The greatest hazard yet to come in the political upheaval in Egypt involves a possible dashing of high hopes among the Egyptian public and a resulting souring of Egyptians on the concept of moderate, peaceful, democratic change. A newly released poll sponsored by the International Republican Institute shows just how high and probably unattainable those hopes are, and thus how great is the hazard.
The poll, taken in mid-April, depicts an Egyptian populace that is highly positive about where their revolution has already gone and where it is likely to go. Ninety-five percent of respondents supported the revolution, and about a quarter say they had personally participated in some way. Eighty-nine percent believe things in Egypt are going in the right direction, and the same number believe the revolution will make Egypt better—53% say it will make it much better. A large majority of Egyptians believe that their “current government” will be able to address Egypt's biggest problems; 39% are very confident of this and 38% are somewhat confident.
So which problems are deemed the biggest? In Egypt, as in so many other places, it's the economy, stupid. Unemployment was easily the most frequently named (by 37%) as the number one problem, and was named by 63% as one of the top three problems. The next most frequently mentioned as the top problem were security and crime (21%), corruption and financial scandals (11%), and wages and salaries (8%).
The expectations for the revolution are at least as high on the economic front as on any other. While most respondents say their own household finances got worse during the past year, 80% believe those same finances will get better during the coming year. It is hard to imagine how any regime could come anywhere close to meeting such expectations. Even if a further political transition from military rule to a genuine representative democracy goes smoothly (itself a big “if”), the structural impediments to substantially improved economic performance extend far deeper than that. Even if inspired leadership by some Egyptian Deng Xiaoping were to embark on an accelerated effort to demolish those impediments (another big “if”) and such an effort were to overcome sources of resistance such as the Egyptian military's heavy role in the economy (a tall order), the time scale for major improvement would be generation, not just a year or two.
The stage is set for major disillusionment and dismay. Maybe the lot of the average Egyptian has been bad enough that even very modest improvement will provide sufficient satisfaction. In the poll, 41% said they have trouble feeding themselves and buying bare essentials, and another 37% said they have the means for “survival” but not much more. But the disparity between current reality and hope for the near future is so great that going from very bad to somewhat bad may not be good enough.
If disillusionment does set in, we will see how thin and fragile is the sentiment in favor of democracy. Egyptians seem enthusiastic enough at the moment about their newly found political liberties; large majorities say they they did not bother voting before but did so in the recent constitutional referendum and intend to do so in the next elections. The fact, however, that—even though at the moment Egypt is governed by a military dictatorship—democracy and free elections did not rank high on Egyptians' list of current concerns (neither one was mentioned as one of the three highest problems by any more than 6% of the respondents) speaks to the thinness. Many would lose whatever fragile faith they have in democratic procedures if they do not see those procedures leading to improvement in their daily material circumstances. And this would mean renewed appeal for strongmen or extremist ideologies.
Signs are increasing that the American people are growing tired enough over fighting two and a half (or whatever the right number is, depending on how you count what's going on in Libya) wars for their fatigue to affect policy, especially through the actions of their elected representatives in Congress. The war in Afghanistan, now the largest and most expensive in terms of ongoing operations, and now in its tenth year of U.S. involvement, has been the subject of several expressions of impatience. Less than two weeks ago a resolution in the House of Representatives calling on the administration to accelerate a withdrawal from Afghanistan came very close to passing (the vote was 204 to 215). Now Norm Dicks (D-WA), an influential Democrat on national security matters who is the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on defense, has become an outspoken critic of the war. “I just think that there’s a war fatigue setting in up here,” says Dicks, “and I think the president is going to have to take that into account.” Skepticism about the war is increasingly being voiced by Republicans as well. Even Sarah Palin is expressing unease.
On Libya—on which Congressional dissent is fueled in part by the administration's blatant violation of the War Powers Resolution—two resolutions of protest were put to a vote in the House of Representatives on Friday. One that was introduced by Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and called directly for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Libyan conflict was defeated but attracted 148 votes, including 87 Republicans. The other, which was proposed by Speaker John Boehner as an alternative to the Kucinich resolution and passed, called on the administration to provide a more detailed explanation of the costs and objectives of the U.S. involvement in the war.
Then, of course, there is the Iraq War. It is still by far the most expensive of the expeditions in terms of cumulative costs, with the bill now exceeding $800 billion in direct costs and with all the eventual indirect costs making it more like a three trillion dollar war. But simply adhering to existing policy and agreements will mean that an end to this nightmare is just seven months away. There is no need for new action by Congress.
In general, bowing to popular fatigue is not necessarily a very careful and effective way of formulating national security policy. And throwing into the same hopper three wars that have been fought for different reasons (whether looking at the original rationales or at objectives that later emerged, which in each case were different from the original rationales) doesn't necessarily represent careful policy-making either. But when drawing down or terminating each of these expeditions is in the national interest—which it is—then the national war fatigue is a force for good. It can and should be harnessed to effect a change of course in Afghanistan and Libya and to resist any diversion from the course toward the exit in Iraq.
There are multiple reasons that drawing out rather than drawing down these expeditions would be contrary to U.S. interests; most have to do with the counterproductive nature of military activity that generates or stimulates more of the very kinds of extremism that some of the expeditions supposedly are intended to defeat. But monetary cost is another important reason. It is part of what underlies the unease on Capitol Hill. Amid all the concern about debt and deficits, the monetary cost of the wars should be a major shaper of policy. The cost of the war in Afghanistan in the current fiscal year is $118 billion. One can do all sorts of comparisons with the non-defense federal expenditures that House Republicans are determined to cut (and are using extortion regarding the debt ceiling to try to get their way) to appreciate how much that is and how important a reduction in that part of the federal budget is to addressing the deficit issue.
