We really should not need someone else's misfortune to remind us about some realities regarding terrorism and terrorist attacks. But reactions to recent incidents within the United States as well as some of the comments in this country about the attack in Norway indicate that we do. Here are some of the most important reminders:
1. Don't jump to quick conclusions about responsibility for an attack, let alone spin out instant analysis based on such conclusions. Such jumping has long been a feature of the immediate aftermath of terrorist incidents, with fingers quickly pointed at whoever are the bogeymen of the day. After the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, there were many comments to the effect that Serbs must have done it. Nowadays, of course, Muslim jihadists play that role. The hasty attributions of responsibility are partly a function of the pressure of the press to explain everything quickly, or to get comments from people who purport to be able to explain everything instantly. They also are partly the result of commentators pursing agendas, whether they concern defense budgets or anything else.
2. The threat that gets the most attention is not the only threat. Especially in the decade since 9/11, Americans have mistakenly tended to equate terrorism with the jihadist variety, or even more narrowly with a single jihadist group. This tendency has been taken so far that even ten years after 9/11, the White House can put out a document that it calls a counterterrorism strategy but is really a war on al-Qaeda strategy. The next significant terrorist attack to hit the United States might be a jihadist one, or it might be associated with right-wing ideologies having something in common with the accused terrorist in Norway, or it might be something else entirely. The Norway incident has resurrected the issue of how Rep. Peter King (R-NY) has chosen to focus his current series of hearings of the House Homeland Security Committee exclusively on Muslim extremism. King suggested that his committee should focus on Muslim terrorism and the Judiciary Committee was the better one to look at non-Muslim terrorism. Interesting division of responsibility—I didn't realize committee jurisdictions were split up that way.
3. Individual incidents are not necessarily indicative of larger trends. They might be, but not necessarily, because they depend on the happenstance of luck and of the initiative of very small numbers of individuals. What appears so far to be the case about the attacks in Norway is that they were the work either of Anders Behring Breivik alone or of Breivik aided by a couple of unnamed cells. (Remember: don't jump to conclusions about responsibility; the investigators still have work to do.) The infrequent, sporadic nature of individual attacks makes them very imperfect barometers of larger trends and phenomena, even if they are rooted in such phenomena. Right-wing extremism may very well be on the rise in Europe and pose a threat of more violence, but that would be the case whether or not Breivik existed and whether or not he carried out his attack.
4. Open societies are inherently vulnerable to terrorist attack and ultimately unprotectable. The United States is essentially the same as Norway in this respect, only larger. Security measures can raise the difficulties and lower the odds for terrorists hoping to hit certain especially attractive targets, but alternative targets are innumerable.
5. That a previously unknown individual (possibly with some help) could inflict so many casualties (more even than the 7/7 transit bombings in London) should put into perspective the limits of detection and prevention. It will be interesting to see what kind of finger-pointing ensues in Norway about failures to connect dots or respond to warning signs or whatever. My guess is that the Norwegians will take a more mature and realistic approach to assessing this incident than would Americans, who tend to think that if their government institutions are functioning properly they should be entirely incident-free.
Image by Johhanes Grodem
Several days ago a poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, conducted by the Stanley Greenberg organization on behalf of the Israel Project, generated a spurt of commentary about the hateful attitudes and nefarious intentions that the Palestinians supposedly have toward Israel. Benny Morris wrote a piece in these spaces, under the ominous title of “Eliminating Israel,” the main message of which was that most Palestinian Arabs aren't really interested in living in peace side-by-side with Israel but instead see any two-state agreement as only a stepping stone toward somehow doing away with Israel altogether and claiming all of mandatory Palestine for themselves. Morris argued that outsiders such as the U.S./U.N./E.U./Russia quartet should take this into account when considering “Netanyahu's fears regarding Palestinian leadership's real aims” in pressing for statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. Other commentaries also supportive of the Netanyahu government followed similar themes.
The first question one is entitled to ask about such commentary is: even if this accurately described Palestinian intentions, how could any Palestinian with at least half a brain see any way to accomplish such an objective? Even more to the point, how would establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which would be many times weaker than the State of Israel, bring Palestinians any closer to such an objective? If anything, creating a separate Palestinian state would appear to have the opposite effect. Everyone is familiar with the demographic trends showing that Arabs living in all the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will come to outnumber Jews. But if most of those Arabs became citizens of a separate state for Palestinian Arabs, Israel—which would have for the first time a fully recognized international border—would be secure in the prospect of retaining its Jewish majority and character as a Jewish state. All of this means that the notion of current Palestinian leaders having a “real aim” of eliminating Israel is preposterous.
