Vladimir Putin's op ed about U.S. policy toward Syria unsurprisingly did not go down well with many American readers, principally because it was coming from Putin. They undoubtedly see an issue of whether Putin has the moral and political standing to be so preachy with Americans. As Steven Lee Myers reminds us in the New York Times, when Putin took back the presidency a year ago he “moved aggressively to stamp out a growing protest movement and silence competing and independent voices” and since then has “promoted nationalism with a hostile edge, passed antigay legislation, locked up illegal immigrants in a city camp, and kept providing arms to the Syrian government.” Speaker of the House John Boehner said he felt “insulted” by Putin's piece, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez said that upon reading it he “almost wanted to vomit.”
Okay, we don't like to be lectured to, about anything, by the ex-KGB man who is boss of Russia. But put aside the author's resumé and think about the substance of the article. There are, to be sure, some grounds on which to criticize it. Notwithstanding weaknesses in the Obama administration's intelligence case about the chemical weapons incident, Putin expresses too much confidence in the alternative hypothesis that Syrian rebels and not government forces used the weapons. He perhaps is also a little far-reaching in spinning out some of the more dire scenarios that could result from a U.S. military strike.
But much of the rest of what Putin is saying makes sense, and it would behoove Americans to think about it. He talked about the costs, which the United States would share, of doing end-runs around the United Nations Security Council on matters on which the council ought to be involved. He restated the principles of international law regarding use of military force and self-defense. He observed that in a world in which there is less respect for law and more reliance on force, there would be more people seeking to protect themselves by acquiring weapons of mass destruction. He noted how any military attack would claim some innocent victims and would constitute an escalation of the Syrian war. He observed that this war is not a struggle for democracy but instead a religiously-infused contest in which there are intolerant extremists on the rebel side. He pointed out how past U.S. reliance on brute force fosters negative attitudes toward the United States, and how it has failed to impart stability in the places it has been used in recent years.
The part of Putin's piece that Americans perhaps found more irritating than any other was his final comment about American exceptionalism. Americans get especially upset about this sort of comment because it sounds to them like an affront to the very nature of America and not just particular American policies. Probably an extra annoyance was Putin's final line invoking religion, especially coming from someone who used to work on behalf of godless communism.
But what Putin actually said here involved one of his most valid and valuable points. He said that encouraging exceptionalist thinking is dangerous because countries differ from each other on all sorts of dimensions, and there is no basis for saying that any one country's differences sets it apart in a way that does not apply to any other countries. He was not impugning the motivation of exceptionalist thinking in the United States or anywhere else—he specifically said “whatever the motivation”—but instead was pointing out undesirable consequences of such thinking.
This closing part of Putin's article was a direct response to the closing portion of President Obama's speech on Syria on Tuesday. Even the final God-invoking line was a reflection of the Obama speech. Given that a “God bless” closing has become obligatory in speeches by U.S. presidents, why can't a Russian president invoke divinity at the end of his public statements, too?
What the U.S. president said about exceptionalism in that final part of his speech was shaky enough that it shouldn't need a Putin to expose the weakness of it. Mr. Obama said that when “we can stop children from being gassed to death”—never mind for the moment that a U.S. military attack would not be stopping any such thing—“we should act.” He said, “That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.” Really? After all that has been said and felt through the years about an exceptional America, evoking a sense that this country represents a higher plane of basic goodness, what it comes down to is the will and wherewithal to fire off a bunch of Tomahawk missiles?
Exceptionalist thinking has more extensive and fundamental drawbacks than what is represented in this one paragraph in Obama's speech. Three years ago I enumerated some of those drawbacks. They include such things as an inability to understand the causes of anti-Americanism, an overestimation of the inclination of other countries to follow a U.S. lead, and a failure to understand the limitations of what the United States can accomplish overseas. These and other drawbacks are apparent in much discussion about the current Syrian problem.
It would be fortunate if this problem, and the embarrassment of having to rely on Putin to help get the U.S. fat out of this particular fire, had the compensating advantage of getting more Americans to think seriously about the downside of exceptionalist thinking. That is not likely to happen, even if the message were coming from a messenger less disagreeable than Vladimir Putin.
Remember how, three weeks ago, British officials detained at Heathrow Airport the Brazilian boyfriend of Glenn Greenwald, who has been facilitating the public spewing of secrets stolen by leaker-defector Edward Snowden? One heard hue and cry about this latest supposed overreach by security authorities, who were picking on not just a journalist but his domestic partner. Greenwald wailed that this was an escalation of “attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism,” that “to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic,” and that “even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by.” Greenwald further complained that the authorities had taken his boyfriend's computer and memory sticks and said nothing about returning them.
A couple of weeks later a senior national security adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron indicated in a statement submitted to a British court that the confiscated computer and memory sticks contained tens of thousands of highly classified documents, including secrets not only of the United States but of the United Kingdom. The adviser stated that compromise of the documents would endanger, among other things, counterterrorist techniques and the identities and possibly lives of intelligence officers. British citizens, as well as U.S. citizens, should be grateful for the alert intercept at Heathrow. The Brazilian boyfriend was serving as a courier in an international stolen-secrets ring.
This latest turn in the sordid story begun by a rogue Booz Allen contractor leads to several observations. One concerns the differential attention directed to different parts of this story by the public—not to mention by the media, for which leaked secrets are red meat, and which therefore constitute a highly biased participant in any story involving leaks. Even allowing for it being Labor Day weekend in the United States, and for the competition for attention from other stories such as a possible war with Syria, the revelation about how far Snowden's national security larceny had gone received a tiny fraction of the earlier attention to his leaks involving intercept activity in the United States.
