Amid uncertainties over whether China's combination of authoritarian one-party rule and a rapidly evolving economy can persist, an academic at the Beijing Institute of Technology notes that many Chinese intellectuals wonder whether 70 years is about as long as any single party can remain in power. The wondering comes from looking at the examples of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party. Uninterrupted rule by the Chinese Communist Party will hit the 70-year mark in 2019.
There certainly is an unresolved tension between China's authoritarian politics and the vibrant entrepreneurial economics that Deng Xiaoping launched more than three decades ago. The tension mainly has to do with free market economics creating independent centers of power, and power inevitably having political implications. Maybe 70 years really is about as long as anyone can finesse a way through such contradictions.
Longevity per se is probably not the critical factor in bringing one-party rule to an end. It is longevity combined with an inability by the ruling party to overcome its founding myths and to stand convincingly for something that entails a bright and successful future and that has positive resonance with the alternative power centers and the general population.
The Chinese and Soviet Communist Parties and the Mexican PRI are revolutionary parties. A fundamental problem with a revolutionary party as a ruling party is that is that its raison d'etre is stuck in the past. The party exists because it was formed to overthrow something in the past, or in the case of the PRI to consolidate the results of a past revolution. Such a party finds it hard to change its identity, in its thinking about itself and the image it has among the public, to something much different that has to do with the future. In effect its new raison d'etre, if any, is just to perpetuate its own power.
For a demonstration of how a different kind of ruling party will not necessarily run up against a time limit, look at Singapore. Despite the difference in size, the ethnic Chinese character of Singapore may make it an apt comparison with China. Singapore is in effect a one-party state; the People's Action Party has governed Singapore without interruption since independence in 1965, and for several years before that when Singapore had self-government under British sovereignty. The PAP holds all but a handful of seats in the national legislature.
The PAP is not a revolutionary party. It convincingly stands for what makes Singapore the modern success story that it is: a stunningly successful entrepot that is far cleaner—both physically and in terms of avoiding corruption—than China and also gets high marks for commitment to the rule of law. What underlies the success and what the PAP stands for is a rational, pragmatic, legal approach to public affairs. Involved in that is a strong commitment to meritocracy. Recognition of the importance of government and of excellence in government for economic success is reflected in the compensation for ministers and senior bureaucrats being among the highest in the world.
The PAP still has several more years of rule before its 70-year mark. But it is a good bet that as it approaches that mark it will not—even if Singapore does not become appreciably more democratic than it is now—elicit the kinds of doubts that are being voiced now about the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Those doubts are expressed as China is about to transfer power to a new party chief who, whatever his talents, is a revolutionary princeling who represents ties with the past at least as much as the future.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker offers an explanation for why so much of the United States has become divided fairly clearly and consistently into red and blue states—into regions that lean decidedly toward Republicans or toward Democrats. Borrowing ideas from other scholars, including historian David Fischer and psychologist Richard Nisbett, he suggests it is largely a legacy of the patterns of settlement in colonial America. The North was settled mostly by English farmers; the inland South mostly by Scots and Irish herders. Anthropologists tell us that herders, whose wealth is mobile and can easily be stolen, develop a “culture of honor” with an emphasis on using self-reliance and one's own guns, rather than depending on government, to avoid being victimized by rustlers. And from that one can implicitly draw various positions that are associated with the present-day political Right. Farmers do not have the same set of vulnerabilities and thus developed a different culture. As time passed and each culture moved with the frontier westward, the political traditions persisted.
It is an intriguing hypothesis and probably has some validity. There are many other aspects of current American attitudes that are strongly rooted in American history, even going back to colonial times. But before getting to the regional question, Pinker addresses why the views on disparate political issues tend to correlate at all into a Republican clump and a Democratic clump. Why, for example, does knowing someone's view on gay marriage help us to predict the same person's view on military spending? Pinker adduces an explanation—which he appears to accept as valid, even if it does not explain as much as the anthropological hypothesis about settlement patterns—that is based on contending views about human nature. The Right, according to this explanation, has a “Tragic Vision” of people being “permanently limited in morality, knowledge and reason.” This leads to views ranging from the need for guns and a large military for protection against unreasonable people, to respect for customs of religion, sexuality and the like to avoid a slide into barbarism. The Left is said instead to have a “Utopian Vision” that considers human nature to be malleable and “articulates rational plans for a better society and seeks to implement them through public institutions.”
