American public discourse about foreign relations has always had a streak that is more romantic than pragmatic, and that is more about making a statement regarding America’s own aspirations and principles than about achieving any particular result overseas. The good aspect of this streak is that the principles involved are noble principles on which the great majority of Americans can agree, and in this respect one can say that the policy courses to which this mode of thinking leads are noble and honorable. The bad aspect is that this way of thinking about foreign policy is so self-referential and so focused on gazing at our own principled navels that it dangerously disregards the practical consequences of U.S. actions overseas. It disregards how easily those actions, however well intentioned, can be counterproductive. It is an approach that gives so much emphasis to feeling good about ourselves and our principles that it can have damaging consequences to other U.S. interests because we just don’t think about all the ways those interests can be affected.
In recent times the most conspicuous, but not the only, manifestation of this romantic tradition has been neoconservatism. The aforementioned attributes of this manner of thinking (or of not thinking) were in full display when the neocons prevailed during the presidency of George W. Bush, especially with their never-mind-the-consequences launching of an offensive war in Iraq. Because this frame of thought is so self-referential and self-assured, even that disastrous experience has not been enough to divert them from this line of thinking.
And so, in response to the waves of unrest in the Middle East, we get something like William Kristol’s column today. It caught my attention as it did the attention of Jacob Heilbrunn, who aptly points out how deficient it is in any practical advice for the administration to do anything differently, beyond that we should do something “aggressive,” including “considering the use of force.” It is worth dwelling on Kristol’s piece a bit longer, not just because of its practical deficiencies but because it is a splendidly naked example of the kind of unthinking, feel-good tradition I am talking about. Kristol gets in some of the mandatory Obama-bashing, of course, but he is relatively gentle on that score. Most of what he says is an honest conveying of the self-assured, principle-wallowing approach to foreign policy, and as such demonstrates why it is devoid of any useful practical advice.
Kristol’s language is as high-flown as one will ever find on an op ed page: as a matter of “honor and duty,” the “forces of civilization” must act, and so forth. He seems to assume that the more the United States does in the way of “aggressive” efforts, the better off the situation will be—oblivious to how easily (as I have addressed earlier) U.S.-initiated or U.S.-promoted efforts in the Middle East in particular turn out to be counterproductive rather than productive. He probably does assume that but he also doesn’t care that much about specific outcomes in the region. In the opening sentence of his piece, Kristol says it is “possible, and probably likely, that the Arab Spring of 2011 will fail.” But whether specific outcomes are attained in the Middle East are less important to him than achieving that warm feeling in the tummy that comes from being part of the forces of civilization that are doing their duty and acting honorably in accordance with their principles.
I suppose achieving that feeling could be defined as a U.S. interest. After all, Bhutan defines its interests in terms of Gross National Happiness. But what the United States does in the world has far more extensive and significant consequences than what Bhutan does, including many consequences that greatly affect other U.S. interests. Unrestrained romanticism inevitably bumps up against reality. Among the consequences are ones that can cause so much trouble for the United States that it would be harder to indulge in more of the romanticism in the future.
When the victorious allies of World War II negotiated the establishment of a new international organization called the United Nations, they gave an extraordinary power to five selected members: the ability to block singlehanded any measure of the body's Security Council. This exceptional provision, which was contrary to the majority voting that would otherwise govern procedures of the council and other parts of the U.N., was a recognition that if each of the selected major powers could not be assured that the council would never act against it when it considered its own vital interests to be at stake, the world organization would risk being torn apart or might never have come into existence in the first place. Last Friday the Obama administration cast its first Security Council veto, which was also the first U.S. veto since 2006. But this veto was not cast to protect any U.S. interest, vital or otherwise. It did not even help to protect the vital interests of the state, Israel, on whose behalf it was cast. Instead, it served only to shield that state from international criticism of its colonization project in territories that its forces captured in a war 44 years ago and that are still in dispute.
The United States cast its veto even though the resolution it blocked embodied positions that the United States itself has repeatedly declared that it supports, including the need for Israel to stop constructing more settlements in disputed territory and the need for prompt negotiations to settle the disposition of those territories and other matters in dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. And it cast the veto even though, as the resolution reaffirmed and America's closest allies such as Britain stated in the Council debate, the construction of those settlements violates international law.
