion was motivated by some of the same ideological considerations that drive obstinacy in holding on to the West Bank. Ben-Gurion believed that biblical Palestine—Erez Israel—included the Golan Heights and much of the rest of southwestern Syria. In addition to ideology, by the 1950s Ben-Gurion and armed forces chief (and later defense minister) Moshe Dayan were looking at conquest of the Golan Heights for security and strategic reasons. In an interview in 1976 that was off the record but published after his death, Dayan admitted that Israel had deliberately sought to provoke the Syrians and had instigated “more than 80 percent” of the clashes with Syria. As Dayan explained:
It went this way: We would send a tractor to plow someplace…in the demilitarized area, and [we] knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force also, and that’s how it was.”
The Israelis got what Dayan had planned for, and had tried to hasten with the provocations, when Israeli forces seized the Golan Heights during the 1967 Middle East war. As for Hafez al-Assad, who took power in Damascus after a military coup in 1970, he had one attempt at trying to use military force to restore what had been lost to Israeli military conquest. That attempt, in the 1973 war (in which Syria’s war plans were limited to recapture of the Golan), failed. After that, Assad only had diplomacy left (a situation further confirmed when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and made it clear there would be no Soviet support for radical Arab policies toward Israel). As for Israel’s posture, the Knesset—at the urging of Prime Minister Menachem Begin—unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981.
In 1992 Assad’s regime proposed “total peace” with Israel (meaning not just nonbelligerency but full diplomatic and economic relations) that would include full Israeli withdrawal from Arab land seized in 1967. After much hesitation, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to begin negotiations. By 1993, except for some details to be ironed out, a peace agreement was on the verge of completion. This included Israeli acceptance of withdrawal to the lines of June 1967. But then Rabin suspended the talks, on the grounds that Israeli public opinion could not swallow both an agreement with Syria and one with the Palestinians (the Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization were signed in 1993).
After Ehud Barak (currently defense minister) won an election and was made prime minister in 1999, Israeli-Syrian negotiations resumed. Although Barak acknowledged that the Rabin government had agreed to the 1967 borders, his government started backtracking, insisting on language that fuzzed over the boundary issue in a way that would imply only a partial withdrawal. Again, the backdrop was Israeli public opinion and its hesitation to make deals with both the Palestinians (the subject at that time of the Camp David talks led by Bill Clinton) and the Syrians. In the spring of 2000, Barak suddenly and unilaterally terminated the negotiations. That ended the last chance for Hafez al-Assad to get back the Golan Heights for Syria; he died in June.
On what Ben-Gurion and Barak could not bring themselves to do—make peace with Syria—the current rightist government of Benjamin Netanyahu has no apparent inclination even to consider doing. The stalemate over the Golan Heights and Israeli-Syrian relations is not anything that regime change in Damascus is going to fix.
Describing a problem in a way calculated to sustain public support for a costly, ongoing effort to deal with it always contains an element of self-contradiction. The problem needs to be couched as serious to justify the costs of the program to deal with it, but continuing to describe the program as serious after the program has gone on for awhile raises the question of whether anything is being accomplished. Even the most skillful spinning does not overcome this dilemma entirely, although the ideal spin depicts the problem as serious initially and then improving as time goes by and effort is expended.
The spinning in Washington of the communist threat in Vietnam in the 1960s illustrated these considerations. The more that the costs of the Vietnam War mounted and public support for it dropped, the greater was the emphasis by the Johnson administration on depicting communist forces in a way that would suggest progress was being made. By 1967 this public relations imperative had become so strong that it led to blatantly politicized manipulation of estimates of enemy troop strength.
A problem with rationalizing the current war in Afghanistan has been that ever since the early months of the U.S. intervention, which succeeded in rousting al-Qaeda from its previous residence there, the al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan has been trivially small—fewer than 100 individuals, according to repeatedly voiced official estimates. And yet al-Qaeda and the memory of 9/11 constitute the chief rationale for the war. So the war effort is spun as being necessary to prevent a return of al-Qaeda to the kind of arrangement it once had in Afghanistan.
That makes disturbing a recent report in the Wall Street Journal that despite the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan being at its maximum, al-Qaeda has been returning to portions of northeastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. When the U.S. commander, General David Petraeus, was asked about this, he commented that those fewer-than-100 al-Qaeda members have been in Afghanistan all along; in other words, they may be moving around inside the country but are not returning to it. That bit of spin responds to any accusation that the al-Qaeda threat in Afghanistan has been getting worse on the U.S. watch, but it doesn't preclude the question of why it does not seem to be getting any better.
A closer look at what has been going on in that part of northeastern Afghanistan could provide material for opposing perspectives on the war. The reported re-establishment of an al-Qaeda presence has been in locations where coalition forces had earlier conducted extensive operations but from which they had more recently withdrawn. That could be the basis for an argument that the continued presence of coalition forces is necessary. But it also raises the question of whether coalition operations are having any lasting beneficial effect.
Another argument mentioned in the Journal article that puts a favorable spin on what al-Qaeda has been doing in the northeast is that it is better to have al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan rather than on the Pakistani side of the border because it is in Afghanistan that U.S. forces have the freedom to strike them. This sounds a lot like some spin heard during earlier phases of the Iraq War, about how it is better to fight the terrorists over there so we do not have to fight them back here.
My head is spinning.
We would be less dizzy if we realize that physical safe havens are not the critical factor in determining terrorist threats to Americans, as indicated by the details of the 9/11 operation, in which Afghanistan as a haven mattered little in being able to pull off the attack. We might also reflect on the implications of a poll last year showing the 91% of Afghan men in the war-prone provinces of Helmand and Kandahar had never even heard of the 9/11 attack. That helps to explain why a military effort whose justification is rooted in that event is not understood or accepted in Afghanistan any more than it is. It also demonstrates how far the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is, geographically and logically, from the U.S. concerns that are spun into a rationale for it.