The recently suspended round of organized violence in the Gaza Strip has a depressing familiarity, being similar to other rounds between Israelis and Palestinians. The physical harm inflicted has been as usual enormously disproportionate, with the Palestinian-to-Israeli death ratio being 27-to-one (admittedly, that's down from about 100-to-one during Operation Cast Lead four years ago). There is the same callous disregard for civilian lives and livelihoods. The firing of notoriously inaccurate rockets into Israel is almost by definition an intention to harm civilians. The larger and much more accurate Israeli violence being perpetrated in the other direction is adorned with claims of wanting to minimize civilian casualties. The rubble to which civilian offices and private homes alike in the Gaza Strip have been reduced makes such claims a cruel joke. Much of the targeting of civilian structures came in a final spasm of Israeli operations in the last 24 hours before the cease-fire went into effect.
Also familiar is the U.S. posture toward all of this: acting as almost a cheering section for the Israeli operations, while offering little more than the barest acknowledgment of the suffering that Palestinians were enduring.
Finally, there is the same lack of any prospect that the latest round of violence makes still more rounds any less likely. To the contrary, this latest round makes the hatreds and antagonisms on both sides as intense as ever, setting the stage for still more Israeli-Palestinian fighting. There will be plenty of potential triggers for more large-scale violence to break out at any time. An incident Friday along the Gaza border, in which Israeli forces evidently shot to death a young Palestinian man, provided an early test of the new cease-fire. Additional tests will likely come from the actions of radical Palestinian groups Hamas is unable to control. No reasonable outside observer would say that this latest round of Arab-Israeli warfare has accomplished anything worthwhile.
It is customary after each such round to categorize the players as winners or losers, and some such scoring is fairly easy to do with this round. Egypt and its president, Mohamed Morsi, are winners for being able to get away from their own internal problems long enough to win compliments for mediating the cease-fire. Morsi, however, may be overplaying his hand by choosing this moment of international acclaim to make a controversial grab of more power for his own office.
At a political level Hamas may be on balance a winner. This is largely for the general reason that when the weak confronts the strong—in this case, Hamas's David against Israel's Goliath—anything that is not capitulation or collapse and that can be portrayed as standing one's ground tends to be seen as a win for the weak. It does not appear that the latest suffering of Gazans is being translated into a movement among them to blame Hamas. Hamas's political and diplomatic position has been bolstered by recognition and visits from a parade of foreign leaders before and during the fighting.
In an even narrower and very short-term political sense, one might say that Benjamin Netanyahu is a winner—if one accepts speculation that part of his reason for launching the war at this time was to shape the Israeli public mood in a direction favorable for him and his Likud party when Israeli voters go to the polls in January. But there is currently no strong prime ministerial alternative to Netanyahu anyway, and any election advantage he bought with the war is probably marginal.
The losers are much more numerous. Foremost among them are the residents of the Gaza Strip. They have suffered not only 162 dead and hundreds wounded at the hands of the Israeli military, but also the destruction of much infrastructure that had only recently been rebuilt with difficulty following the devastation of Cast Lead.
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is a loser, mostly for slipping further into perceived irrelevance. He has lost further ground to Hamas as an essential player in dealing with Israel. He was already vulnerable to such a result because of how his treatment by Israel has caused him to lose credibility among many Palestinians.
Israel and ordinary Israelis are losers. This was not so much because of any physical damage (and the impressively performing Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system has to be considered a winner), but rather because of Israel becoming ever more deeply entrenched as a target of international isolation and condemnation. The Gaza operation also has caused Israel to sink more deeply into a mire of moral coarseness.
For related reasons, the United States also is a loser. The automatic, unthinking condoning of Israeli actions and apparent insensitivity to Palestinian suffering has provided another occasion and another reason for a substantial slice of the world's population to resent, hate, and withhold cooperation from the United States.
We are all quite familiar with the political mechanisms in Washington that have long kept the United States from acting in its own best interests on matters involving Israel and its conflict with Arabs, and from using the leverage it could apply to this subject. For American political leaders the safest course is not to stray from what has become a firmly established, politically correct path. And perhaps we should not be surprised that even a newly re-elected Barack Obama is showing no early signs of straying from that path. Politically in Washington, everything is related to everything else, and one can always come up with excuses for not stirring up a political hornet's nest on any one issue because one has to focus on solving some other problem such as the budget and the deficit.
But excuses are not enough. And the most recent Gaza war is a salient enough event to be the sort of break point where one could start charting a different path. We need to find ways to make lemonade out of this latest lethal Middle Eastern lemon. What those concerned about the current course need to do is to point out how—given where U.S. interests as well as justice and logic lie—it should not be nearly as politically hazardous as the conventional wisdom supposes to diverge from that course.
An opportunity to start diverging will come very soon, if Abbas's Palestinian Authority moves ahead with its idea of seeking some kind of enhanced status in the United Nations system. The absurdity of denouncing as “unilateral” the reference of any matter to the most multilateral forum on earth ought to be self-evident. It also should be clear that any elevation of the Palestinian Authority's status in any U.N. bodies does absolutely nothing to preclude or impede the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that are necessary to resolve the conflict at hand. If the United States has any hope of salvaging the P.A. as the “good” Palestinian organization—in the face of its loss of credibility as Israel continues to erect settlements in Abbas's face, and now with the latest demonstration of the P.A.'s irrelevance on Gaza—Abbas needs the tidbit of some symbolic status at the U.N. Perhaps the United States has stuck to the Israeli line too long and too openly on this issue to expect the administration to do an about-face in the next week. But at least it could quietly reduce its opposition to Abbas's move. So far it has been carrying the Israelis' water on the issue so vigorously that it has gotten other governments, notably the British, to do so as well. The British are opposing the P.A. initiative because the United States opposes it, and the United States opposes it because the Israeli government opposes it. The Israeli government opposes it because the issue provides another way of arguing that the absence of peace negotiations is the Palestinians' fault, and because Israel would experience still more multilateral condemnation and pressure if the P.A. had standing to bring issues related to its conflict with Israel before additional multilateral bodies.