The inconsistency between the U.S. vote and even the United States's own positions made for painfully contrived explanations from U.S. representatives. When Lebanon introduced the draft resolution last month, State Department spokesman Phillip J. Crowley said in oxymoronic fashion that the issues at stake are best resolved “not through the unilateral declarations, even if those unilateral declarations come in the form of a multilateral setting.” In her explanation of the U.S. vote at the Security Council on Friday, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice devoted nearly all of her statement to saying how much the United States supports the very things—an end to settlement construction and a resumption of negotiations—that the resolution her government just vetoed called for. In the few words that were a stab at an explanation, she said the resolution risked “hardening the positions of both sides” and “could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations,” without addressing how the Israeli position on the immediate issue at hand could get any harder than it is now, and without noting that the unilateral construction of facts on disputed ground is the very antithesis of settling matters through negotiation. Rice also stated that “we think it unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that the vetoed resolution attempted to do no such thing and instead explicitly called for use of the very negotiating channels and mechanisms (such as the Quartet's “roadmap”) that the United States has endorsed. Crowley and Rice are able public servants; one can only feel sorry for officials whose jobs at times like this require them to emit such blather.
Unofficial commentary defending the veto has been just as contrived. The Washington Post editorial page, for example, found a way to say that Israel's continued illegal colonization and the embarrassment that the United States suffers when it blocks international criticism of the colonization is somehow Abu Mazin's fault. And this not long after leaked negotiating documents indicate that the Palestinians had been so forthcoming in talking final settlement issues with Israel that its negotiators were embarrassed in front of their own people for making so many concessions. There is reason to doubt the willingness to negotiate a settlement, but that reason rests on the side that has the guns and has the territory, and through its actions at least as much as through its words shows that it would like to hang on to the territory indefinitely.
The veto doesn't even keep the issues at hand out of the multilateral chambers of the United Nations. Without other avenues of recourse, the Palestinians are likely to move the issue to the General Assembly, where Friday's 14-0 vote will be amplified by another lopsided vote that will remind everyone of how isolated the United States is as long as it carries Israel's water on the issue.
The U.S. vote confirms in the eyes of just about the entire world that the United States is unwilling to act as an honest broker on Arab-Israeli issues whenever doing so annoys the Israeli government of the day. This makes fruitful negotiations less, not more, likely.
The vote furthermore means the Israeli government will feel uninhibited in unilaterally creating more facts on the ground that will make any eventual agreement even more difficult to find. The Obama administration had earlier demonstrated that it would cave in to Israel on the settlements issue in a bilateral context; now it has demonstrated that it also caves in a multilateral setting. That, too, makes fruitful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations less, not more, likely.
The tarring of the United States in the eyes of so many will have the sorts of consequences that such discredit usually has. Moderates will be that much less willing to work with the United States, lest they be tarred by association. For extremists, the veto is red meat, lending support to their narrative according to which the United States is not interested in political rights for all others and is in thrall to Israel. The current vigorous voicing in Arab streets of demands for political rights underscores all this and amplifies further the negative fallout for the United States.
The long history, through several administrations, of U.S. bowing to Israeli preferences has made most people in the Middle East more saddened than surprised by what happened Friday. But it is shameful nonetheless.
An article this week in the New York Times addressed how parts of the federal government assign a monetary value to human life, for the purpose of analyzing the costs and benefits of life-saving regulations covering matters from drugs to automobile safety. The figures used by different departments and agencies agencies vary. The Office of Management and Budget suggests to agencies that a figure in the $5 million to $10 million range would be acceptable. Professor W. Kip Viscusi of Vanderbilt University, whose methodology (based on comparing wages of occupations with different risks of death) is most often used, comes up with a current figure of $8.7 million.
Many no doubt would be uncomfortable with trying to put any price tag on human life. Sure, it sounds rather crass and heartless. But how else can one assess whether a proposed initiative or regulatory requirement that is supposed to save lives is worthwhile? What is less defensible is not any attempt to price the priceless but rather the ways in which public policy and the discourse behind it diverge from the kind of sensible cost-benefit analysis that such valuations make possible. The Times piece notes that business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which previously favored such analysis as a way of forcing executive branch agencies to prove the worth of regulations that cost the private sector money, now believe they will have better luck by ditching analysis in favor of politics and urging Congress, with its Republican-controlled House of Representatives, to exert greater control over the rule-making process. The problems, however, go beyond this kind of calculated lobbying to larger inconsistencies in how we, the public, react to certain kinds of threats and evaluate certain kinds of initiatives.
