Ross Douthat's column in Sunday's New York Times offers the provocative thesis that many of this nation's (and some other's) biggest blunders and troubles are due in large part to meritocracy in which intelligent and talented people rise to positions of influence. The problem, says Douthat, is that such people are prone to a form of hubris in which they overestimate their ability to understand and manipulate the world. Hereditary aristocracies, Douthat writes, suffer from stupidity and pigheadedness, while one-party states do so from ideological mania. Meritocracies suffer from leaders who are excessively confident that their skills and knowledge are up to any task and thus become too reckless in their risk-taking. Douthat centers his piece on the story of Jon Corzine, the former head of Goldman Sachs (and former senator and governor), whose most recent Wall Street firm, MF Global, has filed for bankruptcy after apparently taking some bad risks with $600 million of customers' money. But Douthat says the same sort of phenomenon has cropped up in the realm of public policy with such endeavors as the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, or the European Union's creation of a common currency.
There is a lot of validity to this argument, and this type of hubris frequently appears in both public and private sector decision making. But some indications that there is more to the blunders than Douthat describes can be seen in one of his examples: the Iraq War. Ideology was a big part of what drove the war. You don't need a one-party state for ideology to play such a role—just control for a time by one party of some of the functions of the state. And although the war makers certainly had excessive confidence that they knew what they were doing, the launching of the war involved the rejection of much relevant expertise. The excessive and misguided risk taking that was involved was due less to meritocracy than to some people getting in a position—through whatever means, not necessarily merit—in which they could place big bets with other people's money, and in this case with other people's lives.
That is the biggest common thread involving the reckless risk taking of masters of the universe on Wall Street and that of makers of public policy in Washington: the ability to place big bets in which it is someone else's resources that are at stake. This is true of investment bankers who can operate on a “heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose” basis. It also is true of policy makers who get to claim a win if things work out but who do not suffer the way that taxpayers or soldiers suffer if things do not. The fact that those who are in temporary control of the government at any one moment are playing with other people's money and lives is a further reason they should be cautious in placing any bets at all—in addition to Douthat's sensible reason that decision makers need enough humility to realize that they don't really know enough to be confident that their gambles will work out.
In foreign policy there are a couple of additional reasons for caution that do not apply similarly on Wall Street. One is that the policy maker usually is dealing more with incalculable uncertainties and less with calculable risks than the gamblers on Wall Street are. The other reason is that with any public policy the inconsistent and selective nature of political attention means that some risks get paid far more attention than others, regardless of the actual magnitude of the risks involved. Something like the risks from a disliked regime owning powerful weapons tends to get plenty of attention; the risks of using military force to try to do something about such a regime get far less.
An article by Charlie Savage in Thursday's New York Times highlights how lawyers in the executive branch enable their bosses to circumvent certain Congressionally imposed constraints on their activities. The mechanisms employed include opinions issued by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel regarding the unconstitutionality of legislative provisions, sometimes coupled with presidential signing statements and often citing precedents established by previous administrations, even ones of a different party. The issue the article focuses on is the propriety or impropriety of executive branch lawyers citing each other as a way of effectively nullifying some Congressional actions, with the courts shut out of the matter because the subjects of the legislation are ones on which no one has standing to file a lawsuit. The issue deserves attention, as does the related one of the abuse of signing statements, as practiced most conspicuously by the immediate past administration, in which questions of constitutionality are not even invoked but instead an administration says in effect that it will not execute part of a statute simply because it doesn't happen to like it.
Another important issue that the article does not address, however, is what business Congress has in enacting some of these constraints in the first place. Some of them are not only clear encroachments on executive power but a hamstringing of the executive's ability to perform its normal functions. Earlier this week I wrote about one particularly egregious example that has not yet been enacted but is part of draft legislation currently under consideration: a ban on U.S. diplomats having any contact with Iranian ones. Others have also pointed out the senselessness of this provision, even apart from any considerations of constitutionality. The lead reference in Savage's article concerns a comparable restriction that was enacted earlier this year: a ban on the White House's Office of Science and Technology using any appropriated funds to engage Chinese officials. The ban was inserted into a budget bill by Republican members who said they were worried about Chinese espionage. Wouldn't the White House want to prevent Chinese espionage just as much as members of Congress do, and aren't those who arrange contacts with the Chinese in the best position to determine whether a particular contact runs a risk of it?