This explanation is not persuasive, partly because it is blatantly inconsistent with some actual political positions associated with the Right or Left. Consider foreign policy, where one of the biggest and clearest examples of a utopian vision is found in the neoconservative belief in being able to remake foreign societies in America's image. The neoconservatives' biggest project, the Iraq War, was about implementing an ostensibly rational plan for making a better society in the Middle East, administered from above by the Coalition Provisional Authority and based on a belief that malleable Middle Easterners could be made into reasonable practitioners of liberal democracy.
Explanations for political beliefs that are based on something like a supposedly coherent view of human nature give far too much credit to present-day American ideologies for being logically consistent. There isn't really any good, logical reason particular views on gay marriage ought to accompany particular views on military spending; it takes intellectual gymnastics to try to tie the two together.
Such explanations nonetheless continue to be offered, largely for two reasons. One is that the explanations themselves may be part of a political agenda or political slant. Pinker acknowledges “conservative thinkers” to be the source of the concept about Tragic Visions and Utopian Visions. That is not surprising. Utopianism is something one is much more likely to attribute to an opponent than to claim for oneself.
The other reason is the tendency of intellectuals to over-intellectualize—to come up with a nifty logical construct and then to assume this reflects the thinking of others. Another example of this is the lead article in the current International Security, which offers an explanation for the different policies of presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy toward the defense of Western Europe, with the former preferring to rely on self-defense by the Europeans and the latter favoring more of a forward commitment by the United States. The article, by Brendan Green, is based on solid scholarship and explores in admirable detail the perspectives of the two presidents to the challenge of deterring aggression by the Soviet Union. But the author then invokes Isaiah Berlin and his two concepts of liberty and tries to explain strategies for European defense in terms of “negative liberals” and “positive liberals.” That's a stretch.
When looking not at presidential policies but instead at voters' preferences, explanations of this type are not just a stretch; they are simply incorrect. Voters going to the polls next week will not have made their choice after brushing up on their Isaiah Berlin and contemplating the different varieties of liberty. Nor will they have contemplated human nature and deduced, based on that contemplation and on ideas about tragedy and utopia, the best ways of dealing with the human condition.
To the extent that the views of most voters on different issues do tend to be grouped into recognizable clumps, this is not because they are all going through the same coherent thought process—or any coherent thought process. It is because they are taking cues from groups with which they identify. The groups might be organized interest groups or identifiable segments of society or the economy. They might be friends and neighbors—and if so, this would accentuate the regional patterns that Pinker addressed. Most of all, the cues come from political parties. Most voters identify with Republicans or with Democrats, and because of this they tend to adopt most of the views that go with their preferred party. A person's views on some issues might underlie the party identification in the first place, but once identified, the rest of the views in the clump associated with the selected party are usually taken on as well.
Anthropologists could help in understanding this phenomenon. It is essentially a form of tribalism. People identify with either the Republican tribe or the Democratic tribe and shape their views on matters of public policy accordingly.
One indication of how much political views and alignments are at least as much a matter of group affinity as an intellectually cogent approach to formulating an ideology is the role of a very anti-intellectual factor: racial affinity and racial preference. Voters' preferences this year are at least as much divided along racial lines as in any other recent election. This no doubt reflects not only the less malign forms of racial affinity but also differential patterns of racial prejudice between followers of the two political parties.
All of this is yet another regrettable consequence of the evolution of American party politics in the direction of a sharper, harsher party division with little room for intraparty free thinking. The demise of moderate Republicans is the principal manifestation of this evolution. The message implied by much of the party politics of today is that all the right answers exist on one side of the divide or the other. This has made the American electorate more mentally lazy than ever. Its part in the political game is simply to pick a tribe and fall in line.
Feature articles over the last couple of days in the Washington Post and New York Times demonstrate how counterterrorism as practiced by the United States is subject to contradictory forces and trends. A series in the Post describes how the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism has become an increasingly institutionalized killing machine that appears destined to operate indefinitely against a continually replenished list of targets. A piece in the Times describes a backlash over the monetary expense and compromises to privacy and civil liberties, a backlash that seems strong enough to force changes in counterterrorist programs. The different directions implied by this reporting reflect how the nation has failed to assimilate some basic principles about terrorism and measures to counter it.