Some inkling of such inconsistencies is noted elsewhere in the article. The Environmental Protection Agency said it was considering valuing the prevention of a death from cancer as 50 percent higher than the prevention of other deaths “because cancer kills slowly.” A report commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security suggested going EPA one better by valuing the prevention of deaths from terrorism to be twice as high as the prevention of other deaths (because terrorism kills quickly?) The dynamic at work is not a matter of fast or slow dying but instead our tendency to fear some things, such as snakes and spiders and cancer, more than other things that may be at least as deadly. A related example of illogical decision-making that behavioral economists have discovered is that many people will spend more to buy cancer insurance than they would to buy a less costly health insurance policy that covers cancer as well as other illnesses.
Much of our collective approach toward terrorism is like buying cancer insurance. This is less true of the sorts of specific security measures that DHS implements than of other policies sustained in the name of protecting us from terrorism. A current example is the war in Afghanistan. I have discussed elsewhere the reasons why continuation of the war probably is not making Americans safer from terrorism and in some respects may be counterproductive. But assume for the sake of argument that the counterterrorism rationale for the war is valid. Make the even stronger assumption that whether the war is prosecuted makes the difference between the United States suffering or not suffering another 9/11, with 3,000 people killed. Multiply 3,000 by Professor Viscusi's figure of $8.7 million per life and you get a life-saving value of $26.1 billion for preventing another 9/11. The United States is spending nearly four times that on the war each year—and, of course, is losing lives in Afghanistan as well. Even after factoring in the other economic impacts of a 9/11, and even with these unrealistically strong assumptions in favor of the war, that's not a good deal.
The inconsistencies can run in the opposite direction, as they are in some of the current budget-cutting frenzy. Consider as an example the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (also known as WIC). House Republicans want to cut the program's budget by some six percent. Using FY09 figures, the program served an average of 9.1 million people at an annual cost of 6.9 billion. That works out to a yearly cost of $758 per person. Divide that figure into the $8.7 million per-life price and the quotient is 11,478. That means that even if only at least one life was preserved out of, say, every 10,000 people the program serves—hardly an unrealistic expectation, even without figuring in issues of quality of life and not just outright preservation of life—the program is worthwhile. A cut in its budget does not stand up to rigorous cost-benefit scrutiny.
I realize the politics, the fears, and other human cognitive impairments make it unrealistic to expect that this sort of analysis will ever be consistently applied to issues as diverse as foreign wars and childhood nutrition. But our public policies will be more sensible and more effective the more that we can inject some of this sort of rigor in place of the pseudo-security and pseudo-green-eyeshade approaches that too often determine the shape of those policies.
Remember all the stories and commentary about the Obama administration supposedly having been caught off guard by the wave of unrest in the Middle East? About how, due either to the malfeasance of intelligence agencies or the inattention of policymakers, this was a surprise to the administration, which then had to scramble to catch up with events? Well, now Mark Landler reports in the New York Times that last August President Obama ordered a secret study on the very topic of the likelihood of unrest in Arab countries, and what the United States could do to shape policies that would juggle the competing interests the United States has in reform in those countries and cooperation with those governments. The study was part of a process that involved the CIA, State Department, and other agencies. Although the report is still classified, it reportedly concentrated attention on four countries with descriptions that match those of Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Bahrain. Part of the reason for addressing these issues in the format of a special study was that in regular meetings on U.S. relations with the Arab countries the immediate strategic interests loom so large that it is very difficult to concentrate attention on the subject of reform.
Given how much at variance this report is with all that earlier public commentary, it is remarkable that news of the study did not leak out earlier. The administration probably deserves credit for maintaining enough discipline not to have done the self-serving thing by getting out word of this study, either through an open release or a high-level leak, three weeks ago. Evidently someone on the inside was sufficiently disturbed by the major disconnect between the public story and the private reality to have finally resorted to a leak. And as with all leaks, there is a hazard. In this case the principal hazard is to stimulate Arab regimes to pressure the White House to back off from any pro-reform campaign. But by now events have moved the issue so far along that this hazard is probably minimal.
