The annual survey of job satisfaction of federal employees has just been released, and the picture is not pretty. Overall job satisfaction suffered its biggest one-year decline and is as low as it has been since the survey began nine years ago. The survey provides some comparison with sentiments of employees in the private sector. The job satisfaction index computed from the survey data is 60.8 for federal employees; for private sector employees the corresponding figure—which did not drop this year—is 70.0.
One does not have to look hard for sources of the feds' malaise. They are about to enter the third year of a pay freeze, and the Federal Salary Council calculates that federal employees are now underpaid by about 35 percent compared to counterparts in the private sector. (The biggest contributing factors to drops during the past two years in federal employees' satisfaction, as measured by the survey, involved pay.) Not quantifiable but no doubt also a major contributor is a nationwide ideological drift, fueled from one side of the political spectrum but affecting the entire national political climate, that disparages the contributions of government and of those who serve in it. The employees, like other Americans, constantly hear a refrain of “private sector good, government bad.”
Some have questioned the realities about monetary compensation, and this has said more about the questioners and their ignorance than about the federal employees. The American Enterprise Institute has led the charge on this issue. Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine of AEI tell us in an op ed that we should not believe the Federal Salary Council, which gets its data, after all, from a “bureaucratic entity” that conducts the pay surveys, and of course we ought to be suspicious from the beginning of anything that comes from a government bureaucracy. Biggs and Richwine question the methodology used in the government calculations, saying for example that federal jobs “could” be assigned higher grades than what is taken to be their nonfederal equivalents. Well, yes, they could—or they could be assigned lower grades than their true equivalents. Or the equivalence process could get most of it just about right.
The AEI writers assert that a different picture would emerge if all fringe benefits—which for federal employees they say are “famously generous”—were taken into account. But they are remarkably selective in what differences they choose to highlight. They say nothing, for example, about how the federal government is famously strict and stingy when it comes to in-kind benefits on the job. I am reminded of that every time I attend a government-sponsored conference with a mixed audience and I am fed while the government employees have to buy their own lunches. For the most talented and ambitious employees, the largest difference that Biggs and Richwine ignore is that committing to a government rather than private sector career means forgoing any chance to attain later in one's career a position that offers really big bucks in direct compensation as well as retirement and other fringe benefits that are way beyond what even the most senior civil servant can ever receive.
The AEI analysts present as their supposed clincher the fact that retention rates in the federal work force remain relatively low. How could that be, they ask, if these employees are underpaid? That assumes that those employees are part of a fluid and fungible labor market, but to a large degree they are not. Even if the skills and experience in any one case are readily transferable—and in many cases they aren't—choosing one career over another means leaving opportunities behind as time goes by and people age. Even the most dissatisfied middle-aged federal employee will not be able to go back in time and do that corporate management trainee program or that stint as a partner-track associate in a major law firm that he or she passed up when deciding instead to enter government service.
Then there is perhaps the greatest force for retention—one that shows up clearly in the survey despite the grumbling about pay and other sources of discontent. That source is the satisfaction of working on behalf of the nation's interest rather than on behalf of someone's monetary profit. It is called a sense of public service.
One might ask why, if these people are willing to continue working for the public for those reasons, we shouldn't just pocket the benefit that this arrangement provides the rest of us and not worry about what makes those employees unhappy. Fairness is one reason we shouldn't. But it goes beyond that. Probably the sense of public service was and is a primary motivator for most feds, but that does not mean material rewards are irrelevant to them. Certainly the issue of respect isn't irrelevant either. Eventually an exploited, under-compensated and under-appreciated work force will mean a less effective work force. Regardless of what happens to retention rates, we are already paying an unquantifiable but no doubt substantial price in the form of young talent that opts out of public service careers in the first place. And regarding those who stick it out in their government positions, management experts tell us that we are probably losing much more in productivity and effectiveness from a disengaged work force than the amount being saved by pay freezes.
In the public as well as the private sector, we cannot escape altogether the principle that one gets what one pays for, whether the payment comes in money or in respect. We are fortunate that the sense of public service of our fellow citizens who labor in the halls of government has shielded us from the worst consequences of our tendency to forget that principle.
Image: Linocut by Giacomo G. Patri, photographed by Flickr/Thomas Shahan.