One of those principles is that terrorism is not something with a beginning and an end. It is instead a tactic that has persisted throughout history. And yet the notion of a beginning and an end persists in thinking in this country about terrorism. The counterterrorism machine has gotten cranked up to run in ways that would not be acceptable to most Americans if it were to run forever, and yet there is no evident point at which, once turned on, it should be turned off. It was inevitable that a backlash would set in.
Related to this point is the prevalent, and equally mistaken, notion that fighting terrorism involves wiping out or incapacitating some identifiable set of people: “the terrorists.” That is the idea behind the hit lists and target matrices. The Post's series depicts a U.S. counterterrorist effort that has become increasingly and narrowly focused on eliminating the people in the matrices rather than on what leads people to become terrorists and to get into the matrices in the first place. The United States, through its policies and actions, does a lot to affect which people, and how many people, become terrorists. Those actions include the drone strikes, with their collateral damage and power to enrage, that have become the preeminent means of elimination.
Another concept that is only slowly and belatedly being appreciated is that counterterrorism involves inherent trade-offs, between security and such things as civil liberties, personal privacy, and alternative use of public resources. The common absolutist attitude toward preventing terrorism, which was especially stark in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, has led most public discussion of the topic to be phrased in terms of what measures are necessary to do the job. But there is no “necessary” level. It is instead a matter of how much security to buy at what price. The answer to that can vary, and vary over time as the same population changes its attitudes. This is a lesson that is only being learned over time and as backlashes have set in.
Most of the important lessons about this subject still have not been assimilated by most of the American public. Over the next few years public support for counterterrorism probably will ebb and flow as it always has: sharply up after a terrorist incident, gradually down as the costs and downsides become more apparent with any incident-free passages of time. Such fluctuation will have little or no correlation with the pattern of actual terrorist threats or with a rational approach to countering the threats.
Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy has an interesting op ed which is a response to accusations that Barack Obama has thrown Israel under that proverbial bus under which one's political opponents are continually throwing people and things. The main respect in which the accusations are nonsense, of course, is that during President Obama's tenure the United States has continued to lavish voluminous unconditional aid and protective UN vetoes on Israel and has backed off from even the most tentative effort to exert leverage on it. Halevy's point is that to the extent there has been any American arm-twisting of Israeli leaders, it has mostly occurred during Republican presidencies.
Halevy mentions the clearest specific attempt to use aid as leverage: when the George H.W. Bush administration withheld some loan guarantees to Israel on the eve of the 1991 Madrid conference. He notes how Dwight Eisenhower leaned on Israel and its British and French collaborators to withdraw from Suez in 1956. He recalls how neocons in the George W. Bush administration pressed Israel to allow a free and open Palestinian election in 2006—although the administration lost interest in this bit of democratization of the Middle East when Hamas won the election.
The episode Halevy recounts that is least well known occurred just before the same administration began its war in Iraq in 2003. As Halevy tells it, in order to retain Tony Blair's support for the war in the face of resistance from members of his own Labour Party who demanded in return some Israeli concessions toward the Palestinians, Bush had to declare that the multilateral diplomatic plan known as the “roadmap,” which included an implied end to Israel's sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, represented U.S. policy. The Israeli government of Ariel Sharon strongly opposed the roadmap, but the Bush administration, anxious not to lose the participation of Britain in the war, made clear to the Israelis that it wanted no opposition or complaint from them. Sharon reluctantly went along and got his cabinet to do so too—although one member of it, Benjamin Netanyahu, abstained when the issue came to a vote.
The principal lesson to draw from Halevy's extracts from Middle Eastern history is not just his own point about whether Republicans or Democrats have been more willing to exert leverage on Israel. It is the more basic point that such leverage indeed can be exerted and has been exerted in the past—and has worked.
And yet most of what is said and written in the United States today on anything having to do with Israel pretends there is no such option. Examples abound, having to do with occupation of Palestinian territory, animosity toward Iran, and other topics. In another op ed on Wednesday, on Iran, in which a couple of neocons lay out a schedule over the next few months for diplomacy to be made to fail and for the U.S. war against Iran that they evidently are hankering for to be launched, the authors refer in passing to “those who take the Israeli threat of a pre-emptive strike seriously and believe it would be a mistake.” But even though it would indeed be a big mistake, and even though whatever crisis we supposedly have about Iran's nuclear program is being driven by the threat of Israel starting a new Middle Eastern war, the authors say absolutely nothing, despite all the unused means of U.S. leverage, about addressing that problem.
