During a hearing Monday to consider pre-trial motions before the military tribunal at Guantanamo that is handling the case of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other defendants charged with perpetrating the 9/11 attacks, the audio and video feeds that run from the courtroom to media rooms and are the only way for the outside world to follow the proceedings were mysteriously interrupted for several minutes. No one who is saying anything to the outside world seems to know the reason for the interruption. The colonel who is the presiding judge seemed not to know on Monday. A member of the prosecution team said she does know but, with the cameras and microphones back on, would not explain. The following day the judge seemed satisfied with whatever explanation he apparently got, but he wasn't talking either.
The mysterious electronic gap is a fitting sample of much that is strange about the detention facility at Guantanamo and what goes on there. Part of the strangeness is about Guantanamo itself; other parts are about things that are centered at, or symbolized by Guantanamo, including the basis for indefinite detention of people suspected of involvement in terrorism and the military tribunal system used to try some of them.
What is odd about the facility itself is its anomalous legal status, being on a U.S. military base with a long-term lease from Cuba. Decision-makers in the George W. Bush administration selected the place to establish a detention center that would be as much as possible out of the reach of anyone's law. The Supreme Court has frustrated whatever hope there may have been to keep it entirely outside the reach of the law, but the anomaly of the place continues to be a basis for the legal uncertainty of much of what goes on there.
One of the latest of the many legal uncertainties about the military tribunal system concerns whether it can be used to try defendants for anything other than crimes of war. There is disagreement about whether prosecutors can bring to a tribunal conspiracy charges of the sort that can certainly be brought in a civilian court. The Department of Justice says they can; the military judge in charge of the tribunals says they can't (while adding that this very disagreement demonstrates the tribunals' independence and by implication their fairness). Besides the uncertainty, there is an irony given how members of Congress who have forced the handling of terrorism cases out of the civilian courts and into military tribunals may have thought that this tough handling of the subject as “war” would mean greater power and freedom to punish terrorists without prosecutors' jobs being complicated by all the rules of evidence and whatnot that civilian courts have. With regard to something like the use of conspiracy charges, the move to military tribunals means less, not more, flexibility in what prosecutors can do.
Also in the news this week is the administration's announcement that the State Department official who has been charged with negotiating new custody arrangements for Guantanamo prisoners is being reassigned without being replaced. This move is being interpreted as a tacit admission by the Obama administration that it will not realize its goal of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo, although officially the administration says that is still the goal. Failure to meet that goal is partly due to facing the reality of each detainee's case being different and many of them being complicated. The failure is in large part due again to Congress, which has restricted movement of detainees both to the United States and to some of the key foreign countries. Thus another irony: the actions of those who think in terms of a “war on terror” with a beginning and an end have laid the basis for a supposedly temporary detention system that will have no end.
President Obama recently appointed former prosecutor Mary Jo White to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. As U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, White's office successfully prosecuted several of the highest profile terrorism cases—the experience that most refutes some of the chief arguments made in favor of reliance on the military tribunal system. Although at the SEC White will be a regulator rather than a prosecutor, the administration's evident hope and message in making this appointment is that Wall Street crooks will face effective punishment. Maybe the United States will handle the cases of such crooks with greater rationality, consistency and effectiveness than it seems to be handling the cases of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo.
The longer the impasse over Iran's nuclear program continues, the more evident are the similarities in how the American and Iranian bodies politic react to such confrontations. The similarities between the United States and Iran that are involved in this matter actually go beyond the negotiating stalemate itself and involve some of the false assumptions that have made the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon seem like such a big frightening deal in the first place. One of those assumptions is that turban-wrapped Iranian heads work in a fundamentally different way from unwrapped Western heads, in that they are more concerned about an afterlife and less susceptible to being deterred in the current life. In fact, the behavior of Iranian leaders gives no support for that assumption; the principles of deterrence apply as much to them as to American or other leaders. The turbaned heads work in basically the same way in that regard as unturbaned ones.
Now the negotiating difficulties are putting on display other similarities between Iranians and Americans. A round of negotiations between Iran and the United States and its P5+1 partners that had been expected to be convened about now has not done so, as the two sides dicker over agendas and venues. The Iranians have been the more troublesome side lately, going back and forth on the question of a venue even though the P5+1 seem willing to meet just about anywhere. So we are hearing again on the American side familiar expressions of doubt as to whether the Iranians really want to negotiate an agreement. Those doubts are mirrored on the Iranian side, which has been given plenty of reason to question whether the United States and its Western partners really want to negotiate an agreement. Although the P5+1 are flexible about where to talk, they continue to be inflexible regarding the subject about which Iran has the most reason to talk, which is how to gain relief from economic sanctions. The P5+1 have put no proposal on the table that includes any significant sanctions relief, and the indications are that they have no intention of making any such proposal in the next round.