As for Iraq—where the continuing problems of creeping authoritarianism and festering ethnic and sectarian distrust would not be solved by extending the U.S. troop presence—the appropriate question is how much more of what already is an enormous burden, fiscal and otherwise, it is reasonable to ask Americans to bear. Maybe we should recall the part of the war-promoters' sales pitch that concerned expenses. Iraq is flush in oil, they said. This war could be fought on the cheap, they said. Paul Wolfowitz declared, “There is a lot of money there,” which could be put to “a good use instead of building Saddam’s palaces.” Surely there is a limit to how much more a nation that was duped into such a misadventure should be expected to endure.
The outbreak of the popular uprisings in the Middle East was unpredictable—regarding their timing, not regarding the underlying conditions that had been present for some time and that have powered the expressions of discontent. Once begun, much else about the wave of dissent and unrest has been uncertain: how far it would extend, and how much political change it will leave in its wake. But a couple of other observations about this region-wide phenomenon can be made with more confidence.
One is that the uprisings will not last indefinitely. No season goes on forever, and that is true of the Arab Spring. Even very discontented people do not revolt permanently; they eventually get too fatigued. Regimes get fatigued, too, of course. Which fatigue curve is steeper helps to determine whether an uprising results in significant political change. So the same phenomenon that we have seen grow since it started five months ago will also subside. At some time it will peak.
Another observation is that whenever the peak occurs, it will be difficult to recognize at the time. The regional revolt has no clear and simple real-time metric. This problem of interpretation and analysis arises with other phenomena as well. It often is unclear, for example, when a professional athlete has reached his peak. When a pro golfer goes for a long time without winning a tournament, is he past his peak or only in a slump? Major highs and lows in the stock market are even harder to recognize at the time. (If I could recognize them, I would have retired some time ago to manage my wealth.)
Looking at the most recent month or so of the Arab Spring, it is reasonable to start asking questions about peaks versus mere slumps. Plenty of action is still taking place, of course, mainly in three places: a civil war in Libya, the beginnings of an even more complicated civil war in Yemen, and protest being met with harsh repression in Syria. And given where things were left when Hosni Mubarak departed, we can expect in Egypt either more political change or more protest about the insufficiency of change. But lately poplar revolt has not been spreading. Places that earlier in the year looked as if they were on the verge of catching the contagion, such as Jordan or Saudi Arabia, seem to have escaped it.
And most recently one place that did catch it has taken a step back toward normalcy. Bahrain has ended martial law. One must quickly caveat the significance of this. Protests in Bahrain are by no means over, and the regime is not exactly relaxing (Saudi troops are still there). The regime also has economic and other reasons to promote an impression of normalcy that runs ahead of the reality. (One immediate objective is to get the promoters of a canceled Formula One auto race that was supposed to have taken place in Bahrain in March to reschedule the race.) Nonetheless, the lifting of emergency rule is hardly trivial, and it is a step normally associated with the subsiding of revolt rather than the escalation of it. It is a momentum-breaker, or at least could be seen as such.
Another factor making it difficult to identify which part of the curve of the Arab Spring we are at right now is the uncertainty of what the region will look like when the entire curve is done. Unlike with the pro golfer, whose skills we can be certain will eventually degrade to where he never can win any more tournaments, we don't know what the end state of the Arab Spring will be. The situation in the Middle East is even unlike the East European revolts at the end of the 1980s, which were tied together by the common thread of Soviet domination.
A more apt comparison is with the European revolutions of 1848, which like the Arab Spring involved diverse, mutually stimulating, uprisings across a region. One aspect of the 1848 events worth noting is that they resulted in inconsistent, and from the revolutionaries' viewpoint mostly disappointing, political change. A monarchy in France was overthrown in favor of the short-lived Second Republic, and peasant serfs in the Austrian Empire found some new freedoms, but other than that the yield was meager. Another aspect to note is that the uprisings, although significant enough in intensity and scope to warrant a major place in the history books, had pretty much run their course in the space of a year. And this was before the event-accelerating effects of social networks and other modern electronic media. Overlay the timeline of 2011 on that of 1848 and it is reasonable to ask whether we are getting close to halfway through this thing.
It would be foolhardy to declare that we are and that we have seen the peak of the Arab Spring, but it would be foolish not to admit the possibility that might be the case. Prudent policy, which has required being on the right side of history as the rebellions have ramped up, also requires adapting to events as they ramp down, especially if the political results are varied and disappointing and underlying grievances remain unresolved. And we may have to start doing that sooner than most realize.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the Department of Defense will soon release unclassified portions of its first ever “cyber strategy.” One aspect of the new document highlighted in the Journal's story is that computer sabotage by another country against the United States might be considered an act of war and grounds for responding with military force. In fact, the Pentagon hopes the strategy document will serve as a warning in this regard. As one military official put it, “If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks.”
The strategy reportedly does not address a couple of major issues that such talk raises. One is how much certainty the United States could be expected to have about the origin of a cyber attack, and how much it should have before retaliating forcefully. Another is how serious electronic sabotage would have to be to qualify as an act of war warranting retaliation. On the latter question, an answer the Journal says is “gaining momentum at the Pentagon” is that the defining threshold should be one of “equivalence”: whether the sabotage causes death, damage, destruction, or disruption comparable to what a traditional military attack might cause.