Neocons in 2003 considered British support for their Iraq War project so important that they were willing to twist Israeli arms to get an Israeli concession, and they succeeded. Isn't avoiding another badly mistaken war worth twisting arms again? Netanyahu didn't yield on that previous occasion, but on the issue of war with Iran he probably is even more of an outlier among Israelis than he was regarding the roadmap. It also certainly is worth exerting some of that unused leverage to salvage whatever chance remains for a stable and long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
President Obama can indeed be criticized for his approach so far toward Israel, but it is by no means the criticism to which Halevy is responding. The failure is not in pressing Israel but instead in not pressing it sufficiently for its own good. If we must use that clichéd bus metaphor, the problem is not in throwing Israel under a bus but instead in not rescuing Israel from a path it is taking on its own and that will cause it to get hit by the bus.
After a debate that did not do a lot, to put it charitably, to clarify and illuminate differences between the candidates on issues of foreign and security policy, how should a citizen who would like foreign policy to be an important factor in electoral choices think about the choice to be made next month? Here are some considerations that such a citizen (whose recognition of the importance of foreign policy ought to be applauded) should bear in mind and that do not require explicit reference to either of this year's candidates or to specific statements they have made in the campaign.
Limits of the possible. The big, messy, violent and troublesome world outside our borders will be big, messy, violent and troublesome in most of the same respects no matter what the United States does. Even the superpower cannot solve all the problems out there, much less remake the rest of the world in its image. Unfortunately much of what has been said about foreign affairs in this campaign has failed to recognize that principle. That part of the campaign has mirrored the domestic part by sounding as if the question at hand were simply whether we like or dislike what has been going on lately rather than who has the best response to problems that exist and the best understanding of what can or cannot be done about them. We also hear many references to “strategy” but without any specifics about the content of a strategy and without recognition that the first step in formulating a sound strategy is to recognize the limits to what is possible—what we can and cannot do given our available powers and resources. We need to ask in the face of unpleasant happenings, even before asking what we should do about them, whether there is anything we can do about them.
First do no harm. The Hippocratic principle ought to apply to the nation's choice of its leadership. Think about ways in which we would want to revise U.S. foreign policy of the past if somehow we could do that. Probably most of the revisions, and surely most of the really consequential ones, would involve not doing something that turned out to be harmful to the nation's interests, rather than failing to do something one might hope would have been beneficial. In this respect what may be sound advice for living an individual life is not good advice for leading a nation. Maybe it is true that in old age one will regret not trying something more than one will regret trying and failing. For a nation, where the consequences of failure are far greater and long lasting, the regrets will be more about the failures. In choosing leaders we should pay at least as much attention to avoiding those who pose a bigger risk of failure as we do to picking ones who hold out a promise of greater success.
The appointees. A peculiarity of the U.S. political system, as compared to most other advanced democracies, is the installation of huge numbers of political appointees with each change of presidential administration. This political stratum, belonging neither to the ranks of elected politicians nor to the professional bureaucracy, tends to have major influence over foreign policies even more so than domestic ones. So we should realize we are choosing not just a president but a corps of appointees, most of whom have their own strong ideas about the direction policy ought to go. We cannot determine in advance exactly who will wind up in what positions, but we can get a good idea of the possibilities by looking at who has become associated with the campaigns. The more that the candidate at the head of the campaign lacks his own strong and original ideas about foreign policy, as a matter of lack of experience in this area or overall changeability, the more important it is to consider the possible appointees.
Outside influences. Something similar could be said about likely influences on the next president that do not themselves become appointed officials. The influences in question here are ones that could affect foreign policy, but the influences could be found either inside or outside the United States. The latter would include any foreign countries or governments to which the candidate has developed a particular affinity. As with potential appointees, we can get a fairly good idea of the influences on a future president in office from where he has been receiving support and advice before entering office.
First term vs. second term. This is unavoidably a major consideration whenever an incumbent president is running for reelection. It embraces two subissues. One is a matter of risk propensity and in that regard is related to the earlier point about risk of failures. An incumbent's record, and whatever is good or bad about it, will always give us a better idea of what we can expect from the same person in the next four years than the idea we would have with someone who has never held the office.
A caveat to the preceding point is that a president in a second term has different political equities or vulnerabilities than he had in a first term. That gets to the second subissue. It concerns the difference between the sorts of policies produced by a president who will never be running for office again and the sort produced by a president who, given the competitive partisanship that has become a permanent feature of American politics, will be campaigning for reelection from the day he takes the oath of office. Domestic political considerations will naturally bear more heavily on the policies of a first-term president. The foreign-policy-concerned citizen needs to ask whether this influence will on balance tend to produce better or worse policy on matters of importance to him.