The latest episode involving the Gaza Strip is also a good occasion and good reason for the United States to abandon its self-crippling refusal to have any dealings with Hamas. Sending Hillary Clinton to the region was a waste of jet fuel, because by refusing to communicate with one party to the conflict at hand, the United States could not do what Egypt was able to do. The U.S. position reflects another self-contradictory Israeli position. The Israelis have complained in the past about not having a united and viable negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, but they scream every time Abbas has moved to repair the split between Fatah and Hamas. In any event, Hamas is a Palestinian player that, as the events of the last week demonstrate, matters and is here to stay.
All of that is still more a matter of tactics than of strategy. For the United States to be strategic means, among other things, confronting directly a strain of thinking in Israel that Netanyahu represents but is by no means limited to him, and that one can hear in some of the discourse in Israel in response to the clash in Gaza. According to this thinking, Israel was not a loser at all because of international condemnation and isolation, because the condemnation and isolation are an unavoidable part of being Israel—a sort of cost of doing business. Israelis, by this view, have to live with the prospect of being in perpetuity a militarized state in conflict with its neighbors, periodically coming to blows with them. Israel, by this view, can sustain such an existence indefinitely because it is so much stronger than the neighbors, especially the hapless Palestinians.
Major aspects of this view reflect the thinking of the old-line, hard-line Zionist Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who is often considered the ideological father of Likud and whom Netanyahu's own father served as a private secretary. Jabotinsky essentially argued that Palestinian Arabs were predisposed to oppose the Zionist project altogether, and that the project could succeed only through implementation of an “iron wall” of force to keep the Arabs in check. The hard-liners of today actually go a step farther in reliance on force than did Jabotinsky, who said that eventually, once the Palestinian Arabs had been confronted long enough with sufficient force to lose hope, agreements could be reached with them. (He was not clear what shape any such agreements would take, and he had a territorially expansive view of what land the future Israel should embrace.) Today the prevailing metaphor in Israel is not so much a wall (notwithstanding the literal wall Israel has built in the West Bank) as it is lawns to be mowed. The periodic use of force, such as we just saw in Gaza, is likened to mowing the lawn. Sure, grass grows back, but Israel will just mow it again later. The process can continue forever—no agreements necessary.
This is not a view the United States can reason with. It is a view that represents fundamentally different values and priorities from those of the United States. The United States should present its policy, publicly as well as privately, toward this conflict in terms of a choice that parties to the conflict can make. To anyone who genuinely seeks to resolve the conflict through compromise and agreement, the United States should promise to be a very active partner. And then act on that promise.
To anyone who instead envisions, and behaves as if he envisions, unending conflict, the U.S. response will be to distance itself from such behavior. That will be the necessary response not only because of what unending conflict means for the parties to the conflict but also because of the harm it can mean to the United States, and specifically the harm that comes from being closely associated with a forceful, no-agreement, indefinite lawn-mowing approach. And then, just as important, act as necessary on that promise.
Washington can and should phrase such a policy in an entirely neutral, even-handed way. Netanyahu and his ilk have counterparts on the Palestinian side, although they are fewer because perpetuation of the status quo is so much more miserable for Palestinians than it is for Israelis. But Israeli citizens are smart enough to understand the message.
A recurring difficulty in public recriminations about past actions and debate about ongoing problems is the absence of a sense of sequence—of an accurate understanding of what happened when, and in particular of whether certain things happened before or after certain other things. Many much-discussed events enter the recriminations and debates as individual points of controversy, detached from any time line or comprehensive narrative. They become like flashbacks in a creatively edited movie, in which the audience has to stay well engaged to keep track of what happened when. The film editor does not want to make the audience's task too hard, lest his product sink into incoherence. Outside the movies and in the real world, there often are people with an ax to grind who try to get us to fit the flashbacks into a preferred story, which may be inaccurate. Even without ax-grinders, our minds try to fit the detached events into a story that is easily comprehensible, even though again it may be inaccurate.
Such insensitivity to sequence may be found, for example, in recriminations over the George W. Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. The easily comprehensible story is that the decision was based on bum intelligence about unconventional weapons. But the intelligence estimate that became the subject of nearly all the after-the-fact criticism wasn't written—in fact, work on it hadn't even begun—until after the administration had not only made the decision to go to war but had already moved into high gear its campaign to sell the war to the public. (There still was a Congressional resolution to be voted on, but hardly any members of Congress bothered to look at the estimate.)
The political silliness over the lethal incident at Benghazi provides additional examples. The most glaring one came right at the outset, when Mitt Romney, seizing on the incident as a prop for his campaign, described as the Obama administration's first “response” to the incident a statement that the U.S. embassy actually had issued before the incident. Now we continue to hear endless professed outrage about what Susan Rice did or did not say, with her sayings thrown into public discussion alongside observations that have been made since then about what lay behind the attack on the U.S. facility. Lost again is any sense of sequence, and in this case any distinction between confusion and uncertainty in the early hours after the incident and understanding that has been acquired only later.
The Petraeus affair offers other recent examples, particularly in recriminations about how the FBI handled the case, how an able public servant has been lost because a private matter had become public, etc. Seemingly escaping notice is that the matter became public only when Petraeus himself announced his resignation and cited an extramarital affair as the reason. Neither the FBI nor anyone else had made anything public before that. If the whole business were to have ended differently, it would have had to have been in one of two ways. One would be that nobody says anything publicly (with or without an FBI investigation), in which case the security implications of potential for blackmail would be very much an issue. The other possibility is that Petraeus discloses the affair but says he is not resigning. We should give him enough credit for realizing that the image of an adulterer clinging to his job would have been inconsistent with both the values he propounded and his continued ability to lead his agency, and that the honorable thing for him to do was instead to resign.