The latest indication of how sanctions-imposing initiatives in Congress have deteriorated into mindless Iran-bashing is how the Obama administration has had to weigh in on the writing of the defense authorization bill to minimize the damage it does to U.S. diplomacy on Iran. Bear in mind that the administration and the Congressional protagonists are, on the face of it, seeking the same thing: policies in Tehran that assure the rest of the world that Iran is not making and will not make a nuclear weapon. The president, like the protagonists in Congress, has pronounced an Iranian nuclear weapon to be unacceptable. The president, also like members of Congress, sees the imposition of harsh economic sanctions on Iran as a major tool in trying to achieve the desired result. In fact, in the recent election campaign the Obama camp made a rather big deal out of how the most extensive sanctions ever imposed on Iran had been put in place during the current administration.
In other words, there does not appear to be disagreement on fundamental objectives—unlike with, say, the current main event of political combat along Pennsylvania Avenue—i.e., the one about budgets and taxes—where there is disagreement on some rather fundamental questions about burden-sharing and the like. Therefore—again, if we take stated objectives about Iran at face value—any disagreement between the administration and members of Congress concerns tactical judgments about what combination of policies and tools has the best chance of getting closer to the shared objective of foreclosing the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. The administration sees, with good reason, the additional sanctions that Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) want to include in the defense bill as complicating rather than facilitating movement toward that objective. The sanctions that have already been piled on have passed the point where they start decreasing rather than increasing the president's negotiating strength and flexibility in trying to cut a deal with Iran. An administration aide stated that provisions in the bill about sanctions also “would be impossible to enforce and only make our allies really angry. They would have endangered their cooperation with the sanctions we have now.”
It should be clear from the history of the past couple of years, as well as a little thought about incentives for Iranian policymakers, that simply piling on still more sanctions without more Western flexibility at the negotiating table will not attain the U.S. objective. The sanctions are hurting Iran and are a major reason Iran wants to negotiate a deal. But the Iranians have dismissed the only sanctions relief that has been offered so far as peanuts, which it is. They have no reason to make significant concessions if they don't think they will be getting anything significant in return. If members of Congress were really interested in inducing changes in Iran's policy and behavior, they would be devoting as much time and energy to asking why the powers negotiating with Iran evidently do not intend to depart much from their failed negotiating formulas of the past as they would in trying to find some new sanction to impose.
There are two possible explanations for why members of Congress are making trouble on this issue despite the ostensibly shared objective. One is that some members may actually naively believe that if turning the screws hasn't yet gotten the Iranians to cry uncle, then all we need to do is to turn them some more. The other explanation is that it is a mistake to take the stated objectives at face value and that for some members getting a negotiated agreement with Iran is less important than their own posturing, which is based on the belief that Iran-bashing and Iran-pressuring is always good politics. Menendez gave some indication of this when he refused Harry Reid's request for a voice vote on his sanctions amendment and insisted on a roll call vote, which slowed the legislative process down but put everyone's hard-line anti-Iran chops on the record.
Menendez's conduct on the Iran issue underscores an additional complication for the president as he considers candidates to replace Secretary of State Clinton. Appointing the otherwise well-qualified John Kerry would mean not only giving up a Senate seat that Massachusetts Republicans may recapture but also having the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee probably pass to Menendez. This would mean not only losing a constructive force in this key foreign policy position but also having it replaced by a destructive influence.
Image: Flickr/Valeriy Osipov.
It is difficult to remember the last time a not-yet-and-maybe-never-secretary-designate of some cabinet department got as much preemptive opposition as Susan Rice has been getting regarding the job of secretary of state. One of the lines of criticism, highlighted by Helene Cooper in the New York Times, concerns Rice's coziness with some African strongmen and in particular with Rwandan president Paul Kagame. A specific twist regarding Kagame is that he was Rice's client when she worked between government stints at Intellibridge, a consulting firm that also provided other former Clinton administration officials with out-of-government employment.