On that last point, there is something to be said for the Mexican-style system of electing presidents to a single nonrenewable six-year term. But that's not the system we have.
As this year's presidential campaign turns to debates about certain foreign conflicts and controversies with the potential for sucking the United States into war, here is an anniversary-based fact that does not seem to have received notice—certainly nothing like the Cuban missile crisis did this month upon its semicentennial.
The presidents of the United States who were elected 200 and 100 years ago both led the nation into war. Both did so despite earlier indications of personal hesitation and reservation in doing so.
The United States entered war with Britain during the final year of James Madison's first term. The impetus for war came principally from Congressional war hawks from the West and South such as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. When Madison sent to Congress in June 1812 what became known as his war message, it did not explicitly ask for a declaration of war. Instead it only listed the maritime and other grievances that the nation had against the British. Congress did declare a war—"Mr. Madison's war”—in which Madison would become the only U.S. president to be chased out of the White House by foreign troops.
A century later, as the European powers sank into the carnage of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson said to his aide Colonel House, “Madison and I are the only Princeton men that have become presidents. The circumstances of 1812 and now run parallel. I sincerely hope they will not go further.” Wilson was elected to a second term in 1916 aided by the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But only a few months later he asked for and received a Congressional declaration of war. The United States was on the winning side of that war, but mismanagement of the aftermath set the stage for another ghastly European war two decades later.
Notwithstanding the many differences, there are some parallels between the circumstances of a century and two centuries ago and those of today. Let us sincerely hope the parallels will not go further.
Helene Cooper and Mark Landler of the New York Times caused a stir over the weekend with a report that the United States and Iran had agreed “in principle” to bilateral negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear program. Negotiations with Iran on that issue have hitherto involved a larger format, with one side, known usually as the P5+1, including the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. Doubts were cast on the Times report by official denials from both the U.S. and Iranian governments, and what is publicly known about just what the two sides may have agreed to is at this time still unclear. Possibly adding to the confusion is an Iranian disinclination to negotiate further even with the P5+1 before the U.S. election identifies who will be leading U.S. policy beginning in January. Further questions have been raised as to why, if there is indeed a factual basis to the Times report, word of such an Iranian-U.S. understanding would leak out now. Speculation has ranged from the leak being an effort to torpedo bilateral negotiations to the news story instead being part of an effort by the U.S. administration to start preparing public opinion for an agreement reached through such talks.
I have absolutely no inside track on what exactly is the true version of this particular story, but I offer this observation: among the most useful negotiations to take place right now would be U.S.-Iranian talks that are held in strict secrecy and that both governments would deny taking place.
The bilateral format—as a supplement to, not a replacement for, the negotiations involving the P5+1—would be useful because the United States is the most important player in the process, because achieving the flexibility necessary to reach an agreement would be aided by not having to reach a multilateral consensus on each concession and because secrecy could be better preserved with a smaller forum.
Secrecy would be useful because both sides are boxed in by their own hard-line statements and by pressure from those wanting to make the lines even harder. For the Iranian leadership, doing any direct business with the Great Satan is a matter of considerable delicacy and risk. For the U.S. leadership, doing anything that anyone could describe as being nice and reasonable toward Iran is also fraught with political risk. Former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy perceptively noted that the Iranians “would like to get out of their conundrum” given how much sanctions are hurting, but that “both Israel and the US governments have tied our own hands. In the end, you create an inherent disadvantage for yourself.”
The current government of Israel, which is the prime mover in agitating on the Iranian nuclear issue and which disdains the whole idea of negotiating with Iran, is the principal force creating political risk for any U.S. administration that talks with Iran. The Israeli ambassador to the United States said on Saturday, “We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” thereby invoking the old fallacy that negotiations are some sort of reward for one side rather than what they really are, which is a tool for both sides. The Israeli government, as a principal potential saboteur of progress toward an agreement, ought to be excluded through secrecy from any opportunity to commit such sabotage.
The other—not unrelated—source of political risk and possible sabotage for the U.S. side is the domestic political opposition to the current administration. An anonymous “GOP strategist” said Saturday that for the United States to accept any Iranian offer of direct talks “would be a dream come true for the Iranian leadership to hold power, and maybe even get concessions on their nuclear program,” thereby invoking the old fallacy (which Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the subsequent history of the USSR should have put to rest) that negotiating and reaching agreements with an adversary somehow contributes to the adversary's domestic strength and longevity. Note also the use of “concessions” as a dirty word, a usage that implicitly rules out any agreement because concessions by both sides will be necessary to reach one.