The legislative and executive functions are two different activities of government, best performed by two different types of bodies. The Founding Fathers recognized this, which is why the U.S. Constitution looks the way it does. The legislative branch establishes general rules and policies; the executive branch applies them to particular cases and problems. The first function requires a representative body for the rules and policies to reflect the broad popular will. The second function requires a hierarchical body to achieve efficiency and unity of purpose.
On matters in which the courts have had a chance to get involved, the third branch of government has endeavored to keep sorted out the proper functions of the first two. Many executive-branch actions that have entailed improperly writing rules as they were being implemented have been invalidated. This has happened even when the legislative branch has tried to give the executive such liberties. The Supreme Court struck down some of the New Deal legislation on grounds that it involved a delegation by Congress of legislative powers to the executive. Things ought to work the other way as well. Not only should the executive not legislate; the legislature should not execute.
So the same U.S. Congress that has done too little in performing some of its proper rule-setting and policy-making functions, and has let some of those functions—most notably the power to declare war—atrophy, has done too much when going beyond those proper functions and starting to operate on the executive branch's turf. This jumbling of what ought to be clearly separated powers is not due to some desire to mess up the Constitution, even if it has that effect. It is more a matter of politics in the narrow sense trumping statesmanship. It also reflects a sort of attention deficit disorder that characterizes American politics in general and the U.S. Congress in particular, in which action is taken more often to respond to the flaps, controversies, causes célèbres and popular themes of the moment than to build coherent and durable policies.
Amid the demographic news about the world's population reaching seven billion—either now or in a few months, depending on whose count you trust—the Chinese news agency Xinhua carried a story about population trends in China, and two significant trends in particular. One is the aging of the Chinese population, with fertility too low to offset increases in the ranks of the elderly. The other is a large gender imbalance—rooted chiefly in one-child policies and gender-selective abortion—that is becoming more prominent in the adult population. There are about 15 million more males than females today in China. The imbalance will become more pronounced over the next ten years, with an estimated 30 million men during that period being unable to find brides and get married.
Chinese leaders have some major challenges ahead, rooted in this demography. The growing burden of a large elderly population requiring support from its younger, still-working brethren can become a drag on economic growth. The experience of graying Japan over the past couple of decades is one that Chinese leaders surely want to avoid. As for the gender ratio, a surplus of unmarried young adult males has historically been associated with instability and a propensity for violence both internally and externally. Unmarried males are, for example, disproportionately numerous in the ranks of terrorists. Past Israeli efforts to put Palestinian terrorists on a more peaceful path have emphasized getting them married.
While the potential difficulties for Beijing are clear, the implications for the West are not. These demographic patterns in China could cut different ways for Western security interests. Insofar as Beijing is more preoccupied with internal problems and its growth slows, the larger rise of China and the threat it may pose is lessened. And if some of those unmarried men become societal misfits, the authority against which they rebel would be China's own. The implications of those dimensions are largely positive for the West.
An offsetting negative dimension is that the gender imbalance, and the tendency of such an imbalance to be associated with instability and authoritarianism, will work against any hoped-for evolution of Chinese politics and society in a Western direction. Even worse would be military adventurism to occupy and work off the steam and frustrations of the unmarried males—another effect seen of gender imbalance in the past.
All hard to predict, but worth watching.
The South African jurist Richard Goldstone endured much unjustified abuse when he prepared a report that cataloged Israeli excesses during the brutal military operation in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009 known as Operation Cast Lead. The abuse was heaped on him despite the truth of what he described, despite the balanced nature of a report that also described excesses committed by Israel's adversary Hamas, and despite Goldstone subsequently going out of his way to refute other accusations against Israel, relevant to the Gaza operation, that he believed were unjustified. Goldstone gives every indication of being a decent and fair man.
