The most important consequences of the Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsi will become clear only over a long term. But for anyone who believes the coup was on balance a favorable event, an awful lot of favorable news will have to come out in the months ahead to offset what has already happened in the first few days after the generals moved. The most visible disturbing developments have occurred on two fronts, neither of which should have been altogether surprising.
One is a manifestation of the principle that closing political channels for more moderate Islamists increases the influence of less moderate Islamists. The immediate beneficiaries in this case are the hard-line Salafists of the Al Nour party, who are seizing the opportunity to assert themselves as their more moderate and compromising rivals in the Muslim Brotherhood are knocked off balance, with the army incarcerating their leaders. Al Nour includes the folks who want sharia to be the law of the land, unlike the Brotherhood, who in the writing of a constitution agreed with secularists that it ought only to be a source of principles in shaping the law. Al Nour so far can be said to be extreme only in objectives, not methods. Its assertiveness has included vetoing the candidacy for prime minister of former nuclear diplomat Mohamed El Baradei, who is the closest thing to a Western favorite among prominent Egyptian political figures.
The question of methods was raised by an even more disturbing development Monday morning, when dozens were killed as pro-Morsi protestors were gunned down in front of a military headquarters. This is likely to be a defining event for Egypt similar to, even if on a smaller scale than, bloody suppression of protests in past history, from Saint Petersburg to Beijing. The bloodshed will be associated with whoever is put into office in Cairo with the sufferance of the military. Most worrisome is how such an event may lead to an all-around escalation of violence. One can read in several ways a statement the Muslim Brotherhood issued after its supporters were felled in the street, calling for an “uprising” by Egyptians against those who would “steal their revolt” with tanks and massacres.
As with other phases of political upheaval in Egypt, the United States lacks the power to repair, much less control, the course of events there. The task of dealing with those events, if only as a matter of bilateral relations, has just become even more difficult. It now ought to be harder than ever to do the Egyptian military the favor of not calling their coup a coup.
Amid the fast-moving political drama in Egypt, we should think about larger messages the events there are sending, to those outside as well as inside Egypt, that may prove more important than who is in the presidential palace in Cairo next month or even next year. Egyptian dissatisfaction with Mohamed Morsi was grounded primarily in the dismal state of the Egyptian economy. But national leaders in many other countries have presided over economic failure without getting overthrown by military coups. Morsi was freely and fairly elected, just as much as many of those other leaders were. In this respect, the action the Egyptian military took this week is quite different from its ouster two years ago of Hosni Mubarak, whose entrenched position in power was the result of a rigged system in which no opposition leader ever had a fair chance to displace him.
Because Morsi bears the Islamist label, his election resurrected old phobias about whether democratically elected Islamists would respect democracy once in power. Some of the histories of fascist and communist parties may provide a good basis for asking such a question, although no one ever persuasively made the case as to why Islamists per se should be any more prone than those of other political stripes to put a nation into a “one man, one vote, one time” situation. The fear nonetheless has been widespread. It underlay international (including U.S.) acquiescence when the Algerian military in 1992 aborted an electoral process in which, after the first round of what was supposed to be a two-round national election in Algeria, it was apparent that the Islamic Salvation Front was going to win a overwhelming victory.
Similar fears persist today, as reflected in Islamophobically-enhanced characterizations of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as “a secretive, ideological Islamist underground movement” that “methodically engineered a takeover of Egypt's political system.” That is a grossly inaccurate description of what has happened in Egypt over the past year. Morsi and the Brotherhood never came close to “taking over” the Egyptian system, as demonstrated in recent days especially by the postures of the police and the military. Jonathan Steele in The Guardian, while making no apologies for Morsi's overall performance, goes into more detail about how his conduct during his one year in the presidency gives scant evidence for making an argument that he was knavishly taking Egypt in an undemocratic direction. Morsi quickly retreated, for example, when decrees expanding presidential power proved unpopular. The Brotherhood-heavy composition of the cabinet was a result largely of opposition parties' refusal to participate in it.
The Muslim Brotherhood was necessarily an “underground” organization during the many years under Mubarak and before, when it was legally banned. When it was given the opportunity to play by democratic rules, it did so.
That leads to what ought to be our main concern about this week's events in Egypt, which is nicely articulated by Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations. Husain also is no apologist for Morsi, saying that he is “not a fan of the Muslim Brotherhood” and opposes “their politicization of my religion.” But he observes that given the Brotherhood's prominence among Islamist organizations in the Middle East, what has happened to the democratically elected Morsi will lead extremist Islamists in the Arab world to say, “We told you so. Democracy does not work. The only way to create an Islamist state is through armed struggle.”