It is hard to think of much, if anything, more the administration could have done to prepare for the events that began unfolding in the Middle East a month ago, beyond the kind of study that Landler's report describes. Given the impossibility of predicting the timing of popular eruptions that are not the product of some conspiratorial schedule, the administration was in the business of contingency planning, not preemptive action. Given the very policy trade-offs and delicacies in foreign relations that necessitated the secrecy of the exercise, there was no bold and obvious course for the policymakers to take—especially before any eruptions actually occurred. And given that the sort of policy attention Obama's directive from last August represents is what warnings and analysis of departments and agencies that work for him are supposed to elicit, evidently the warnings and analysis about the prospects for unrest were sufficient to do their job.
The disconnect between the commentary and the reality illustrates several common tendencies: to equate public inattention with governmental inattention; to fail to recognize that many foreign policy problems raise conflicting interests and do not lend themselves to a single bold course of action; to misread not following a single bold course as evidence of indecisiveness or of being surprised; and to jump to conclusions about the performance of bureaucracies without a factual basis for doing so.
If this is what being caught off guard consists of, I hope the administration gets caught off guard more often.
Max Boot has offered an op ed that does a good job of reminding us what a ghastly misadventure the U.S. military expedition in Iraq—which will be eight years old next month—has been while demonstrating the sort of thinking that leads to such misadventures. Boot enumerates the up-front costs to date: more than 4,400 U.S. soldiers killed, more than 32,000 wounded, and nearly $800 billion in direct monetary expenditures. There is the still dangerous security situation: for example, more than 250 Iraqis dying from terrorist attack in January, up from 151 in December. And there is the still unresolved political situation, with the different sectarian and ethnic groups at each other's throats and having failed to agree on a distribution of power in a new Iraqi political order. So why is Boot, who supported the war, reminding us of all this? Because he laments that Iraq, having been pushed off the front pages by other issues and problems, is suffering from inattention that “could undo the progress that so many have struggled so hard to attain.” More specifically, he is disturbed that President Obama seems resolved to fulfill both his own promises and the terms of the U.S.-Iraqi agreement negotiated by the previous administration and to complete the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. Boot exhibits the old fallacious tendency to treat sunk costs as if they were not sunk and instead were some kind of investment. “It would be a tragedy,” he says, “if, after years of struggle and sacrifice, we were to lose Iraq now.” The costs and sacrifices the United States has suffered in Iraq cannot, of course, be undone, no matter what happens henceforth in Iraq.
Like others who have pleaded to stay the course, even after eight years and even after the U.S. and Iraqi governments have settled on a departure date, Boot can't seem to decide whether he wants to portray the overall situation in Iraq as bad (suggesting that the situation will fall apart if U.S. troops leave) or as a country doing “relatively well,” as he puts it at one point (suggesting that U.S. troops will continue to do some good if they stay). Boot tries to resolve the contradiction by saying “we are so close to a successful outcome,” without giving any inkling of how close is close and how much longer he would favor the U.S. involvement in the war to continue, and without giving any reason to believe that fundamental problems such as the inter-communal political impasse are any more likely to be resolved in the coming few months or years than they have been in the past eight years. This is another old fallacious outlook, that of the light at the end of the tunnel.
Boot argues for the effectiveness of a prolonged U.S. military presence with some remarkable historical casuistry. “If there is any lesson in American military history,” he writes, “it is that the longer U.S. troops stay in a post-conflict area, the greater the odds of a successful transition to democracy.” He cites as successful examples Germany, Japan, and South Korea. This continues the same neocon disregard for historical dissimilarities that underlay the hopelessly optimistic prewar visions of how smoothly Iraqi democracy would fall into place. The comparison ignores how greatly different were the historical experiences of Germany and Japan, including experiences with representative institutions, from those of Iraq, as well as ignoring the enormous role played by those first two countries having just been vanquished in foreign wars of their own making. The comparison also disregards that the extended U.S. troop presence in Germany and Japan after restoration of sovereignty was mainly about deterring a foreign military threat, not riding heard on an emerging democracy, and that the U.S. presence in South Korea was from the very beginning about deterring an external threat. Boot mentions as examples of U.S. forces leaving “prematurely” the post-Civil War South (as if a prolonged federal military occupation would have remade the attitudes of Dixie) and post-World War I Germany (as if a prolonged military occupation there would have reduced, rather than exacerbated, the revanchism that helped to lead to World War II). Elsewhere in his piece Boot observes that in Iraq “violence is down more than 90% even as the number of U.S. troops has fallen to 50,000 from 170,000,” which hardly sounds like support for his thesis about keeping troops longer being more likely to aid democracy.