Given that experience, it is understandable that Goldstone would seize additional opportunities to visibly defend Israel, especially at a time when the Arab Spring and the heightened sensibilities regarding popular sovereignty or its absence have sharpened the regional focus on Israel's continued subjugation of Palestinians. It is also understandable that Goldstone, as a South African, would pick up on use of a term that played such a large role in his own country's history. And so he writes that applying the word apartheid to that subjugation of Palestinians is a “slander” against Israel.
Goldstone's op-ed includes a couple of important and valid observations. One is that “Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and the West Bank cannot be simplified to a narrative of Jewish discrimination. There is hostility and suspicion on both sides.” The other is that Arab citizens of Israel—i.e., the Israel of the 1967 boundaries—enjoy political and civil rights and are not subject to anything that could be described as apartheid.
But then there are the subjugated Palestinians in the occupied territories, whose situation Goldstone describes with understatement as “complex.” Earlier in his piece Goldstone refers to a definition of apartheid in the 1998 Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court. The core of that definition is “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.” Even though these words describe exactly the current situation in the West Bank, Goldstone uses two strained arguments to contend that it does not. One is that the roadblocks, the walls, the restrictions on movement, and all the other aspects of the oppression and domination are a response to Israelis feeling threatened by terrorism. This is a dangerous and open-ended rationale, because almost every group of oppressors has used a threat from the oppressed group as justification for its own actions—at least as a public rationale, and often reflecting a genuinely felt threat. Many Afrikaners certainly felt threatened by the black majority in South Africa.
Goldstone's other argument is that the arrangement in the West Bank is not intended to be permanent; Israel, he says, has agreed “in concept” to a Palestinian state. But concepts do not displace realities. After forty-four years of the reality of Israeli occupation, how much longer will concepts suffice? Indeed, introducing the idea of Israeli concepts makes the comparison with South Africa all the more appropriate. Insofar as Israeli prime minister Netanyahu has given any indication of his concept of a Palestinian state, it looks a lot like the bantustans of South African apartheid. Underlying all this is the reality that Goldstone does not mention at all: the continued Israeli colonization of occupied territory that has now reached half a million settlers and is intended to create facts on the ground that will be the basis for making some version of the current arrangement permanent.
It is appropriate to look beyond the present to the future in discussing the use of the term apartheid, because in addition to describing the current situation it can fairly be used to assess the choices Israel must make when facing the reality of demographic trends. Over the long term, Israel cannot be a Jewish state and retain all the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River and be free and democratic. If it chooses in favor of the first two, it will be an apartheid state indefinitely. In thinking about the future, we also should remember that apartheid in South Africa ended—not just as a “concept,” but as a reality. But Israel has still not produced an F. W. de Klerk (and the Palestinians have not produced a Nelson Mandela).
Apartheid has such significance in the history of South Africa—and because of the importance of that experience, in the history of human oppression generally—that it is understandable if a South African would be sparing in applying the term to other situations. Maybe out of respect to South Africa, any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian situation could eschew the term and instead say “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.” But that's twelve words rather than one. And if the one word fits—as it certainly does in this instance—it will be used, and appropriately so.
Image: Carlos Latuff
The obsession with putting pressure, pressure and more pressure on Iran, and subjecting it to isolation, isolation and more isolation, has lost almost all sense of purpose and direction. It has become an automatic, ape-on-a-treadmill imperative. It has become divorced from any apparent attention to exactly what such pressure and ostracism can be expected to accomplish or even what we want it to accomplish. In the process, the anti-Iran campaign has sometimes entailed shooting oneself in the foot.
The latest bullet being aimed at the U.S. metatarsal came out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Monday, in the form of an new version of its Iran sanctions bill. The chair of the committee is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who cut her ostracizing teeth on Castro's Cuba—and we've all seen how much a half century of embargo and attempted isolation from the United States have accomplished there. The sanctions bill would make it illegal for U.S. diplomats to have any contact with an Iranian official unless the president certifies to Congress fifteen days prior to contact that not talking to the Iranian officials “would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States.” It is impossible to imagine any purpose being served by such a provision other than enabling politicians to express once again how much they hate Iran and how implacable they are willing to be toward Iran.