Snowden, and his collaborators such as Greenwald, had a shrewd public roll-out plan. They started with the stuff about NSA collection activity within the United States, to get on the good side of a lot of public opinion by having Snowden pose as a “whistle-blower” acting on behalf of personal privacy. It was only after scoring that public relations coup that they got on with the rest of their assault on U.S. (and British) national security. Since then there has been a steady flow of divulged stolen secrets, ranging from descriptions of the entire U.S. intelligence program to details about overseas political intelligence targets or NSA's ability to decrypt coded material. Nearly all of this is far removed from any issues of privacy or civil rights or anything else that should be the least bit controversial. It is about normal, legitimate activity by arms of the government performing their assigned missions on behalf of national defense and the conduct of foreign relations. Mainstream media, feasting on the red meat, keep publishing the material. The material may be interesting, titillating, and occasionally even educational. But it is not scandalous.
The revelation of the material, however, is scandalous. The damage from the disclosures is major, including tipping off adversaries to the vulnerabilities they would need to correct to impede the collection of information about them, tipping off those same adversaries to our own vulnerabilities that they can exploit, causing a host of difficulties in relations with foreign governments, and much more. Those inside the U.S. government doing damage assessments will be kept busy for a long time by just this one case. Say what you want about whether this or that particular item ought to have been classified; the great bulk of the revealed material was classified for very good reasons.
It is now clear that Snowden was not focused on unearthing for public debate only selected matters that raise issues of privacy and that ought to be debated. He instead was, like his contemporary Bradley Manning, engaged in wholesale compromising of any secrets he could get his hands (or his keyboard) on, consequences be damned. He was conducting an unrestricted attack on U.S. government information security. Perhaps he and Manning exhibit a naïve belief that secrecy is not necessary for conducting programs of foreign policy and national security. But traitors are not all sophisticated; some are naïve.
It is well past time to discard the notion that Snowden wasn't doing something terribly wrong because he was not working all along, in classic spy-novel fashion, as an agent of a foreign government. For one thing, foreign governments (and terrorist groups) read U.S. newspapers. For another, when Snowden went to Moscow he put himself at the mercy of the Russian government. When he was given permission to stay in Russia, it could be assumed that anything he had on whatever laptop or thumb drive he had with him came into the possession of the Russian intelligence services. Given his earlier stop in Hong Kong, when he also was looking for help in where to go, probably something similar happened with the Chinese. In short, Snowden's actions entailed bushels of U.S. secrets being given to Russia and China. There are various terms that can be applied to that, but it certainly isn't “whistle-blowing.”
Vladimir Putin will not turn over Snowden to the United States. But maybe some measure of justice will be served as we recall how earlier defectors to the Soviet Union and to Russia ended up living out their days there unhappily. Once the rulers in Moscow have gotten all they want out of the defector—and Snowden already has provided his usefulness to the Russians—they haven't tended to treat their guest with lasting fondness and respect. With Snowden there is the added, and just, irony that, after having rationalized his actions in the name of protecting personal privacy from intrusion, he has ended up in a state where there has been far more governmental spying on its own residents—as there surely will be on him—than anything that has taken place in the United States.
Amy Knight recalls how Kim Philby, after he defected to the Soviet Union, led a mostly miserable existence in which he felt isolated and unwanted, spent most of his time at home drinking, and attempted to commit suicide. Knight notes that things might not be quite the same for Snowden, because in the Internet age he will not be as cut off from information as Philby was and because, having defected at a younger age, he might be better able to learn the language and start a new life as a Russian. That's too bad, but maybe with more years to live he will have that many more years to feel miserable. If he were to live for a long time in some drab apartment, to feel unwanted, to think regretfully of the girlfriend he left in Hawaii, and to sink into vodka-induced stupors, that would begin to be condign punishment for what he has done.
Image: Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. CC BY 2.0.
While President Obama expends political capital trying to win backing for a military endeavor that most Americans oppose and that received scant support at the G-20 summit meeting, upheaval in the Middle East is about to enter a new phase no matter what happens in Syria. We are probably seeing the beginning of a new wave of terrorism in Egypt. Although it would be a mistake to extract too many conclusions from a single incident, a powerful bomb—for which no one claimed responsibility—in Cairo on Thursday that was aimed at a convoy carrying the Egyptian interior minister may mark the start of such a wave. Two days later Egyptian military engineers defused a bomb placed on a railroad line near the Suez Canal.
A surge in terrorism in Egypt was made all but inevitable by events there of the last few months. The regime led by General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has excluded from political participation a major stream of sentiment in the Egyptian body politic, as represented in particular by the Muslim Brotherhood. It has exhibited brutality by killing hundreds in the process of quashing otherwise peaceful protests. The combination of an absence of peaceful channels and anger over the severe and bloody methods of the regime is just the sort of recipe that inspires a move to terrorist violence.
It is not the Brotherhood—which condemned Thursday's bombing—that will be making that move. It will be small extremist groups and cells, which probably are only now gelling and will be led by organizers who point to Egypt's history over the past year as demonstrating that the Brotherhood's commitment to peaceful political competition is foolish and ineffective. Some individual members of the Brotherhood will leave the organization to join the extremist groups. The incarceration of most of the Brotherhood's senior leadership will make it hard for those leaders to persuade the wayward individuals not to make the turn to violent extremism.
A new terrorist campaign in Egypt will creep up on the sensibilities of U.S. policy-makers; it will not suddenly become a preoccupation as Syria is now. But it is interesting to compare in a couple of respects the U.S. postures toward recent events in Egypt and in Syria. Where the principal adversaries of a head-cracking regime have been peaceful political contestants (who even had won a fair election), the U.S. response was to do essentially nothing. Where much of the principal opposition to the regime has consisted of violent extremists and terrorists, the proposed U.S. response is to weigh in with military force on the side of the opposition. Legally, where U.S. law requires a suspension of aid after a military coup, the administration response has been to flout the law. Where international law prohibits the use of military force except in self-defense or with the sanction of the United Nations Security Council, the proposed response is again to flout the law.