Nonetheless, polling data that might appear to indicate the opposite warrants further scrutiny. Unfortunately, amid the burst of commentary about the supposedly nefarious aims of Palestinians I was unable, despite much searching, to find the poll itself. Finally later in the week the Israel Project, to its credit, provided a link to the poll. The overall picture it presents is one of a Palestinian population mostly concerned with trying to get on with their daily lives and understandably pessimistic about the prospects for any political breakthroughs that would affect them. Eighty-one percent of respondents, in what is probably an accurate perception, believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu “isn't really serious about wanting peace and supporting a two-state solution.” Remarkably, despite such pessimism, a negotiated peace agreement with Israel is still the strong Palestinian preference. Two-thirds of the respondents agreed with the statement that “it is possible to find peace with Israel” as opposed to a statement that “there is no hope of peace with Israel.” Two-thirds also agreed that it is “time for diplomatic engagement with Israel” rather than with a statement that it is time for “violent resistance” against Israel. In possibly the most remarkable indication of faith in bilateral negotiations despite the well-founded reasons for pessimism, a majority said they would still want the Palestinian Authority to go to the negotiating table even if it was on the basis of conditions laid down by Netanyahu that rule out any plan that divides Jerusalem or that involves settlement of any Palestinian refugees within Israel.
The pro-Netanyahu commentaries cherry-pick from the poll some results suggesting hostile attitudes toward Jews. Morris begins his piece with part of a quotation from a hadith (a saying of the Prophet Mohammed, which serves as a kind of explanatory supplement to the Koran) which is also quoted in the Hamas charter and that makes reference to killing Jews. This hadith is poetic scripture, with flowery language that also talks about such things as Gharkad trees and people hiding behind stones. As Morris correctly notes, the hadith is “well-known” and “accepted by Muslims as canonical and weighty.” Ninety-eight percent of the respondents in the poll were Sunni Muslims. Is it any surprise that when asked whether they agree with this bit of scripture associated with their faith, a majority (73 percent) would say yes? One could probably elicit similar responses to nasty-sounding bits of scripture associated with other faiths. Some passages of the Old Testament imply a pretty hostile attitude toward certain other peoples, and many adherents to the religions for which it is holy scripture would express agreement because it is holy scripture, without this implying anything about attitudes toward political problems of the present day. One could similarly extract from the New Testament some ostensibly hostile attitudes of Christians toward Jews. (If what Morris or any other commentator is saying is not just that Palestinian Arabs exhibit peculiar hostility but instead that any Muslim—a believer in the texts of Islam—is ipso facto dangerous and untrustworthy, then he should say that explicitly and his argument can be perceived and judged as such.)
Prune away the Gharkad trees and other poetry that elicits expressions of religious faith, and there was plenty else in the poll that more directly and effectively measures Palestinian attitudes toward present-day Israel. Another quotation from the Hamas charter that was not scripture and about which the poll asked was: “Peace initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement. There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad.” A plurality of respondents disagreed with that statement. There were numerous other questions about Hamas, which fared rather poorly in the poll, in the abstract as well as in comparison with Fatah or the Palestinian Authority.
Probably some of the responses to questions involving enmity toward Jews reflected the same kind of hateful prejudice that is present in many other countries as anti-Semitism. It is unlikely that most of the responses were that. Ninety-five percent of respondents in the Greenberg poll agreed with the statement that “all religions ought to be equally accepted and welcome in society.” The poll results make it clear that the respondents made little distinction between “Jews” and “Israelis,” and Israelis were thought of mostly as occupiers and those standing in the way of Palestinian self-determination. To the extent that resentments over that situation get expressed in agreement with negative statements about a religious or ethnic group, that cannot be excused but, given the bitterness surrounding the underlying conflict, neither should it be surprising.
One can find sentiments expressed in similar terms on the other side of this conflict. In a poll in 2006, for example, Jewish Israelis were asked, “How do you feel when you hear Arabic being spoken around you on the streets of Israel?” Thirty percent said they felt “hatred.” (This is another example of a poll question being subject to multiple interpretations. Does this mean hatred from Arab toward Jew, or the other way around? My guess is that some respondents interpreted it one way, some the other way, and for still others it didn't matter because they felt hatred in both directions.) In the same poll, 50 percent said they would refuse to work at a job in which the direct supervisor was an Arab. Such sentiments, expressed in purely ethnic terms, also cannot be excused but again are not surprising.