I agree with Boot that the kind of inattention that these days involves Iraq is regrettable. It is another example of the tendency of the public and the press to overshift attention to whatever is the latest prime topic, at the expense of sustained coverage of many other important things that are still going on. But if, in this instance, the inattention has the beneficial side effect of undercutting any move to revoke or revise the troop withdrawal agreement, then it is not all bad.
Easy now—let's not get too wildly enthusiastic about the blow for democracy that has been struck in Egypt. The current regime is, after all, a military dictatorship. There will more to be said in the weeks and months ahead about the generals who are now running the show. Given that the generals themselves, despite the statements promising a democratic transition, probably do not know a lot at this point about exactly what they expect or even want to do with their power, don't count on good predictions along this line. And be wary of predictions that are foolishly made anyway.
More useful than any prognostication game is to think about what the United States needs to do—insofar as its policies toward Egypt can have an impact—to avoid screwing things up as the uncertain political scenario in Cairo plays out. And despite the adept hand that the Obama administration has shown so far, there is ample opportunity to screw things up. The single biggest mistake the United States could make if a democratic transition goes forward is to reject a substantial—or maybe even leading—role for political Islamists, as represented most conspicuously by the Muslim Brotherhood. There are many different ways and degrees in which the United States could do this short of a complete break in relations, such as a major reduction in U.S. aid as a sign of displeasure. The basic reason such rejection would be a big mistake is twofold. First, political Islam reflects a significant current of public opinion in Egypt, as it does elsewhere in the Middle East. It is part and parcel of popular sovereignty and democracy. It will not go away. Second, to the extent that this current of opinion does not have peaceful channels for political expression, the lack of such channels will support the extremist contention that violence is the only option and will add to the likelihood that violent methods will be used.
The United States has made similar mistakes in the past, which have involved rejecting Islamist victories in free elections. The stakes are even higher in Egypt, however, partly because of the added weight of events in this most populous Arab country. The stakes are also high because in any post-Mubarak democratic system the issues will be clearer than with, say, Hamas, where democratic choice has been complicated by the violence in the relationship between Hamas and Israel. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has been remarkably patient and persistent in its adherence to nonviolence in the face of being outlawed and subjected to other forms of repression by the regime. If even this posture is not good enough to warrant acceptance as a legitimate political player once that regime has been swept away, then the conclusion in the eyes of Egyptians and of Muslims generally will be clear: that the United States doesn't really believe what it says about democracy and instead is motivated primarily by hostility to Islam. And that will feed more violent opposition to the United States.
The connection between Egypt's recent past and international terrorism is instructive. While members of the Muslim Brotherhood were enduring what the regime was throwing at them, Islamic radicals thought they were fools to do so. The radicals, particularly in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya, launched a terrorist campaign aimed at destabilizing the Egyptian government. The regime used ruthless measures to crush the extremist groups in the mid-1990s. Having failed to defeat the near enemy—the regime in Cairo—some of the radicals turned to Osama bin Laden's doctrine of going after the far enemy: the United States. A leader of the EIJ, Ayman al-Zawahiri, joined his remaining forces with bin Laden's and is now the number two leader of al-Qaeda. In short, rejection of a role for political Islamists in Egypt contributed directly and significantly to the transnational terrorism that many consider the leading security threat to the United States.
Reducing the threat of terrorism is one of the leading U.S. interests that—unlike, say, keeping the Suez Canal open or not seeing someone start a war with Israel—is most capable of being affected by the events yet to unfold in Egypt, and by how the United States reacts to those events. The good news is that if the mistake of peremptory rejection of a political role for Islamists can be avoided, there will be less of a contradiction between different elements of counterterrorism than there has been with some regimes—including Mubarak's, in which there was a tension between the immediate interest in operational cooperation and the longer term interest in not suffering from guilt by association and becoming a target of some of the enmity directed against his regime. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamist terrorists are adversaries—intently so, as is common with adversaries who claim the same basis for legitimacy in pursuing different courses. There is every reason to believe that effective counterterrorist cooperation with the United States—without the underlying contradiction between short term and long term interests—would continue under a democratic Egyptian government in which the Muslim Brotherhood played a major role.