Now there is the warfare in the Gaza Strip. I recalled the other day the sequence of events at the start of the current upsurge in violence. But the deficiency in temporal understanding is not just a matter of who started the newest round of fighting. Israeli demands that “the rockets must stop” before Israel ceases its lethal operations feed a general impression that the story is one of Hamas rockets first, and Israeli response afterward. This overlooks that most of the rockets fired from the Strip since Israel's Operation Cast Lead four years ago have come in these last few days—after, and in response to, Israel's newest operation. So we have not only a demand for a one-sided cease-fire but also a bizarre rationale in which the stated reason for the operation is to prevent the very response that the operation itself engenders.
Gregory Johnsen, who has done extensive field research in Yemen, raises what may be something similar in U.S. policy. Johnsen argues persuasively that lethal strikes from drone aircraft have enabled terrorist groups to win more recruits who are angered over the collateral damage from the strikes. He cites as evidence how the estimated strength of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has risen in correlation with the frequency of the drone strikes. Despite this indication of counterproductivity, do not be surprised to hear others argue that the increasing strength of Yemeni terrorist groups is all the more reason we need to pound them with Hellfire missiles.
There is no known cure for sequence deficit disorder. We can perhaps ameliorate some of the consequences by demanding that anyone who starts making assertions about Y being a consequence of X should make explicit reference to chronologies or time lines to support the assertion.
Before the 2012 election fades in our memories, displaced by sex scandals and other attention-getting news, Americans ought to reflect on what works well and—even more worthy of reflection—what works poorly in their representative democracy. I'm not talking about post-mortems concerning the specific electoral outcome and what led a particular party or candidate to win or lose. I instead am referring to serious deficiencies that ought to trouble any American, regardless of liking or disliking this month's election result, who values a healthy and fair political system that respects the will of the people.
Some of the most undemocratic aspects of what American electoral democracy has become were in display at least as much in this most recent electoral cycle as in any other. One concerns the role of money, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the ineffectiveness of the Federal Election Commission reaching new depths. Much commentary since the election has noted how little return some of the biggest campaign bankrollers received on their investment. But any single election result does not negate the outsize role that money has assumed in American elections and how much that role runs contrary to the principle that in a democracy elected representatives are supposed to represent people rather than dollars. The Supreme Court's reapportionment decisions of the early 1960s established the principle that elected representatives represent people rather than acres or trees. Now dollars have been given back some of the role that was taken away from the acres and the trees.
Then there is the unconscionable inconvenience that many citizens have to endure to exercise their right to vote. Long voter lines even led to a line in Barack Obama's victory speech. In the decentralized American system of administering elections, the problem is largely due to assorted inefficiency, incompetence and misplaced resources at the state and county level. The added twist—an even more alarming one, with regard to subversion of democratic principles—this year was the concerted effort by adherents of one party to make voting more difficult, in the belief that those who would be dissuaded or prevented from voting would mostly be supporters of the other party. The net effect of court actions on this subject was to mitigate this problem by striking down some of the voter suppression efforts. But the efforts were still an outrage; voting is one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy. It also was an outrage that there were not more expressions of outrage—from Republicans, Democrats and independents alike—over the suppression efforts. Give credit for candor and honesty, however, to the Republican legislative leader in Pennsylvania who spoke openly about how the suppression effort in that state “would allow Governor Romney to win.”
Dissuading the other side's supporters from voting is not uncommon in political systems in less developed countries—systems that we usually are apt to disparage. Ultimately the difference between the suppression efforts in the United States and, say, what Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union does to its political opponents is more a matter of degree (especially degree of physical brutality) than of kind.
Another undemocratic contrivance—undemocratic because in a democracy voters are supposed to choose their representatives rather than representatives choosing their voters—is gerrymandering. It has become more of a science than an art in recent years thanks to more sophisticated and extensive polling data and computer software that can take advantage of the data. Both parties practice it when they have a chance. Democrats in Maryland perpetrated one of the most egregious recent examples. But because Republicans have majority control in more state governments than the Democrats do, the net effect nationally has been to help Republicans. Republicans retained a solid majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives this year even though Democratic House candidates won more total votes than Republicans. The natural concentration of Democratic strength in urban areas has something to do with this anomaly, but so does the gerrymandering.
Each of the aforementioned flaws has a self-perpetuating quality, and encourages perpetuation in power of whoever happens to be in power now. State legislators who have a majority set the voting rules and draw the legislative districts (for their own seats, not just for Congress) to increase the chance of their own party retaining control. The role of big money in the post-Citizens United era increases the chance of electing presidents who appoint the sort of Supreme Court justices who hand down decisions such as Citizens United. And so on. The self-perpetuation is not as strong and irretrievable as in a non-democratic system such as the one controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. But there are closer parallels with, for example, Iran, which has a freely elected president and parliament but in which self-perpetuation is facilitated by the role of the supreme leader and by interlocking relationships among bodies such as the Guardian Council and the judiciary.
Some of the most worrisome current threats to the health of American democracy come not from matters involving elections specifically but instead from the attitudes and habits of mind—i.e., the political culture—that are at least as important for the health of any democracy as elections. We saw one such threat when leaders of the party in control of one of the houses of Congress, when they had not won enough political power in the government overall to get their way on budgetary matters, tried to get their way anyhow by threatening to make the nation default on its debt. In other words, they abandoned democracy for extortion.
Another threat was succinctly expressed in a comment from the minority leader of the U.S. Senate that was as candid and as appalling as the comment from the legislative leader in Pennsylvania. He said that his party's top priority in Congress was for “President Obama to be a one-term president.” The comment was quite honest, as borne out by his party's behavior during the subsequent Congressional term. Making the toppling of a political opponent more important than anything else, including legislating in the national interest, is just the sort of dysfunctional political culture that tears democracies apart. There are parallels to this overseas, too. Bangladesh comes to mind as a good comparison.
For a democracy to work well and to stay healthy, the political players in it must have respect for the interests of the nation as a whole that overrides preference for any one electoral outcome or hatred for any one political leader. They also need to respect political outcomes that shape policy and not resort to non-democratic threats of harm to the national interest. What we have seen in recent years are disturbing lapses from both those requirements.