If enacted, this legislation certainly would have practical effects. It would prevent any exploration of ways to resolve disagreement over that Iranian nuclear program that we are supposedly so intensely concerned about. It would prevent soliciting Iranian cooperation in areas, such as Afghanistan, where some Iranian and U.S. interests run parallel, and the Iranians could be helpful rather than causing trouble. It would preclude discussion of miscellaneous matters of interest to Americans such as the recent return of those captured hikers. And it would prevent any diplomacy to keep U.S.-Iranian incidents or crises—the kind that retired joint chiefs chairman Admiral Mullen expressed concern about—from spinning out of control, unless the crisis conveniently stretched out beyond the fifteen-day notification period. (By way of comparison, the entire Cuban missile crisis lasted thirteen days.)
This legislation is another illustration of the tendency to think of diplomacy as some kind of reward for the other guy, rather than what it really is: a tool for our side. The provision is so stupid that one can reasonably hope that even if it survives the committee markup scheduled for this Wednesday, and even if the House of Representatives passes it, it would not survive in the Senate. But regardless of its fate, it vividly illustrates how mindless the pressuring and isolation of Iran has become.
The legislation reminds me somewhat of one of the better known episodes of foot-shooting in American history: the Embargo Act of 1807, promoted by Thomas Jefferson. That embargo was intended to pressure the warring European powers into stopping certain actions that disturbed the United States, such as Britain's impressment of American seamen. All it brought about instead was significant economic damage to U.S. trading interests. One difference between that episode and the present one is that Jefferson was trying to avoid U.S. involvement in a war—although war with Britain came anyway in 1812. The more fervent of the Iran-bashers today do not appear to have a Jeffersonian outlook.
The National Interest will be running on Monday a response to Raymond Tanter's missive on behalf of the Iranian cult/terrorist group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. Given that Tanter goes out of his way to raise my name a couple of times, it would be appropriate for me as well to point out a couple of the more glaring misdirections in his piece.
Tanter's premise, as reflected in his title, is that anything bad you ever heard about the MEK is a product of propaganda from the Iranian regime. Evidently this means that anyone, either inside or outside of Iran, who has ever been critical of the group must have been brainwashed by the propaganda. If that were true, those responsible for U.S. public diplomacy have a lot of valuable lessons to learn from the Iranians; their propagandists must be doing something right.
The Iranian regime flings propaganda as freely as any other regime. And it certainly has had a lot of unfavorable things to say about the MEK. Some of those things may be exaggerated or even outright lies. But one could erase completely everything the Iranian regime has ever said on this subject, and there would remain the large, long, sordid record of what the MEK has done, what it has stood for, and the abhorrent cult it still is. The record extends from the days it was killing Americans while opposing the shah, through when it was in league with the clerical regime and supporting further anti-American terrorism such as the hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, through the long period during which it was working for the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. The record is not based just on what is said by the State Department or an intelligence agency or any governmental component with a policy to support, much less on anything the Iranian regime might say. If you want a recent independently reported portrait of the group, see, for example, this article by Elizabeth Rubin.
Tanter tries to smear critics and criticism of the MEK, including some of the contents of an open letter to which I was a signatory, by saying it “resembles regime propaganda against the MEK.” The MEK has conducted terrorism and other violent acts against U.S. interests and against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Is it any surprise that some of the critical things said about the group from the standpoint of U.S. interests resemble some of what the Iranian regime puts out? (And if it's not brainwashing, then just what is Tanter suggesting is the reason for the resemblance?)