About the only thread of consistency here, besides the illegality, is that the U.S. postures toward both Egypt and Syria have been the ones preferred by the foreign government that for many years has been the dominant influence in shaping so much of U.S. policy in the Middle East. That may make the politics of what we are seeing easier to understand. But from any other perspective what we are seeing is an embarrassing and destructive inconsistency.
Destructive, partly because it sends the message that just as the squeaky wheel gets the grease, only with a resort to extremist violence does it seem that one has a chance to get attention and even support. Maybe that is one of the thoughts in the minds of those ginning up the new terrorist campaign in Egypt.
Image: Flickr/David F. Barrero. CC BY 2.0.
After it looked this past weekend like President Obama might have an uphill fight to gain Congressional approval for a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria, the odds now appear to have swung in favor of passage of a resolution. This swing is due less to John Kerry's passionate “Munich moment” exhortations than to the fact that the Israel lobby has entered the fray, openly and explicitly, in favor of intervention. AIPAC made it official on Tuesday. The Israeli government may have the deciding vote on the matter before Congress, not so much because it appears to have been the source of intelligence that the Obama administration is relying on to make a case tying the chemical incident two weeks ago to the Assad regime (although there are interesting questions to be raised about that) but because members of Congress anticipating their next re-election campaign will be thinking about what type of vote Benjamin Netanyahu's government desires, a criterion that routinely gets equated in American political discourse with “support for Israel.”
A few days ago some were saying that a measure of political courage in the coming vote in Congress would be to buck the plurality of American public opinion, among followers of both parties, that opposes military intervention in Syria. Now a better measure would be to buck the preference of the lobby. As we have seen innumerable times before, one should not expect to see a lot of that type of courage.
Those voting in favor of a military attack should be aware that such a resort to armed force, in the very ways it would be quite consistent with how Israel has long pursued its objectives in the Middle East, would be inconsistent with a couple of the major themes in what the Obama administration has been saying in making its case. One is the theme that any U.S. military action would be strictly limited in duration as well as intensity. Neither the administration nor anyone else has adequately explained how this can be assured if subsequent escalation or retaliation from the other side follows a U.S. strike. As California Republican Ed Royce observed in a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, “the Assad regime would have a say in what happens next.” For Israel, the country that developed “mowing the lawn” into a foundation of national security strategy, this is not a worry. One simply mows the lawn again...and again. For the United States, the question is whether it wants to involve itself in this kind of endless warfare.
Another major theme in the administration's case concerns upholding international norms of behavior. But no one has explained how violation of one of the most fundamental international norms—against attacking another sovereign state if the attack is not in self-defense or under the sanction of the United Nations Security Council—is a blow in favor of norm-upholding. Here again, this is not a quandary for Israel, which has long flouted the non-aggression norm as it has gone about its repeated lawn-mowing in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere. As for the United Nations, Israeli policymakers gave up on it long ago as a lost cause, worth paying attention to only when it is time to squeeze another veto out of the United States at the Security Council or to make a fuss about someone else wanting to join the world organization. For the United States, the norm in question still has much value, at least as great as any of the norms having to do more narrowly with particularly types of unconventional weapons.
As for those unconventional weapons, here the Israeli way of doing things has been to dispense with international conventions, inspection regimes, and peaceful ways to pursue arms control and nonproliferation objectives. Instead, it has again been a matter of unilateral application of military force. Israel has, of course, long rejected any international cooperation, transparency, or honesty when it comes to its arsenal of nuclear weapons. As for chemical weapons, 189 states are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention; Israel is one of only seven states (along with Syria) that is not. The United States, which has been a major player in erecting the international structures dedicated to the peaceful pursuit of arms control and disarmament, still has a major interest in those structures and would lose much by in effect chucking them and what they represent and instead just turning to the gun.
A broader and more general way of posing the question the U.S. Congress now faces is: does the United States want to follow its powerful and privileged Israeli client on a path that not only brushes aside international law, international organization, and the peaceful pursuit of international objectives but also entails perpetual warfare, much isolation, and all of the costs and risks that go with that? The current Israeli government has chosen that path for itself; why would the United States want to take the same path?
As always with the Netanyahu government, the issue of Iran looms large. Netanyahu and his colleagues evidently have calculated, probably accurately, that a U.S. attack on Syria would serve their objectives of keeping the Iran issue boiling (and thus serving their further purposes of distracting international attention from issues directly involving Israel and precluding Iran ever becoming, in competition with Israel, a partner of the United States), diminishing the chance for a negotiated agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, and increasing the chance of a future U.S. military attack on Iran. In addition to wanting a U.S. attack on Syria that would provide ammunition to Iranian hardliners resisting agreement-facilitating concessions to the West, the Israeli government does not want a Congressional outcome on Syria that would make it harder to push through in the future an authorization to use military force against Iran. After all, if Congress were to say no to military action when a regime not only possesses a banned and abhorred weapon but has actually used it to lethal effect, how could it be expected to say yes with a different regime that has never owned or used the feared weapon, has not made any decision to build it, and where the only rationale for an attack would be that this regime has a program that maybe, someday, might help it to build such a weapon if it ever were to take the decision it has not taken?
There is a another dimension about Israel and Iran that is based on Netanyahu's already well-established image of someone itching to pull Israel's own military trigger and attack Iran. This image has been supplemented by much commentary in Israel in recent days to the effect that Obama's supposed wavering on Syria—by throwing the issue to Congress—demonstrates how on a matter as important as Iran, Israel must rely on no one other than itself. All this gives rise to the argument, which is likely to sway some members of Congress, that if the United States does not reassure Netanyahu by taking a firm line about using military force and smiting Syria, the Israeli prime minister is apt to start a new war with Iran.