There is ample historical demonstration of how secret bilateral negotiations—because they are more conducive to achieving the necessary negotiating flexibility and because they cut out the naysayers and saboteurs—can achieve positive results when other mechanisms cannot. Some of that history has been in the not-very-distant past of the United States. The secret negotiations between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts) that finally got the United States out of the Vietnam quagmire are a prime example. Nixon's and Kissinger's secret diplomacy with China also comes to mind.
We should hope that right now there are talks going on between Iran and the United States that are so secret they do not even generate leaks to the skillful journalists of the New York Times. There may not be, but we can hope.
Leon Hadar in these spaces has commended as a “sensible stance” toward the Israeli-Palestinian a policy, enunciated by a prominent American politician, that “we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.” Hadar criticizes “some self-proclaimed foreign-policy realists,” implying that their belief that “Washington can and ought to help make peace between Israelis and Palestinians” somehow contradicts realist criticisms of neocon ambitions to remake the Middle East in the American image. Insofar as Hadar is making a general point that there are difficult and often violent problems out there that the United States simply cannot be expected to solve, he's right about that. (For a nice statement on this theme that goes far beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict, see Daniel Byman's recent treatment.) And Hadar is certainly correct that there are other regional and global players that need to play a role in resolving this conflict.
But Hadar seems oblivious to the enormous resonance that this conflict has like no other—with its continued festering harming U.S. interests—and to the leverage that could be, but has not been, applied to resolving it.
He also seems oblivious to what actual U.S. policies and efforts have, and have not, been in recent years. When he refers to “America's preoccupation with the conflict”—taking him to mean preoccupation with resolving the conflict—one wonders what he is looking at. The last preoccupation at the presidential level was that of Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000. Clinton's successor George W. Bush promptly made it known after entering office that he didn't want to be bothered by the Arab-Israeli issue. It was only near the end of his administration that he decided he ought to go through the motions of hosting a single conference on the subject. Barack Obama made a brief stab at addressing the main impediment to a negotiated settlement—the continued Israeli colonization of occupied territory—but promptly retreated when the Israeli government and its American supporters pushed back hard. Since then he hasn't run with the issue, much less be preoccupied with it, any more than Bush.
Hadar lectures us on how two parties will settle a conflict only if doing so is in their “core national interests” and cannot otherwise be forced to settle by some third party. Of course they can't, unless the third party exercises imperial domination—which is the sort of thing neocons would warm to in other contexts but is certainly not what any “self-proclaimed foreign-policy realists” would advocate. But this observation is not the same as saying other types of third-party participation are useless. If it were, we should find a way to revoke posthumously Teddy Roosevelt's Nobel Peace Prize for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Nations locked in conflict with other nations often find themselves unable, for a variety of reasons, to embark on a course more conducive to their interests. With some of those reasons, the active participation of a third party can be instrumental.
There is a tautological quality to Hadar's treatment of this subject. When a mediation effort succeeds, such as with Carter at Camp David in 1978, then he says this must have been what the parties saw as in their core national interests, but when it fails, as with Clinton in 2000, this means they did not see it in their interests. This treatment leads to the glaringly incorrect comment that the parties reached agreement in 1978 “not as a response to American diplomatic pressure.” If nearly a fortnight of personal arm-twisting by the president of the United States and his senior foreign-policy aides and billions in assistance in buying off the parties' remaining hesitations does not qualify as relevant American diplomatic pressure, it is hard to imagine what would.
The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians strikes chords of anger and resentment and shapes attitudes toward the United States, more broadly and strongly than probably any other conflict around the globe. The chords are heard throughout the Arab world and to a large degree across parts of the larger Muslim world. That is why it is a mistake simply to lump this conflict, as Hadar does, together with other long-running disputes such as the one between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. That is also why it is a mistake to disregard the extent to which this particular conflict shapes the willingness of so many people either to cooperate with the United States or to strike out against it.
The extraordinary resonance of this issue underlies this accurate observation by Hadar:
Meanwhile, America's repeated failures as an “honest broker”—a designation that quite frequently runs contrary to its commitment to be a “reliable ally” of Israel—ends up producing an anti-American backlash in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which creates even more pressure on Washington to “do something.”