One conclusion is that there may not be as wide a gap as generally supposed between democracy in America and democracies elsewhere that Americans may be quick to disdain. A second conclusion is that bearing the first conclusion in mind adds useful perspective in evaluating and responding to political processes in other countries. The most important conclusion is that American democracy is more fragile, and its health more precarious, than most Americans like to think. Americans ought to be alert to what threatens their democracy from within and to punish—democratically of course, at the polls—those who would undermine it.
There they go again—another tragic upsurge in the violent tit-for-tat between Israel and Hamas. As with most tit-for-tat contests, at each stage each side can point to what the other side just did as an action that warrants retaliation. Often the story that reaches American ears is instead more lopsided: a story of Hamas firing rockets and Israel responding with armed force. But the actual process is very much two-way, with Hamas responding to Israeli violence at least as much as the other way around.
Hamas had endeavored to maintain a cease-fire—despite difficulty in controlling the actions of smaller, more militant groups that have a presence in the Gaza Strip—most of the time since Operation Cast Lead, the brutal Israeli invasion of the Strip almost four years ago. That war resulted in 1400 Palestinian deaths, probably over half of whom were noncombatants. (Israeli deaths in the war totaled three noncombatants and ten soldiers, four of whom were killed by friendly fire.) But Hamas, as the only government the residents of the Gaza Strip have to turn to for security, came under increasing pressure from those residents to respond forcefully to Israeli actions that continued to claim Palestinian victims.
As Phyllis Bennis points out, who appears to be retaliating against whom depends on when you start the clock. Most American media accounts have begun coverage of the latest rounds of violence with a Palestinian attack on Israeli soldiers on November 8. Less noticed in the coverage was that the soldiers were part of an element of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), including four tanks and an armored bulldozer, that was operating inside the Gaza Strip at the time. Exactly what those operations included is still unclear, but the IDF did later say it was “investigating” the death of an 11-year-old boy that day. Within the next three days the Palestinian Center for Human Rights documented the deaths of five more Palestinian civilians, including three children, with 52 other civilians wounded. Most of the casualties were incurred in a single Israeli attack on a playground soccer field. The ensuing two-way violence continued until Egypt was able to mediate a short-lived cease-fire, broken when Israel launched this Wednesday a substantial aerial attack, including the assassination of a senior Hamas leader, Ahmed Jabari.
Israel, of course, has far greater and more sophisticated means (much of it U.S.-supplied) of inflicting death and destruction than does Hamas. The different means tend to carry different labels: ground-launched rockets are called terrorism, while the operations of attack aircraft are called a nation defending its borders. That difference in capability also helps to explain why Israel is the side that perpetrates the most marked escalations in this violent dialogue. If Hamas had anything approaching Israel's capabilities, it probably would feel obliged to respond right now to Israel's actions with much more deadly operations than anything it has been able to muster so far. But then again, it it did have such capabilities, there would be a major element of deterrence that would almost certainly dissuade Israeli leaders from perpetrating anything like the violence they have in fact inflicted.
The United States has no national interest in taking sides in any of this lethal tit-for-tat. And yet, to its own disadvantage and discredit, it does take sides. The statement the State Department issued on Wednesday “strongly condemns” rocket fire coming out of Gaza, says there is “no justification” for the “cowardly acts” of “Hamas and other terrorist organizations,” talks about Hamas attacking Israel “on a near daily basis” and supports “Israel's right to defend itself.” The closest the statement comes to even a pretense of recognition of the—substantially greater—pain and destruction being inflicted in the other direction is to “regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians” and to “encourage Israel to continue [sic] to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.”
This posture is especially discouraging as one of the administration's first official statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since President Obama's re-election. Scott Wilson writes in the Washington Post about how at the president's press conference this week “the customarily cautious Obama spoke like a politician with nothing to lose after winning the last race of his life” and exuded “confidence and ease.” If the lifting of the burden of re-election is going to enable the administration to formulate a more effective and more just policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the State Department's statement showed no sign of it happening yet.
A better statement would have begun something like this:
The United States deplores the latest upsurge in violence between Israelis and Palestinians. This tragic conflict is causing unnecessary suffering among innocent people on both sides. The United States calls on both sides to pull back from what has become a seemingly endless cycle of destruction. None of the acts of violence committed by either side does anything to advance a goal that the United States shares and that should be shared by all the people of the region: a resolution of differences that will enable Israelis and Palestinians alike to live side-by-side in peace and security.
That's just the start. The United States should address the long-term consequences of what is taking place, and specifically the consequences of the futile Israeli reliance on escalation and destruction. It might borrow the words of Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who was trying earlier this week to mediate a new cease-fire between Israel and Hamas; his principal Hamas contact was Jabari, the military leader whom Israel killed by obliterating his car with an airstrike. “I tell myself,” says Baskin, "that with every person who is killed we are engendering the next generation of haters and terrorists.”
The announcement by French President François Hollande that his government is formally recognizing, as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, the latest version of what purports to be a united Syrian opposition is the sort of development apt to stimulate more grumbling in the United States that the U.S. government is not exerting sufficient leadership, either from in front or from behind, regarding Syria. Actually, if any Western country is to be out front on this matter, it ought to be France. France was responsible in the 1920s and 1930s for what is now Syria, under what was called a League of Nations mandate and was really a colonial relationship. France staked its claim to this territory when the French diplomat François Georges-Picot and his British counterpart Sir Mark Sykes drew secretly negotiated lines on a map during World War I to carve up this part of the Ottoman Empire.
This is not to say, of course, that Syria's subsequent miserable history is all or even mostly France's fault. But the French did want this piece of the Middle East, and with the benefit of hindsight one can think of ways the mandate could have turned out better. The French divided mandated Syria into several dependent states of different ethnic or sectarian character, only one of which—the one corresponding to present Lebanon—would achieve its own independence. Given the sectarian divisions within Lebanon, maybe its independence wasn't a good idea. Maybe a better idea, given recent history, would have been to have groomed for independence the state that consisted of the largely Alawite-inhabited Latakia region of what is now northwest Syria.