Those who, out of their distaste for anything Islamist, are welcoming the Egyptian military coup, ought to be careful what they wish for. They may wind up with something that is not just distasteful but dangerous.
As for near-term U.S. policy, President Obama ought to ignore advice for the United States to try to stage-manage the next chapter in the Egyptian political story. The futility of doing so is reflected in the negative reactions from different sides to just about anything the able American ambassador, Anne Patterson, has said that can be interpreted as weighing in on internal Egyptian politics. U.S. military aid to Egypt, however, provides some leverage over the generals. That leverage ought to be used to encourage a prompt return to a democratic process—which would not be telling Egyptians what sort of government they ought to have but instead would be help in enabling Egyptians to determine themselves what sort of government they should have. Existing U.S. law providing for suspension of military aid after a coup ought to make the exertion of such leverage easier.
After the military coup in Algeria two decades ago, militant Islamists took up arms and the country was plunged into civil war. Over the next several years as many as 200,000 Algerians were killed. The same demonstration to Algerian Islamists that they would not be allowed to participate successfully in democratic politics was not lost on Islamists elsewhere in the region. It was in the early and mid-1990s that violent Egyptian Islamists conducted most of their ultimately unsuccessful terrorist campaign in Egypt. Back in Algeria, the civil war finally concluded around 2002, when the Armed Islamic Group was vanquished. An even more radical splinter of the AIG called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat survived. It continues to operate today across much of western Africa under the name it later adopted: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Mark Landler and Jodi Rudoren in the New York Times raise the question of whether Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama have their priorities straight regarding Middle Eastern issues when Kerry spends copious amounts of his valuable time trying to get Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations under way while other situations in the region are in flames, sometimes literally. It is appropriate to question whether Kerry's effort is worthwhile, but not for the reasons most often mentioned.
When reading in the article that “resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the magic bullet for the region that some once thought,” one has to wonder who the “some” are. This magic bullet is a straw man. Referring to it leads to the logical fallacy, which arises all too often with this issue, that if something doesn't explain everything then it explains nothing. The unsettled Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not influence and explain everything in the Middle East, but it influences and explains a lot.
Despite all those flammable distractions elsewhere in the region, this unsettled conflict and the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian-inhabited land continue to be one of the most frequently and widely cited causes, grievances, and sources of resentment in the Middle East—and beyond, especially among Muslim populations. Opinion polls consistently show that the issue has not lost the tremendous resonance it has had for decades. The issue also consistently is high on the list of issues that regional governments raise both publicly and in dealing with U.S. officials. And the issue is one of the most frequently mentioned complaints that extremists use to rationalize their violence. Even terrorists who may not care about the Palestinians exploit the issue's appeal.
All of this matters significantly for U.S. interests. Because of the extraordinary relationship in which the United States almost automatically condones, defends and facilitates Israeli policies, the United States is paired with Israel as a target of anger and resentment. The extremist emphasis on Israel and the Palestinian issue points to one of the most direct and visible consequences for U.S. interests, which is to stoke or support terrorist violence against the United States. Less visible and less traumatic are the responses of governments, which nonetheless can impede and complicate the pursuit of other U.S. objectives for which the cooperation of those governments is needed, and which is limited by the tolerance of their own populations.
Upheaval elsewhere in the Middle East, far from being unconnected to the festering conflict with Israel, is linked to it in numerous ways. As the Times article mentions, for example, Hezbollah cites Israel and the need to confront it as its fighters join the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime. During the two and an half years of political change in Egypt the status of the peace treaty with Israel has been an object of questioning and worry, mainly because of continued Egyptian resentment over the other half of the Camp David agreements—the part dealing with the Palestinians—never having been fulfilled.
The continued Israeli occupation is a prominent reason for skepticism and cynicism whenever the United States talks about championing political rights, the cause of democracy or national self-determination. The isolation of the United States and Israel from nearly everyone else on this issue—as reflected in many lopsided votes in the United Nations General Assembly—is also a recurring and embarrassing demonstration of a lack of U.S. power and influence.
If none of this is enough to sway one's thinking, there is the basic injustice of the occupation. And for those who profess love for Israel and whose formula for deciding Middle East policy is to ask what is in Israel's interest, there is something else to think about: what Israel's future will look like as an increasingly beleaguered, perpetually at war, apartheid state if the conflict with the Palestinians is never resolved.
Former Israeli ambassador to the United States Sallai Meridor is cited in the article as saying that most Israelis would rank Syria, Iran, Egypt and Jordan ahead of the Palestinians in “importance and urgency.” This overlooks two distinctions. One is between importance and urgency, which are two different things. The depressing familiarity into which the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian seems to have settled after 46 years of occupation does not, through that passage of time, make it any less important.