It is hard for an outsider to judge whether Rice's handling of African issues at the United Nations since she came back into government has represented a compromise of integrity and, if so, how U.S. diplomacy may have suffered. There does seem to be a pattern of Rice wanting to go easy on Kagame, notwithstanding his government very likely being the principal backer of rebels who are causing the latest round of havoc in eastern Congo. But Rice's supporters argue that a behind-the-scenes approach is more likely than public castigation of Kagame's government to ameliorate the mess in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The sorts of attributes of Rice and her record that Jacob Heilbrunn has identified are probably more important in assessing whether she is qualified to be secretary of state.
The past dealings with the Rwandans are a legitimate issue, however, and illustrate a problem with appointees that goes far beyond Rice. A distinctive feature of the U.S. system of government is the installation, with the advent of each new presidential administration, of a huge number of political appointees—thousands of them, going far below the level of cabinet secretaries. This system has several problems. Although usually rationalized in terms of helping to ensure that the president's policies and preferences are implemented, the system instead injects the personal preferences of many other people who shape policies that are below the president's radar. The system entails great disruption and persistent vacancies with each change of administration. The system means that the staffing of much of the government is determined in large part by who happened to play most successfully during the primary campaign season the game of hitching one's wagon to a rising star.
Rice's attachment to Kagame's government illustrates yet another problem, which is the baggage that in-and-outers may acquire during periods that they are out of government. Different types of jobs entail different degrees and types of baggage problems. What is most often thought of are financial interests left over from some lucrative private-sector employment, although problems related to that can be ameliorated through arrangements such as blind trusts. Probably harder to deal with is the legacy of the kind of relationship Rice had with Kagame. Consulting firms whose shingles feature former senior officials who recently left office are selling influence and access at least as much as they are selling expert advice. Relationships that are ones of advocacy, trust, and taking action on behalf of the client's interests are not relationships that can be turned on and off like a light switch.
The political systems of most other advanced democracies avoid most of these problems. The top national layer in those systems is peopled by a small political class that includes ministers who sit in cabinets and who, to do so, must subject themselves to a vote of the electorate. Below them is a professional bureaucracy, part of whose defining characteristic (Japan is a conspicuous exception) is a commitment to execute faithfully the policies of whichever political masters are currently in office. The bureaucrats do not try to inject their own policies—and they do not acquire baggage from stints outside government.
What Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal said at a mass rally in Gaza City on Saturday was contemptible. Taken at face value, his words eradicated any distinction between Israeli and Palestinian territory, and any possibility of Israelis and Palestinians living in peace. “Palestine, from the river to the sea, from north to south, is our land,” he said. “Not an inch of it can be conceded,” Meshal continued, adding that “Israel has no right in Jerusalem.” The words were despicable because they deny the right of Israelis to live in their own state, in their own part of the former mandate of Palestine.
What Meshal said was not only despicable but dumb. His words contradicted the repeated indications from Hamas that it is willing to observe a hudna, or indefinite truce, with Israel if a Palestinian state is created based on the 1967 boundaries and is approved by a majority of Palestinians in a referendum. Meshal also implicitly contradicted himself by referring favorably in the same speech to Palestinian unity and reconciliation with Fatah, a theme to which he returned in a speech at the Islamic University of Gaza the following day. Given the now firmly established commitment to a two-state solution by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas—who only recently received headlines for commenting publicly about how a former refugee like himself will never return to live in what is now the state of Israel—reconciliation can come about only within a two-state framework. And a two-state framework is the only one that can ever enable Palestinian national aspirations to be realized.
Meshal's words were an open invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to respond with an equally hard line statement that with comments like that from a Palestinian leader then there is no hope for any negotiated peace and no reason for Israel to concede an inch of land either. Which is exactly what Netanyahu did in remarks on Sunday.
Someone with Meshal's background and position ought to be smart enough to realize all this, and to realize further that there is no such thing as speaking publicly to one audience without having effects on other audiences. In this case the other audiences are not only Israelis but governments and publics elsewhere. What Meshal was doing on Saturday is what American politicians might call stirring up the base. But he cannot just shake his Etch-a-Sketch and take a more sober posture later without already sustaining diplomatic damage.
Probably he got swept up in the mood of the moment—all those people, all those green flags, and the euphoria stemming from the belief (which Hamas has done its best to promote) that Hamas was a winner in the recent armed clash with Israel. If Meshal was partly trying to sustain that euphoria, he overplayed his hand; politicians have been known to do that in euphoric moments. He probably undid some of the sympathy that Gazans received as they sustained the latest pounding from Israel.