The P5+1's inflexibility very likely is the main factor underlying the diplomatic dance that the Iranians are doing right now and that is delaying the convening of a new round of talks. The Iranians may not want to be blamed if a new round is seen as a failure, which it would be if the inflexibility about sanctions continues. The Iranians may also see dickering over the terms for convening the next round as one of their few attention-getting ways of expressing displeasure over that inflexibility. Trita Parsi assesses that Tehran is probably miscalculating if it thinks it will be blamed and criticized more for participating in talks that fail than for not talking at all. That assessment may be correct, but it leads to another U.S.-Iranian similarity. Americans have repeatedly shown an affinity for the notion (U.S. policies toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict provide an obvious, but by no means the only, example of this) that trying to negotiate and falling short is worse than not negotiating at all, no matter how much the underlying problem continues to fester. Now the Iranians are showing a bit of the same tendency.
Then there is the trait that Iranians and Americans share with not only each other but also many other nationalities: the belief that showing toughness is the key to successful bargaining. The American side has repeatedly displayed that belief with the piling on of sanctions on top of sanctions and all the tough talk about the military option, in addition to the negotiating inflexibility regarding sanctions relief. On the Iranian side, an additional reason for the current balking about convening a new round of negotiations may be to show toughness—to send a message that Iran is not hurting so much from sanctions that it is anxious to strike a deal. Ali-Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to the Iranian supreme leader, tried to send such a message when he said on Saturday, "Today, the United States is weaker than the time when it attacked Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran is currently far stronger than Iraq and Afghanistan."
As a negotiating process drags out with fits and starts and interruptions, one hears more questioning about whether the other side is trying to drag it out indefinitely. This entails another similarity between the two sides, one related to underestimation of the opposite side's willingness to cut a deal. One has already heard lots of talk in the United States about how maybe Iran is just trying to drag out negotiations to give those centrifuges more time to spin and to get closer to being able to construct a nuclear weapon on short notice. A mirror image concern among Iranians—who are hurting from the sanctions and who also have heard plenty of talk in the United States about regime change—is that the United States is just trying to drag out negotiations to give the sanctions time to have even more of an effect, leading perhaps to severe political instability and a toppling of the Iranian regime. The inflexibility of the P5+1's negotiating posture regarding sanctions lends credibility to this hypothesis in Iranian eyes.
The late Paul Warnke, who was the chief arms control negotiator in Jimmy Carter's administration, wrote an article in 1975 that was a critique of the U.S.-Soviet arms race and was titled, “Apes on a Treadmill.” Warnke saw the two superpowers as waging an endless competition that was not in either country's interest and argued that the United States should take the first step off the treadmill. There are many differences, of course, between the U.S.-Soviet competition in strategic arms and the current confrontation between the United States and Iran. The most obvious one, apart from Iran being nothing close to a superpower, is that on the Iranian side there are no nuclear weapons, the regime says it does not want such weapons, and the U.S. intelligence community says the regime has not decided to build such weapons. The nuclear weapons most involved are the ones owned by Israel, which wants to preserve its regional nuclear weapons monopoly.
One might try to dismiss Warnke's perspective of the mid-1970s by arguing that in the 1980s, the intensified arms race that Ronald Reagan declared contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. One might carry that reasoning further by arguing that sanctions on Iran today are the analogue to Reagan's arms race. Far too much is problematic in such arguments, if not the first part about the USSR then certainly the second part about the political effects of sanctions, to accept them as valid. But in the meantime, if such reasoning were the basis for U.S. strategy and posture, it would only confirm Tehran's suspicions about the real U.S. objectives, further discouraging Iran from making concessions and probably precluding a negotiated agreement.
In a less substantively specific and more metaphorical sense, the current U.S.-Iranian relationship bears much resemblance to Warnke's apes on a treadmill. It may be easy to find aspects of Iranian behavior that appear obstinate and apelike, but hold up a mirror and one will see very similar aspects on the other side. Some of the attitudes are deeply engrained in habitual ways of looking at foreign confrontations and would be hard to change. But taking a step the United States has not yet taken—using sanctions for their declared purpose as leverage in obtaining a negotiated agreement—would make such an agreement possible and would be a step off the treadmill.
There appears to be no end in sight to the fixation on the lethal incident last year in Benghazi, Libya and to the determination to wring as much recrimination from it as possible. The topic demonstrates how much an issue launched and exploited during the heat of an election campaign can continue as a national distraction well after the election has come and gone. One might have thought that Secretary of State Clinton's swan-song Congressional testimony this week would mark the end of this preoccupation, but that now seems unlikely. Anyone with an interest in undermining the political prospects of this once-and-possible-future presidential candidate, or of the administration she has been serving the past four years, has an interest in keeping the issue going.