Another distinction that is critical for U.S. policy is between what is important and what the United States can do anything about. The United States has the leverage—so far unrealized—to do a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given the extraordinary diplomatic and material largesse it bestows on Israel. By contrast, there is much less it can do about some of those other problems in the Middle East. Without obvious levers to pull, efforts to do something are less likely to solve problems than to exacerbate them or to incur additional resentment against the United States for trying to manipulate someone else's internal affairs. That doesn't stop many American participants in policy debates, of course, from pretending that the United States really can solve some of those problems. And so we get the pressure that resulted in indirect intervention in the Syria civil war that is likely to fan the flames there without getting closer to a settlement. We also get recommendations for the United States to declare “redlines” to get Egyptians to behave. (“Redlines” ought to be banished from the vocabulary of policy discourse.)
The valid basis for questioning whether the secretary of state is making good use of his time is this: suppose Mr. Kerry somehow manages to get Israeli and Palestinian representatives to sit at the same table and to engage in a dialogue that is called a negotiation—then what? Will there be reason to believe that this will be anything other than another phase in which talk goes on and on, but so does the occupation, with the Palestinians not really getting any closer to having their own state? Unless more is done to change incentives for the Israeli government, the answer to that question is probably no. Some members of the ruling coalition in Israel have been quite outspoken in firmly opposing a relinquishing of land for peace. Meanwhile, a start to negotiations would be a public relations plus for Benjamin Netanyahu by making it slightly easier for him to pose—similar to how, to incredulous Arab ears, George W. Bush once described Ariel Sharon—as “a man of peace.”
If these observations sound asymmetrically aimed at the Israeli side of the conflict, that is because the situation itself is highly asymmetrical. Israel is the occupier. The Israelis could end the occupation at any time. The Palestinians cannot.
Secretary Kerry and President Obama have their priorities straight insofar as they devote significant time and attention to trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We should applaud Secretary Kerry for his energetic efforts. But we should otherwise reserve judgment until we see whether enough else will change in U.S. policy to yield anything other than talk.
I observed early during the Arab Spring, with specific reference to the danger of extremists making greater inroads in the Middle East, that the regional tumult had multiple positive and negative aspects. On the plus side was the fact that significant political change was achieved in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt without resort to extremist violence, thereby disproving the part of the extremist message that argues such violence is necessary. In ousting Hosni Mubarak, the demonstrators in Tahrir Square achieved what Ayman al-Zawahiri, who now heads what is left of al-Qaeda, tried and failed for many years to achieve through terrorism. Moreover, to the extent that the revolts may increase the total amount of democracy in the Middle East, the added peaceful channels for pursuing political objectives will make the path of extremist violence all the more irrelevant and unattractive.
An offsetting negative is that instability and breakdown of order opens the field for a game in which anyone, violent extremists included, can play. We have seen that happen in Libya. It is happening as well in Syria.
I also mentioned another negative that was less generally recognized than the hazard of extremists exploiting chaos and instability. This is the hazard of the extremist message regaining credibility if popular hopes and expectations that accompanied peaceful political change went unrealized. The country of most concern was Egypt, where public expectations that Mubarak's departure would quickly usher in substantial economic as well as political improvement became unrealistically high.
We are seeing today in Egypt a consequence of those inflated expectations going unfulfilled. The expectations were so high it is unlikely that any Egyptian government, with or without Mohamed Morsi, could have met them. The complaints repeatedly voiced by those now filling Tahrir Square center chiefly on Egypt's dismal economy, with many also mentioning insufficient security. Placing top priority on one's standard of living and the prospects for improving it is a universal tendency.
Issues more specific to Morsi and to the Muslim Brotherhood from which he emerged are factors but lesser ones. Some express dissatisfaction with Morsi being insufficiently inclusive in the making of appointments and formulation of policy. The Islamist nature of the Brotherhood has been one of the less important aspects of the newest round of protest. Morsi has done little to Islamicize Egypt from above during his year as president. He is facing at least as much dissatisfaction from Salafists in not doing enough in that direction as he is from secularists in doing too much.
Egypt being one of the most important Arab countries, we should watch the ongoing events there with interest and concern but also with the realization that there is little the United States can or should do in response to those events. Anything that smacks of U.S. intervention in the internal politics of Egypt would only antagonize one or more elements there. The United States should be prepared to develop a good relationship with whoever is in charge in Cairo once the dust settles.