One of the respects in which Tanter's piece diverges most widely from reality is his attempt to argue that the MEK has any support to speak of within Iran. He notes that the group was the source of some revelations about Iran's nuclear program. True—and we ought to remember our reliance on the accident of this weird sourcing when we think about how much confidence we ought or ought not to have in our knowledge of this program—but what does that have to do with popular support? It only takes one person to serve as a source. The most telling indication of the MEK's unpopularity in Iran, as pointed out in the aforementioned open letter, is that the Iranian regime uses that unpopularity as a way to discredit the democratic opposition in Iran, by trying to associate it with the MEK. For the same reason, the leaders of the Green Movement have emphatically said that they want nothing to do with the MEK. Tanter also mentions attendance at pro-MEK rallies in the United States as a measure of support, without mentioning that the MEK campaign has resorted to such measures—used in a rally outside the State Department this summer—as padding attendance by busing in homeless people who don't know squat about the MEK or Iran but come for the free food.
Tanter precedes a reference to me with the odd statement that “Intelligence communities are targets of Iran's disinformation.” Odd because I have been out of the intelligence business for more than six years, and anyone who views my thinking as having any connection with judgments that an intelligence agency would reach today will be disappointed and wasting their propaganda resources. Tanter later mentions me again as someone who ought to be concerned about the “political motivation” for having the MEK on the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, or FTOs. It is true that the listing process is not immune to policy considerations, but that has been much more a matter of avoiding the listing of a group that really ought to be on the list (the Provisional Irish Republican Army of fifteen years ago is the example that comes to mind), than of including on the list a group that should not. Not listing someone means simply not initiating the listing process. Listing a group requires a lengthy process of review by the Departments of State, Justice, and Treasury and the intelligence community, according to the criteria specified by law.
Tanter seems to believe that a group has to have committed terrorist acts within the previous two years to be kept on the list. Not true. (Having been directly involved in the laborious process of compiling the required administrative records for the initial listings after enactment of the law in 1996 that created the FTO list, I know a thing or two about this subject.) Two years used to be the interval between recertifications of listed groups, and it is now the period after which a group can petition for delisting. But no terrorist acts have to have been committed during that period; retaining the capability and presumed intent to commit them is sufficient to stay on the list. If performing terrorist acts recently was a requirement to stay on the list, many of the 49 groups currently on the list would have to come off. Lebanese Hizballah, for example, probably would be one of them. I expect that many of the pro-MEK campaigners would be among the first to scream if that happened.
There is indeed a large amount of political influence that is being exerted in an effort to affect a decision about the FTO list, and it is almost all coming in the form of the large and well-funded campaign to delist the MEK. In fact, the campaign is extraordinary, and nothing remotely resembling it has ever been waged on behalf of any other group on the FTO list. Whatever is being said in the opposite direction is only a modest reaction to the pro-MEK campaign itself. Here is what I said on the subject two months ago, after that rally outside the State Department:
The secretary of state should pay no heed to what Melvin Santiago and the other hungry homeless outside her office window are saying, or to what the high-paid hired guns are saying, about the MEK. Nor does she need to pay any attention to what people like me are saying about the group. She should keep the windows closed and just pay attention to the terms of the law and to what officials in the departments and agencies involved say about whether the terms of the law still apply in this case.
If Raymond Tanter really wanted to inform us about political influence being exerted on what ought to be administrative and legal decisions, he could shed more light on the campaign of which he is a part. In particular, he could help us understand where all that funding is coming from. It evidently is coming from quarters who would like to stoke ever more tension and animosity between the Iran and the United States. I have a guess who that might be, but so far it is only a guess.
One of the most misleading and distracting formulations that has been applied to the countering of terrorism is the notion that this effort is a “war.” The notion was in full bloom with the Bush administration's “war on terror.” Terrorism being a tactic, this concept, as Zbigniew Brzezinski once observed, makes as much sense as a “war on blitzkrieg.” The “war” idea also ignores several other realities: that military force is only one of several tools that can be used for counterterrorist purposes (law enforcement resources and the criminal justice system being a couple of the others); that counterterrorism does not entail a struggle against a single identifiable foe, as a real war does; and that counterterrorism does not have identifiable beginnings and endings, as real wars do.
Applying the “war” notion to counterterrorism has several negative consequences. It overly militarizes counterterrorism itself, encouraging excessive reliance on the military instrument. It invites the tendentious association of counterterrorism with unrelated military adventures or misadventures, as happened with the Bush administration's Iraq War. It further invites the open-ended use of extraordinary and even extra-legal methods, as occurred with the Bush administration's practices on detention and interception of communications. It elevates terrorists from the status of criminals to that of warriors.