The opposition coalition that France has recognized and to which, according to Hollande, it is considering providing arms, is barely deserving of the word “coalition.” It emerged only after prolonged and intense pressure from Arab and Western governments at a meeting in Qatar (with the U.S. secretary of state having taken a leading role in earlier exertion of such pressure). Perhaps because the new grouping, called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has a longer name than the ineffective Syrian National Council, it conveys the impression of greater viability by being more broadly based. But to pretend that this painfully-negotiated new structure is a truly unified opposition that can provide a basis for eventual political stability in Syria is to ignore how badly fractured the different elements opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad still are.
Certain unjustified assumptions about the struggle in Syria have been creeping into discussion and reporting on the topic, as exemplified by the front-page New York Times story about Hollande's announcement. The new coalition reportedly “came together” in Doha when a more appropriate term would be “papered over differences under pressure.” Reference to Western and Arab efforts to build “a viable and effective opposition that would hasten the end of a stalemated civil war” suggests the unjustified conclusion that a less fractured opposition would indeed mean an earlier end to the war. The article correctly notes that Assad has “survived partly because of the disagreements and lack of unity among his opponents,” but he also has survived partly for other reasons, including fears among Alawites and some others that not just their status but their lives would be endangered by the regime's forcible overthrow.
Thomas Friedman has a somewhat breathless column about dangers of the Syrian situation that sustains the common but incorrect view that civil wars inevitably spread across borders like spilled molasses unless forcibly prevented from doing so, and that incorrectly credits an American military presence inside Iraq for having prevented political molasses there from oozing into other countries. But he is correct that just as it was removal of the old regime that triggered civil war and prolonged violence in Iraq, removal of the regime in Syria would hardly be an omen of stability in that country. Friedman is right to point to the only visible (but still slim) hope for such stability: cooperation with the Russians to try to arrange a power-sharing deal to be overseen by a UN-sponsored multilateral force. The voices in the United States who speak disdainfully about pursuit of a negotiated outcome are offering nothing else that is any more promising, and for the most part they are pursuing agendas other than peace in Syria.
We need to resist the temptation to think that every messy situation overseas has a feasible solution, and furthermore to think that the United States needs to be leading part of that solution. As for what Hollande is doing, go right ahead, Monsieur le Président. Just don't get your hopes very high.
Recent reports that in 2010 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had ordered the Israeli military to increase its readiness level in anticipation of war with Iran appeared to leave some unanswered questions. Since none of us who do not have Israeli military manuals on our shelves know exactly what level “P-plus” means, it is hard to adjudicate the reported disagreement between Israeli military chiefs, who resisted the order on grounds that it could precipitate a war, and Netanyahu and Barak, who reportedly assured them that it would not. A subsequent analysis by Yossi Melman helps to clear matters up. Melman explains:
The truth is that Netanyahu and Barak did not order the military to plan a direct, all-out attack on Iran. Their true intention was to trigger a chain of events which would create tension and provoke Iran, and eventually could have led to a war that might drag in the United States.
The Israeli military's chief of staff, General Gabi Ashkenazi, warned Netanyahu and Barak that what they were ordering could "create uncontrollable facts on the ground" that would touch off an unwanted war. "If you open and press an accordion, the instrument starts playing music," is the way Ashkenazi put it. The understandable worry among the generals was about a 1914-style situation in which the responses and fears engendered by mobilization measures lead to a war that nobody had specifically chosen in the first place.
Netanyahu surely is smart enough to understand these dangers. The incident highlights a game he is playing; to stoke tensions with Iran sufficiently that the United States may be ensnared in a war that it does not want—but in which once war breaks out, the United States would do Israel's dirty work by inflicting more destruction on Iran than Israel could inflict on its own.
The timing of the incident underscores another purpose of Netanyahu's tension-stoking brinksmanship: to divert attention from continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and inaction on the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He issued his order about the same time, in the late summer of 2010, that President Obama was making an ultimately unsuccessful attempt at getting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks restarted.
Netanyahu's efforts to precipitate an unwanted war are made all the more worrisome by an incident a couple of weeks ago off the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf. A U.S. Predator drone was met by two Iranian SU-25 fighters that fired some shots in the vicinity of the drone but did not hit it. According to the Pentagon, at the time of the encounter the drone was sixteen nautical miles off the Iranian coast, four more that the twelve-mile territorial waters. An Iranian military spokesman confirmed that the incident occurred and said Iran would defend its territory.
It has not been established, and the Iranians did not explicitly say, whether the intent of the shots was to issue a warning or whether they were aimed at the drone but missed. The Pentagon sought to downplay the difference. Suffice it to note that in terms of the capabilities of the equipment the slow-flying Predator would be no match for SU-25s, even though the latter are designed primarily for ground-attack missions rather than air-to-air combat.
Any firing of live ammunition over international waters is serious business, but to understand the Iranian perspective do a little role reversal. Imagine that Iran was flying aircraft within sixteen miles of the U.S. coast. Imagine the Iranians were doing this with aircraft that can be armed as well as perform reconnaissance, and that not long ago one of these aircraft came down on U.S. soil. And imagine that this was all happening amid endless talk in Iran about possibly launching an armed attack on the U.S. homeland. The screams in Congress and elsewhere to do something about this threat are not at all hard to imagine. Given how much talk we hear about preemption, there would surely be demands to do something more forceful than just to fire warning shots, international waters or no international waters.
And yet the encounter off the Iranian coast is now being added to the litany of things cited to show that Iran supposedly is a dangerously aggressive regime that must be stopped. Such an interpretation evokes memories of another sequence of events leading to war in the past, this time not in 1914 but instead fifty years later, in 1964. Purported North Vietnamese aggressiveness against U.S. military assets in the Gulf of Tonkin was taken as a sign that the Vietnamese communists needed to be stopped. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was the trigger for a Congressional resolution authorizing what became the Vietnam War, and the rest is history. As with the recent incident over the Persian Gulf, no shots hit any American assets in the encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the alleged attack that was the focus of the war resolution probably never occurred.