Those who prefer to portray the stakes in Egypt differently from how I have portrayed them here are sharpening their weapons in preparation for a fight over U.S. policy toward post-Mubarak Egypt. Already we hear demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood from some voices on the American right, and we hear it even more strongly from Israel. The Israeli government and its sympathizers—who see reasons to oppose democracy in Egypt anyway—will press for a rejectionist policy toward political Islam. We all know what that means in terms of the political pressures that will be placed on the administration. President Obama has yet to face his toughest test regarding Egypt. He will have to summon political courage not to screw it up.
The cheering in Egypt over a president's departure certainly has resonated a long way—all the way to the United States, where it has taken the form of huzzahs from a wide range of commentators. Even many of those doing the cheering would admit that in some respects the cheers are premature; the enthusiasm of the moment has tended to get the best of sober reflection about what comes next (a topic for tomorrow). Nonetheless, notwithstanding some dissenting opinions (including those with U.S. interests at heart and not just those who have someone else's interests in mind), the dominant view appears to be—and I share it—that there are good reasons to applaud the dramatic events last week, which constituted one of the best developments in the Middle East in recent years. What was good was not just that an increasingly autocratic and repressive ruler (who, as such, had increasingly become a hazard and a liability to his U.S. ally) was ousted, but also that the ouster was accomplished with far less bloodshed than could easily have been the case. And especially important to the United States was what little role anti-Americanism appeared to play in the events, which is remarkable for just about anything significant that occurs in the Middle East. Insofar as U.S. policy helped to bring about this favorable outcome, the Obama administration evidently was doing something right.
Marc Lynch characterizes the outcome correctly as “a vindication of the Obama administration's patient and well-crafted strategy.” The key element of the administration's approach was that it did not try to take credit for what was happening, realizing that, as Lynch puts it, “it should not attempt to lead a protest movement which had mobilized itself without American guidance.” Tom Friedman, soaking in the scene at Tahrir Square, commented on the same dimension of what happened: “The people in that square now know one very powerful thing: They did this all by themselves.” Meanwhile, President Obama showed he had his priorities straight when he told his advisers that the upheaval in Egypt “was a chance to create an alternative to 'the Al Qaeda narrative' of Western interference.”
Not having the United States leading the democratic charge—despite the criticism the administration endured for supposedly being indecisive or behind the curve—is important because a made-in-U.S.A. label is one of the biggest impediments that any political project in the Middle East can have. Besides contradicting the very concept of popular sovereignty, it reminds people in the region of their humiliation in falling behind the west and under western domination, and of their offense at having their homelands subjected to an intrusion of U.S.-led western culture. These are all elements of the extremist narrative that helps to sustain those, including Al Qaeda, who would do the United States harm.
This gets to the chief difference between Mr. Obama's strategy and the neoconservative approach that shaped the previous administration's policies toward the Middle East, despite the neocons' ardent efforts to lay claim to some kind of ownership of the more recent events. Egypt alone provides a striking example. The Bush administration got pretty pushy, at least on the surface, about political rights and civil rights in Egypt but then backed off early in Mr. Bush's second term. It backed off partly because of some of the same countervailing interests that the Obama administration has also had to juggle, but also because the flaunting of American values was ineffective. In the end the Bush administration achieved virtually nothing on this front. Last week, without the made-in-U.S.A. label getting in the way, Mubarak's attempt to play the resisting-foreign-interference card failed.
Then, of course, there was the most extensive U.S.-led democratization-cum-interference effort of all in the Middle East: the Iraq War, which discouraged rather than encouraged democratic change elsewhere in the region. The ineffective Iraqi governmental performance that underlies much of that discouragement persists. And in Iraq, a further irony during the past couple of weeks is that the regime in Baghdad that is the current legatee of the U.S. experiment in forceful regime change is a target, rather than a champion, of the wave of popular sentiment that has swept out of the Maghreb.
The previous administration provided ample evidence of how counterproductive is an exceptionalist, value-waving strategy toward political change. Now we have an example of a better way to approach the subject, and evidence that past ineffectiveness had as much to do with flaws in the strategy as anything within the Middle East itself.