Whether extremist messages do regain credibility in Egypt remains to be seen. In the meantime, we should reflect on what the events in Egypt imply regarding our tendency to gauge everything in the Middle East in terms of Islamists versus non-Islamists. Oversimplification of fault lines and popular priorities is one problem with that tendency. A presumption that Islamists are worse than non-Islamists for U.S. interests is another problem. Yet another is that even if one is uncomfortable with Islamists in power, the best way to deal with that discomfort may be to let the Islamists fail. That is partly what is happening in Egypt today. The Muslim Brotherhood developed much of its organizational strength and the positive part of its public image during many years as the most important, albeit formally banned, opposition group in Egypt. It is hard to maintain such an image when people hold you responsible for the price of bread and whether sewers work.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/لؤي عمران. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Those who endeavor to keep Iran demonized have had to work overtime lately. The imminent departure from office of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the smarmy, Holocaust-questioning Iranian president, was bound to be a loss for the demonizers because he has been for the past eight years an outward face of the Islamic Republic that is easy to dislike. Their loss was made all the greater when the Iranian presidential election yielded a resounding victory for Hassan Rouhani, the most moderate and reasonable-sounding of the candidates. Since then we have seen in Israel and the United States a campaign, by those who would not welcome any agreement with Iran, to throw cold water on hopes and expectations stemming from the election result. That campaign has forged on, seemingly oblivious to (but in reality, perhaps quite conscious of) how U.S. obduracy in the wake of Rouhani's election would send all the wrong kinds of signals to Iran about U.S. intentions. It is such signals, more so than anything having to do with Rouhani's views or political position, that would impede successful negotiation of a nuclear agreement with Tehran.
The throwing of water has been accompanied by digging up of dirt on Rouhani. One accusation that was seized upon was that Rouhani had been part of Iranian decision-making that had led to the bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires in 1994. That incident got back in the news last month when an Argentine prosecutor issued a report that talked about an Iranian presence in the Western Hemisphere that allegedly provides an infrastructure for terrorist attacks to be carried out either directly or by Iran's all Hezbollah. The dirt-diggers suffered a setback when the same prosecutor subsequently stated that according to his findings, Rouhani was not part of any decision-making circle in Tehran connected to the 1994 bombing.
Other parts of the prosecutor's report nonetheless provided some fodder for a larger front in the campaign to sustain alarm about Iran: the idea that the United States is vulnerable to attack through its soft underbelly, from Iranians infiltrating through Latin America. Part of the attraction of this theme is that the threat it postulates is closer and thus scarier than something that might happen on the other side of an ocean. The theme also meshes conveniently with the debate on immigration and specifically with the increased expenditure on border security measures that was a price for securing some of the votes in favor of the immigration bill that passed the Senate. The idea is that more security along the southern border will keep out not only scruffy illegal immigrants looking for jobs but also sophisticated Iranian terrorists looking to kill Americans.
Alarmists recently suffered a setback on this front, too. The State Department has completed a Congressionally-mandated report on Iranian activities in the Western Hemisphere. The legislation that required the report also called for a strategy to counter “Iran's growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere”—an example of prejudging conclusions on the very subject the report is supposed to cover. The State Department's conclusions, to the chagrin of those who called for the report, are said to be considerably less alarmist, pointing to a lack of evidence of active Iranian cells or Iranian plots in the hemisphere. One of the authors of the legislation, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), is nonetheless not dissuaded, saying that he knows better than the State Department on this subject. A subcommittee, which Duncan chairs, of the House Homeland Security Committee has scheduled a hearing for next month on “Threat to the Homeland: Iran's Extending Influence in the Western Hemisphere.”
Questions have been raised through the years about the responsibility for that attack in 1994 against the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Some have pointed to deficiencies in the original investigation by the Argentines and to the possibility that anti-Semitic elements within Argentina (which certainly exist) conducted the attack. Among the biggest reasons for believing that Hezbollah (with whatever that may imply regarding Iranian involvement) was indeed the perpetrator of that attack, as well as a bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires two years earlier, are the likely motivation and the timing. This part of the story, however, usually goes unmentioned by those ringing alarm bells about Iranian terrorism. Each of the two attacks followed by about a month a significant Israeli hostile action back in Lebanon. In 1992 it was the assassination of Hezbollah's Secretary-General, Abbas al-Musawi. In 1994 it was an airstrike on a Hezbollah training camp that killed about 50 recruits. If Iran and Hezbollah were responsible for the attacks in Argentina, this was almost certainly part of the larger pattern of tit-for-tat retaliation for Israeli acts, including terrorist acts. The same pattern has been even more obvious in Iran's more recent attempts to retaliate for the assassinations of its nuclear scientists.