As for one-state versus two-state resolutions of the conflict, Leila Farsakh has an informative article on the subject in a recent issue of the Middle East Journal. She notes that the idea of Jews and Arabs living together in a single state in Palestine is an old one, proposed back in the 1920s and 1930s. But most Palestinians and Zionists alike rejected the idea as a compromise of the national aspirations of each. The concept of a one-state solution has more recently been the subject of renewed talk by scholars and activists, for the obvious reason that two decades of work on a two-state solution has come up empty. But all the old practical and political difficulties, which Farsakh reviews in detail, are still present, along with the obvious fact that Jewish national aspirations have been realized in the form of a strong and well-established state. As a result, Palestinians “at the official and grassroots levels,” notes Farsakh, doubt the feasibility of a one-state option, because of not only strong Israeli opposition but “more so out of fear of Israel's economic and political domination over the Palestinians within a single state.”
So what accounts for results in the Greenberg poll that, according to the commentators, suggest otherwise? It is an artifact of how portions of the poll were constructed, especially in forcing people to choose between two different statements that, even if logical alternatives, are not alternatives in terms of the sentiment and emotion that drive their responses. For example, respondents were asked to choose between the statements “Israel has a permanent right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people” and “Over time Palestinians must work to get back all the land for a Palestinian state.” “All” the land? Does this mean the occupied territories seized by Israel in the 1967 war, which is the territorial issue that has been debated for many years and has been the subject of nearly every conversation about Palestinians getting land back, or does it mean something more than that? With or without that ambiguity, think about how the average Palestinian, facing the clipboard-wielding interviewer, will react when asked to identify with one or the other of two sentences, one of which speaks of someone else's national aspirations and the other of which speaks about his own people's national aspirations. Naturally most Palestinians will choose the latter, the one that talks about getting land back for a state of their own. This is a simple expression of sentiment and priorities, not some scheme about making a two-state solution a device for wiping out Israel. It is hard to think of a more tendentious way to construct a survey question to generate fodder for commentators trying to argue that Palestinians don't accept Israel's right to exist.
Inconsistencies in responses to other questions in the Greenberg poll, even without reference to any other survey data or other evidence, vividly demonstrate how much the design of the questions shaped the results. For example, respondents had more than one opportunity to say whether they accepted a two-state solution. When asked a straight up-or-down question on their view about such a solution, there was almost twice as much support as when the question was made part of a two-statements comparison similar to the one just mentioned.
The seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict has generated all too much bitterness, animosity, and emotion-driven misperception on both sides. It is not helpful for supporters of one side to fancifully accuse the other side of grand, destructive plans that do not exist. In this case, the accusation serves only as one more excuse for the ruling coalition in Israel (some members of which are quite open about their intentions) to retain the West Bank—could we say “all the land”?—indefinitely and to keep Palestinian Arabs from ever having their own state.
Image by Hanini
Mickey Edwards, the former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, has in the current Atlantic a worthy set of recommendations to try to reduce the paralyzing partisan gridlock that infects American politics as a whole but especially the work of Congress. The posturing and bitterness over deficit reduction is only the most recent example. As Edwards puts it, our leaders have to try to govern “in a system that makes cooperation almost impossible and incivility nearly inevitable, a system in which the campaign season never ends and the struggle for party advantage trumps all other considerations.”
It is a system in which political parties have become too entrenched and too much a part of the institutional framework. In brief, they have become too powerful. The freedom to form and to join political parties and to use them as vehicles for aggregating, articulating and pursuing competing interests is unquestionably a major element of representative democracy. But in any list of what is dysfunctional in American democracy today, the most prominent entries would involve competition between, identification with and loyalty toward the major political parties.
Edwards reminds us of the Founding Fathers' antipathy toward parties and factions. He attributes the start of the growth of all-powerful parties to the introduction of closed primaries (and closed conventions) as means for choosing candidates. As Fareed Zakaria points out in a piece that also endorses Edwards's ideas, the evolution of American parties from their former more diverse, big-tent character to more ideologically pure entities—making them more like European parties—is what some political scientists hoped would happen. But the result is “abysmal,” says Zakaria, because unlike the parliamentary systems in which many of those European parties compete and enact their agendas before being judged again by the voters, the American system involves overlapping authorities of different institutions where nothing can get done unless the parties cooperate.