If the Pentagon is so far withholding judgment on these questions, that is a good thing. Except perhaps for an assessment about the likelihood of determining responsibility for a cyber attack, the questions go beyond the Pentagon's responsibilities. The military is responsible for being ready to respond forcefully against foreign adversaries when political authorities order a response; it is not the military's job to determine when a response should be made, whether it is electronic sabotage that is involved or something else. The grounds for striking back at someone with military force is as much a job for political leaders, for foreign policy strategists, for moral philosophers who expound about just and unjust wars, and for those of us in the public who elect the political leaders.
This is not the place to attempt to construct a philosophy of what is right and wrong in responding to electronic sabotage—only to point out some directions the questions could take. The equivalence idea is attractive; perhaps after further deliberation it might provide the basis for a politically and morally sound strategy. But it can be challenged from multiple directions—that it is either too inclusive or not inclusive enough—and it might not offer as clear a line as first appears. If non-military (or as the military itself would say, non-kinetic) actions that result in death, damage, destruction, or disruption are to be considered acts of war as much as firing guns or dropping bombs, then why stop with electronic sabotage? Other actions, such as blockades and other forms of economic warfare, or perhaps even environmentally damaging actions, can have such effects as well. Some such actions (especially blockades) have been used in the past as rationales for resort to military force. Do we believe such resorts to force were justified? (How about Japan's response to an oil embargo in 1941?)
Perhaps going beyond kinetic actions that clearly constitute military force loosens unacceptably the concept of act of war and gives up one of the clearest defining lines that can be used to separate war from non-war. Shooting guns or dropping bombs really is different in some important ways, especially involving the direct effects involving human suffering, from other types of hostile actions. And societies have traditionally reacted differently to the use of guns and bombs, reactions that are not necessarily artifacts of pre-computer age technology.
Whatever formula is proposed for incorporating computer sabotage into principles of war and peace, the proposed principles naturally will be assessed against real cases and real policy problems. The case that this discussion immediately brings to mind is the famous Stuxnet virus, which reportedly caused major damage to Iran's uranium enrichment program and by most speculation was probably the work of Israel and/or the United States. According to the “equivalence” idea, introduction of this virus was an act of war.
Here is where the philosophical, semantic, and legal issues of what constitutes an act of war get mixed up with issues of what constitutes prudent policy in any one case. And it is easy to be of two minds about how to handle a case like Iran. Insofar as Stuxnet constituted an alternative to a military attack on Iran—the consequences of which would be disastrous for the United States—or at least bought substantial time to set back the possibility of such an attack, then it was a good idea. But if one accepts the equivalence idea, then Stuxnet was a wrongful act of war. It was wrong because it was not a response to any act of war by Iran. And it was wrong because the program it was intended to disable is one that Iran has a right to have (and even the feared diversion—a nuclear weapons program—is one that Israel, the United States, and seven other countries presume to have themselves). To the extent the equivalence principle applies to Iran, Tehran would have the right to respond to the electronic sabotage, if it chose to do so, with military force.
Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, defining acts of war is too complicated to be left to them.
Among the many sundry provisions in the defense authorization bill that the House of Representatives passed last week is one to cut by almost half the amount spent on military bands. This leads to the question: who has it in for military bands? What is the political foundation for the anti-band lobby?
I don't know the answer to that, although this provision might be in part a reaction to a comment by David Kilcullen that got some notice when Kilcullen was working as an adviser to David Petraeus in Iraq—that there are more musicians in the Defense Department than there are diplomats in the State Department. Whatever the impetus, this is just one example from a larger, all too familiar, pattern of highly selective Congressional micromanagement that sometimes gets far down into the weeds of the executive branch's business. That micromanagement is in turn one part of Congressional inconsistency in choosing which topics on which to instruct or not to instruct the executive. On some very weedy minutiae Congress instructs; on some broad issues of high policy that are more appropriately the business of the legislative branch, Congress defers. Some of the latter issues have raised problems of constitutionality, as improper grants of legislative power to the executive.
As a matter of constitutional principle and not just of law, the proper division of responsibility between the legislative and executive branches is clear. The legislature, the branch closest to the people, should establish general policies that are consistent with the values and priorities of the public that elected its members. The executive, which has to implement policy, should have the lead in decisions that are more a matter of implementation and less one of principle or high strategy. That's the theoretical ideal, anyway.
The defense authorization bill is all over the map regarding the specific versus the general, and the proper versus the improper assertions of legislative authority, as well as the prudent versus the imprudent among the assertions that are constitutionally proper. In addition to down-in-the-weeds instructions (including on matters arguably more important to national security than the number of military bands), there are proper expressions of legislative will on questions of high policy. This includes a continuation of the ban on trying Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts and a ban on using U.S. troops in a ground war in Libya. I happen to disagree with the first of those bans and to agree with the second one, but at least they both represent a performance of Congress's constitutionally proper function.
In contrast, there is improperly vague and loose delegation to the executive of powers, especially the power to make war. A provision that reflects language preferred by Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) authorizes the use of military force against “al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces,” thereby mushing together in one conglomeration an assortment of players with vastly different objectives, while placing no limits on pursuing them all as enemies in perpetuity.
There is little reason to hope that Congressional practice will get closer to constitutional theory and principle any time soon. If Congress can essentially collude with the executive in disregarding the War Powers Resolution and do so little to assert its own power to declare war, then it is not about to restore a clean and well-defined separation of powers in other respects either.
In the meantime, with regard to the question of how many military bands to have, I'm willing to trust the judgment of whoever it is in the Department of Defense who decides such things. The issue will not be one of my criteria in deciding for whom to vote in the next Congressional election.