One of the unhelpful aspects of the demonization efforts, whether they concern decision-making in Tehran two decades ago or hypothetical Iranian terrorists wading across the Rio Grande next week, is that they are irrelevant diversions from the actual immediate issues of U.S. policy toward Iran. They tell us nothing about what is likely to work or not to work in terms of negotiating postures, the management of sanctions, or the making of military threats. For some of the most active demonizers, such diversion is the main (but unstated) purpose. The more they can frame the question as one of whether Iranian leaders have been naughty or nice, the more support there will be for the kind of destructive U.S. policies that make a negotiated agreement with Iran less likely.
The question for the United States (and its negotiating partners in the P5+1) is not whether Iranian leaders have been naughty or nice. And it is not whether Hassan Rouhani deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. It is instead the question of how to achieve a resolution of differences with Iran—especially on the nuclear issue about which the demonizers have been the most vocal—that serves U.S. interests. A negotiated agreement is the only way to do that. Getting to a negotiated agreement means making proposals that use the voluminous sanctions against Iran as leverage rather than as unending punishment, and it means avoiding—especially in the wake of the new Iranian president's election—piling on still more sanctions and more threats of military attack, which would make the Iranians more convinced than ever that the only real U.S. objective is regime change, thereby killing Iranian incentives to make concessions the United States seeks.
These are realities no matter what has been the Iranian behavior that we don't like, and no matter in which hemisphere the behavior has occurred.
Most Palestinian Arabs face Israel as residents of the occupied West Bank or the partially blockaded Gaza Strip, or as refugees in surrounding Arab countries. But then there are the Arabs of Israel itself, who constitute about 20 percent of the country's population. Once the Israeli Arabs were looked to as a potential bridge, between other Israelis and other Palestinian Arabs, whose existence might facilitate an eventual settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not any more, and some of the reasons show through in a just-released survey conducted by Sammy Smooha of the University of Haifa in conjunction with the Israel Democracy Institute. The poll was one of a series done over the past several years to tap attitudes of both Arab and Jewish Israelis about relations between the two communities and about the place of Arabs in Israel.
The dominant attitude of most Israeli Arabs is one of alienation. Seventy percent of the Arab respondents say that the government treats them as second-class citizens or as hostile citizens who did not deserve equality. A majority feel “estranged and rejected.” Two-thirds fear a population transfer, and more than three-fourths fear “grave violation of their basic rights.” Only 12 percent of Israeli Arabs consider Israeli citizenship to be their most important identity, as opposed to their religion or ethnicity. This represents a sharp drop during the past decade, and the opposite of a trend during the same period among Israeli Jews, who were asked a similar question. Fifty-nine percent of Israeli Arabs say that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be justified in starting a third Intifada “if the political stalemate continues.”
The survey's findings regarding Jewish Israeli attitudes were more of a mixed bag but reflect some of the same wide gulf between the two communities. More than two-thirds believe that anyone who self-identifies as “a Palestinian Arab in Israel” cannot be loyal to the state and its laws. Twenty-eight percent favor denying Arabs the right to vote in elections for the Knesset. Sixty-five percent would choose the Jewish character of Israel over its democratic character to the extent the two come in conflict.
There are nonetheless signs that if prevailing Israeli policies and priorities were to change, a better relationship between the two communities might be possible. Despite the alienation, the Arabs' responses suggest realism about their situation. Majorities of Arab respondents said they were reconciled to living in a state with a Jewish majority and a Hebrew culture, and a majority said they would rather remain in Israel than live in any other country. As for Jewish attitudes, Smooha perceives evidence of movement toward centrist views, and with that an absence of any broad trend of even harder attitudes toward Arab citizens. But, he says, a “vocal radical Jewish right” has emerged and has “succeeded in reinforcing the alienation of the Arab minority and in engendering growing fear of collapse of democracy among the elites of the center and the left.”
Unfortunately it is that destructive element in Israeli politics that has been driving Israeli policy, including driving it in directions that make the second-class status of Arab Israeli citizens even worse. Mitchell Plitnick, in raising broader questions about what sorts of values are reflected in Israeli policies toward all the Palestinians, notes that the Knesset has taken the first step toward passing legislation that would evict tens of thousands of Israeli Bedouin—who are some of the Arab citizens of Israel—from land in the Negev where they have lived for generations, since well before Israel's establishment. A proposed use of the land is the construction of new Jewish communities, thereby mirroring what has happened repeatedly in the occupied West Bank. As Plitnick suggests, whatever values underlie such policies, in which a country shoves aside even its own citizens solely because of their ethnicity and to favor a different ethnic group, are not values shared with America.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/מוחמד אבו אלהיגא - שוקו. CC BY-SA 3.0.