Then there are the circumstances more personal to Meshal. This past week was the first time he had ever set foot in—and kissed the ground of—the Gaza Strip. He also is someone whom the Israelis have tried to assassinate. It probably doesn't take much in the way of momentary moods to cause someone in such a situation to go over the top in talking about his would-be assassins.
There is plenty of reason to believe that Hamas leaders, including Meshal, still favor the indefinite hudna based on 1967 borders. There are far too many indications of that to be outweighed by emotional comments at a rally. That formula also offers the politically ambitious Hamas leadership the only chance that they will ever govern anything other than the miserable little corner of Palestinian territory that is the Gaza Strip (and given Israel's continued strangulating control over the Strip, it is a stretch to say that Hamas “governs” even that).
Everybody—including Israel, Abbas, and the United States—ought to eschew general labels and categorizations when responding to Hamas. It accomplishes nothing simply to call the group a bunch of terrorists or a bunch of heroes and to assume that everything flows from that. The proper response is to react to specifics, whether negative or positive. When a Hamas leader says what Meshal said on Saturday, the remarks should be condemned (and Abbas was delinquent in not doing so). When they say instead what they have said more often about accepting a peace based on 1967 borders, they should be told that they are on the right track. They should be led to understand that the former approach will mean nobody will have reason to have anything to do with them, but with the latter approach they will be accepted as an important interlocutor.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/trango.
This was supposed to be the month for an international conference to discuss a possible weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. The concept of such a zone has been addressed in past review conferences of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT), sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, and meetings at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The official convenors of the conference would be the United States, United Kingdom and Russia, the depository states for the NPT. The gathering was to have been hosted by Finland, with preparatory work having already been done by Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava. But a couple of weeks ago the State Department announced that “the conference cannot be convened because of present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.” The principal objector was Israel, which—notwithstanding its vociferous agitation about what it contends is a drive by Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon—has always said that weapons-free zones in its region need to await a regional peace.
Postponing the conference was a missed opportunity. And this matter was not like, say, trying to get the Israelis to stop building settlements in occupied territory, which requires a positive Israeli action to accomplish anything. As one of the convening powers, the United States, along with its British and Russian partners, could have simply gone ahead and convened the conference as scheduled. Israel could decide whether or not it would attend. The conference would be better with Israeli attendance, but could still do some good even without it.
No one believes creation of a nuclear- or WMD-free zone in the region is feasible any time soon. No signs suggest Israel is about to part with its arsenal of nuclear weapons. But the postponed conference was only going to discuss such a zone, not create one. Such discussion can be part of a long-term process beneficial to security in the region.
Nuclear weapons-free zones are a proven and well-established concept. They exist, among other places, in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. The State Department announcement and the usual Israeli objections suggest that other types of conflict resolution must precede international agreements restricting categories of weapons. But beneficial spillover effects can work in the other direction as well—just as during the Cold War strategic arms limitation agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union not only achieved reductions in nuclear arsenals but also became a tool of, and an impetus for, a larger process of detente. Among the existing nuclear weapons-free zones, the one in Latin America is especially instructive in this regard. The treaty establishing it was negotiated before Argentina and Brazil had fully given up their nuclear weapons ambitions. The treaty established a framework for hastening that process and achieving broader reconciliation in South America.
Discussion of such a zone in the Middle East would help to move away from double standards and the hypocrisy that goes with it. The Iranians have a legitimate gripe in being subject to enormous pressures over the mere suspicion that they might someday use their current nuclear program to make a nuclear weapon, while their principal accuser and antagonist in the region has had a sizable nuclear weapons arsenal for decades. Any Israelis legitimately concerned about the direction Iran might take on nuclear matters ought to realize that ending the double standard would be the best possible way to take away whatever wind is in Iranian sails. In any event, it is in the interests of the United States not to be involved in such hypocrisy.
Discussion of such a zone would be a step toward a long-term security regime that would be in every regional state's interests, including Israel's. With its overwhelming conventional superiority over its neighbors, Israel would be no less secure in a region in which no one, including itself, has nuclear or other unconventional weapons. A thoughtful case can be made that Israel's nuclear arsenal has not bought it any additional security in the past either.