Lawrence Korb's unflattering review of Robert Gates's tenure as secretary of defense addresses one of the greater discrepancies between reputation and reality in the record of a prominent public servant. Given the extremely favorable reputation that Gates enjoys as he is about to leave office, such a discrepancy still leaves room for a good amount of the positive to go along with the negative. Gates unquestionably is a very smart and talented bureaucrat. But part of his being smart has always been to have a good feel for what sells well, either to his superiors in government or to the public. Much of what Korb describes from Gates's tenure at the Department of Defense reflects Gates's career-long emphasis on saying and doing the sorts of things that tend to win applause as tough-minded management, whether or not those things really improved how well the organization he was managing performed its mission.
Early in his career, when the audience Gates needed to impress was not the public but instead his immediate superior, the key superior was William J. Casey, who was Ronald Reagan's director of central intelligence in the 1980s. Casey catapulted the young Gates into senior positions, including eventually that of deputy director of central intelligence. Casey also was—as aptly described in Gates's own memoir, From the Shadows—an ideologically driven Cold Warrior who largely obliterated the distinction between policy advocacy and objective intelligence. What Gates did not describe is how much he himself, a protege who owed his meteoric rise largely to Casey's patronage, was involved in the politicization.
Gates was twice nominated to be director of central intelligence. On the first occasion, he withdrew when it became clear he would not be confirmed. His second nomination made it through the Senate, but with 31 negative votes. The opposition was based partly on the politicization but even more so on continued uncertainties about Gates's role in the Iran-Contra affair. Many senators found it hard to believe that he did not have a significant part in a scandal in which officials directly above and below him had been implicated, and in which he was especially close to the person above him.
Remarkably, when George W. Bush nominated Gates to become secretary of defense in 2006, almost none of this background was mentioned, and Gates was easily confirmed. This was in part because Gates was not Donald Rumsfeld, which at the time would have been the biggest qualification for almost anyone nominated to be secretary of defense. But it also was a tribute to Gates's superlative ability to preserve and nurture his own reputation.
The single biggest theme in that nurturing—the chapter that Gates could expertly write in any how-to-get-ahead book—is that he has always posed as a reformer who has been above whatever organization he has been charged with running, rather than ever being of the organization, no matter how long he has been running it. He has always bragged of being, in his words, an “agent of change” who would come in to whack away ruthlessly at the stodginess and ineptitude of whatever organization he was appointed to head.
This posture has served two purposes for Gates. First, it involves themes that always win applause, especially when applied to government bureaucracies that are routinely and automatically assumed to be stodgy and inept. Second, it enables him to present himself, no matter what failures occur on his watch, more as part of the solution than as part of the problem. By quickly assuming the role of one who cracks heads—or rolls them—he protects his own head. In brief, it enables him to shift responsibility for failure or misjudgment downward.
This pattern was in evidence in one of the subjects Korb addresses: the war in Afghanistan, and Gates's handling of the field commanders he assigned to the war. One of those commanders, David McKiernan, requested more troops, had his request quashed by Gates, and then after the president subsequently decided to send more troops, was fired by Gates and replaced with Stanley McChrystal.
Another episode that Korb does not mention was the mistaken loading of nuclear warheads on a B-52 that flew from North Dakota to Louisiana in 2007. Gates's principal response was to fire the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff, citing “cultural” problems in the service. The incident certainly raised serious questions about procedures for handling nuclear weapons, but where exactly should the responsibility lie? The service secretary and chief of staff were several levels removed from the faulty inventory of ordnance on the flight line in North Dakota. To fire them requires a concept of accountability for senior officials that holds them responsible for everything that takes place under their command, regardless of what they did or what they knew. And if that is the concept, why should the responsibility stop at their level? The Air Force is, after all, part of the Department of Defense.
Gates's posture of the tough-minded, crusading reformer whipping into shape an organization that supposedly was in sad shape when he took it over was in full bloom in a speech he gave a few days ago at the American Enterprise Institute. In remarkably self-serving language, Gates talked of how “in the course of doing everything I [note the first person singular] could to turn things around first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, from the early months I ran up against institutional obstacles in the Pentagon—cultural, procedural, ideological—to getting done what needed to get done.” He went on to talk about the requirement for “fundamentally reshaping the priorities of the Pentagon and the uniformed services and reforming the way they did business.” Four and a half years on the job, and the divide between the reformer with the whip and the whipped organization was as deep as ever. Everything good in the Pentagon was depicted as a result of what “I” accomplished; everything that was still bad in the department which he has been running was supposedly due to cultural, procedural, and ideological obstacles of the institution.