I addressed last fall the principles that need to be borne in mind when thinking about an incident such as the one in Benghazi. I am pleased to note that the director of national intelligence—who does not have a dog in the partisan political fight that has become a subtext of this issue—agrees with my observations enough to have incorporated them explicitly into a speech. The principles remain valid.
The State Department's accountability review board has completed its study of the incident, has issued its report, and has had all of its recommendations accepted by the secretary of state. If this does not bring closure to the matter for anyone who has a straightforward, non-political, non-recrimination-driven concern about the incident, it is hard to imagine what would or should bring such closure.
Given the shape that the preoccupation and associated rhetoric about this incident has taken, we also should note that the fixation on it has a couple of longer term costs.
One of them comes under the heading of the perfect being the enemy of the good. The zero-incident standard that is implied by much of the rhetoric—and that is implied by the discourse that habitually follows many terrorist incidents—risks impeding government operations in ways that outweigh whatever good can be done by pursuing the unattainable goal of zero incidents. In the case of the events in Libya, the impeding has to do with the unavoidable trade-off between diplomats and other foreign-based U.S. officials doing their jobs energetically and effectively, and keeping those same officials secure from those who might do them harm. The longer and louder are the recriminations about Benghazi, the more that future secretaries of state and those who work for them will respond by low-risk approaches that keep their people relatively safe behind the high walls of fortress-like embassies, at the expense of doing their jobs effectively. The resulting damage to U.S. foreign policy can take many forms, including damage to counterterrorism.
Another cost concerns the common-knowledge narrative that seems to be emerging about what led to the attack in Benghazi. The narrative is simply that a terrorist group plotted the attack and that other circumstances, including an inflammatory anti-Islam video that was receiving much attention at the time, had nothing to do with it. That narrative is incorrect as well as damaging, notwithstanding all the laborious reconstructions about this particular attack not growing out of a popular demonstration. Terrorist attacks rarely grow out of popular demonstrations, but popular anger has a great deal to do with stimulating terrorism, providing a permissive environment for it, and increasing the pool of angry people who may resort to or be recruited into terrorism. Anti-U.S. terrorism correlates with people being angry about things associated with America, including unofficial things such as the offensive video and official policies and actions. Failure to understand that connection encourages the unproductive view that countering terrorism is just a matter of eradicating a fixed roster of terrorist groups; making that view the basis for policy increases the chance of more Americans becoming victims of terrorism.
Image: Flickr/Mr. Theklan. CC BY-SA 2.0.
A downbeat report in the Washington Post about events in Egypt starts by observing: “Egypt’s disparate opposition groups remain so divided that analysts and activists say they risk losing the last major decision-making body in the country to Islamists when the country votes in upcoming parliamentary elections.” This message, and the consternation that seems to go with it, says at least as much about our own way of looking at domestic divisions and political competition in a country such as Egypt as it does about how the people in those countries look at those things. The Islamist-vs.-secular dimension has become for us an all-purpose lens through which we seem to view just about everything going on not only in Egypt but also in several other Middle Eastern countries, especially ones buffeted most by the turbulence of the Arab Spring.
Yes, the Islamist/secular dimension is salient for many Egyptians, but it is only one dimension of many. The Post article describes various other ones, which account for that intra-opposition division that is the subject of the article. There are differences over economic policy, for example, with leftists being opposed to a loan from the International Monetary Fund (presumably because of the conditions that would be attached to the loan) and free-market liberals having different views. Americans differ over economic policy all the time; why can't Egyptians?
One could just as easily use the same lens—but generally we don't—in viewing political competition next door in Israel, where they just had an election. There is a religious/secular divide in Israel, too, with the political religionists there having some remarkable similarities to their Islamist counterparts in Egypt and other nearby Muslim-majority countries. This is not the only political divide, however, that matters in Israel. Some of us viewing Israeli politics from afar might want to use a different lens, colored in terms of things that concern us such as policy toward the Palestinians or toward Iran. But those issues appear to have played even less of a role in the just-concluded Israeli election campaign. Relying solely on either of these lenses would preclude a good understanding of Israeli politics.
In Egypt there are legitimate concerns about some of what President Mohamed Morsi has done and thus concerns about opposition to him being divided, but this is not just an Islamist-vs.-secular thing. One should be concerned about some of his moves that appear to be in an authoritarian direction, but there is nothing specifically Islamist about those moves. (They resemble some of the tactics used by his predecessor, the very secular Hosni Mubarak.) There also is Morsi's past objectionable language about Israel, but again there is nothing Islamist about it. (One can hear similar invective about Israel from most parts of the Egyptian political spectrum.)