A related matter concerns Israel's refusal to acknowledge that arsenal, a refusal that precludes useful examination of Israel's security needs even in private conversations with its benefactor, the United States. Israel maintains the public position that it will “not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East”—an outright lie, unless “introduce” refers to some strange and meaningless formality. (“Region, I'd like you to meet my nuclear weapons.”) At least the Syrians, in responding to the recent outside concern about possible use of their chemical weapons, avoid a direct lie by using conditional phrasing and saying “if such weapons exist in Syria, we will not...” The leading historian of Israel's nuclear weapons program, Avner Cohen, argues it would be in Israel's interest to stop the silly opacity and acknowledge the existence of its arsenal.
Meanwhile, refusal to talk about any of these matters does not make the issue go away. A reminder of this came earlier this week when the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling on Israel to join the NPT without delay and to open its nuclear facilities to inspection by the IAEA. The vote—174 to 6, with 6 abstentions—was even more overwhelming than the vote on Palestinian statehood. This time the only "no" votes that Israel got besides itself and the United States were Canada and those Pacific powerhouses, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.
Former Senator Bob Dole, 89 years old, returned this week to the floor of the chamber where he was for many years one of the leading Republicans. He also, of course, had twice represented his party on a national ticket as the nominee for vice president and then for president. Infirm of late and just recently checked out of Walter Reed hospital, Dole was in a wheelchair pushed by his wife Elizabeth, also a former senator. He came back to the Senate to show his support for ratification of a multilateral treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities. Dole demonstrated in his own career what a talented person with a disability can do. He lacked one of the common tools of a politician: a handshake with the right arm—an arm that in Dole's case had been rendered useless by a severe injury sustained in combat in World War II.
Senator John Kerry, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was the principal advocate of the treaty in the Senate debate. In his speech he appealed to his colleagues, “Don't let Senator Bob Dole down.” It wasn't enough. One of those who lobbied against ratification was another former senator, one whose career has been far less accomplished and distinguished than Dole's. Rick Santorum argued that somehow the treaty would not let American parents home-school their kids. The vote on ratification was 61 in favor and 38 against, falling short of the two-thirds needed for ratification.
The opposition to this treaty reflected a generic opposition on the right that extends as well to other broadly-adopted international conventions, to anything having to do with the United Nations, often to treaties in general, and even to most international cooperation in general. Those with this mindset often speak about not wanting to compromise U.S. “sovereignty.” Suspicions were voiced that the disabilities treaty would mean U.N. bureaucrats making decisions about the needs of American children. One could almost hear the black helicopters hovering overhead.
Some of the treaty's opponents also argued that because countries we don't like—and which we like to assume are insincere and hypocritical regarding their international obligations—such as Iran and Syria have signed the treaty, for the United States to adhere to the treaty might imply that we approve of how those countries treat their disabled citizens. That's a strange approach—one that would appear to give the disliked countries a veto over which international agreements the United States does and does not sign on to itself. Moreover, if we regard the United States as sincere in what it says and it what it signs up to internationally, then the message being sent by rejecting a treaty is that the United States rejects the principles embodied in the document.
Sovereignty does not mean handcuffing one's own diplomacy or eschewing international commitments. It instead means a nation acting freely and not being told by another country what to do. Signing and ratifying a treaty are themselves acts of sovereignty. And as John Ikenberry has argued, undertaking commitments through international institutions is one of the best ways through which even a superpower can extend and perpetuate its global influence.
Advocates of ratification patiently explained that the convention on disabilities merely applies to other nations what are already legal obligations in the United States under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Rejection therefore has little practical effect on the United States—unlike with, say, the Law of the Sea Convention, which 163 other states have already signed and ratified but the United States has not. The Senate, however, has missed a chance—which neoconservatives in particular ought to have welcomed—to say something positive about the rest of the world accepting values that Americans have already expressed in their own laws.
President Obama is currently taking starkly different approaches in dealing with two of his chief nemeses: Congressional Republicans and the Israeli government. The former, of course, are his principal antagonists in the tussle over the budget. With the fiscal cliff nearing, and despite some signs of cracks in the no-tax-increase orthodoxy, Republicans entered the post-election budget game with their hard-line game face still very much on. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in the latest chapter in a long history of Israel slapping its superpower patron in the face, has announced planning for still more colonizing of West Bank territory. This recent move, in the immediate wake of the United States having joined Israel in a lonely small minority opposing United Nations endorsement of the Palestinian statehood that everyone claims to seek, involves land whose colonization through the construction of Israeli settlements would be one of the most blatant blows yet against a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given that it would appear to render physically impossible a contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank.