I believe there is another relevant difference from most of the European political systems that helps to explain not only the partisan impasses in the United States but also the bitterness and incivility that often goes with them. In countries with more deeply rooted class consciousness than America, even ideological purity does not keep partisans from accepting those in different parties with different viewpoints as legitimate parts of the political order, who are doing an able job of representing different interests. A person on the right looks at a political opponent on the left and does not see someone who is necessarily misguided or wrong, let alone evil, but rather as someone who is simply representing a different segment of society and a different set of interests. In America, where the sense of class and segmented society is weaker, opponents in the other party are more often seen as misguided and wrong, and maybe even evil. As the columnist Paul Krugman has repeatedly observed, this outlook is especially to be found today within the Republican Party, some members of which regard Barack Obama's presence in the White House as somehow not entirely legitimate or entirely American. And that outlook leads to giving higher priority to the fortunes of the party than to the broader national interest.
Edwards's two biggest recommendations are to take the selection of general election candidates out of the hands of party members alone (such as through primaries that select the two top vote-getters without regard to party affiliation), and to attack gerrymandering by having nonpartisan commissions draw Congressional district boundaries. He also has some lesser recommendations involving procedures within Congress. The destructive partisan attitudes that are so much in evidence today are too deeply rooted to be eliminated quickly through procedural reforms, but implementation of Edwards's ideas would go a long way toward making the American political system more effective.
Press treatment of the story about Pakistani government funding of a Kashmiri lobbying organization seems to have less to do with lobbying than with the identity of the particular government involved and the temperature of relations between it and Washington. The report is one more in a series of stories over the past several months—including the Raymond Davis affair, the unilateral raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and much more—of an ever-worsening U.S.-Pakistani relationship. An extra angle is the involvement of the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, which is probably in at least as bad odor in the United States as any other part of Pakistani officialdom. Against this background, the dominant U.S. view of the announcement regarding the Kashmiri lobbyists is reflected in the print headlines in the mainstream press. The Washington Post refers to a “Pakistani spy front.” The New York Times mentions a Pakistani “plot.” But there does not appear to have been any espionage involved. And the activity in question was a plot only in the sense that any lobbying effort can be described as a “plot” to try to influence policy.
The Pakistanis do not seem to have gotten much for their effort. U.S. policy toward the Kashmir dispute has for years been the mild, non-activist one of saying the conflict is one for India and Pakistan to resolve, with due regard for the preferences of the people of Kashmir. It would be politically unrealistic (whether or not it was unreasonable on other grounds) to expect anything more. On any matter that pits Pakistan against India, the Pakistanis have to go up against a formidable India lobby, whose effectiveness is rooted in the size, wealth, and activism of the Indian-American community. Pakistani government funding of the Kashmiri lobbying organization was reportedly $700,000 per year, which is little more than chump change compared to the most potent domestic lobbies that work Capitol Hill.
The federal indictment that was announced Wednesday, with the arrest of a Washington-based official of the Kashmiri group, was for violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. This law, which requires those acting in a political or quasi-political capacity as agents of a foreign principal (which could be, but is not limited to, a foreign government) to put themselves on a list kept by the Department of Justice. The law has a legitimate and important purpose in facilitating transparency and making it easier to judge the motivations of those trying to influence U.S. policy. But whether or not a prosecutable case against a lobbyist can be assembled under the FARA is not the same as whether or not the lobbyist is exerting pressure on policymakers in the legislative or executive branch on behalf of a foreign government. Some of the strongest and most effective lobbying on behalf of foreign governments is done not by someone being bankrolled directly by the government in question and thus clearly an “agent,” but instead by lobbyists supported by others who strongly sympathize with the foreign government. That is true of most of what constitutes the India lobby, which thus escapes the “agent” designation. And it is true for the most part of the pro-foreign government lobby that runs circles around all of the others and that even ranks up with domestic lobbying powerhouses such as the NRA and AARP in its impact and effectiveness: the lobby that works on behalf of the Israeli government.
If one looks beyond the literal requirements of the FARA and considers the sound purpose that the act is intended to advance, there is a lot of lobbying on behalf of foreign interests that is never explicitly acknowledged because it is beyond the reach of that law. We are talking about a legal distinction that is a distinction without a difference as far as the public interest is concerned. Whether a lobbyist is paid directly by a foreign government or paid by others within the United States who are providing their support to advance the interests of that same government, the impact is the same. In each case, pressure is being exerted on U.S. policy, and it is being exerted on behalf of a foreign interest. So one way to lobby while not getting arrested is to avoid the sort of direct bankroll relationship that tripped up the Kashmiri lobbyists.