The difference between a twelve-mile territorial limit and a flight path that is sixteen miles from a coast is an awfully thin margin on which to rest the avoidance of war. To put that margin in perspective, an SU-25 flying nearly at top speed could traverse the four-mile difference in about 30 seconds. It is hard enough as it is to avoid accidentally stumbling into war under such conditions. It is harder still when the prime minister of Israel is doing what he can to help make accidents happen.
After a campaign and election in which, at least as much as in most other election years, foreign policy took a back seat to domestic concerns, we—and the newly re-elected president—should take stock of the foreign policy significance of the electoral decision the American people just made.
Possibly the most significant implication is that the nation has dodged a bullet in the form of what would have been, given a different election outcome, a likely return of neoconservatives to positions of power and influence. Perhaps a President-elect Romney would have surprised us with his appointments, but the ideological pattern in his party and the identities of his advisers suggest otherwise. They suggest that future historians would be scratching their heads to explain how, so soon after the Iraq War, promoters of that enormously costly blunder would be back in position to inflict still more damage.
Lowering the risk of ideologically-driven disasters should be only part of the stock-taking. There are broader implications, having mostly to do with the incumbent president entering his second and final term. Although Barack Obama is still young enough for us to expect vigorous leadership from him right up until January 2017, he will never be running for office again. That should lift much of the weight of the political millstone that drags down policy-making on foreign as well as domestic affairs. It does not remove the millstone completely; domestic political opposition, sometimes of a puerile sort, is a factor even for second-term presidents as they try to strike deals and build coalitions. But a second term opens up distance from the kind of reductionism in the discussion of foreign policy that is part of any effort to win election or re-election.
The extra intrusion of domestic politics whenever hoped-for re-election is a factor impairs the making of sound foreign policy in at least three respects. First, it amplifies the influence of small but nonetheless assertive interests that are different from the U.S. national interest. Second, it requires an oversimplification or dumbing down of policy questions and thus leaves little room for care and precision in crafting strategies well-suited for a complicated world. Third, it encourages politicians to adhere to low-risk positions unlikely to generate political vulnerabilities before the next election. Such low-risk positions tend to lead to policies that are uncreative and offer little potential for positive breakthroughs.
What are some of the themes and directions that our second-term president should adopt to take advantage of having been relieved from the burdens of his last round of electoral politics? One is suggested by an unfortunate tendency that the just-completed campaign season exhibited regarding foreign as well as domestic policy: the tendency to treat a vote for or against the incumbent president as if it were just an expression of approval or disapproval of whatever is going well or going poorly in the country or in the world. Such an attitude mistakenly disregards the causes of the good news or bad news, disregards whether the alternative candidate would have done anything different or better, and disregards whether whatever we are happy or dissatisfied with is something any U.S. president can do much about. The countervailing theme that the re-elected president ought to start emphasizing is that there are many unpleasant things going on in the world that neither he nor the United States as a whole can reshape to our satisfaction, that it is not the responsibility of the United States to correct all such situations around the world, and that attempts to assume such responsibility will often result in costly frustration and failure. Making such observations while seeking re-election invites charges of wimpiness or of trying to avoid responsibility. But the observations are true.
A related theme is that the United States needs to pay more attention to the damage it inflicts, the anger it incurs and the resistance it engenders through many of its own actions—even well-intentioned ones—around the world and to how the effects redound negatively to U.S. national interests. This refers especially to the use of force in other countries. Voicing any such theme amid an election campaign is political poison; it invites attacks from opponents for straying from the exceptionalist orthodoxy that America is never anything other than good and great. Now that Mr. Obama is no longer running against an opponent who conjures up mythical “apology tours,” he should not have to worry as much about such attacks. In fact, the president can educate the public about the realities behind this theme without compromising at all the concept of America's greatness, which involves stature and influence that does not require using a hammer to pound at every gnat that flies by.
As for more specific issues, recall how the presidential candidates responded when they were asked in the last debate to name the biggest foreign or security threat facing the United States (always a flawed question, in its requirement to single out one topic to the exclusion of others). President Obama replied, “terrorism.” A safe answer, but now the president should foster a public discussion about the actual extent of terrorist threats to U.S. interests and about the costs and consequences of measures and policies aimed at countering those threats. The discussion should include material costs amid larger budgetary stringency, and it should include the broader consequences of killing individual suspected terrorists.
Governor Romney's reply to the same question was “Iran.” The substantively appropriate response by his opponent would have been to ask how a second-rate power thousands of miles away could be considered the greatest threat facing the world's sole superpower. But any such questioning would have been politically risky, and so neither candidate rose above the demonization and alarmism in which public discussion in the United States about Iran has been mired. With the election over (and especially before Iran gets preoccupied with its own presidential election in the spring), the administration needs to get away from the demonization and alarmism. Unfortunately, as Jacob Heilbrunn points out, Mr. Obama has boxed himself in somewhat with his categorical statements, matching those of Romney, that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable. The good news is that there is definitely an opportunity for negotiating an agreement with Tehran that keeps Iran short of even deciding to build a nuclear weapon. The administration needs to seize that opportunity, with all of the flexibility in negotiations that seizing it requires. The biggest impediment to doing so is likely to be resistance in Congress over the relaxing of sanctions.
The agitation over Iran has primarily been a project of the Israeli government, and this involves an area where the outcome of the election potentially makes a major difference. If Romney had won we would have a president who would outsource a major chunk of U.S. foreign policy to Benjamin Netanyahu, has already written off giving any attention to the defining conflict in the Middle East, and in hoping for re-election would have to keep thinking about what Sheldon Adelson will say the next time he sees him. Mr. Obama has an opportunity to set another course, one far more attuned to the interests of the United States than to those of a foreign government. The opportunity stems not only from his status as a second-termer but also from encouraging signs in recent years (including the voice vote on Jerusalem at this year's Democratic Party convention) that increasing numbers of people are coming to see the political force that has enforced unquestioning support for the policies of the Israeli government as being something of a naked emperor.