In the battle over the budget, Mr. Obama evidently has concluded that he must appeal directly to citizens in addition to dealing directly with the Republicans in Congress. He has been taking his message campaign-style to the country. But he is taking no such approach toward the frustrations originating with Netanyahu's government. Instead the administration is maintaining the familiar old minimal-daylight, “we have your back” posture toward Israel. The United States, in contrast to sharp protests from several European governments, responded to the latest Israeli announcement on settlements with its usual timid “this is not helpful” slap on the wrist.
Why the difference? The president has had during his first term sufficient bitter and frustrating experience with the opposition party in Congress, whose declared top priority was to try to prevent his re-election, to know that a different approach was necessary if he was to get any result other than more goalpost-moving additional demands. His appeal over the heads of members of Congress is a recognition that the opposition party understands only the language of political force. But Mr. Obama also has had enough bitter and frustrating experience with Netanyahu to warrant reaching similar conclusions regarding dealing with Israel. So first-term experience does not justify the difference in strategies.
There is the obvious distinction that in one case an appeal is being made to an electorate in the United States while in the other case a foreign public is involved. But Israeli interference in U.S. politics has already made that distinction very blurred. The politics of policy on Israel have to do with the feared or expected reactions of some parts of the American electorate (or American financial donors). Israel is in effect just as much a domestic issue as the budget.
In short, there is no good reason the administration should not take an approach toward the Israeli government that is similar to the one it is taking toward Congressional Republicans. A just-released poll of Israeli public opinion conducted by Shibley Telhami provides additional basis for going over the heads of Israeli political leaders. Despite all we have heard about how suspect Barack Obama is in Israel, his current poll numbers there are pretty good. Among all Israelis it is 60 percent favorable to 32 percent unfavorable. Excluding Arabs and counting just Jewish Israelis, the numbers are 62 percent favorable and 30 percent unfavorable.
On the core issue of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much Israeli public sentiment is very much at odds with the posture of the current Israeli government. A slight majority of Israelis even say they would accept, at least as the basis for negotiation, the Arab League peace proposal of 2002 based on 1967 borders. On the other big issue on which Netanyahu has been causing so much trouble—Iran—there also is some good public sense in Israel to which to appeal. Only one-fifth of those polled would favor a military attack on Iran without U.S. support.
Going over the heads of Israeli political leaders can look more positive than confrontational. Natan Sachs argues that Obama should take a page from the book of Bill Clinton, who helped gain some influence with Israel by charming the Israeli public. A charm offensive would be harder for Obama to do than it was for Clinton, but he should try. In some respects he will have a willing audience.
The stage in Egypt seems set for yet another surge of political tension and high drama over the coming fortnight, as President Mohamed Morsi has designated December 15 as the date for a referendum on the just-written constitution. The outcome of the referendum will no doubt be widely seen as a test of strength between Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its secular opponents, whether it ought to be seen that way or not. The document will be regarded as a Brotherhood product, given a boycott of the constitution-writing assembly by liberal secularists and Christians, and given also Morsi's claiming of special powers to prevent the judiciary from negating the work of the Brotherhood-dominated constituent assembly. The rush with which the drafting of the constitution was completed and with which it will now be put to a vote conveys to many Egyptians an impression of railroading something through. Morsi's recent Mubarak-like pronouncements about threats from “conspiracies” have added to the forbidding atmosphere.
The hastily written draft constitution has something for everyone to dislike, but democracy in Egypt will not live or die based on the result of the referendum. Nor will the balance of power between Islamists and secularists depend on it. Morsi's opponents might even be well advised to drop resistance to letting the new constitution come into effect. Doing so would in a sense be calling his bluff. The powers he claimed for himself at the expense of the judiciary would expire, and the president under the constitution will be a less powerful president than Morsi claims to be now. And as Morsi himself noted, the constitution can be amended.