Awareness of the gap between reputation and reality matters not just to make an accurate historical judgment on one official. It is also partly a matter of fairness to those, such as David McKiernan, whose careers or reputations may have suffered as Gates strove to protect his own. Most important is that it is the reality of how departments are run and operate that counts, not whatever image the person at the top of it has managed to cultivate. What best serves the image is not necessarily what best serves the organizational mission and the national interest. Korb cites some very important matters for which this is true, such as defense spending. There are many others, including effects on morale and cohesion in an organization whose head never really joins the organization but instead lords over it.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, whose current members are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, is soliciting membership applications from Jordan and Morocco. Jordan had unsuccessfully applied for membership in the past; Morocco has never shown any such interest. If this expansion of the GCC takes place, it will make the organization's name rather odd—especially with Morocco, which is about 3,000 miles and six countries away from the Persian Gulf. But then again, Turkey is about that far away from the Atlantic and nonetheless is a member of what is still called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The GCC's outreach to the two prospective members has been interpreted largely in terms of the Gulf states feeling more vulnerable these days amid the Arab Spring, their worry about Iran and about encirclement by Shias, and their desire to expand supportive ties with two countries that happen to have had substantial relations with the Gulf largely in the form of expatriate workers. That is all true, but the expansion follows in line with what the Gulf six had already been trying to do in turning their grouping into more of a well-integrated NATO-like alliance instead of just another regional organization. The members are currently reviewing plans to expand their joint military force called Peninsula Shield. If they can do more in this direction and make it stick, they will have succeeded where other alliances and would-be alliances among Arab states have failed at the first sign of one of their members doing something divisive. (Jordan had been part of an earlier grouping, along with Egypt, Iraq, and North Yemen, called the Arab Cooperation Council. The short-lived ACC, which was established partly as a counterpoint to the GCC, fell apart when Iraq invaded Kuwait.) The GCC also has been exhibiting EU-envy with integrative ideas such as a customs union and common currency, although so far they are more ideas than reality. In some EU-style symbolism, however, the GCC secretary-general recently announced that the organization's flag would fly alongside national flags at all of the member states' ports of entry.
Probably the GCC is best thought of—and this is where the reaching out to Jordan and Morocco becomes more understandable—as an Arab monarchs' club. And more specifically, it is a mostly Sunni monarchs' club. (The one exception is Oman's Sultan Qaboos, who like most of his countrymen is an Ibadi Muslim, which means he is not Sunni but also not Shia.)
So what should the United States, and other outside powers, make of all this? The current GCC members and Jordan and Morocco all have relatively good relations with the United States. If they want to be treated as a bloc and for some of the interaction with them to be multilateral and not just bilateral, that's fine, even if the GCC takes a more geographically diverse, expanded form. But a more general lesson is that such a bloc demonstrates anew the mistake of treating the Middle East, as Americans are wont to do, in bifurcated terms—moderates vs. extremists, good guys vs. bad guys, reform-minded regimes vs. non-reform-minded regimes, or whatever. The GCC comprises mostly good guys as far as relations with the United States are concerned, but the monarchs' club may be on the wrong side of history when it comes to internal political change. The notion of the Middle East divided into two camps never conformed to reality or to Middle Easterners' own view of their region. The development of the GCC as a basically pro-western but in some ways regressive bloc is, set against the fluidity of the Arab Spring, part of what makes the region a necessarily complicated, multipolar place.
The idea of prolonging the agony of the U.S. military misadventure in Iraq beyond the end of 2011—when it will have gone on for eight years and nine months and is supposed to end according to an agreement duly reached between the U.S. and Iraqi governments—keeps getting pushed, in some official as well as unofficial circles. The latest push came from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when he appeared the other day at the American Enterprise Institute for what he called his “last major policy speech in Washington.” In response to a question, Gates expressed the hope that Iraqi political leaders would “figure out a way to ask” the United States to keep troops in Iraq past the previously agreed deadline. (One can understand the reasons for a charade in which the U.S. defense secretary hopes that the other government will “ask” us to do something he wants to do, but it is still a charade. No matter how much any such request is stimulated by agitation from the halls of AEI, if U.S. forces do stay in Iraq beyond this year be prepared to be told repeatedly that they are there because Iraq “asked” for them.)
Gates could not express a lot of confidence that Iraq will make such a request because, as he correctly observed, “we're not very popular there.” But regardless of what Iraqi hearts and minds are saying, Gates sees functions that U.S. forces could perform that the Iraqis have trouble performing. He said nothing about how long he would envision U.S. forces performing those functions. There wasn't even an attempt at a “light at the end of the tunnel” argument. For all we know, it would be another eight and three-quarters years.
Although Iraq would be doing the “asking,” Gates sounded more interested in perspectives outside Iraq and in sending “a powerful signal to the region that we’re not leaving.” He said, “I think it would be reassuring to the Gulf states.” Reassuring in what way, exactly? That U.S. forces would still be helping to bolster an increasingly authoritarian Shia-dominated regime? Once upon a time U.S. support for the security of the Gulf states was perceived more in over-the-horizon terms. Now we are directly in the Gulf in a big way in Qatar and Bahrain. The advantage that boots remaining on Iraqi ground would add to this mix is hard to see.
Gates also said, “I think it would not be reassuring to Iran, and that’s a good thing.” If what the defense secretary has in mind is developments solely inside Iraq, then the prospect of U.S. forces remaining indefinitely where they are not popular and where they sustain the radical narrative—in which the Iranian regime has indulged as much as anyone—about the United States occupying Muslim lands shouldn't discomfit Iran much at all. If what he has in mind is a threat to use military force against Iran, then this has the kind of untoward effect such saber rattling often does, which in this case means strengthening the political position of Iranian hard-liners who feed upon a perceived threat from the United States and strengthening as well the Iranian motivation to develop nuclear weapons.
Probably what is most in play here is reflected in Gates's comment that “we’ve made a big investment already, a huge investment, in treasure and in lives” in Iraq. Especially for those who thought the war was a good idea, it is disconcerting to accept any move that may suggest that the war is not worth prosecuting, now as much as eight years ago. It is also disconcerting to accept a move that might reduce any chance, however slim, of future events in Iraq leading history to judge the war a win. Even beyond such thoughts in the minds of the war's supporters, there is a much-repeated pattern of entire populations at war treating past losses as an investment that must be stuck to in a dead-shall-not-have-died-in-vain way. This is a matter of collective psychology and reduction of national dissonance, not sober pursuit of national interests.