It is true that in some circumstances, given how some electoral laws work, divisions of the sort the Post article describes can have major consequences for who rules a country and for that country's stability and welfare. One of the leading examples in modern times was a presidential election in Chile in 1970. Probably the most salient political division in Chile at the time was between Marxists and non-Marxists. The non-Marxist camp was divided, and the election was a three-way race among the Marxist Salvador Allende, a Christian Democrat, and a conservative. Probably either of the latter two candidates would have defeated Allende in a head-to-head race, but in the three-way contest Allende barely got first place with less than 37 percent of the vote. The election was sent to the Chilean legislature, but it simply followed its tradition of awarding the presidency to the first-place finisher. So Allende became president, and the rest—including Augusto Pinochet's coup and rule by a military junta—is history.
Similar circumstances are not prevailing today in Egypt, but the main point is that we cannot understand well what is going on there, and anticipate what can go well or poorly there, by reducing everything to a struggle between Islamists and secularists.
Nor should we necessarily be unhappy about the sorts of divisions described in the article. Political scientists have a word for those sorts of cross-cutting divisions in which people may be natural allies on some issues but opponents on others. It's called pluralism. And it is generally considered to be a good thing, as it helps to form the basis for a stable democracy that does not get torn apart by a citizenry that all lines up on one side or the other of a single great divide. Egypt has yet to demonstrate, of course, whether it has enough of the other ingredients for a stable democracy. But we should be neither surprised nor upset that everyone in Egypt who is not an Islamist is not working in unison against those who are.
Image: A party conference in Egypt. Wikimedia Commons/Mayooshy. CC BY 3.0.
In one sense the Obama administration's reported creation of a “playbook” establishing rules for killing alleged terrorists helps to meet calls from outside commentators—this one included—to clarify the criteria that are being applied to such assassinations. Writing this kind of manual, however, has another side. It represents the institutionalization of worldwide assassinations as a regular, ongoing business of the United States government. As such it raises larger questions, which the playbook might not address at all, of how an assassination program does or does not conform with the pursuit of U.S. national interests.
Institutionalization of anything entails a bias toward its indefinite continuation, and maybe even its expansion. This tendency has often been discussed regarding other government programs, sometimes with a tie-in to what is outside government. The military-industrial complex about which Eisenhower warned, for example, represents a bias toward big defense expenditures and military operations to justify such expenditures. Likewise, it has often been remarked that creation of a bureaucracy to run domestic program X immediately creates a vested interest in favor of continuing and even expanding program X. Why should such tendencies not be just as likely to appear with an assassination program?
The Washington Post's story about the manual leads with the news not only that the manual is near completion but also that it will not be applied for a year or two to drone strikes in Pakistan. Thus what is considered short-term and exceptional is limited to what is going on now in Pakistan. By implication and contrast, all of the other worldwide assassinations constitute something regular and long-term, and, so far as we know, limitless in both duration and geographic scope.
Lest we forget, it was not all that long ago that Americans and their presidents considered assassinations sufficiently contrary to American values that we should rule them out, as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan all did by executive order. What has changed since then to erase this determination? Oh, there's 9/11 of course, although the unraveling of the prohibition on assassinations actually began (with Osama bin Laden in particular in mind) a few years before 9/11. And even if it were all about 9/11, why should the fact that one bunch of terrorists hit a high-casualty jackpot be a reason for us to change our thinking on this subject in such an apparently fundamental way? Regarding morality, since this was originally a matter of consistency with American values, have our values really changed that much? Regarding legality, is there no limit to which that one resolution authorizing force that Congress passed in the emotional week after 9/11 be stretched in terms of either duration or geographic scope?
It is also interesting that this soon-to-be-completed document is referred to as a “playbook.” In football, a playbook is a very tactical manual that organizes the quick thinking that coaches and players have to do on each play. If you see the opponent lining up a certain way, you can draw on the playbook for a play that has a chance to work well over the next 30 seconds. But the playbook doesn't provide any help in bigger decisions with larger and longer term consequences, such as whether to leave your injured star quarterback in the game. Similarly, having a playbook on assassinations sounds like it is apt to be a useful guide for making the quick decision whether to pull the trigger on a Hellfire missile when a suspected terrorist is in the sights of a drone. But it probably will not, as far as we know, be of any help in weighing larger important issues such as whether such a killing is likely to generate more future anti-U.S. terrorism because of the anger over collateral casualties than it will prevent by taking a bad guy out of commission. By routinizing and institutionalizing a case-by-case set of criteria, there is even the hazard that officials will devote less deliberation than they otherwise would have to such larger considerations because they have the comfort and reassurance of following a manual.
Criticism about the standards for conducting the drone strikes has been not just about having clear criteria, but having criteria that are known to someone other than those in the executive branch who are carrying out the assassination program. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), to his credit, has led the complaining about this subject. In a recent letter to John Brennan he noted that the legal justifications involved are still inaccessible not only to the public but even to the Congressional intelligence committees.