In their long history of practicing the dark arts of misleading the public, political leaders have enjoyed much success in getting people to believe what is not true, and what even just a small amount of inquiry or research would demonstrate is untrue. Totalitarian regimes in particular have been able to do this, relying in large part on what is known as the Big Lie—an untruth that overwhelms any skepticism through the authority and lack of equivocation with which it is repeatedly pronounced. The power of the Big Lie comes partly from its sheer audacity but also from the repetition: the serial drumming of an idea into the heads of an unwitting public.
In societies with free speech and a free press there is some deterrence against telling outright whoppers. Usually fact-checking critics, who include energetic journalists as well as some who are trying to protect opposing political interests, are ready and eager to point out falsehoods. Even that is not enough of a deterrent to some who do not consider themselves part of the reality-based community and who merrily dispense their own odd version of the truth.
For those deterred from telling outright falsehoods, the same sort of repetition that helps to make the Big Lie work can be used to considerable effect with a more indirect technique. This is to cultivate an idea in the public mind by asking it as a question, raising it as a possibility, or just associating two otherwise unrelated things by speaking of them in the same sentences. Do this enough times, over and over, and even a proposition that has no basis in reality takes root in the public consciousness. Once rooted, it becomes resistant to uprooting and has a good chance of becoming conventional wisdom that, as such, becomes repeatedly referred to even more. The technique that gets the false idea started is not the Big Lie; it is the Big Insinuation.
A flagrant, and consequential, example of this process was the effort by the George W. Bush administration, in its campaign to build support for the Iraq War, to associate the Iraqi regime with the terrorism of al-Qaeda and especially with the 9/11 attack. The association was accomplished not by telling specific lies but instead mostly by incessantly uttering “Iraq,” “terrorism,” and “9/11” in the same breath and talking about how 9/11 taught us that we cannot wait in dealing with a supposed threat such as Saddam Hussein's regime. This part of the campaign worked. Polls indicated that although only a tiny proportion of the public suspected immediately after 9/11 that Iraq had anything to do with it, on the eve of the Iraq war—after more than a year of the associative utterances—about two-thirds of Americans had come to believe that Saddam had been involved in the September 11th terrorist attack.
Something similar is happening with the “scandal” at the Internal Revenue Service as a result of Congressional Republicans and like-minded commentators loudly and repeatedly suspecting, expecting and predicting (and less loudly, hoping) that evidence would be found showing that the White House had directed the IRS to treat political groups on the Right differentially and unfavorably in reviewing applications for tax-exempt status. Despite enormous investigative effort devoted to that end, not an iota of such evidence has been found. What has instead been found makes the scenario of White House direction all the more implausible, given that the groups whose applications had been flagged for closer scrutiny included not only the ones on the Right that had gotten all the publicity but also ones on the Left and various others that the administration would have no interest in undermining, such as organizations working to promote Obamacare. Not only has there been no evidence of White House involvement; there is not even any evidence of misconduct within the IRS. At most there was a slightly blunt and clumsy use of search terms to try to streamline the very difficult task of enforcing an ill-written law that says tax-exempt groups can do some politicking but this can't be most of what they do.
Despite the total lack of supporting evidence, the Big Insinuation has already had a marked effect on public perceptions. A CNN/ORC poll taken two weeks ago indicates that 47 percent of Americans (up from 37 percent in May) believe that senior White House officials ordered the IRS to target conservative political groups. There are the usual divisions by party affiliation, but even a majority of self-identified independents believe there was such a White House order (51 percent, versus 45 percent who believe the IRS acted on its own).
This is the sort of already-rooted mistaken belief that even disclaimers by those who have done some of the insinuating will not correct. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, speaking last week at the American Enterprise Institute, acknowledged to the disappointment of his audience that a hoped-for smoking gun of White House involvement probably doesn't exist. But he continued the effort to associate the White House with the “scandal,” accusing the president of encouraging “bureaucratic overreach” and trying to shift any burden of proof on to the White House. His speech was similar in that respect to a speech on the Middle East that George W. Bush gave shortly before he left office. Bush issued the requisite disclaimer that Iraq wasn't actually involved in 9/11, but then he delivered more of the all-in-the-same-breath associative language, rhetorically linking Iraq to 9/11, that had created the mistaken public belief that it was.
Everyone who cares about informed discussion of public affairs ought to care about the damage done by the Big Insinuation, regardless of which side of the political spectrum one would like to see scoring or losing points. Expressing outrage cannot be left to a fact-checking Glenn Kessler, who would not necessarily have an explicit lie to work with. The IRS “scandal” has already received far too much attention, but the damage there includes spoiling any chance for a legitimate debate on why tax-exempt status should be given to groups doing any politicking, regardless of whether it is of the Left, Right or Center. No one is being prevented from political activity; why should I and other taxpayers in effect foot part of the bill for that activity?
And as we saw a decade ago, sometimes the damage to the country, including in matters involving foreign policy, can be far greater.