A crescendo of sorts was reached this week in the fruitless but never-ending demands for prophecy and in expectations that government agencies have some sort of crystal ball that should enable them to satisfy the demands. Washington was in a twitter Thursday when CIA Director Leon Panetta gave an answer at a Congressional hearing that many interpreted as a prediction (or even a guarantee) that Hosni Mubarak's departure from the Egyptian presidency was imminent. When Mubarak then went on television and said he was staying put, the town was in something other than a twitter. It was an occasion for yet another round of stories about prophecy failing, which is widely taken as equivalent to intelligence agencies not doing their job. On Friday morning a reporter with a major news organization called me about doing their own story on this latest instance of U.S. intelligence not delivering the expected goods about Egypt. By the time I returned the call an hour later, Omar Suleiman had announced to the world that Mubarak was leaving after all. The reporter said never mind, they weren't doing the story anymore.
Large and important forces, capable of being understood with the right information and analysis, are involved in the dramatic events unfolding in Egypt. Those forces create possibilities and set limits. But within those possibilities and limits there is a wide range of feasible events and outcomes. Which events occur (or when they occur) and what outcomes ensue depend on many other variables that are so invisible or transient or numerous that they are not capable of being understood, much less predicted, no matter how good is our information and analysis. The lines between different possible paths that history can take are often awfully thin and hard to see. The lines of causation can be thin and difficult to see even when the difference between the paths is quite important, such as whether a ruler of an important country stays or goes.
We don't know the details of what went on behind the scenes in Cairo on Thursday and Friday that produced the outcomes we would see; maybe some of those details will come out eventually. Probably there was the kind of interplay of diverse and contending forces—in this case involving Mubarak, Suleiman, the army brass, and the sounds from Tahrir Square—that yields outcomes that are inherently unpredictable. Important tussles were also playing out within the minds of individuals: particularly of Mubarak and of senior military officers. Not only that, but minds are not always made up. (Did Mubarak know, when he delivered his televised address Thursday, that he would be packing for Sharm el-Sheikh on Friday? Probably not.) So the events would be unpredictable even to a government agency that not only had perfectly placed sources but also mind-readers on its staff.
This latest chapter in the Egyptian saga demonstrates how absurd (inevitable, but still absurd) are recriminations about intelligence services not “predicting” the unrest and ensuing events. If the question concerns a strategic understanding of the potential for such events and their underlying causes, no one has given any reason to doubt official statements that the responsible agencies provided plenty of pertinent warnings and analysis. If the question is instead one of specific prophecy as to timing or outcome, then we are in the realm of the unpredictable. That would be understood (as Stephen Walt has observed) to anyone familiar with the work of social scientists who have long had plenty of trouble trying to predict the outbreak or course of revolutionary situations. Moreover, what really matters is not anyone's prediction but instead the quality of policy. As I addressed earlier, policymakers do not (and should not) jump and change their policies in response to every warning they get from the bureaucracy.
Those who will have to formulate U.S. policy in response to events yet to unfold in a still volatile Egypt need to be ready for a lot more unpredictability. They should not only forget any vain hopes for successful prophecy but also close their ears to their critics who charge that they are being inconsistent, behind the curve, or whatever. They need to try to craft policy so U.S. interests have the most chance of being helped and the least chance of being hurt no matter which side of the thin lines history takes Egypt.
From a part of the world that is stingy in giving us much to cheer about came one bit of good news this week: India and Pakistan announced they will resume bilateral talks at the foreign secretary level on a wide range of issues that divide them. The two South Asian antagonists have not been negotiating with each other since the Pakistani-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba killed more than 160 in a terrorist attack in Mumbai, India in November 2008.
Of all the negotiations or would-be negotiations in the world, this is one of the most important. The prime reason is that we all have a strong interest in stability of the relationship between these two nuclear-weapons-armed states. The history of enmity and of past Indo-Pakistani wars, the continued festering of disagreements between the two states, and geostrategic circumstances (including the physical vulnerability of Pakistan to being sliced apart by an Indian offensive) that lend themselves to crises escalating out of control make the Asian subcontinent the part of the world with probably the greatest danger of a nuclear war breaking out.
Because of India's and Pakistan's habit of viewing in zero-sum terms any matter that involves both of them, any progress in reducing tensions between the two also will pay dividends on a host of issues, including ones of importance to the United States. This is not just a matter of getting the Pakistanis to move more of their troops from the Indian border to the northwest, where Washington would like them to be used to do more bashing of militants of the Tehrik-i-Taliban stripe. Mutual Indian-Pakistani suspicions over what each side is doing in Afghanistan need to be reduced to facilitate the participation of both in the sort of multilateral regional diplomacy on Afghanistan that would be an important part of finding a way out of the morass there.