There is another way, which is to use institutional subterfuges and the sheer clout of the lobby itself to escape prosecution under the FARA. The Israel lobby has managed to do this. Today's American Israel Political Action Committee has its origins in the lobbying arm of a predecessor organization, the American Zionist Council, which was directly funded by the Jewish Agency of Israel. In the early 1960s the AZC came under pressure from the Kennedy Justice Department to register under the FARA. The issue became the subject of an inquiry by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by J. William Fulbright. Shortly after this pressure began, the chief AZC lobbyist established an ostensibly new and separate organization, which was AIPAC. Sometimes the issue has arisen whether AIPAC itself ought to register under the FARA, but each time the lobby's own political power—greater now than in Senator Fulbright's time—has been sufficient to stifle any moves in that direction. An objective inquiry into this subject such as Fulbright initiated would be unthinkable on Capitol Hill today.
Just as there is little correlation between lobbying that comes under the terms of the FARA and lobbying that effectively pressures U.S. policymakers, so too there is little correlation between being prosecuted under that law and having major and possibly deleterious effects on U.S. interests. Even if the Kashmiri lobbyists who have been indicted had been successful in tilting U.S. policy toward Kashmir more in the direction of Pakistan's position, the effects on U.S. interests would have paled compared to the damage that has come from the United States being so closely associated with the policies of a single Middle Eastern government that clings to land seized through military conquest and that accordingly accepts a perpetual state of hostility with its neighbors. We are reminded of some of that damage in James Zogby's latest poll of Arab attitudes, which delivered depressingly low numbers for the standing of the United States in the region and identified as a top reason for those low numbers the “continuing occupation of Palestinian lands.”
A recurring type of incident that has inflicted casualties on U.S. and other NATO forces in Afghanistan has been the shooting of coalition troops by Afghan army soldiers with whom they are supposed to be collaborating. I'm not talking about assaults by unknown individuals wearing army uniforms, who may be part of a Taliban operation in which purloined uniforms were used to get better access to the target. I am referring instead to incidents in which the attackers were undeniably government soldiers, manning the same outpost or base as the coalition troops who became their victims. Such incidents so far have accounted for only a small number of NATO casualties, but they are an especially distressing way to incur any casualty at all. They constitute a discouraging statement about lack of trust between allies and about the extent of resentment from coalition operations.
The incidents also reflect a larger and longer-standing pattern within Afghanistan, in which loyalties often are little more than skin-deep. Throughout the different phases of the long-running Afghan civil war, stretching back to when the Soviets were fighting there, changing alliances and switching sides have been common. Often entire militias rather than just individual fighters have done the switching. The allegiances of the moment reflect deals that have been struck, as well as resentments or debts that have been incurred.
This means that the timetables for expanding Afghan government forces and turning over security responsibilities to them have a fragile and almost artificial quality. Much as we would like to think of this process as irreversible, in which the government forces will be providers of stability and order as staunch as the coalition forces they replace, it is not. Afghans, including ones wearing a uniform, will continue to shift allegiances according to the politics and deals of the day. And this will be true no matter how long the timetable lasts and when it is that coalition forces come home.
The current issue of the journal International Security has a couple of articles with interesting insights on the unwise use of military force. The insights are particularly relevant to—although this is not the subject of either article—the most likely unwise use of military force that would damage U.S. interests in the foreseeable future: an attack by either Israel or the United States against Iran in the name of setting back the Iranian nuclear program. The possibility that such folly would be committed, especially by the current Israeli government, keeps getting mentioned and even predicted.
One of the articles, by the Norwegian scholar Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, revisits the Israeli attack against the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, making use of materials unavailable before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Braut-Hegghammer's conclusion is that the Israeli attack was counterproductive, for two sets of reasons. One concerned the state of the Iraqi nuclear program at the time of the attack, which was basically drifting and, although providing some of the technological base that possibly could have been used in the future toward acquiring nuclear weapons, was not geared up to produce such weapons. The political momentum to develop a weapons option was “inconsistent at best.” The Osirak reactor itself was not well designed for purposes of supporting a weapons program. The International Atomic Energy Agency later assessed that visual verification and materials accounting would have detected any diversion to a weapons program. On-site French engineers constituted an additional safeguard. Saddam Hussein had not “secured the basic organizational resources or budget.” Iraqi pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was “both directionless and disorganized.”