The two and a half years of uprisings in the Middle East known collectively as the Arab Spring have had an apparent hole in the middle; there has not been a new full-blown uprising during this time by Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. This fact is testimony to the ruthlessly effective control measures of Israel, with a security apparatus that outclasses any mukhabarat in the Arab world. The Palestinian outlook in the face of these control measures is a combination of despair and being deterred. The Palestinians have been there and done that, with two previous multi-year uprisings, known as the First and Second Intifadas, in their recent history. They have every reason to expect that the Israeli response to a third uprising—especially given the direction of Israeli politics since the previous two—will be to press down even harder on the levers of control, not to do anything to move toward self-determination for the Palestinians.
The Palestinians also can see that, despite some erosion in the international support that Israeli governments have long been able to count on, there is little sign that the reactions of the international community, and most importantly of the United States, will be appreciably different next time. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu—some elements of which are quite candid about this—evidently intends to retain the West Bank indefinitely, is continuing the colonization program that has been putting a two-state solution farther out of reach, and shows no sign of fearing pressure over any of this from the world and especially from the United States, even with the intensified international attention that a new uprising would bring.
None of this, however, changes the instability inherent in subjugation of the Palestinians. The humiliation, the heavy personal costs, the impairment of daily life and the frustration of national aspirations are all still part of that reality. Human reactions to such situations tend to be more emotional, more matters of anger and frustration than of calm calculation of the adversary's likely responses. A new uprising thus is probably only a matter of time. Exactly how much time is unpredictable; the timing of spontaneous uprisings for which the ingredients are already in place is always unpredictable. But as a point of reference, seven years transpired between the end of the First Intifada and the outbreak of the Second. The Second Intifada did not have a clear-cut end, but it has now been about eight years since it petered out.
A report on instability in the occupied territories published last month by the International Crisis Group reviews some of these realities. The report does not say a new uprising is imminent, but it observes:
Many conditions for an uprising are objectively in place: political discontent, lack of hope, economic fragility, increased violence and an overwhelming sense that security cooperation serves an Israeli – not Palestinian – interest.
Outside powers, and especially the United States, need to be prepared for a new Palestinian uprising whenever it finally occurs. They also need to be prepared for the Israeli government's response, which will be to couple a crackdown on the ground with declarations that in the midst of such turmoil nothing can or should be done to move toward Palestinian self-determination. The path of least political resistance will be once again to acquiesce in practice to this Israeli posture, while paying lip service to the need for diplomacy that works toward creation of a Palestinian state.
The path of greater political resistance would be the right path, which would be to address squarely what underlies the unrest. That path would recognize explicitly that following the Israeli lead means that no time would ever be right for moving meaningfully toward a Palestinian state. It would recognize that if there is a crisis of legitimacy with Palestinian political entities (manifested most recently in serial resignations by prime ministers of the Palestinian Authority), this is largely because even when the Palestinians have had capable leaders their role has been limited mostly to assisting in carrying out Israel's security and administrative responsibilities as an occupying power. And it would recognize that if the Palestinians are divided between the competing political factions of Fatah and Hamas this is in large part because Israel has done everything possible to keep them from reconciling.
Taking the politically easy path will set the table for a Fourth Intifada and beyond. The current Israeli leaders evidently believe that they can live comfortably enough with this prospect. They see Palestinian disturbances now and then as a cost of doing business—the business in this case being to incorporate eventually and permanently all of the occupied West Bank into a greater Israel. The United States needs instead to pay attention to two things: what a just resolution of this long-running conflict would look like; and especially what is in U.S. interests—which run in a much different direction from the Israeli government's objective of favoring land over peace.
Image: Flickr/Israel Defense Forces. CC BY 2.0.
The timing is probably coincidence, but it is hard not to notice how popular disturbances that have shaken major cities in Brazil have come right after big street protests in Turkey. These are, of course, two very important countries, which pull considerable weight in affairs far beyond their own borders. One of them is one of the BRICS and the largest country in the Western hemisphere after the United States. The other is at a critical junction of Europe and the Middle East and is a key player in addressing such problems as the war in Syria. The two have even worked together on some issues of importance to the United States—most notably in brokering a deal on Iran's nuclear program to which Tehran agreed and that, had the United States not backtracked from a formula that it had once proposed itself, might have put us on the road to settling this matter.
It would be easy to dismiss any coupling of the situations in Turkey and Brazil, given the obvious differences. The immediate explicit issues are different: proposed redevelopment of a city park and square in one case; increased transit fares in the other. The incumbent governments are not at all alike, one having a long-serving leader who heads a moderately Islamist party, and the other a newer president heading a leftist movement. But a very important similarity is that they are both democracies. Not only that, but democracies which, although each has a military that had been involved in politics in the not-too-distant past, have come to be considered stable, with their armies now expected to stay in the barracks.