Correct, but clearly the problem is not with trying to be a broker but instead with failing to be an honest one. And that leads to the elephant in the room that Hadar does not mention at all: the extraordinary relationship between the United States and Israel, with the former bestowing on behalf of the latter many billions of unconditional aid and lonely vetoes at the United Nations and with advocates of the Israeli government having remarkable influence over U.S. policy in the Middle East. Given the shape of this relationship, the United States is in neck-deep in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whether or not we like to think it is. The extraordinary relationship with Israel ensures there will be high expectations about what the United States should do about the conflict, no matter what American leaders may or may not say about their intentions for doing something about it.
There is indeed an American preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it's just not a preoccupation with resolving the conflict. The dominant pattern affecting U.S. policy on this subject is not pressure from those self-proclaimed realists or anyone else to help resolve the conflict but instead pressure from supporters of the current Israeli government not to do things that would move toward a resolution—or even to keep open the possibility of a resolution, especially by freezing the Israeli colonization project. And this gets to all that potential but still unused U.S. leverage, embodied in all that aid and all those UN vetoes.
A benign-neglect policy toward this issue would not, as Hadar contends, “help send a clear message to the Israelis that the window of opportunity for American engagement in a Middle East peace process is gradually closing.” Instead it would send a message to the current Israeli leadership that it has a green light to continue consolidating its apartheid rule over all the territory it controls. It would send a message to the Israeli public that the United States is content to work with an Israeli leadership that follows that sort of policy and that they don't need to think about replacing that leadership. And it would send a message to the vast numbers of people who empathize with or feel kinship with the Palestinians that the United States doesn't really care if the Palestinians ever achieve justice and political rights.
You know we have a serious problem with inequality when that paragon of right-of-center political economy, The Economist, puts as much emphasis on it as it does in its current issue. A major “Special Report on the World Economy” is all about the causes and ramifications of what the the magazine calls “a dramatic concentration of incomes over the past 30 years.” It is a concentration that has occurred in many parts of the world but by no means uniformly. The pattern of inequality is especially glaring in the United States, in terms of both absolute inequality and recent trends.
The magazine's report lays out some of the relevant statistics about the United States that ought to be familiar by now but nonetheless still shock. The share of national income going to the wealthiest one percent of Americans has doubled since 1980, from 10 percent to 20 percent. The share going to the highest one hundredth of one percent—a mere 16,000 families—has quadrupled during the same time from just over one percent to, astoundingly, nearly five percent.
Some of the growing inequality is connected with processes that are on balance economically good—in particular, globalization, which has changed the demand for different sorts of skills. But much of it is associated with processes that are economically bad. One of those processes is the upward redistributive effect of government policy. The Economist notes that when taxes and entitlements in the United States are all taken into account, “the government lavishes more dollars overall on the top fifth of the income distribution than the bottom fifth.”
That last pattern should not be surprising in view of the crony capitalism in which “America's growing inequality has political roots.” The finance industry has more lobbyists in Washington than almost anyone else: about four for each member of Congress. Accordingly, financiers have been allowed “to tilt rules in their favor” and have been “among the biggest winners from changes to America's tax code.”
It is conventional wisdom that there is a tension between efforts to alleviate inequality and efforts to expand the national economic pie. There is some truth in the conventional wisdom: the hope of moving ahead of the crowd in wealth and material well-being can be a powerful incentive to apply more work or more ingenuity to a productive endeavor. But that incentive would be gone only in an entirely flat society, and does not explain or justify the glaring and growing inequality that is today's reality. The Economist's report explains the several respects in which that inequality undermines, rather than promotes, economic growth and prosperity.
There is, first of all, the crony capitalism, which is less about fostering the free markets that are essential for competition and growth than about preserving the privileged positions of those who have already made it.
Then there is the huge waste of human capital entailed in inequality of opportunity. That type of inequality correlates with overall economic inequality. Again, the United States displays some of the worst of it. Its social mobility—i.e., how much any one individual's income is unchained from a tight correlation with the income of the same individual's parents—is lower than in most other advanced Western countries. The Economist sums up the implications for growth and prosperity this way:
High and growing levels of income inequality can translate into growing inequality of opportunity for the next generation and hence declining social mobility...Bigger gaps in opportunity, in turn, mean fewer people with skills and hence slower growth in the future.