So we have the worst of two different directions that administration of the assassination program could go. On one hand there is an institutionalization of the program that threatens to make it as firmly entrenched a function of the U.S. government as Social Security. On the other hand is a continued opacity that precludes the kind of informed and meaningful debate that—because American values are involved—would be necessary to determine whether indefinite continuation of the program is something the United States really ought to do.
Despite much confusion surrounding the attack and taking of hostages at a natural gas facility in a remote part of eastern Algeria, there has been little shortage of instant analysis about the incident's larger meaning. A claim that the attack was a reprisal for Western intervention in Mali has been readily accepted by some as the chief motivation, leading to stories about a spreading conflagration in the Sahel and Sahara. An opposing view was expressed by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, as he was having to acknowledge the death of at least one British citizen and the holding of an undetermined number of others hostage, and also having to respond to charges that these people were targeted because of Britain's assistance to the French military intervention against insurgents in Mali. The two events could not be linked, said Hague. “That is a convenient excuse,” he stated, “but usually operations such as this [the terrorist attack in Algeria] take longer to plan.”
Reasonable arguments can be made on either side of this disagreement. On one hand, there was an explicit claim of linkage to the situation in Mali. There also was a conspicuous coincidence of timing for an incident that marked an escalation in attacking hydrocarbon facilities in Algeria. On the other hand, taking of foreign hostages is not new for the assortment of radical groups that operate in that area, including the one implicated in the current incident. Moreover, the incident occurred more than 600 miles from Mali, in a location much closer to the Libyan border.
A common tendency is to try to extract bigger and broader implications from a salient individual event than the event itself warrants—even if we had perfect information about the event, which we seldom do. This tendency is partly the product of pressure on journalists and others to come up with such analysis, and partly a consequence of a more general human proclivity to jump to conclusions. More data points than a single incident are required to confirm a pattern or trend. Nonetheless, when some debatable incident such as this occurs, we may still have good reason to infer a larger pattern based partly on other evidence and on what are reasonable connections to draw. It would be foolish to deny the existence of such a pattern only because a single case before us is insufficient proof.
Even if one shares Mr. Hague's skepticism about the incident in Algeria, it is reasonable to infer that this is the kind of terrorist targeting of Westerners that is likely to result from the kind of Western action taking place in Mali. It is a reasonable inference because of the ample prior evidence of how forceful intervention and occupation, or support for someone else's forceful intervention or occupation, elicits terrorist reprisals among the more extreme-minded among those who get angry about such things. In this sense the instant analysis drawing a link between Mali and Algeria is valid, even if it may assume too much regarding things we still do not know about the latest incident.
All of this is related to how unstable areas with groups of Islamist radicals roaming around in them, such as this part of Africa, should figure into strategy about counterterrorism. The dominant and unjustified U.S. view, which I addressed earlier this week as it applies to Mali, is to see each such area as a potential “base” for terrorist operations against the United States and to see the need to prevent such a “base.” It is reassuring to see in reporting by Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times that this view is now getting questioned inside the administration. Some doubt that the groups in northern Mali pose a threat to the United States, and:
Moreover, the hostage situation in Algeria has only heightened concerns that a Western military intervention could transform militant groups that once had only a regional focus into avowed enemies of the United States — in other words, that the backlash might end up being worse than the original threat.
The best way the incident in Algeria can lead to productive policy thinking is not so much to dwell on the details of that one event (and may we all be spared anything like the endless fixation on the incident last year in Benghazi). Rather, it is to use the event as a prod for searching examination of larger assumptions about counterterrorist strategy and about such things as the backlash that one's own actions may generate.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Eric Gaba. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Here we go again—another unstable Muslim-majority country wracked by violence and the excesses of Islamic extremists, and another round of anguishing over what the United States can do to keep the extremists from gaining more ground. We have been through this, or are still going through this, in Afghanistan, in northwest Pakistan, and in Yemen. And that's in addition to places where similar issues were enveloped within a struggle to depose a secular dictator, as in Libya and Syria. Now the latest Islamic extremist threat-of-the-month is in Mali.
These situations tug at our heartstrings, or our interventionist impulses, in several ways, including understandable abhorrence over what the extremist elements involved may regard as their idea of strict enforcement of sharia but look more to us like abuses of human rights or even atrocities. In contemplating what, if anything, to do about such a situation we need a clear-headed, heartstring-free concept of what U.S. interests, if any, are involved. Just as important, we need to examine carefully the feasibility and cost of what can be done before succumbing to the urge to do something.