The Obama administration sensibly discarded the term “war on terror,” but the “war” view of counteterrorism lives on and continues to have negative consequences. The most recent, and in a sense the most extreme, application of this view is found in efforts by Republican members of Congress to bar the use of civilian prisons and courts to handle terrorist suspects. These efforts do not involve the expansion of any counterterrorist tools or resources. Instead, they involve a prohibition on the use of certain tools and resources—ones that have been used effectively for years to handle many terrorist cases. How could such a prohibition be expected to improve counterterrorism?
Of course, it won't improve it. Instead, it would be a new impediment to counterterrorist investigations. If enacted, it would lead to awkward and ineffective procedures such as the FBI having to interrupt an investigation that had just gotten under way in order to turn a suspect over to military custody.
Earlier incarnations of the “war” notion were an indirect, lexicographical way of arguing for greater use of military force. Propelling the latest moves is some combination of two other drivers. One is sheer ideological momentum, driven in turn by the habit of referring for years to a “war on terror.” The other, far more calculated, motivation is to come up with something that can be used to portray Barack Obama as being soft on national security. The Republicans will have a hard time doing that, amid counterterrorist successes such as the killings of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki and Obama's striving to sound tough on Iran. The “war” concept of counterterrorism gives them something to grasp at and to put into play in the election campaign.
And so yet another important function of government, like many others, has been turned into either an ideological gesture or a campaign talking point.
Image: German Federal Archives
However much the hyping of the alleged plot involving the DEA informant and the Iranian-American used car salesman in Texas may have been motivated by a desire to look tough on Iran in the eyes of the American public, it is having unhelpful effects on the attitudes of the Iranian public. An interesting report by an independent Tehran-based journalist who uses the pseudonym Yasaman Baji describes the “deep and complex nationalist feelings” the story is stimulating among Iranians. A more specific consequence is to increase the credibility of the Iranian regime and to reduce that of the United States. “For the first time since the disputed 2009 election,” writes Baji, “both supporters and opponents of the government are responding in similar fashion, voicing considerable scepticism about the charges and questioning U.S. intentions and objectives regarding Iran.”
One element in this attitudinal shift is that Iranians find the idea of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps plotting to assassinate a Saudi ambassador in Washington simply too hard to believe. “Why should it give a pretext to the United States now?” asked a 55-year-old shopkeeper. The other element is that the “verbal attacks against Iran” that “have intensified over the last two weeks” have made believable the regime's propaganda about U.S. intentions toward Iran. One unnamed political activist is cited as saying that until very recently, many in the general public and in the politically active portion of it “trusted the spoken words of the U.S. president and officials more than those uttered by Iranian officials.” Now, however, “the continuation of hostilities, sanctions, and in particular the recent allegations have changed people's views, since they are beginning to feel that the long-term U.S. objective is the destruction of Iran.”
All of this is a complication for pro-democracy forces inside Iran. One active member in the Green Movement said the work of Iranian oppositionists had become much more difficult because they had to “fight for freedom and democracy inside the country and against foreign threats in the international arena.”
Baji raises one optimistic note, which is that Iranians may become more insistent that the regime follow policies that do not “create the context for the acceptance of conspiracies by enemies” and “give the United States, Saudi Arabia, or other countries any pretext for harming the country.” We can hope this may happen. In the meantime, the latest burst of anti-Iranian militancy in the United States is as deaf to the effects on the Iranian public, and as counterproductive regarding Iranian hostility toward the United States or the prospects for changing Iranian politics, as previous bursts have been.
Some of the recent bloody unpleasantness in Libya reminds us that the world does not divide as neatly into white hats and black hats, good guys and bad guys, as we would like it to. We would like it to divide that way because it would be easier to deal with, conceptually and psychologically, if it did. Policy makers would like the world to divide that way—or at least often talk publicly as if it did—because that makes policies easier to sell. So both the menace from adversaries and the goodness of clients or allies tend to get oversold. And what is not good about clients or allies tends to go unmentioned.