Secularists might be comforted by noting that the Salafists are unhappy enough with the constitution that they have announced they will boycott the referendum. The Salafists complain that the document vests sovereignty in the people rather than in God.
Egypt needs some kind of constitutional structure if subsequent debates about the direction of the country are to be conducted within an orderly framework rather than being part of a game where all the rules are made up as the game proceeds. Any representative political system needs to start with someone making up rules and acting without having previously recognized authority, but it cannot stay that way indefinitely. Of course Morsi cannot point to any widely accepted authority to claim the power to issue the decree he did the other day, but the other actors in the Egyptian political game don't have much more of a legal basis for doing what they are doing either.
Any U.S. officials or other Americans who offer advice to the Egyptians during this politically interesting time might allude to the experience of the United States in establishing a constitutional order during its early days. The writers of the U.S. Constitution certainly exceeded their authority when instead of amending the Articles of Confederation they created an entirely new constitution and specified that it would come into effect with less than unanimous approval by the states. The participation in writing the constitution was incomplete. Rhode Island did not attend, the New Hampshire delegates arrived late, most of the New York delegates left early, and several who stayed for the whole meeting refused to sign the product. Significant opposition to the document persisted, and demands for amending it were strong enough for the first ten amendments to be a task of the very first Congress. The lesson is that the success of, and respect for, a constitution is a function of the political habits and attitudes toward it that develop over time. It does not depend on the legal basis on which it was initially written, and it does not depend on who was in power or who favored the constitution when it was first written.
The political inanity about what was said or not said in the first hours and days after the incident in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens continues, and it continues to move farther away from anything of importance to U.S. policy and U.S. interests. With the fixation on minutiae about the editing of some preliminary talking points, it moves farther away even from anything that makes sense in terms of competitive politics. Even if the Obama administration had wanted to manipulate a public version of the Libyan events to help re-elect the president, how would any manipulation on this matter have done that? When has the Obama administration ever contended that international terrorism is not a major security problem (bin Laden or no bin Laden)? Such a contention would only make it all the harder for the administration to justify and explain those drone strikes and how they have become increasingly frequent under Mr. Obama.
It appears that preemptive opposition to a possible nominee for secretary of state is now part of what is sustaining the momentum of what began as a tactic in an election campaign. Please let us focus instead on how in terms of attributes and experience this person would or would not be qualified to be secretary of state, rather than how she handled her talking points on talk shows one Sunday.
Perhaps something else that helps to make this supposed issue credible is an underlying assumption that the foreign intervention that helped to overthrow Muammar Qadhafi, and in which the United States participated, was a good thing and left something approaching a stable situation in Libya. If that assumption were true, then maybe it would make sense to dwell a bit, when violence nonetheless occurs, on the relative influence of things such as Islamophobic films and the machinations of extremist groups. But if instead what was left in Libya is a highly unstable and chronically violent situation in which the plans of terrorist groups, the uncontrolled activities of multiple militias, the inability of governing authorities to secure their own territory, and mass resentment against certain things associated with the United States all get mixed together in a constantly bubbling lethal brew, then any such dwelling is almost pointless. It is the latter situation that in fact describes much of Libya, including Benghazi, today. As Kareem Fahim reports in the New York Times, Ambassador Stevens was only one of about three dozen public servants who have been killed in Benghazi alone over the last year and a half. The government is weaker than the militias, and even militias that have been relied upon as ersatz public security forces are unwilling to go after the likes of Ansar al-Shariah, a group accused of involvement in the attack that killed Stevens.
I have discussed before how one of the largest entries on the balance sheet of the intervention to overthrow Qadhafi is the disincentive it created for other regimes who otherwise might have been willing to reach agreements on weapons programs, terrorism, or other important issues but now are less likely to make a deal because they have a vivid demonstration of U.S. untrustworthiness. Other parts of the balance sheet concern the instability of what was left behind in the country where the intervention occurred. Some in Washington who still believe the intervention in Libya was a good idea are hesitant to intervene in Syria because the United States avoided American casualties in Libya but maybe the same could not be said of an intervention in Syria. Immediate American casualties are certainly a good reason for hesitation, but not the only reason. Sometimes what appears to be the avoidance of casualties is only the delaying of casualties. Christopher Stevens and the other Americans who died with him represent that.