The other set of reasons involved the Iraqi response to the Israeli attack, which was to establish for the first time a nuclear weapons program that not only had direction and organization but also was clandestine and kept away from international scrutiny. As Braut-Hegghammer summarizes the response:
The Israeli attack on Osirak created a window of opportunity for Iraqi nuclear entrepreneurs to persuade Saddam to establish a nuclear weapons program. First, the violation of Iraqi sovereignty created a strategic imperative to respond. Second, the attack refocused Saddam's inconsistent attention on the issue of nuclear weapons.
The resulting clandestine program to build nuclear weapons using enriched uranium as the fissile material accelerated through the 1980s and brought Iraq much closer to a nuclear-weapons capability than could have been projected from anything Iraq was doing prior to the Israeli attack.
The other article, by Dominic D.P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney and titled “The Rubicon Theory of War: How the Path to Conflict Reaches the Point of No Return,” examines why decision makers who may have carefully calculated costs and risks and been wary of going to war when war did not seem imminent become less careful when on the eve of conflict. The authors ground their explanation in a finding from experimental psychology that people shift from a “deliberative” mind-set before deciding to take an action to an “implemental” mind-set after their decision. The latter frame of mind entails several psychological biases, including closed-mindedness, biased processing of information, cognitive dissonance, self-serving evaluations, an illusion of control and excessive optimism, all of which add up to overconfidence. Expectations for what can be accomplished through armed force get inflated, and the costs and challenges of the coming war get less attention. The authors apply their concept to prewar situations, including the months leading up to World War I. They point out that the shift to the biased “implemental” way of thinking occurs whenever war seems inevitable, regardless of whether the decision makers in question are initiating the war or have it forced on them. The whole dynamic can help to make the prediction of war a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This set of findings is worrisome given all the talk about “no other option left” or “Israel may be forced [sic] to act” as applied to the paranoia about Iranian nuclear activities. Much of the discourse about this subject already seems to blend prediction with prescription. The psychological mechanism that Johnson and Tierney describe accentuates further the danger that acceptance of launching a war with Iran, as a reasonable and even likely option, will become a costly self-fulfilling prediction. Apply also the lesson of 1981, and the predictive-prescriptive talk becomes not only self-fulfilling and highly costly but also counterproductive. Most of the relevant attributes of Iraq's situation back then are present as well today with Iran. To the extent they are different—such as the larger and more dispersed nature of Iranian nuclear facilities, making them harder to knock out without a much larger attack, and maybe not even with a larger attack—only amplifies the counterproductivity.
The military intervention in Libya continues to be bad news for counterterrorism, in multiple respects. Perhaps most directly but not necessarily most importantly is the opportunity for Libyan extremists to make inroads within their own country, amid political vacuums and overall turmoil. Although the Transitional National Council has established itself sufficiently and said enough reassuring things to win recognition from the United States, uncertainty abounds about who and what lurks on the anti-Qaddafi side of the Libyan civil war. The uncertainty is especially worrying given the disproportionate representation of Libyans from the rebellious eastern part of the country in the ranks of transnational terrorists. And this at a time when Qaddafi's regime, which had been the principal partner of the United States in keeping tabs on those Libyan terrorists, is of course no longer partnering.
Then there are the demonstration effects of the events in Libya—the lessons those outside the country are drawing. These include the confirmation that, in the eyes of many Muslims, the Western intervention gives to the extremist narrative about how the West uses military force with abandon in ways that inflict casualties and damage on Muslims. Most important, the demonstration effects include the lessons that other regimes have been drawing. Given that the ruler the intervention is intended to topple gave up terrorism (and his unconventional weapons programs) in an agreement with the United States and Britain eight years ago, the very strong lesson to other regimes (as I have discussed earlier and Dov Zakheim recently reminded us in these spaces) is that the word of the United States is not to be trusted and the regimes would be foolish to agree to give up terrorism or weapons of mass destruction or anything else.
Now there is a third dimension of the bad counterterrorist news coming out of Libya, which is the dispersal of terrorist-friendly materiel. Bunkers full of man-portable air defense missiles, or MANPADS, that were lost to government control have been looted, and unknown numbers of the weapons have made it outside Libya to destinations similarly unknown. MANPADS have long been one of the most worrisome forms of conventional ordnance from a counterterrorist point of view, because of the potential to use them against civilian aircraft. It was because of this worry that the United States went to extraordinary lengths after the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan to try to retrieve or account for the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that it had provided the Afghan mujahedin. It looks like terrorists with thoughts of shooting down airliners have a new source of supply.