So Netanyahu's incessant saber-rattling on Iran is increasing the chance of the United States going to war against Syria, which in turn would increase his ability to sell a future U.S. war against Iran. That game works well for Netanyahu. It is an awful game for the United States.
President Obama's referral of the Syria question to Congress should not have come as a surprise. This president is not avidly seeking direct U.S. involvement in another Middle Eastern war. He is moving to do something forceful about Syria largely because he has been pressured to do something forceful about Syria. It is not surprising that he seeks as much buy-in as possible from the legislative branch. He and his political advisers also will be able to watch how this issue intensifies intramural tussles among Republicans.
Besides any reasons for the referral that may please the president's political advisers, there are good reasons that ought to please any American citizen. Involving the legislative branch on this important decision is, just as the president said in his statement on Saturday, the way a constitutional democracy ought to operate. A Congressional debate and vote on whether or not to authorize the use of military force against Syria will be an encouraging step that will, at least for the moment, reverse the discouraging atrophy of Congress's war-making power.
There also are some early signs that the debate will go beyond surface rationales and delve into some of the more important implications of the proposed use of military force. Although there is still too much focus on one reported use of an unconventional weapon, some members have explicitly acknowledged that an empirical question about a chemical weapons incident is different from the policy question of whether it makes sense to apply U.S. military force in Syria.
Another war and another vote eleven years ago weighs heavily, of course, on the minds of members as they consider the current issue. There is nothing wrong with that. Although some may consider the stewing of politicians over how they decided to fight the last war to be just as bad and backward-looking as generals preparing to fight the last war, it isn't. It is healthy for Congress and for U.S. policy for members to strive consciously to avoid the pathologies that led to the Iraq War. Just about any deliberative process about whether to employ military force will be an improvement on what happened before that earlier war, when there was no such process at all in the executive branch and only a perfunctory one in the legislative branch. This time there even will be committee hearings, which never took place before the Iraq War.
Congress being Congress, however, let us not get too high our hopes for care and profundity in the deliberative process that is about to begin. Some of the most important complexities of this issue do not lend themselves well to sound bites or easily understood positions in a re-election campaign. When a resolution authorizing military force comes to a vote, members will cast what is described as a “vote of conscience.” But like all their votes, it will be at least as much a vote of politics. There are many different political games that will get played with the Syria issue. Perhaps what we should hope for most is that even some games that are played for the wrong reasons will have the effect of promoting an outcome that minimizes damage to the national interest.
One thinks in this regard of the habit of some Republican members to oppose anything that Barack Obama has proposed. If such a habit can go to the extreme it has with health care reform—over a plan that was more of a Republican idea before Obama made it his signature domestic program, and is now the law of the land—it will not be surprising if some members one might otherwise assume would be hawkish, quick-on-the-trigger Assad-haters will vote against what would be one of Obama's biggest foreign-policy actions.
Working in the other direction will be the perennial elephant in the room on anything Congress does regarding the Middle East: the Israeli government and its lobby in Washington. The upheaval in Syria has involved a mixture of concerns for Israel, but the principal Israeli objective that seems to be most engaged in the U.S. handling of the Syria question is to sustain hostility toward Iran and to undermine prospects for an agreement with Tehran. A U.S. military intervention in Syria probably would help to serve that Israeli purpose by making it politically harder for President Rouhani and his allies to make concessions to the United States and the West that would be necessary to reach agreement on Iran's nuclear program (notwithstanding what may be a broadly shared Iranian dismay over the use of chemical weapons in Syria).
How all this nets out on Capitol Hill is uncertain, and the current betting line seems to place about even odds on either passage or rejection of a resolution authorizing the use of military force. Suppose the resolution fails; what would Obama do then?—a question he understandably declined to answer when it was shouted at him after his statement last Saturday. A negative vote certainly would be viewed immediately as a significant political embarrassment and setback for the president. This is mainly what underlies commentary to the effect that Obama has taken a risk by calling for a Congressional vote. This president, however, may perceive even greater risks in going ahead and attacking Syria after a rejection by Congress. These would include not only the domestic risks of flouting—in stark contrast to David Cameron in Britain—the will of the people's elected representatives, but also the considerable risks of an attack leading to deeper, more costly, and ultimately ineffective involvement in the Syrian civil war. So the president might at that point say, “I tried, but Congress has spoken, and I respect the decision of Congress.” If that happens, political motives and sound foreign policy calculation will have combined to produce the outcome least damaging to the national interest.
An Associated Press story on the Obama administration's preparation of the public for a military strike on Syria includes these statements:
The White House ideally wants intelligence that links the attack [with chemical weapons last week] directly to Assad or someone in his inner circle, to rule out the possibility that a rogue element of the military acting without Assad's authorization.
That quest for added intelligence has delayed the release of the report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence laying out evidence against Assad...
The CIA and the Pentagon have been working to gather more human intelligence tying Assad to the attack...
When one hears that policy-makers want not just intelligence on a particular subject but intelligence that supports a particular conclusion about that subject, antennae ought to go up. A “quest” for conclusion-bolstering material is fundamentally different from an open-minded use of intelligence to inform policy decisions yet to be made. It is instead a matter of making a public (and Congressional) case to support a decision already made.
These two different uses of intelligence constitute markedly different working environments for intelligence officers. The great majority of those officers strive to arrive at their best and most objective judgments given the incomplete information available to them. They also are human beings. When they are called on to interpret sketchy and ambiguous data, and when they know that the people for whom they work seek support for a particular conclusion, it should not be surprising if that knowledge affects their interpretations, even if only at some sub-conscious level.
We have, unfortunately and tragically, been through this before. When in 1964 analysts at the National Security Agency were called upon to interpret ambiguous, fragmentary signals intelligence and to assess whether the North Vietnamese navy had attacked U.S. destroyers on a dark night in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, the analysts knew that the administration of Lyndon Johnson wanted the answer to that question to be yes, to justify the opening shots in what turned out to be an eight-year U.S. military expedition in Vietnam. The analysts said an attack had occurred. They were wrong.