In fact, all that “investment” consists of sunk costs. Nothing that happens in Iraq from this day forward will bring back to life the more than 4400 U.S. service members who have died there, or make whole the many thousands more who are permanently disabled either physically or emotionally, or repay the hundreds of billions of dollars that the United States has spent on the war. The proper policy perspective is to weigh whatever incremental benefit is to be gained against the additional costs—human, material, and political—from staying in Iraq.
Yet another dynamic that also has been seen in other wars is the difficulty of finding an appropriate off-ramp from a road that, however costly it has been to travel it, has no clear end. With the Iraq War, the U.S.-Iraqi agreement on military forces provides an uncommonly excellent off-ramp. Negotiated under the previous U.S. administration—the one that launched the war—it is bilateral and bipartisan. As such, it is less likely to become the basis of future recrimination than withdrawals carried out without such cover. One of the much-quoted bits of wisdom attributed to Yogi Berra is, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” An appropriate refinement of that apothegm that is applicable to this war is “When you come to an off-ramp, take it.”
I testified today to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in one of a series of hearings the committee is holding on Afghanistan and Pakistan. I was asked to address the terrorist dimension of the conflicts there, with particular reference to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. What follows is a portion of my testimony.
South Asia, and more particularly the portion of it encompassing Afghanistan and Pakistan, has come to be associated strongly with extremism and terrorism. That association is understandable, given the connection of the area with one of the most traumatic events in U.S. history. The lines of contention in the region are complex, however. Different dimensions of conflict there, such as between moderation and extremism, or what may pose a terrorist threat to the United States and what does not, do not coincide with each other.
The connection of this region with militant Islamist terrorism is rooted in the insurgency against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. That insurgency became the biggest and most prominent jihad, attracting militant Muslims from many different countries. Although the anti-U.S. terrorist group we came to know as al-Qaeda did not develop as such until the late 1990s, its connection with Afghanistan and South Asia is based on the earlier effort against the Soviets. When Osama bin Laden left Sudan to take up residence in Afghanistan in 1996, he was returning to the scene of his earlier contribution, which was chiefly logistical, in helping the Afghan insurgents to defeat the Red Army.
There is no intrinsic connection between Afghanistan and international terrorism. In fact, Afghan nationals are conspicuously absent from the ranks of international terrorists. A rare exception was Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested in 2009 for allegedly plotting to bomb the New York City transit system. But even Zazi had left Afghanistan with his family for Pakistan when he was seven years old, and he had lived in the United States since he was fourteen.
Pakistan has developed its own connections with international terrorism. This has included groups, most notably Lashkar-e-Taiba, with some capability to operate far afield. But the primary focus is still within South Asia, and specifically on the Kashmir dispute and other aspects of confrontation with India.
In short, the link between this region and international terrorism is not based on inherent qualities of the region or of the conflicts that bedevil it. Instead it is more of a historical accident related to an attempt by the Soviet Union to quell an insurgency in a bordering state, with the link greatly enhanced in American minds by the residence in Afghanistan—ten years and more ago—of people associated with the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Current violence in Afghanistan is a continuation of an Afghan civil war that began after a coup by Marxist-Leninists in 1978 and, although the line-up of protagonists has changed from time to time, has never really stopped. After the departure of the Soviets in 1989, the fall of the pro-Soviet Najibullah regime in 1992, and internecine fighting among the warlords who had pursued the insurgency, a new movement known as the Taliban—benefiting from Pakistani backing and the support of an Afghan public disgusted by the warlords' violent squabble—asserted control by the mid-1990s over all but the northern tier of the country. The civil war continued as a fight between the Taliban and a mostly non-Pashtun collection of militias known as the Northern Alliance. The intervention in late 2001 of a U.S.-led coalition, in what we call Operation Enduring Freedom, was a tipping of the balance in this civil war. It was enough of a tip for the Northern Alliance to overrun Kabul and to drive the Taliban from power.
The current phase of the Afghan civil war, although commonly seen as a fight between the internationally-backed government of Hamid Karzai and a terrorist-associated Afghan Taliban, is a far more complicated affair with multiple dimensions. The ethnic element is a large part of the conflict, with the Taliban largely Pashtun and other ethnic groups having a major role in the government forces. Other relevant divides are between Sunni and Shia and between rural interests and the urban elite.
The Afghan Taliban constitute a highly insular, inward-looking movement whose leadership is concerned overwhelmingly with the political and social order of Afghanistan. It concerns itself with the United States only insofar as the United States interferes with its plans for that political and social order. It is a loosely organized movement in which the leadership group known as the Quetta Shura, led by Mullah Omar, is the most important but not the sole point of decision-making.
The motives of the rank-and-file who have taken up arms under the Taliban label are diverse and at least as locally focused as those of the leadership. Those motives include assorted grievances such as ones associated with collateral damage from military operations and resentment over what is seen as foreign military occupation. Probably few of the rank and file are driven primarily by a religiously based desire to remake the Afghan political order, and hardly any of them have perspectives that reach beyond Afghanistan's borders.
The Afghan Taliban are not an international terrorist group. They have not conducted terrorist operations outside Afghanistan. There is nothing in their record or their objectives that suggests that they will.
The connection between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda is an aspect of 1990s-era history. As the Taliban leaders were in the midst of their war against the Northern Alliance, and bin Laden was establishing a new home for himself and his followers after leaving Sudan, each side had something to offer the other. Bin Laden provided resources and manpower to the Taliban's prosecution of the civil war. The Taliban provided bin Laden hospitality. Although the two sides both had radical (though hardly identical) Islamist ideologies, the relationship was largely a marriage of convenience, and not without frictions.