Regarding Mali the United States has the luxury at least for now of deferring to its ally France to do the heavy lifting. That is appropriate, and consistent with how France has used military force from time to time in its former African colonies whenever one of its clients there has run into a bit of trouble. But any further discussion of what else the United States might do needs to look more critically at one of the most frequently voiced notions that is applied to such situations and that certainly has been applied a lot lately to Mali: the idea that the United States has a major need to prevent the country from becoming a “launchpad for terrorism,” or, as the U.S. Secretary of Defense put it, that the United States has a “responsibility to make sure al-Qaeda does not establish a base of operations” there. There are several problems with that notion.
One is that it mistakenly treats terrorist threats to the United States as if they were the product of some conquering imperial power that sweeps across continents like the Golden Horde. Or, because we are in the vicinity of North Africa, it is the kind of thinking that was an understandable response to Germany's invasion of that region in World War II, seen as a threat to Egypt and the British Empire's lines of communication to South Asia. We inappropriately apply the same kind of thinking to terrorism, which is a tactic and not an empire, partly because of a general tendency to think in spatial terms. Habitual and loose use of the label “al-Qaeda” also reifies a single global terrorist organization that does not really exist, as distinct from collections of groups that have adopted the al-Qaeda name or pieces of its ideology.
Then there is the issue of how the United States figures into this as a terrorist target. No doubt about it—the groups involved in these places are anti-U.S., as well as being violent and ruthless. But their principal goals are tied to local conditions and ambitions. Secretary Panetta downplayed this reality when he said this week that although the Islamist groups in northern Mali may not post an immediate threat to the United States, “ultimately that remains their objective.” There simply is no basis for declaring that the ultimate objective of bands of fanatics brutally imposing their will on a remote patch of the Sahel is centered on the United States. That was not even true of the ideological symbol of transnational Islamist terrorism, Osama bin Laden himself—for whom attacking the far enemy of the United States was only a means for getting at his near enemies in the Middle East.
Another problem is suggested by the serial nature of these Islamist trouble spots, coming one after another. Or as Secretary Panetta put it, the United States “has a responsibility to go after al-Qaeda wherever they are,” including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. Beginning with Afghanistan, each place was supposed to hold unique danger as a potential base for transnational terrorists. But the very fact there are several such places means none of them is unique. If terrorists really need a geographic base, it does not have to be in Mali or any other particular spot.
Then there is the question of how much the control of any patch of remote real estate has to do with the degree of terrorist threat that a group poses to the United States. The record of preparation of previous terrorist attacks suggests it is one of the less important factors. Furthermore, even if a terrorist group did rely on something as well-established as a training camp, there is the further question of how any such physical presence relates to political control of the larger territory in which it is located. Much commentary has noted how large and sparsely populated is the northern part of Mali where the latest bunch of extremists has been operating—twice the size of Germany was one comparison. Whether some group has a camp somewhere in that vastness is unlikely to depend much on who is the sovereign over that territory.
A public discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations last week was concerned with identifying particular trouble spots and troublesome issues around the world that are apt to demand policy attention during 2013. One of the speakers, David Gordon of the Eurasia Group, mentioned in passing that an issue he was not worried about this year was radicalism in developed countries. He did not specify what variety of radicalism; probably most in the room simply assumed he was referring to the Islamist variety. That variety, after all, as it manifests itself both at home and abroad, has now been for some time almost the sole preoccupation in the United States as far as violent radicalism is concerned. When Peter King, as chairman in the previous Congress of the House Committee on Homeland Security, conducted a series of hearings on terrorist threats in the United States, the subject was all Islamist, all the time.
One hazard of such a narrow focus on one type of radicalism is to reduce the likelihood we will notice the rise of other types. Different types of radicalism, and the subsets of it that involve terrorist violence, come and go in waves, as they have over the past several decades. The rise of any one wave is generally related to the broader political environment in two somewhat antipodal ways. The radicalism usually is embedded in a larger mood, movement or ethos. But it also usually is a reaction against some political trend or development.
While keeping these patterns in mind, it would be useful to look again at a report that was prepared four years ago in the Department of Homeland Security. The report was titled Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment. Its release led to an uproar among those on the Right who were uncomfortable with any government report acknowledging that there is American extremism on the Right. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, evidently anxious to reduce her vulnerability to charges of politically-inspired analysis, responded by withdrawing the report, saying it had not been properly vetted within the department. DHS's analytical work on right-wing extremism has reportedly been reduced to a single employee.
The report, which nonetheless made it into the hands of news agencies, may be one of the more worthwhile reads among government documents having such a short official shelf life. The report stated that although there were at the time no known plans among right-wing extremists to commit specific acts of terrorism, such extremists “may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues.” One of those bits of grist for the fear-mongering was “the election of the first African-American president.” Another was the prospect of gun control:
Proposed imposition of firearms restrictions and weapons bans likely would attract new members into the ranks of right-wing extremist groups, as well as potentially spur some of them to begin planning and training for violence against the government. The high volume of purchases and stockpiling of weapons and ammunition by right-wing extremists in anticipation of restrictions and bans in some parts of the country continue to be a primary concern to law enforcement.