Instead of all the business about preparation of talking points and demeanor on talk shows, the most important question about events in Libya is: was the intervention there worthwhile, and what are the implications for dealing with problem countries elsewhere in the Middle East?
What is one of the first things Hamas does when it is fresh off standing up against an Israeli assault and widely perceived to have gained ground politically at the expense of its intramural rival, Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority? It voices support for Abbas's effort to get his organization's status at the United Nations upgraded from observer to “non-member state.” Given the way Hamas is routinely suspected and reviled in some quarters, this move is sure to give rise to explanations that are convoluted and conspiratorial—that what Hamas is saying is a ruse, or is just a tactic for harassing Israel, or is a step toward shoving the Palestinian Authority aside while Abbas is down.
The explanation that is simple and straightforward, and ought to be obvious, is much more likely to be accurate: that Hamas supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, and that diplomacy is the preferred way to achieve that goal. That's all that anyone who endorses Abbas's initiative at the U.N. is signing up to. And it is what everyone with a hand in this long-running conflict—including Israel, the Palestinians, the Quartet and the Arab League—claims to support. The Hamas spokesman said that his organization supports any political gains that Abbas can make at the U.N. “without causing harm to the national Palestinian rights.”
Although some saw this position by Hamas as surprising, there is no reason for any surprise. Hamas has repeatedly made clear that it will support the establishment of a Palestinian state limited to the 22 percent of the mandate of Palestine that would be represented by the 1967 borders, provided that such a settlement is approved by a majority of Palestinians in a referendum. The land swaps that are generally recognized as being necessary to accommodate some of the facts that Israel has established on the ground since 1967 represent a small step from that formula, as long as the 1967 borders are taken as the starting point for any such trades.
And yet the government of Israel, and Americans who sing that government's tune, and much of the American media habitually describe Hamas and the objectives of Hamas as something much different. The usual formula is something like “Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.” Attempts to substantiate such a description often point to Hamas not having formally recognized Israel and its right to exist. Well, it hasn't, but neither has Israel recognized any right of Hamas to exist (even after Hamas won a free all-Palestinian election). Not only that, but Israel has done everything it can to try to squeeze Hamas out of existence, going to the extreme of collectively punishing the population of the Gaza Strip in an unsuccessful effort to do so. It is Israel that appears to be dedicated to the destruction of Hamas. Why should Hamas be expected to bestow the first recognition, gratis, under such circumstances?
One also often hears that all Hamas is offering is a hudna or truce, rather than a commitment to a final settlement. That will be a distinction without a practical difference. The agreement that ended the Korean War 59 years ago is only a hudna, but that peace has held even though the regime north of the armistice line is far more erratic, illegitimate, and downright scary than Hamas. Besides, anyone can see—and Hamas's leaders are not dummies—that Israel, the strongest state in its region, is here to stay no matter what its borders. Even if the most extreme, negative assumptions about Hamas's intentions and objectives were true (and they very likely are not), being part of (or even being the ruling party in) a Palestinian state in that 22 percent would not bring it any closer to being able to destroy or even undermine Israel. Instead, it would have that much more to lose from the certain retaliation if it were to renege on an agreement that finally established the long-sought Palestinian state.
An upgraded status for Palestinians at the United Nations merely levels somewhat the diplomatic playing field for the bilateral negotiations that will still be needed to bring a real Palestinian state into existence, as well as reconfirming the objective that everybody involved says they share. It would thus be a positive step. Don't just listen to what Abbas or Hamas say on the subject. See what former Israeli diplomat Yossi Beilin, who helped to craft the Oslo accords, says about it. See also the statement on the subject by Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was the Norwegian prime minister at the time the accords were negotiated, and Jimmy Carter, who based on his past experience also knows a thing or two about Arab-Israeli negotiations.
Probably some in Israel and the United States will see Hamas's endorsement of Abbas's U.N. initiative as another reason to oppose the initiative. If the governments of Israel and the United States continue foolishly to oppose this move and to invest political capital in trying to defeat it, we will have come in a sense full circle. The organization that is continually accused of not wanting a peaceful diplomatic settlement will have signed on to a process aimed at moving toward such a settlement and giving it additional multilateral approval. It will be its chief accusers who fail to do so.