There are multiple reasons the intervention to try to oust Qaddafi, and the intensification of the Libyan civil war that the intervention entailed, was a mistake. The blows that have been struck against counterterrorism are among them.
Chris Preble's piece about fragile and reversible gains provides excellent insight into a frequently heard theme in discourse concerning military expeditions overseas, and into how arguments to extend those expeditions often stray from a sober consideration of the costs and benefits of doing so. The yearning to go beyond minimal accomplishment of military objectives and to try to achieve something grander and more lasting is partly rooted in universal human psychology, such as the disinclination to treat sunk costs as truly sunk. Preble even refers to Pericles as having voiced one of the themes in question. The tendency to keep stretching for absolute, irreversible victories is, however, disproportionately American. The tendency is more pronounced among Americans than among others for reasons related to the unique circumstances and history of the United States.
Living in a peculiarly powerful and successful republic makes it easier to believe that the nation really can achieve absolute, irreversible victories. Sure, the United States has had failures, including some really big ones such as the Vietnam War. But even that costly failure, given the passage of time and of generations and the attitudinal balm of a splendid victory such as Operation Desert Storm—the reversal in 1991 of the Iraqi seizure of Kuwait—has not prevented restoration of hubristic optimism about what the United States can use its power to accomplish. One of the reactions to Desert Storm—specifically, the neoconservative reaction—featured once again the idea that accomplishment of a limited military aim is not enough and that the United States should go for the gold. Reversing Saddam Hussein's aggression was not enough to sate the neocons' hunger for something grander in the Middle East, involving the elimination of Saddam altogether. And that hunger, coupled with an arrogant belief in the ability to accomplish a big irreversible victory, led to another costly military misadventure a decade later.
Another aspect of America's involvement with the world that has shaped the attitude Preble has described has been an episodic history in which the United States from time to time has sallied forth to vanquish the foreign menace du jour, and between sallies has retired behind its ocean moats to enjoy normalcy. The idea that the sallies should accomplish something lasting and preferably irreversible flows naturally from the whole vanquish-then-relax concept of using military force to deal with foreign threats. The same frame of mind does not get found in lesser countries around the world, where foreign threats must be handled through continuous management rather than episodic efforts.
The policy elites who write about fragile, reversible gains in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan do not necessarily anticipate a period of relaxation. In fact, the agenda of some of them may include an unending military presence in such places, including permanent bases. But the American mindset to which their words appeal is one that believes with just a little more effort, we can get over the last hump of whatever campaign we are waging, get rid of once and for all whatever problem or threat we are confronting, and go home a winner.
The mindset shapes American attitudes and responses on many different problems. When Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently declared that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda,” his comment got attention partly because it appealed to the same mindset. Mr. Panetta himself is not part of that mindset, and his remark, made during a visit to Afghanistan, probably was intended partly as support for his president's troop withdrawal decisions. Most of Mr. Panetta's predecessors are not part of the mindset either; Donald Rumsfeld correctly reminded us that besting international terrorism will not involve a surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri. But for many in the American public—which already oversimplifies the topic by equating terrorism with Al Qaeda—such a remark raises the hope that with a little more effort, we can do away with the threat altogether. This perception was further encouraged by Secretary Panetta's elaboration that the United States is now focusing on 10 to 20 key leaders of Al Qaeda. Hearing this, it is easy for Americans to believe that if we can just get those last 10 or 20 bad guys, the terrorist threat will be wiped out, just as smallpox or rinderpest was wiped out when the last few cases were found and dealt with.
Being a superpower with a history as exceptional as that of the United States means carrying certain burdens. The purveyors of the “we have to stay the course so that fragile gains will not be reversed” concept see one of those burdens as, well, staying the course in things such as foreign wars. A less commonly understood burden is having the cognitive limitation that leads many Americans to believe mistakenly that staying a course really can achieve irreversibility.
Amid debate and discussion in the United States about the war in Afghanistan, relatively little has been said during the last couple of years about Afghanistan's continued role as the preeminent producer of poppy used to make heroin. That is not surprising, given the salience of the issues of troop levels and military strategy. Quil Lawrence of NPR directs our attention back to the drug problem with a report that highlights how any reduction in foreign economic assistance will tend to increase the incentive for Afghan farmers to grow poppy. A reduction in economic aid would represent a separate set of decisions from those governing military strategy and resources, and the two need not move as much in tandem as Lawrence's report may suggest. Nonetheless, he is right to anticipate a resurrection of the issue.