The report-writers likened what they were seeing to what was happening with this extremist fringe in the 1990s. Although we have not witnessed in the subsequent four years anything like a repetition of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, other indications suggest the report was on to something. Charles Blow in the New York Times alludes to some of this when he notes, using data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, that the anti-government “Patriot” movement has burgeoned since 2008, having grown to more than 1,200 groups nationwide by 2011. More than a fourth of these are militias that perform paramilitary training.
Now in 2013, we are about to have the second inauguration of that same African-American president, the one with the foreign-sounding name. Gun control is also again prominently on the national agenda, owing mainly to more mass shootings in schools. And some of the rhetoric that melds resistance to gun control with a broader anti-government agenda is nothing short of frightening. Here's what Fox News commentator and—believe it or not—former judge Andrew Napolitano (no relation to Janet) wrote last week:
The historical reality of the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not that it protects the right to shoot deer. It protects the right to shoot tyrants, and it protects the right to shoot at them effectively, with the same instruments they would use upon us.
If shooting, or bombing, growing out of this type of attitude starts, we should already have a fairly good idea of what the perpetrators are opposed to. We ought to reflect as well on the other part of how a wave of extremism fits into the larger political environment—i.e., how it is the extreme tail of some more broadly shared way of thinking. The roots of current anti-government sentiments are diverse, of course. And as for the gun control part of this, we know that the lobby opposing controls is as rich and potent as ever. We also should acknowledge the growth of a form of political intolerance in which some people believe that having their particular preferences prevail is so important that it is worth inflicting, or threatening, harm to the country. It looks as though we are about to see a non-kinetic form of this again in Congress in a few weeks. We should not be surprised if extremists use the kinetic form.
Among several broadly held misconceptions about Iran is that to get Iranians to make concessions we want them to make at the negotiating table the United States must credibly threaten to inflict dire harm on them—specifically, with military force—if they do not make the concessions. Some in the United States (and some in Israel) who are especially keen on promoting this notion would welcome a war. If war preparations and brinksmanship used to communicate such a threat lead the two nations to stumble into an accidental war—and there is a real danger they might—so much the better from their point of view. But the belief in saber-rattling as an aid to gaining an agreement in the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program extends to many who actually want an agreement and are not seeking a war. We have heard more about this lately in connection with Chuck Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defense. People ask whether this nominee, who has evinced an appreciation of the huge downsides of a war with Iran, would be able to rattle the saber as convincingly as the same people think a secretary of defense ought to rattle it.
Even the usually thoughtful David Ignatius has adopted this line of thought. In his latest column he makes a comparison with nuclear deterrence in the time of Dwight Eisenhower. Under the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, a “bluff” of “frightening the Soviets with the danger of Armageddon” was used to dissuade them from overrunning Western Europe. “Obama,” says Ignatius, “has a similar challenge with Iran.”
No, he doesn't. One situation was deterrence of what would have been one of the most epic acts of aggression in history. The other is an effort to compel a far lesser country to curtail or give up an avowedly peaceful program, and to do so by threatening what itself would be an act of aggression. Thomas Schelling has taught us that deterrence and what he called compellence have significant differences, with the latter generally being harder to accomplish than the former. And this is in addition to all the other vast differences in scale, subject matter and morality between nuclear deterrence during the early Cold War and the current standoff with Iran.
These and other differences get to one of the problems with the common notion about threatening military attack in response to Iran not crying uncle at the conference table: a difficulty in making such a threat credible no matter how energetic a saber-rattler the secretary of defense might be. This is related also to the question Mr. Obama posed during the election campaign, about whether his opponent wanted a new war in the Middle East. At the level of public sentiment, most Americans do not want to become engaged in a new war in the Middle East. At the more sophisticated level of policy analysis—if that analysis is done thoroughly and objectively—such a war would be seen to have enormous costs and disadvantages. One of those disadvantages would be—as members of the opposition in Iran have repeatedly warned—to strengthen politically Iranian hardliners whose position is based partly on implacable hostility from the United States and who would benefit from a rallying around the flag in response to foreign attack. Another disadvantage would be the directly counterproductive one of leading the Iranians to make the decision they probably have not yet made, which is to build a nuclear weapon.
That last consideration is in turn related to another problem with the notion about threatening military attack, which concerns the reasons Iranians have for being interested in nuclear weapons. The chief reason almost certainly involves the presumed value of such weapons as a deterrent against major, regime-crushing foreign attack. The more that the brandishing of the threat of military attack makes such an attack seem likely, the greater will be the Iranian interest in developing nuclear weapons and the less inclined they will be to make concessions that would preclude that possibility.