The real world's messier and more complicated lines between good and evil, and between who should be supported and who should be loathed, inevitably and inconveniently appear. They are doing so today in Libya in a way that adds extra irony to how the NATO intervention there was sold. The undeniable negative qualities of Muammar Qaddafi, a dictator easy to loathe, were not enough. Added to the pitch for intervention was the prediction of atrocities by the regime if it were left in place. We don't know if the predictions would have come true—there was little or no basis for the more sweeping prognostications of city-wide bloodbaths—but since the beginning of the Libyan civil war opponents of Qaddafi have accumulated a record of violent violations of human rights that should be every bit as disturbing as actions of the former regime. Significant attention has been focused on how Qaddafi died amid the fury and confusion of the dictator's final minutes. Worthy of at least as much attention is what appears to be systematic slaughter of others associated with the old regime, followed by a lack of any apparent effort to investigate what happened.
Specific incidents of such violence, fully worthy of the label atrocity, could not have been predicted, but something along similar lines could have been expected. As Donald Rumsfeld once observed, stuff happens. As Rumsfeld and his colleagues failed to do in an earlier intervention, one should anticipate the stuff. But discussion of atrocities before the intervention in Libya was all focused on what the Qaddafi regime might do, not on what would happen when it was falling or after it fell.
The intervention is now water over the dam. There is little the United States or NATO can do, or should try to do, to directly and physically affect what will continue to be a messy and often violent course of events in Libya. The biggest lesson to draw from the experience is to do a better job of anticipating the nasty stuff, and drawing the appropriate policy conclusions, the next time an intervention in someone else's civil war is being considered.
Meanwhile, we should not try to frame what is going on now in Libya in terms of oversimplified divisions between good people and bad people, and between who deserves support and who deserves condemnation. Actions, not people, should be individually judged. The transitional government will need support, mostly in the form of advice in constructing a civil and political order, if Libya is to avoid unending, bloody disorder. But it also needs to be called to account when it does not do as much as it can to stop atrocities occurring under its nose.
Image by ليبي صح
The recent announcement by the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) that it is ending terrorist operations altogether is more significant than anyone not closely following Basque nationalism might suspect. ETA has killed more than 800 people in a terrorist campaign that dates back to Francisco Franco's time. The group did not say it would disarm, and it did not express regret for past activity. But it did really say it was quitting terrorism; it was not merely announcing another of the many cease-fires that it has declared and then abandoned. Perhaps the closest equivalent to its declaration was a statement in the 1990s by the leading German leftist terrorist group, the Red Army Faction, that it had found terrorism to be a dead end and was going out of business.
ETA isn't exactly going out of business, and the issue of Basque separatism, or at least demands for greater autonomy, will persist. The Spanish government will have a hard time defusing the issue, partly because it would be hard to expect it to grant even more autonomy than the Basque region already enjoys. But what it should not do is follow the example of the government of Sri Lanka, which, since its military victory over the Tamil Tigers, has shown insensitivity toward the needs and sentiments of the Tamil population.
ETA's step has some lessons for the handling of other violent groups, even ones with goals and circumstances much different from ETA's. One is that cracking down physically on a group is not necessarily incompatible with influencing its decisions in a direction that moves it away from violence. The weakening of ETA through the operations of Spanish and French security forces was probably a major factor behind its announcement. The Pakistani government ought to take notice instead of complaining that U.S. policy toward the Haqqani group, and the demands it makes on Pakistan regarding the group, appear to vacillate between cracking down and negotiating.
Another lesson is that even seemingly incorrigible terrorist groups are capable of learning from others and changing their ways. ETA's announcement followed an appeal by an informal, unofficial group of negotiators who included Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams. One can hope that ETA will follow the example of the Sinn Fein's longtime terrorist wing, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, in eventually giving up arms and violence completely.
A final lesson is that most victories in counterterrorism, even when coming in a distinctive or unusual form such as ETA's announcement, will be incremental and unclear. That is not a reason to dismiss them. It is a reason to attempt to build on them.