Eleven years ago, when intelligence analysts were called on to make judgments about Iraqi unconventional weapons programs, it was crystal clear that the administration of George W. Bush strongly wanted a particular answer to the question posed, to win public support for the extraordinary step of launching a major offensive war. Senior members of the administration, most notably the vice president, had even already publicly announced their own answer to the question. The rest of that story is too well known to require retelling here. There is still resistance to the idea that the very intense policy preference influenced the judgments of intelligence officers, but thorough review of the circumstances—and major portions of books have been written on the subject—make it hard to avoid the conclusion that it did.
Any mention of the Iraq War requires the immediate caveat that there are very big differences between that piece of history and what the current administration is doing regarding Syria, and not just in that a major offensive war is not what the current office-holders apparently are seeking. The selling of the Iraq War was an especially egregious instance of policy-makers themselves politicizing intelligence, to the extent of manufacturing almost out of whole cloth a fictitious “alliance” between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda and creating a unit dedicated not only to pushing that theme but also to discrediting contrary judgments by the intelligence community. Nothing like that appears to be happening in the Obama administration.
Moreover, the language quoted from the Associated Press report may be the choice of the AP reporters and editors more than a direct reflection of administration thinking. Nonetheless, there is other evidence that a decision to take some sort of military action against Syria in the near future has in effect already been made.
The observations above should be kept in mind whenever any intelligence-based case about Syria is presented to the public. This does not mean the case is necessarily invalid. Even if policy-makers want a particular answer, that answer might still be correct. But the human dynamics of the intelligence-policy relationship in a situation of public case-making provide an important perspective in assessing the case.
Two other thoughts should be coupled with this perspective. The more important one is to remember that an intelligence question such as what some state has done with a certain class of weapons is quite different from the policy question of whether it is wise to do something such as intervening in a foreign war. Unfortunately Americans have gotten into the bad habit of treating these two questions as equivalent. This is a lazy and politically convenient way to dumb down a policy debate. No matter how iron-clad a case there may be regarding what the Assad regime has done with chemical weapons, that begs the question of whether U.S. military action in Syria is advisable. And in this case it is not.
The other, lesser, thought is to have some sympathy for the intelligence officers who are put into the difficult position of serving as involuntary substitutes for well-reasoned policy debate when this sort of dumbing-down occurs. When forced into the policy-justification mode rather than policy-informing mode, those officers are being made to perform a function they were not trained to do and did not sign up to do. That is bad for the intelligence-policy relationship, just as it is bad for the objective of arriving at sound policy.
With a U.S. military attack on Syria now being discussed in the media as a question of “when” rather than “if,” let us devote more honest thought to the “why.” I am not referring to any official rationale but instead to the actual political and emotional dynamics in the United States that have gotten us to this point. Even if, as it appears, this train has left the station and has gotten beyond the point of being able to apply well-reasoned assessment of likely consequences to well-founded objectives, maybe by being above-board now about what is propelling the train we will be better able to make sense of what happened once we survey whatever mess is left by our actions and people have moved on to the stage of recriminations, second-guessing, and lessons learned.
A major part of what is happening is that the heartstrings of non-Syrians, including Americans, are being tugged by the suffering of Syrians caught in Syria's civil war. When what appears to be an especially grisly episode occurs in this war, the heartstrings are yanked even harder. And so there is a constituency and domestic political market for “doing something” about what's going on in Syria. But the satisfaction of that constituency's yearnings is unaccompanied, at least so far, by an explanation and analysis of how something like an attack by U.S. air power would alleviate the Syrians' woes—bearing in mind that any such analysis would have to take full account of responses by both the Syrian regime and the opposition, responses of outsiders, and effects on the overall tempo and trajectory of the civil war. We should admit to ourselves that the objective is more about lessening the tension on those heartstrings and inducing a warm feeling in the tummies in the same torsos, than it is about actually improving the condition of suffering Syrians. That objective is not nearly as noble as its surface manifestation makes it appear.
Supposedly the one event that most got us to where we are today regarding policy on Syria was a reported use by the Syrian regime of chemical weapons. But the basic question of why this particular battlefield development and choice of a weapon should drive U.S. policy toward somebody else's civil war—even to the point of forcefully intervening in that war—remains unanswered, just as it was unanswered the first time the regime reportedly used such a weapon and President Obama declared that any such use by Assad's regime would be a “game changer.” Why should this one reported incident be given so much more status than the non-chemical warfare, by both sides in the civil war, that has killed a hundred times more people?
What we are seeing here is partly an effect of a popular fascination with all types of unconventional weapons, because they are more intriguing than plain old bombs and bullets and they provide better material for spell-binding scare stories. It is this fascination that underlies the persistent tendency to refer to chemical agents as “weapons of mass destruction” on a par with nuclear or biological weapons, even though they aren't that.
There is a more serious concern about chemical weapons that is expressed by what is generally known as the arms control community. That community is not usually known for belligerence, but in this case at least parts of it believe forceful action in Syria is appropriate for the purpose of deterring future use of chemical weapons. That concern leads to many other important unanswered questions. In particular: even if protecting a norm of non-use of CW is a worthwhile goal, since when did that goal become such an overriding priority, among all the other much greater U.S. interests at stake especially in the Middle East, that it would be given determinative weight to the point of impelling intervention in somebody else's civil war?
The norm about non-use of CW that the arms control aficionados want to protect has not been as sturdy as some would suggest. There has been repeated use of chemical weapons since the World War I experience that led to international conventions on the subject—by Egypt in Yemen, probably by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and most notably by Iraq inside Iraq. That last instance was noteworthy partly because the United States turned a blind eye toward this use of CW at a time when it was tilting toward Iraq and against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. Especially given that well-known precedent, an attack on Syria will be seen less as a deterrence-upholding blow in favor of a non-use norm than as a use of the CW issue as an excuse to bash a regime the United States doesn't happen to like.