As if all of this were not enough to discard the notion about the efficacy of saber-rattling, there are the central realities of the nuclear negotiations themselves and how Tehran perceives them. Inducing the Iranians to concede is not just a matter of hurting them more. They already are hurting a lot, from the economic consequences of international sanctions. What is missing from the negotiations is any reason for them to believe that the hurt will be eased if they make concessions. The P5+1 have yet to place on the table any proposal that includes any significant relief from sanctions. Without such an incentive, there is no reason for the Iranians to cry uncle or even to make lesser concessions, no matter how much more they are made to hurt.
The Iranians have good reason to be suspicious of ultimate U.S. and Western motivations, and threats of military force figure into that in an unhelpful way too. The Iranians do not have to look far to see ample evidence in favor of the proposition that the primary U.S. goal regarding Iran is regime change. And they do not have to look far into the past to see a recent U.S. use of military force—participation in the intervention in Libya—that overthrew a Middle Eastern regime after it had reached an agreement with the United States to give up all its nuclear and other unconventional weapons programs. What reason would Iranian leaders have to make any concessions if they believe the same thing is likely to happen to them? This is already a problem; rattling the saber only makes it worse.
Image: Flickr/Sam Town. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Chuck Hagel's chances to become secretary of defense seem to be on the rise, with the biggest reason being the White House finally changing his status from prospective nominee to nominee, and as such getting fully behind him rather than holding him up as a balloon to be shot at. Just as the implications of the entire saga surrounding this nomination include far more than who will head the Department of Defense, so too will the broader enduring effects be shaped by more than the outcome of the vote on the nomination in the Senate. They will be shaped by what come to be the common-knowledge perceptions of what has happened in this saga, which in turn will depend a lot on what is said and written about it over the next few weeks.
The broader effects to which I am referring are not just specific foreign policy directions during the second Obama term, although we can hope for, as Jacob Heilbrunn suggests, more engagement of the diplomatic type and less of the military variety. Hagel will be a voice for reason and realism in policy discussions in the White House Situation Room, but as many others have pointed out, the secretary of defense is not the primary person responsible for making foreign policy.
Perhaps we should be encouraged at least as much about what the nomination says in general about Barack Obama as about having Chuck Hagel as one of his senior advisers. One might even say the nomination is one of the gutsier things Obama has done. Maybe he chose Hagel mainly for the straightforward reasons that the president feels comfortable with him and their overall policy views seem compatible, with the nomination having nothing to do with an in-your-face approach to Congressional Republicans or payback to Bibi Netanyahu. But still.
The effects I have in mind extend to favorable changes in political discourse and methods of operation in Washington that can last far beyond Obama's second term. At least three aspects of what is said in the coming weeks will determine whether such effects prevail.
The first is largely up to the nominee, especially in what he says at his confirmation hearing. He needs to stay out of an apologetic or defensive mode. He should establish that most of the points of criticism against him are not mischaracterizations of what he said or did but instead are mistaken evaluations because what he said or did was right. For everything he says about how he really is tough on Iran, he needs to say something about how stupid is mindless and endless pressure on Iran without a genuine effort to engage it and put the pressure to some use. For everything he says about how he really is a friend of Israel, he needs not only to say something about how being a friend of Israel is much different from what the most self-avowed friends of Israel do and say, but also point out that U.S. and Israeli interests sometimes differ and the U.S. should always put U.S. interests first. And so forth.
A second aspect is up to the commentariat and involves what becomes the accepted story of the political struggle that has been taking place over this nomination. Chapter One of the story was the initial floating of Hagel's name. Chapter Two consisted of the Israel lobby, and especially the part of it that overlaps with hardcore neoconservatism, coming out hatchets in hand, trying to get Hagel's scalp. Chapter Three was unusually strong push-back from elements who were disgusted by what the protagonists in Chapter Two were doing and also admired Hagel. Chapter Four has been a retreat by central parts of the Israel lobby and especially AIPAC, who evidently realized that they might actually lose a fight against Hagel. Faced with this prospect, it was to their advantage to say they “don't take positions on nominations” or some such and thus to try to avoid looking like losers. They should not be allowed to write the story that way. If Hagel is confirmed, then let it be shouted from all the high places from Capitol Hill to K Street rooftops and beyond: the lobby lost. The purpose would not be crowing but instead a lessening of the prospects for future intimidation, given how demonstrated success empowers intimidators and failure weakens them. A recognized failure might at least marginally reduce the lobby's destructive power the next time it tries to kill a nomination or enforce omerta or something else.
A third aspect I have addressed earlier: the need to shame, repeatedly and consistently, those who have used smear tactics—another prominent example of which arose just this week.
It remains to be seen how good a secretary of defense Chuck Hagel will be, although he has the makings of a very good one. But other enduring aspects of the struggle over his nomination may prove to be at least as important as his performance in office.