It is easy to find reasons to be pessimistic about the prospects for the talks. Even if they go smoothly, it will be a long slow slog to get to any specific agreements. The biggest threat to success will again be a possible terrorist attack—and groups capable of conducting an attack, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, also have incentives to disrupt Indo-Pakistani diplomacy. Yet another potential complication is the present political uncertainty inside Pakistan.
The previous round of talks gave some grounds for encouragement. They showed that governments of a particular coloration are not necessary for progress. What progress was made involved a Pakistani government led by a military dictator, Pervez Musharraf. On the biggest issue in dispute—the status of Kashmir—Musharraf seemed to have come to realize what most outsider observers have perceived for some time: that an eventual settlement will entail making the current line of control an international boundary and recognizing Indian sovereignty over the larger portion of the disputed state, which is under Indian control.
There is not a lot that outsiders can do directly to improve the prospects for success without appearing to interfere in bilateral matters (a particular bugbear for the Indians). Whatever levers of influence the United States and others do have with each party, however, should be employed to encourage good faith negotiations and perseverance in the face of setbacks and any attempts to disrupt the talks. Beyond that, we can just cheer whatever progress is made.
Missing from most of the commentary and analysis on what the Obama administration is doing right or doing wrong regarding political unrest in Arab states and especially Egypt is a full appreciation of what is entailed in actually making and executing policy and not just commenting on it. The foreign relations of the United States are filled with day-to-day requirements, complications, and constraints that may seem mundane, are under the radar of public discourse, and are not the stuff of grand strategy but that nonetheless greatly constrain what the administration of the day can do. In the present situation many of those requirements, complications, and constraints involve the ins and outs of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. The commentary doesn't capture them because of much of the commentary is tendentious and more interested in scoring points, because even unbiased commentary deals mostly in generalizations and the major directions of policy rather than the details of foreign relationships, and because many of those ins and outs of foreign relations do not become public knowledge. The constraints and complications are sort of like the physicists' concept of dark matter, which has a lot to do with how the universe works even though we don't see it.
Every administration, burdened with the task of governing and of keeping the ship of state running as it navigates foreign waters, faces a multitude of such constraints and complications. Every administration sooner or later finds itself defending things that have to be done even though they are no more in line with the policymakers' principles and platform than with the views of the administration's political opponents. Daily necessity has a way of shoving aside principles and platforms.
With regard to democracy in the Middle East, the George W. Bush administration faced such daily necessities just as the Obama administration is facing them. The Bush administration's inconsistent application of the “freedom agenda” was due in part to its indefensible idea that if a democratic process doesn't yield an outcome we like we should negate the process and oppose the outcome. But it also was due to the same sorts of details about the relationship with a country like Egypt that the Obama administration is wrestling with now.
The tyranny of the details of implementation comes up again and again, on a wide variety of issues. Take, as another example the Obama administration has wrestled with, the status of the detention facility at Guantanamo. President Obama said he would close it within a year. He has not closed it—on the face of it, a broken promise. But anyone inclined to criticize him for that should offer a solution to the problem that has prevented the closing: what to do about those among the prisoners who still appear to pose a threat to public safety. The problem is really a collection of many individual problems, each one defined by the circumstances of a single detainee. A general answer or piece of advice is not gong to solve the problem.
The burden of incumbency leads to several patterns that incumbents tend to exhibit, or exhibit more than do their opponents:
- They bring less change and new initiative to policy than their own statements would lead one to believe. The tyranny of details causes a sort of regression toward the mean in which there is less difference between successive administrations than campaign rhetoric would suggest.
- As they implement policy, incumbents are vulnerable to charges that they are not living up to their own principles and platforms.
- Incumbents appear less consistent than their critics, because in implementing their policies they are continually having to adjust and react to changing situations and new problems.
We on the outside who criticize and offer policy prescriptions need to remember how much difference there is between what we do and what those who have to formulate and execute real policy are doing. That doesn't mean refraining from the criticism. But it may mean cutting policymakers a bit of slack and also taking another look at our prescriptions to see what problems they may have missed.