It is hard to see how Bashar Assad himself will be deterred against use of any particular weapon in his arsenal when he is fighting for his regime's and probably his own, life. It is even harder to see that happening if the reported use of CW that triggered the latest surge of threats was an unauthorized action taken below the top level of the regime, as may have been the case. And what will happen, and how will deterrence supposedly be upheld, if Assad follows up with not just increasingly lethal non-chemical operations but even with additional chemical attacks? How will it be upheld, that is, without the United States getting drawn even more deeply into the Syrian war? Oh, but the sort of air strike being talked about isn't supposed to draw the United States in like that, is it?
Much of the propulsion for the train heading for an attack on Syria is coming from elements who have wanted all along for the United States to get involved in the war there, and for whom this business about chemical weapons is just a serendipitous selling point. These elements include those of the neoconservative persuasion who never met a U.S. military intervention they didn't like. Their position leaves unanswered even broader questions: What exactly is the U.S. national interest in this sectarian civil war? What reason could there be for favoring one side or the other when both sides are dominated by those holding values that are anathema to those of the United States? How could the United States bring about a particular outcome of the war even if one such outcome were clearly in its interests? And where does this all lead, and where does it all end?
For this part of the pro-intervention crowd, the chemical weapons issue would be, just as with the Iraq War, a rationale rather than the actual motivation for going to war. And just as with that earlier war, all the attention to did-he-or-didn't-he questions concerning unconventional weapons are irrelevant to the matters that will prove most important after the United States resorts to military force.
As has been pointed out often, a big difference between that earlier war and the current situation regarding Syria is that the incumbent U.S. administration is not itching to go to war. Far from selling others on the idea of military action, the Obama administration is worrying about how to deal with pressure from others to take such action. Perhaps the president and his advisers correctly see that a victory by neither side in the Syrian war serves U.S. interests, and the best thing to do is to let the sides bash each other. As Edward Luttwak observes, the Obama administration's policies to date have appeared well designed to do that.
The president's reluctance to get dragged into this war has, however, boomeranged on him regarding the CW issue. As of several months ago it may have seemed a convenient way to resist the pro-intervention pressure by saying in effect, “Not now, but if they use chemicals then I'll do something.” Now we hear lots of talk about how given Mr. Obama's earlier statements on this subject, he has to act to uphold his, and the country's credibility. That is another misplaced motive, because the historical record demonstrates that governments simply do not assess the credibility of other governments that way. But even if the notion about upholding credibility were valid, for this to be a reason to launch a military attack on Syria now would not be a case of two wrongs making a right. It would instead be an example of an administration compounding a mistake and digging itself into a deeper hole.
Perhaps the CW topic of the moment is now also serving for the administration a purpose similar to what it serves for the neocons: as a convenient peg on which to hang an intervention taken for other reasons. Except that for the administration it is not because it always wanted to intervene in Syria but instead has decided—after a couple of years of unrelenting nagging from others for it do so—that it finally has to act in some forceful way. Using a CW incident as a peg saves it from looking like it is changing a policy for no other reason than that it is succumbing to political pressure.
A glimpse of the underlying political calculations comes through in a comment from an anonymous U.S. official that the level of military attack being contemplated is “just enough not to get mocked.” Politically, that is an understandable calibration. But it is not a sound motive to enter a foreign war.
Some of the same people who have been pestering the administration about intervening in Syria have also been berating it more generally for being too tactical and reactive, especially in the Middle East, and not being sufficiently bold and strategic. But responding with an armed attack to a single reported use of a particular kind of weapon is about as tactical and reactive as one can get. A truly strategic approach to the topic would not only lay out a thorough sense of what is at stake for the U.S. in Syria and what we intend to accomplish there, but also would consider carefully the repercussions of any U.S. military action on other important U.S. equities in the region.
There are several of those equities that would need to be considered, but take, for example, just one: the negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program. Analysts' views vary regarding current Iranian perspectives toward Syria, but a U.S. military intervention would at a minimum complicate the effort to reach an agreement with Tehran and at worst would kill off what is, following the election of President Hassan Rouhani, an excellent chance to negotiate an accord. It surely would make it politically harder inside the Iranian government to sell the making of concessions to the United States. One Western diplomat stationed in Tehran says a U.S. attack on Syria would be “a game changer for negotiations with Iran.” So we come full circle from President Obama's comment about Syria use of CW as a game changer.
We also come full circle on the objective of controlling proliferation of unconventional weapons. The most reliable way to preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon is through a negotiated agreement placing restrictions on Iran's nuclear program. An attack made supposedly to deter use of one kind of unconventional weapon would thus increase the chance that another nation would develop a different kind of unconventional weapon—one that really is a weapon of mass destruction.
Of course, some of those pushing for U.S. intervention in the Syrian war are the same ones who want to kill the prospects for a negotiated agreement with Iran. That is one of the most warped motives of all for a U.S. attack.
In the 24 years since Francis Fukuyama wrote his seminal article in The National Interest describing liberal democracy as a sort of steady-state culmination of the history of political and economic organization, others have gone in different directions on the question of whether that history embodies a grand trend, whether it is leading to some sort of final equilibrium, and if so what the nature of that equilibrium will be. Many thoughts on the subject are, unsurprisingly, influenced by salient events of the day, just as critics of Fukuyama thought he was overly influenced by the Western victory over Soviet communism in the Cold War, which was getting wrapped up just about the time he was writing. More recently it has been the Middle East that has been supplying most of the salient short-term events that inspire thoughts about long-term trends such as democratization.