That raises the question: why should there be such protests at all? The governments being protested against were freely and democratically elected. With the ballot box available, why should there be recourse to the street?
Several possible lines of inquiry come to mind. We may be seeing a process of incumbents losing touch with their constituents over time, especially when incumbents or their parties have been in power for a long time. Some have suggested this is true especially of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even democratically elected leaders may come to have an inflated sense of knowing better than the citizenry what is in the citizenry's own best interest. And even democratically elected leaders may have a bias in favor of what is flashy or prestigious or symbolic rather than what affects most people's daily lives. In Turkey's case this includes Erdogan's desire to hark back to Ottoman glories with the structure he wants to erect in place of the park that has been at the center of protests in Istanbul. In Brazil's case this includes huge resources being spent on hosting the soccer World Cup and the Olympic Games—resources unavailable for many other programs that would affect the welfare of ordinary Brazilians.
No doubt there is also a lot of sociology to be explored on the protestors' end. Dissertations probably can be written that can explain some of what we are seeing in terms of generational change, evolving class structures, or the like. Pending the development of such knowledge and any better explanations for what has been going on in the streets of these two countries, a few more general observations can be ventured.
One is that even relatively stable and well-established democracies are more fragile than we might like to think. And before we get too haughty in distinguishing our own democracy from those in Brazil and Turkey, recall that the United States has had its share of nasty disturbances in its streets in the not-distant past. The same question about why a democratically elected government should be the target of action in the street can be applied to the United States as well as to Brazil and Turkey.
A related observation is that, although representative democracy is still the least bad form of government and the one best able to align the actions of the rulers to the interests of the ruled, it still has deficiencies. It does not solve all problems of stability and responsiveness. We should remember this whenever we are tempted to think of democratization as a cure for whatever overseas ill we may be focusing on at the moment.
A final observation is that these disturbances evidently were a surprise even to those who were in power in the countries involved and thus had the biggest stake in being able to anticipate the trouble. We should remember this the next time we are tempted to berate our own experts or government agencies for not predicting such things that happen overseas.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 3.0.
With the double milestones in Afghanistan of NATO turning over the remainder of its combat role to Afghan government forces and the announced imminent opening of peace talks with the Taliban, it is an appropriate time to note a few lessons demonstrated by this war.
Foreign military expeditions are more likely to be longer and costlier than expected than to be shorter and cheaper. Most Americans would have been astounded back in the autumn of 2001 if told that U.S. troops would still be fighting and dying in Afghanistan more than eleven years later. Other examples come easily to mind, the Iraq War of the past decade being an especially obvious one. An exception to this pattern was Operation Desert Storm in 1991, aided by the clarity and limited nature of the objective of liberating Kuwait.
Finding off-ramps is hard. The initial goals of the intervention in Afghanistan, of rousting the perpetrators of 9/11 from their haven and ousting their then-allies from power, were noble. They were achieved in the first few weeks of the intervention, after which it probably would have been better to declare the operation a success and go home. But mission creep is a ubiquitous phenomenon.
Welcomes get worn out. Afghanistan used to be a rare oasis in the Muslim world of favorable sentiment toward the United States. The dissipation of much of that goodwill is the almost inevitable result of the damage, frictions, and anger that come from foreign occupation and the operations of a foreign military force.
Diplomacy usually shapes final outcomes. Most armed conflicts, including civil wars, end with some negotiated coming to terms. That is true even of most one-sided outcomes. The surrender Grant accepted at Appomattox was not unconditional; it was a negotiated surrender, which let Confederates keep their horses and the officers among them keep their sidearms. Again, there are exceptions; the Sri Lankan government's final eradication of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 did not involve a coming to terms. The conditions for any similar outcome have never been present in Afghanistan.
Increased pressure doesn't necessarily mean increased results. There has been much talk over the past couple of years from some quarters in the United States that any easing of the pressure on the Afghan Taliban would only make the Taliban less interested in making peace. We aren't hearing elaboration of that view from the same quarters today, as the Taliban's acceptance of peace talks occurs at the same time NATO steps down from its combat role.
Adversaries' interests, like ours, change. We have a tendency to pigeon-hole other actors as either friends or implacable enemies and to view them that way forever. This view usually is mistaken, as it would be today in Afghanistan. The Taliban would have little or no interest in the United States without the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and the United States would have little interest in the Taliban without their prior association with al-Qa'ida. Today the Taliban's incentives are against any renewal of the association. It is entirely realistic to look forward to a peace agreement that cements that change.