President Obama can claim a mandate of sorts for setting a new course in this regard. In addition to winning the votes of a large majority of American Jews, election-night polling showed that four-fifths of that segment of the electorate believe that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be negotiated, that the United States should take an active role accomplishing this, and that resolution of that conflict is an important U.S. national-security interest.
The lobby that has impeded progress on this subject is, though weakened, still very much around. Opposing it will generate a lot of political ugliness. But the ugliness is not a good excuse for drifting along the old course. What comes closer to a legitimate excuse is the amount of presidential attention required amid fiscal cliffs and all the other demands on that attention.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas received attention the other day with a remark about the possible return of Palestinian Arabs to Israel. He was asked in an interview whether he wanted to return to the town in the Galilee region where he grew up and from which he had been driven as a 13-year-old during the war in 1948 that accompanied the establishment of Israel. Abbas replied that he would like to visit the town but not live there. Although he described himself as a refugee, he referred to the boundary that lasted until a later Arab-Israeli war in 1967 and said that Palestine is on one side of that border and Israel is on the other.
The comment, despite being an apparently unscripted answer to an interview question, was seized on in various quarters as a significant concession on the longstanding issue of “right of return.” Some Israelis hopeful of meaningful peace negotiations, including President Shimon Peres, lauded Abbas's remark. Abbas's Palestinian rivals in Hamas denounced his comment, saying he had no right to make such a “concession” on behalf of the Palestinian people. Both sorts of reactions vastly overstated the significance of the remark.
Abbas hasn't really made any formal concessions on this issue. The official Palestinian position is still that there is a right of return, but when commenting at other times about the right of return Abbas has shown himself to be realistic. He has observed that if all the Palestinian refugees and their descendants, now numbering several million, were to return to Israel that would effectively destroy Israel, and he has no desire to do that, wanting instead to live alongside Israel. He has also appropriately questioned how many Palestinians would want to go back to live in their old home towns. Many say they would in principle, but if the reality would be to live as a minority in the Jewish state, most would have preferences similar to Abbas's own.
What the reactions to Abbas's comment illustrate, besides an overplaying of the comment itself, is a common tendency to confuse a position maintained for bargaining purposes with some kind of intractable bottom line demand. Some elements may have an interest in promoting such confusion—such as in this case Hamas, which tried to use the issue as a stick with which to beat Abbas. Partly because of such promotion, others may genuinely but mistakenly believe that a negotiating position is a rigid demand.
In any conflict with multiple major issues in dispute—and that is certainly true of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians—it behooves each side not to make concessions even on issues on which it is willing to concede until and unless it gets something in return on other issues. Everyone concerned has long realized that a reasonable resolution of the issue of right of return would be some formula that lets Palestinians claim the right has been recognized but that involves only a symbolically small number—no more than a few thousand—actually moving to Israel, perhaps with monetary compensation provided to the rest. Palestinian leaders, however, would be foolish to offer such a formula without getting anything on other issues of concern to them, including borders and the status of Jerusalem.
Similar situations arise all the time, including on other matters of concern to Israel. Why should Hamas, for example, make unilateral concessions involving something such as recognition of Israel if it does not get in return something as basic as recognition of Hamas? On that all-preoccupying matter involving Iran's nuclear program, the Iranians have given ample indication of flexibility on restricting their enrichment of uranium and on much else. But they would be foolish to make unilateral concessions with no prospect of getting anything in return on matters of importance to them.
When someone seems to be adhering to a position that ought not to be a vital interest to them, we should not make the mistake of interpreting this as a mark of obduracy and unreasonableness. More likely it means they are willing to bargain.
In the summer of 1919 the U.S. Army Motor Transport Corps sent a convoy of 81 vehicles across the United States, from Washington, D.C. to Oakland, California (and then by ferry to San Francisco). The operation was intended partly to determine what was and was not possible at the time regarding long-distance movement within the country. Almost all of the roads the convoy used beyond Illinois were unpaved. The convoy logged 230 incidents that required it to stop because of accidents, breakdowns, extrication from mud, and repair of wooden bridges that it broke. The average speed was six miles per hour, and the trip took two months.
Participating as an observer for the War Department was a brevet lieutenant colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower. The experience impressed on Eisenhower the importance of a well-developed highway system for military movements as well as civilian commerce. He was later able to observe, as the victorious allied commander in the defeat of Germany in World War II, what an important part the Autobahn system played in the defense and vitality of Germany.
As president, Eisenhower pushed for the development of a network of high-speed, limited-access highways in the United States. The federal government had already played a major role in development of the nationwide system of roads as it had developed up to the 1950s, through legislation including the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 and the Federal Highway Act of 1921. Eisenhower signed in 1956 a new Federal Aid Highway Act, which provided for the federal government to fund 90 percent of the construction of a new network of expressways. That network is now officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
Military convoys constitute only a tiny fraction of the traffic on today's interstates (although the ability of the military to transport personnel and materiel quickly from one part of the country to another surely is still important to national defense). A modern and robust domestic infrastructure has a further link to national security, however, that is even more important: the strength and efficiency of the U.S. economy is the ultimate foundation for being able to provide for the security and defense of the nation. American politicians play lip service to this link from time to time, usually to add rhetorical support to some other point they wish to make about economic issues. But the essence of that link has not been sufficiently internalized and appreciated to the point of being fully reflected in budgets and policies.
Some appreciation for the impact of the interstate highway system—which is just one example of the subject at hand—can be gained from reflecting on the fact that almost 70 percent of the tonnage of freight shipped in the United States, and about three-quarters of the value of that freight, travels by road. Even small inefficiencies in road transport thus can have a large negative, nationwide impact on costs and productivity. Congestion delays cost a lot of money. Understanding the difference does not require going back to that 1919 Army convoy that struggled with muddy roads and rickety bridges. People of my age, old enough to remember what long-distance road travel was like in the pre-interstate-highway days of the 1950s, can understand.