The basis for the marriage is largely gone. The Taliban cannot provide the hospitality they did when they were the government of three-fourths of Afghanistan. Bin Laden (before his death) and what is left of his organization within the region can provide little material support. As U.S. officials have repeatedly observed, there is minimal al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, with personnel numbering only in the scores.
Any prospect for the Taliban and al-Qaeda to reestablish anything like the relationship they had in the years prior to 9/11 is severely constrained by the changes (some of them irreversible) that have since taken place in all of the parties concerned: the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the United States. Taliban leaders are acutely aware that the biggest setback their movement has ever suffered—their being swept from power in the opening weeks of Operation Enduring Freedom—was a direct response to an al-Qaeda operation. They have no incentive to do anything that would facilitate a repeat of that experience. Al-Qaeda leaders are also unlikely to perceive an advantage in having more of a presence on the northwest side of the Durand Line than they already do on the southeast side of it. This is especially so because the Taliban and al-Qaeda alike know that the standards for use of U.S. military force in Afghanistan have changed drastically since pre-9/11 days. Unlike back then, the re-establishment of anything remotely resembling al-Qaeda's earlier presence in Afghanistan would become a target for unrestricted use of U.S. air power. This would be true whether or not the United States was still waging a counterinsurgency on the ground in Afghanistan. And such use of force would be far greater than the still major restrictions on anything the United States can do militarily in Pakistan.
Bin Laden never intended whatever organization he controlled to be the entire story as far as jihadist terrorism is concerned. The very name of his group—al-Qaeda, or “The Base”—implies that it would instead be a foundation or starting point from which bigger things would grow. This in fact is what happened. The overall violent jihadist movement to which the name “al-Qaeda” is customarily but loosely applied now goes well beyond anything bin Laden controlled or that his surviving associates in South Asia have been directing. Bin Laden's role in recent years was far more as a source of inspiration, ideology, and ideas (including operational ideas) than command and control. This role was confirmed by what has so far become publicly known about the material seized in the raid at Abbottabad.
Most of the initiative, planning, and preparations for terrorist operations under the al-Qaeda label in recent years has come from outside South Asia. Some of it has come from formally named affiliates—most notably, though not exclusively, from the Yemen-based group calling itself al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Some has come from less formally affiliated groups and individuals, including during the past few years several individuals in the United States. Even though “links” are sometimes traced back to South Asia, the initiative is largely coming from the periphery.
This pattern implies that the situation on the ground in the AfPak region is not one of the more important factors determining the degree of terrorist threat to Americans. To the extent that control of a piece of real estate matters, whether that real estate is in Afghanistan is hardly critical. Other places, such as Yemen, are available. This is in addition to the question of how much the control of any piece of real estate affects terrorist threats. A lesson from terrorist operations in recent years—including 9/11, most of the preparations for which took place well away from South Asia, including in Western cities—is that the effect is less than that of many other factors shaping terrorist threats, and that virtual space is more important than physical space in planning and coordinating terrorist operations. The point is not that terrorist groups will not use physical space when they have it—they do—but that it is not one of the more important determinants of how capable they are and how much of a threat they pose.
Bin Laden's death will affect the Taliban leadership's calculations regarding al-Qaeda and negotiations to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan. Any sense of debt among Mullah Omar and the Taliban leaders, dating back to the assistance that bin Laden gave them in the 1990s, was more to bin Laden personally than to his group. With bin Laden gone, the Afghan Taliban probably feel freer than before to renounce any prospect of future ties with what is left of al-Qaeda. For the Taliban leaders, al-Qaeda now means to them less a former ally in past phases of the civil war and more a source of potential trouble, with shades of the enormous trouble that al-Qaeda caused the Taliban in 2001.
Probably also entering the Taliban leaders' calculations are the implications of the raid against bin Laden for what the United States is able and willing to do to hit targets important to it, even targets nestled deep inside Pakistan. What the United States did at Abbottabad could be done as well at Quetta or elsewhere. This fact may also incline the Taliban leaders more toward negotiations because of reduced confidence in their own security during an indefinite continuation of the conflict. Factoring in the Pakistani military's likely thinking—following the embarrassment of Abbottabad, any reduced leverage of Pakistan against the United States, and what this may mean regarding future hospitality in Pakistan—would make the Taliban leaders even less sure of being able to wage their insurgency indefinitely from havens beyond the Durand Line. In brief, the net effect of bin Laden's death has probably been to improve the opportunities for negotiations to wind down the war in Afghanistan.
Probably the most significant take-away from the past few days of U.S.-Israeli dialog is to shed light on the true intentions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding peace with the Palestinians. Although Netanyahu finally allowed the phrase “Palestinian state” to pass his lips for the first time almost two years ago, this past week in Washington provided further confirmation of what had been apparent all along: that whatever conception Netanyahu may have of such a “state,” it is not a formula having any chance of becoming the basis for—to use Netanyahu's own words from his joint appearance with President Obama on Friday—“a peace that will be genuine, that will hold, that will endure,” or probably even what most of the rest of the world would consider a state. Netanyahu is smart enough to realize this, which is to say he is content to let the status quo endure indefinitely. Israel will maintain that status quo through brute force—military force within the territories, and political force in Washington.