“Short-term” in this case means even shorter than the less than three years that the regional upheaval known as the Arab Spring has been going on. Fast-moving events have led to quick changes in prognoses about things such as trends in democratization. Early in the upheaval one heard lots of talk about democracy inexorably breaking out all over. More recent news from the likes of Syria and Egypt has led to similarly sweeping pronouncements that the Arab Spring will prove to be a bust.
Many of the arguments on this subject have appropriately focused on factors specific to the Middle East. There are, for example, the ways in which abundant natural resources can paradoxically redound to the political as well economic disadvantage of those who have them—a dynamic sometimes referred to as the oil curse. Then there is there is religiously driven conflict related to how the region is the birthplace of the three big monotheistic relations. It is also appropriate, however, to plug the Middle Eastern events into that broader question of grand trends in human history and perhaps link them to data points from elsewhere in the world.
One interesting data point from last week's news comes from China. A memo, known as Document No. 9, circulating among cadres of the Chinese Communist Party warns about the dangers from seven subversive influences, with “Western constitutional democracy” being at the top of the list, followed by such others as freedom of the press, civic participation, and ideas about universal human rights. What is striking, even for a document evidently not intended for external consumption, is how direct and blunt a rejection this is of values associated with liberal democracy. It is not a given that this would be the response of the CCP. If these values have such attractiveness—as followers of Fukuyama's argument would expect—to be seen as a threat to the current political order in China, one can imagine more nuanced and clever ways for party leaders to co-opt, adopt, or spin these values that would reduce the threat, rather than simply warning party members not to be tempted or tainted by them.
There are explanations that can be made for Document No. 9 in terms of internal CCP politics. Perhaps, for example, this was red meat that Xi Jinping believed he had to throw to party leftists to help get their support or acquiescence with other things on his agenda, such as fighting corruption.
But there also is a simple and straightforward way of interpreting Document No. 9—as simple and straightforward as the document itself—that addresses the big-picture question of long-term political evolution. Most authoritarian rulers (whether individuals or, as in China, a party or collective leadership) want to retain their power. Having power means they have wherewithal to do something about retaining that power. That is especially true in states that are big or wealthy. When feeling threatened by democratic or other sentiments challenging their rule, they have all the more incentive to step up their game and push back harder against such threats, and they do exactly that. And all of this is a major reason the world never gets to a worldwide liberal democratic end state.
Authoritarian regimes are focused on retaining power in (and of) their own countries, but in so doing they may retard democratic trends elsewhere. Saudi Arabia is doing exactly that by opening its checkbook for the benefit of the generals in Egypt. The Saudis are concerned about any Muslim Brotherhood influence in their own kingdom, because the Brotherhood demonstrates how Islam can be combined with democratic electoral politics and constitutes a direct challenge to the Saudis' own claim to religious legitimacy for their authoritarian rule. But the main effect of what they are doing is to set back hopes for democratization in the most populous Arab country, Egypt. Somewhat similarly, when China provides no-strings-attached bilateral aid it is usually doing so to gain access to resources for the economic benefit of China itself. But the main political effect in many of the recipient countries is to bolster authoritarian rule.
We can see some of the effects in one of the best scorecards for keeping track of trends in implementing liberal democratic values: the annual survey by Freedom House. That scorecard tells us that if there is, or was, a trend toward more liberal democracy, it has flat-lined for at least the last 15 years or so, since the improvements in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet empire. The proportion of countries that are free, that are not free, and that are electoral democracies are all essentially the same as they were in the mid-1990s.
Maybe there is a sort of end-state in political evolution, but it does not entail the global triumph of liberal democracy or any other single type of system. Instead, it is an equilibrium in which democratic and authoritarian forces pushing against each other lead to the kind of balance reflected in the relatively static Freedom House numbers. The balance involves actions and reactions, including authoritarian rulers pushing back harder at the very times that democratic forces might otherwise be gaining some momentum.
That observation, however, which primarily uses a time frame of a couple of decades, must immediately be coupled with a couple of caveats, one with a shorter frame of reference and the other with a longer one.
The short-term caveat is that none of these observations lessens the immediate policy challenges of dealing with a problem such as Egypt. Political trends as they manifest themselves there or anywhere else are not the inexorable outcome of some sort of historical determinism. Choices matter, choices have to be made, and important interests are at stake in making them.
The long-term caveat is that patterns we see over the past couple of decades are only suggestive of what might be the correct answer to the questions about political evolution and end states; they do not nail down the answer with certainty. Much more time may be needed to do that, if we can do it at all. In some natural systems a very long time frame is needed to get the whole picture of what is going on. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould emphasized that most evolution has taken place in spurts, with long periods of relative stasis in between. If you looked just at one of the more static eons, you might mistakenly believe Darwin was wrong. We probably won't know in our lifetimes whether Fukuyama, his critics, or the observations above about equilibria will turn out to be right.
As the Obama administration struggles to walk a fine policy line on Egypt that takes appropriate account of the diverse U.S. interests at stake, one subject that is often mentioned, but shouldn't be, as a reason to go easy on the head-cracking Egyptian generals is to maintain the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. This is not to say that Egyptian-Israeli peace is not still quite important to regional security as well as to U.S. interests; indeed it is. But the reason this topic should not be shaping U.S. policy toward the political drama today in Egypt is that the peace is simply not in danger. No Egyptian regime would see any advantage in breaching it.
That is so because not just the generals but also any Egyptian leader with at least half a brain would realize that in any new round of fighting the Egyptians would get clobbered by a vastly more capable Israeli force. Getting clobbered would mean not just military defeat but also the humiliation and political costs that would go with it.
The last time the Egyptians were able to hold their own militarily against Israel was in the opening days of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Anwar Sadat used the advantage of surprise to score just enough success on the battlefield to atone for the humiliation of the war six years earlier and make it politically possible for him to undertake the initiative that led to the peace treaty. Even that military success did not last long. By the time of the cease-fire Israeli forces had successfully counterattacked, had surrounded the Egyptian Third Army, and were rolling toward Cairo.