An explicit connection with national defense was made with some other programs during Eisenhower's presidency that did not directly concern the Pentagon's budget. A major piece of legislation in 1958 that provided federal aid to all levels of education was called the National Defense Education Act. Enacted amid alarm over the USSR's launch of the first Sputnik the previous year, a major rationale for the program was to produce more mathematicians, scientists and engineers who would work on overtaking the Soviets in military-related areas where they appeared to have gotten ahead. But even if the act had not yielded a single additional American rocket designer, the boost given to better utilization of the nation's human capital through better educational opportunities helped to strengthen the U.S. economy of the future and as such was again in the interest of national security.
The damage from Superstorm Sandy is great enough that we are seeing now a bit of post-Sputnik-like concern about the need for additional investment in domestic infrastructure to protect the citizenry from future harm. The threat in this case is not from some terrorist group or rogue state but instead from natural disasters, exacerbated by change in the earth's climate. Just as there are multiple ways, not mutually exclusive, for dealing with a threat from something like terrorism (mitigate underlying risk factors, erect defenses, etc.), so too are there multiple appropriate responses to the type of threat represented by major storms. The underlying problem of human-induced climate change unfortunately—as reflected in this year's political campaigns—has received pitifully insufficient attention. Even if it had received more, the climatic changes already in train make defenses against future disasters important. And so, appropriately, ideas are being advanced for public works projects, for example, to help protect New York City from storm surges the next time anything like Sandy hits.
Such measures are expensive, and cost immediately becomes a deterrent. But here are two considerations in thinking about this problem. First, we are talking about national security, in the most literal and central sense. What can be more of the essence of national security than the protection of the citizenry, in the places where they live and work, from physical harm and severe disruption of their daily lives? And what should receive higher priority in public policy than national security, properly defined?
A second consideration whenever cost comes up is to do some comparisons. One proposal, for example, to construct a storm surge barrier across the Verrazano Narrows at the entrance to New York harbor would cost several billion dollars. But as proponents of the idea note, it would be substantially less than the cost of a single aircraft carrier.
Or compare the cost of such projects to the costs of damage from Sandy. It is still far too early, of course, to expect an accurate figure for that, but people whose business is to make such estimates are talking in the range of $45-60 billion. The New York City comptroller estimates that his city has been losing $200 million in halted economic activity alone each day since the storm.
A rational cost-benefit analysis ought to make more attention to this side of national security a no-brainer. It isn't, largely for two reasons, both of which have become more entrenched since Eisenhower's time. One is ideological antipathy to the idea that there are important things to do collectively that do not have to do with the military or with U.S. activities overseas but that are necessary to strengthen and secure the American economy and society, and that government, including the federal government, is essential for doing some of those things.
The other impediment is a diffusion of the concept of national security. We have lost sight of the core sense of securing the daily lives of Americans at home. We have substituted a notion of national security that has been broadened without apparent limit to embrace threats that in fact barely threaten ourselves, foreign conflicts in which the United States has no real stake, and nation-building in other people's nations rather than our own. This notion is a warping of the meaning of national security and is a huge distraction from much else that ought to concern us. It also is very, very costly.
Amid uncertainties over whether China's combination of authoritarian one-party rule and a rapidly evolving economy can persist, an academic at the Beijing Institute of Technology notes that many Chinese intellectuals wonder whether 70 years is about as long as any single party can remain in power. The wondering comes from looking at the examples of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party. Uninterrupted rule by the Chinese Communist Party will hit the 70-year mark in 2019.
There certainly is an unresolved tension between China's authoritarian politics and the vibrant entrepreneurial economics that Deng Xiaoping launched more than three decades ago. The tension mainly has to do with free market economics creating independent centers of power, and power inevitably having political implications. Maybe 70 years really is about as long as anyone can finesse a way through such contradictions.
Longevity per se is probably not the critical factor in bringing one-party rule to an end. It is longevity combined with an inability by the ruling party to overcome its founding myths and to stand convincingly for something that entails a bright and successful future and that has positive resonance with the alternative power centers and the general population.
The Chinese and Soviet Communist Parties and the Mexican PRI are revolutionary parties. A fundamental problem with a revolutionary party as a ruling party is that is that its raison d'etre is stuck in the past. The party exists because it was formed to overthrow something in the past, or in the case of the PRI to consolidate the results of a past revolution. Such a party finds it hard to change its identity, in its thinking about itself and the image it has among the public, to something much different that has to do with the future. In effect its new raison d'etre, if any, is just to perpetuate its own power.
For a demonstration of how a different kind of ruling party will not necessarily run up against a time limit, look at Singapore. Despite the difference in size, the ethnic Chinese character of Singapore may make it an apt comparison with China. Singapore is in effect a one-party state; the People's Action Party has governed Singapore without interruption since independence in 1965, and for several years before that when Singapore had self-government under British sovereignty. The PAP holds all but a handful of seats in the national legislature.
The PAP is not a revolutionary party. It convincingly stands for what makes Singapore the modern success story that it is: a stunningly successful entrepot that is far cleaner—both physically and in terms of avoiding corruption—than China and also gets high marks for commitment to the rule of law. What underlies the success and what the PAP stands for is a rational, pragmatic, legal approach to public affairs. Involved in that is a strong commitment to meritocracy. Recognition of the importance of government and of excellence in government for economic success is reflected in the compensation for ministers and senior bureaucrats being among the highest in the world.
The PAP still has several more years of rule before its 70-year mark. But it is a good bet that as it approaches that mark it will not—even if Singapore does not become appreciably more democratic than it is now—elicit the kinds of doubts that are being voiced now about the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Those doubts are expressed as China is about to transfer power to a new party chief who, whatever his talents, is a revolutionary princeling who represents ties with the past at least as much as the future.