The drop-the-veil moment during this past week was the importunate lobbying by Netanyahu's government before President Obama delivered his Middle East speech on Thursday at the State Department (and doesn't that say something right there—where else would one see a foreign government get in the last lobbying licks on a president's speech, even at the expense of delaying the speech?) to omit any mention of the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiating land swaps and an eventual territorial settlement. The president mentioned that anyway, and in the joint appearance on Friday Netanyahu said nothing about land swaps, instead denouncing the 1967 borders as not being a suitable basis for anything. As Mr. Obama correctly noted in his address to AIPAC on Sunday, there was nothing new in his mention of 1967-borders-with-swaps. It has long been recognized as the only formula that has any hope of being the basis for a successful negotiation. It has been the basis for several official proposals, including one by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. It also has been at the center of several unofficial proposals, including ones from people whose concern for Israel cannot be doubted (such as a plan offered by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy).
So for Netanyahu, not only is the land allotted to the Jewish state in the UN partition plan of the 1940s not enough, and not only is the larger territory that became the State of Israel with what we call the 1967 borders not enough. Even with land swaps that would extend Israel farther into the West Bank and include the large majority of the settlements Israel has constructed on land seized in the 1967 war, that would still not be enough for him. How much would be enough? One can speculate on what crumbs of land would be left to the Palestinians, but speculation is not required to have an idea based on Netanyahu's own statements of what such a “state” would entail: Israeli control of the airspace, no military of its own, and, as the prime minister mentioned on Friday, a “long-term” Israeli military presence along the Jordan River. It sounds like a bantustan that would make Bophuthatswana look like a paragon of sovereignty. But trying to envision the details of such an entity is pointless because it is a non-starter very likely intended to be rejected.
Charters, manifestos, and declarations often are superseded by political reality and do not reflect true intentions or policies. But in this instance, Netanyahu's actions tend to confirm the openly stated position of the other leaders of his own Likud Party. As Henry Siegman has pointed out in these spaces, that position is to oppose creation of a Palestinian state in any part of the West Bank.
Dishonesty in his professed desire for a peace settlement and a Palestinian state was only one part of the deception Netanyahu has displayed this past week. Another part concerned his reasons for coveting all that land. This part of the duplicity derives from the nature of U.S. interests involving Israel. The United States has an interest in assuring the security of Israel. In his AIPAC speech, President Obama properly referred to this aspect of U.S.-Israeli relations as “ironclad.” But the United States has no positive interest in either party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict acquiring title to land not because it is needed for security but instead for historical or religious reasons, or simply to acquire living space. The only U.S. interest is the negative one of being associated in the minds of much of the rest of the world with the Israeli occupation. So Netanyahu couched his denunciation of the 1967 boundary in security terms, saying (again ignoring what President Obama said about land swaps) that the boundary was “indefensible.”
Let's see—even if we ignore, as Netanyahu has, what would be needed for the Palestinians' security—how has that boundary figured into Israeli security in the past? In the one war that was fought across the boundary—the one in 1967—the Israeli Defense Forces conquered the entire West Bank in less than a week (while they also were taking the Golan Heights away from Syria and the Sinai away from Egypt). Since that war, the differential between Israel's military capability and that of its Arab neighbors has become if anything even greater (even just at the conventional level, without considering Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons beginning in the 1970s). Who would threaten Israel across that 1967 border? A demilitarized Palestinian “state”? Some rusty post-Cold War army from some other Arab country that somehow made it into the West Bank? For many years the biggest threat to Israelis' security has come not across a border beyond which Israel lacked control but instead from angry Palestinians in land that Israel does control. The idea of the 1967 border as indefensible is—given military realities in the Middle East—itself indefensible. And the notion that an Israeli-Palestinian boundary based on land swaps on either side of that border, and as part of a larger peace agreement, would threaten Israeli security is ludicrous.
Netanyahu did go beyond the security argument when he said in the joint appearance with Obama (again apparently deaf to what the president said about land swaps) that the 1967 boundaries “don’t take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground, demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.” In other words, Israel is claiming squatter's rights through its construction of settlements in the occupied territories. And the same government (along with its apologists) charges with a straight face that for the Palestinians to insist that further construction—leading to further Israeli claims on the land—cease is somehow a foolish or unreasonable precondition to negotiations.
Also on display these past few days has been the continued robustness in the United States of the lobby-that-supposedly-doesn't-exist and is the political basis for Netanyahu to be able to bring his swagger and his propensity for lecturing right into the Oval Office. Anyone who did not know the identity of the two leaders would have had a hard time determining which one represented the client state and which one leads the superpower that has lavished enormous diplomatic and material support on the client for years.
Netanyahu's ability to swagger is further strengthened by the political interests of the Republicans who invited him to address Congress and who, as the Republican leader in the Senate has made explicit, consider the defeat of Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election to be their number one priority as they go to work in the Capitol each day. The Republicans smell political advantage in the friction between Netanyahu and Obama. So they take the side of a foreign leader against that of the president of the United States—regardless of where U.S. interests lie.
Even though the Middle East peace process currently lacks on the Israeli side a leader committed to negotiating a settlement, President Obama is right to keep the issue alive. It is simply too important, to the region and to U.S. interests. Doing so is a hedge against the possibility that Netanyahu, even though he has given no indication of this, may actually come to realize that a settlement is in the interests of Israel—a democratic, Jewish, and peaceful Israel—and vitally in its interests over the long term. Keeping the issue alive also keeps the negotiating seat warm for some other Israeli leader who may come to power and be quicker to accept those truths than Netanyahu is. And it helps to reduce at least slightly the damage to U.S. interests from being associated with an indefinite Israeli occupation. In the meantime, the applause that Netanyahu will receive in the Capitol should not be allowed to hide how fraudulent have been his professed ambitions and motivations regarding the occupied West Bank.