So as Israel lobbies western governments to keep supporting General el-Sisi and his colleagues, let us not act as if the Egyptian-Israeli peace is at stake when it really isn't. We might reflect instead on other possible and actual Israeli motives for taking that position. There is the understandable concern, which any country in Israel's geographic position would have, of violent militants operating in, and out of, the Sinai. But recent history lends little support to the idea that this problem is likely to diminish rather than to grow if the generals are left in charge and unpressured from outside the country. The opposite is more likely true, given the prospect their harsh policies will provoke increased violent militancy from battered Islamists. In any case, cross-border violence by militants is the sort of thing the Israelis have repeatedly shown themselves quick to address with their own means, regardless of what any government on the other side of the border may think.
Because the Egyptian generals' policies are most conspicuously a form of Islamist-bashing, the Israeli government naturally and reflexively smiles on those policies. Here again, however, the connection between political outcomes in Cairo and the effects that most interest the Israelis is not clear-cut. During his tenuous one year in office, Mohamed Morsi did not prove to be as steadfast a friend as Hamas—the Islamists Israel works hardest at bashing—had hoped he would be.
Some in the Israeli government may be thinking of a possible downside for them of emphasizing the idea that the peace treaty is endangered. This idea may bring to mind how the U.S.-Egyptian aid relationship is rooted in the bargains struck by Jimmy Carter at Camp David, in which voluminous U.S. assistance to Egypt was part of the price the United States paid to get Sadat to assume the costs and risks of making a separate peace with Israel. That in turn may bring to mind how Israel did not fulfill its part of the bargains, which was to make a peace with the Palestinians within five years and withdraw Israeli troops from Palestinian territory.
This subject leads to what may be the strongest motive for the Netanyahu government to oppose squeezing the flow of aid to Egypt, although it would not openly acknowledge it as a motive. The Israeli Right has to be discomfited by any thought of the United States using leverage based on a major aid relationship in that part of the world to get the recipient to change destructive policies. It is the failure of the United States to use the even greater leverage it could exert on Israel that permits Netanyahu's government to continue the occupation and colonization of conquered territory and, 35 years after Camp David, to deny the Palestinians self-determination.
It hasn't taken long since Wednesday's bloodletting in Cairo for the regime there to make clear that it will rely heavily, as a rationale for its actions, on the idea that it is holding a line against international terrorism. "Egypt is facing terrorist acts aimed at government institutions and vital installations," declared the military's hand-picked interim president in a statement that responded to President Obama's comments about Egypt. Actually, except for the semi-lawless Sinai, there hasn't been much terrorism in Egypt since the Mubarak regime crushed the violent campaigns in the 1990s of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Gama'a al-Islamiyya. After those campaigns failed, the EIJ's Ayman al-Zawahiri went off to South Asia to throw in his lot with Osama bin Laden, and what was left of the Gama'a announced that it was renouncing violence. The actions of the current Egyptian regime are likely to hasten a resurgence of true terrorism in Egypt, however; the official line has just gotten a little ahead of the reality that the regime's actions will help to bring about.
Playing the terrorist card as a justification for actions that on their own terms would appropriately be seen as harsh, intolerant, and even brutal is hardly unique to Egypt. Over the past decade we have seen numerous instances of it, from Russians dealing with Chechens to Chinese suppressing Uighurs. In the Middle East, it is certainly not limited to Egypt and Israel. Take Iraq, where there is plenty of real terrorism these days and where the political system can be described as a U.S. product since we bought it with an investment of trillions of dollars and many thousands of our own casualties. The increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whom Sami Moubayed of the Carnegie Middle East Center describes as a “lighter version of Saddam Hussein,” hardly seems like an asset to the United States as he cozies up to Iran and is not very forthcoming about policy toward Syria. But the terrorism issue is his trump card. Moubayed observes that although Maliki “has clearly positioned himself in the Syrian-Iranian orbit,” he “might still win the blessing of the U.S., marketing himself, yet again, as the man combating al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
Of course, many dictators and crackdown artists would shout the T-word as a justification for their actions regardless of what the United States does or says. “Terrorist” is an all-purpose pejorative. But the fact that the United States has made the subject such a preoccupation following one event twelve years ago has unquestionably increased the value of this particular card. Anything that is an obvious preoccupation of the superpower lends credibility to others claiming the same priorities. Invoking the issue also can serve as an appeal for support or at least tolerance from the superpower itself.
The playing of the terrorism card in this manner is in turn but one of the many ways in which the drastic swing of the pendulum of American political priorities in September 2001 still confounds much else the United States is doing, or trying to do, both foreign and domestic. Domestically, we are seeing this in the hullabaloo, which is generating more heat than light, caused by the post-9/11 demand for aggressive counterterrorist intelligence collection, followed by a tacit decline in this demand as time has gone by without a major anti-U.S. terrorist attack, followed by consternation as the public is confronted with the fact that the aggressive collection is still taking place.
This kind of domestic political dislocation in turn can affect foreign affairs. A leaker of information about the collection programs defects to Russia, which tips the balance in favor of canceling a U.S.-Russian summit meeting. That can mean a slowing, although it had slowed a lot already anyway, of work on issues such as possible further reduction in the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals.
This process may make it seem as if terrorism is a more important topic than Cold War-style arms control or anything else on the U.S.-Russian agenda. The driver here, however, is not terrorism but instead our reaction to it. Strip away the reaction, and terrorism itself is not really the global game-changer it came to be perceived as. It is not really so much more important than a still nuclear-armed Russia, and it does not affect global affairs and U.S. interests as profoundly as a powerful China does in so many ways, beyond what it does to the Uighurs. But when we give dictators a card to play, we should not be surprised when they play it.
Image: Flickr/Senor Codo. CC BY-SA 2.0.