The objectives of counterinsurgency and counternarcotics have always conflicted. Simply put, eradicating poppy fields may serve the latter objective but undermines the former because it antagonizes farmers who see poppy growing as their best chance of making a living and therefore makes it all the harder to win hearts and minds. A farmer who has had his fields wiped out by the government (or foreign forces) is one more potential recruit for the Taliban. The NATO policy has basically been to favor the counterinsurgency objective and to let the poppies grow. Given what has been most pressing and most costly for the West, that was probably the right decision. But we have to remember the whole package, drugs and all, in any net assessment of success and failure in Afghanistan and how events there affect interests elsewhere.
The underlying economics and the incentives they shape are basically the same no matter who is running Afghanistan. Once when the Taliban was still in control of most of the country they made a big show of prohibiting poppy growing. The ban only lasted a year, during which time it served the Taliban's purposes of winning some anti-drug applause while helping the Taliban gain control of the market and greatly increasing the value of the Taliban's own stocks of opium. As long as infrastructure in Afghanistan is what it is and farmers find it hard to grow and bring to market profitably alternative crops that are of higher bulk and lower value, they will grow poppy.
So expect the drug issue as it relates to Afghanistan to regain prominence, either during the drawdown of U.S. troops or after. It will be an issue even if the highest hopes for the counterinsurgency, and for what kind of political and security structure it will leave behind, were to materialize.
Image by Stephen D. Bennett
The argument that, more than any other, Israel and its self-declared friends have repeatedly relied upon to justify to American audiences the extraordinary relationship with the United States that Israel enjoys is the idea that Israel, unlike other Middle Eastern states, shares with Americans liberal democratic values. The argument always has had a protest-too-much quality, because for a long time it has not been necessary to scratch very far beneath the surface to see a major divergence of values. There is the fact that a state that is defined in terms of religious affiliation, and in which rights of citizenship vary according to religious or ethnic identity, is quite different from the American concept of liberal democracy. And more blatantly, there is the indefinite deprivation of fundamental political rights for a subject population under Israeli occupation and control.
The Arab Spring has shown a brighter light on the divergence in values, which is one of the reasons the Israeli government has been very nervous about this region-wide phenomenon. Not only have the demands for popular sovereignty in Arab countries highlighted the deprivation of popular sovereignty for Palestinian Arabs; to the extent that democracy emerges in any Arab countries, it undercuts the old we're-the-only-democracy-in-the-Middle-East argument that repeatedly gets served up to Americans.
Amid these events, the Israeli government and its defenders have displayed increased rhetorical desperation, such as in promoting the notion that the world is full of people out to “delegitimize” Israel—a notion that, as Henry Siegman points out, is groundless. The desperation is now extending beyond rhetoric to laws and actions, and in an ultimately ironic and tragic way that undermines whatever commonality of values with America Israel otherwise could still honestly claim. Recently there was the exclusion of foreign activists (who were coming through Israel only because the West Bank doesn't have its own airport) who gave every indication that their intention was peaceful expression of dissent in the occupied territory.
Much more stunning is the enactment by the rightist majority in the Knesset of a law that bans, as a punishable offense, any public call for a boycott of either Israel or its West Bank settlements. This not only is a major blow against free expression on a wide range of issues. It also takes to a new extreme the conflation—which permeates the “delegitimization” notion—of attitudes toward Israel (and its right to exist) with attitudes toward Israeli occupation policies, including especially the colonization of the West Bank with settlements. It is now illegal for anyone within the reach of Israeli law to recommend exercising free choice in buying or not buying certain goods and services, and to make that choice in a way that expresses disapproval of those occupation policies. It is hard to imagine a step any more directly antithetical to American concepts of liberal democracy and political and economic freedom.
In the ever-lengthening record of self-destructive Israeli policies, this is one of the more destructive ones. It ought to make even Israel's more reflexive defenders in the United States wince. And even if the old reliable elements of political power and non-value affinities come through again to keep the extraordinary relationship in place, there is even more direct damage inside Israel to the values that many Israelis—including liberals who are criticizing the action the Knesset took Monday—thought their country stood for.
Image by Joshua Paquin