Finally, but not least important, much of skewed income at the upper levels has come from rents rather than productivity, as illustrated by how much of the very rich have, The Economist notes, “made their money in Wall Street rather than Main Street.” “Rents” is the technical and somewhat polite economic term that refers to extracting a profit from merely owning or controlling something, or being in an advantageous position, rather than actually producing something. A blunter and more descriptive term is “parasitic.” Economies grow and prosper from productivity; they do not from rents.
All of this should be disturbing even if we looked no further than our nation's borders. It is more disturbing still when considering another pattern that the magazine's report notes in passing: that while inequality within countries and especially in the United States has greatly increased in recent years, inequality between nations has decreased as poorer countries catch up with richer ones. America's growth-inhibiting inequality is making it less able to compete, and less able to serve as an exemplar for others, in the global arena.
Ideologically driven myopia, which mistakenly cherishes anything in the private sector status quo, even when it is destructive of free markets and vigorous competition, and disdains anything government does, even when it is necessary for economic growth and the fullest use of human capital, is needlessly weakening the relative as well as absolute position of the United States.
Another example of this myopia is the disgraceful state into which the nation's physical infrastructure has been allowed to fall (as Arnaud de Borchgrave has recently observed). Repair of that infrastructure is essential for economic growth, but repair of much of it requires action and expenditure by government.
Reports that most arms being sent to Syria in the name of toppling Bashar Assad's regime are winding up in the hands of “hard-line Islamic jihadists” recall a similar earlier experience in Afghanistan. The United States, Saudi Arabia and other outsiders wished to use material support to Afghan rebels to help defeat the Soviets and to topple the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime in Kabul. Working through Pakistan as a conduit and middleman, the outside patrons had to bestow their largesse on several different Afghan militias, which collectively constituted the armed resistance in Afghanistan. About half of the militias could be called hard-line Islamic jihadists. These also were the most effective fighters against the Soviets. If one wanted to use assistance in the form of arms shipments to defeat the Soviets and to do so sooner rather than later, these were the principal groups one needed to aid.
When Najibullah finally fell in 1992 (three years after the Soviet Union withdrew its own troops from Afghanistan), there was hardly a pause before the militias that had been allies in the war began fighting among themselves. The Afghan civil war simply moved into a new phase. In addition to the resulting chaos setting the stage for the Taliban sweeping to power over most of Afghanistan a couple of years later, we are seeing today other legacies of this pattern of outside assistance more than twenty years ago. One of the most potent of the hard-line Islamist elements that was in the middle of the fight against the Soviets was the militia led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who would come to be seen as an enemy of the United States alongside the Taliban itself and the Haqqani group.
In Syria today as in Afghanistan three decades ago, it is illusory to think that the United States or anyone else on the outside of the fight can fine-tune where the arms go so that we deal only with groups to our liking while still getting a return on our investment in terms of hastening the fall of the regime that the fight is directed against. The opposition in Syria is if anything even more disorganized and disaggregated than was the opposition in Afghanistan.
It is not feasible to expect aid to hasten the defeat of Assad if the aid is limited to groups “who share our values,” as Mitt Romney has put it. Resistance groups in Syria are operating in an environment in which they would hardly have an opportunity to demonstrate adherence to any such values. And even if the leaders of some groups seem to express allegiance to particular values, we can have no confidence that the same concepts or terms mean the same thing to them as they do to us. Many people in that part of the world, for example, believe that democracy means nothing more than majority rule, with “majority” defined in terms of something like a religious sect.
There is no opportunity for the United States to do anything approaching precise management of a flow of arms. It is not as if the Defense Logistics Agency is on scene to parcel out the materiel. Other outside actors are needed to facilitate the flow. With the war in Afghanistan the key outside actor in that regard was Pakistan. In Syria today the Saudis and Qataris seem to be particularly important. They are likely to be less disturbed than we are by anything that smacks of hard-line Islamic jihadism.
We should not be surprised if in Syria, as in Afghanstan, the more extreme groups also tend to be the more effective ones in carrying the fight. What is going on in Syria is not some peaceful process of political change in which our “values” would mean much. It is instead a brutal civil war. Brutally extreme groups tend to be in their element in brutally extreme conflicts.
In light of all of the foregoing, we also should not be surprised that despite incessant hand-wringing about what is going on in Syria and expressed wishes that somehow this conflict could be pushed speedily to a successful conclusion, no one has offered any good ideas for how to do that.
Image: Erwin Franzen