American interpretations of, and responses to, the region-wide but nation-specific uprisings known as the Arab Spring have suffered from multiple handicaps. Some of the chief handicaps have involved the felt need to exorcise old demons or to reinterpret old failures. The not-so-distant history of genocides (most notably and terribly in Rwanda) that in retrospect appear preventable, and the increasing acceptance in the West in recent years of the doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” have led many to view some of the conflicts in Arab states as primarily an issue of humanitarian intervention. A personification of this outlook is Samantha Power, the self-described “genocide chick” who wrote a finger-pointing account of the Western response to the Rwandan episode and later was able to push her concerns from inside the Obama administration. This outlook shaped the rationale for NATO's military intervention in Libya, despite the weakness of the argument that without the intervention there would have been a Rwanda-in-Cyrenaica bloodbath at the hands of the Qaddafi regime.
Then there is the “freedom agenda” of neoconservatives still smarting from the fact that what was by far their biggest initiative ever—a military intervention in an Arab country—did not work out the way they had planned or promised. Some neocons have tried to portray the Arab Spring as having somehow been stimulated by their Iraq project, even though this notion is supported by neither the timing nor the all-too-evident negative regional reactions to the “birth pangs of democracy” in an increasingly authoritarian Iraq. Other neocons have not tried to make this connection but nonetheless have tried to latch on to the uprisings as a sort of vindication of the freedom agenda, while disregarding the major distinction between the self-empowerment that was the dominant theme in Cairo's Tahrir Square a year ago and any attempt to inject democracy through the barrels of Western guns. Some are talking about military intervention yet again, especially in Syria, in a kind of intellectual doubling down, apparently in the hope of somehow offsetting or forgetting about the losses from the Iraq War.
Besides the old demons and failures, there have been other impediments to clear thinking about the upheaval in the Middle East. One is prevailing suspicion of any political Islamist, a suspicion that ignores the major differences among those who couch their objectives in Islamic terms and also overlooks how much political Islam provides a mainstream vocabulary in the Middle East today. Another impediment is the current hysteria over Iran, which has become so strong that it is coloring much else that is said and written about the Middle East. And of course there are all the politicizing influences of a presidential-election year in the United States.
In an op-ed this Sunday, Henry Kissinger offers a useful perspective on the strategically deficient American response to the Arab Spring. Some of his comments deserve challenge, and he brings some baggage and perhaps some thin skin of his own to the topic. He protests too much when he describes an evolving U.S. consensus in favor of aligning with Middle Eastern revolutionary movements as “a kind of compensation for Cold War policies—invariably described as 'misguided'—in which [the United States] cooperated with non-democratic governments in the region for security objectives.” This kind of “compensation” has not been any more in evidence in discourse on the subject than the other kinds I just mentioned. Kissinger also signs on to the fixation on Iran by unconvincingly stating that Iran is the “principal challenge” to core security objectives of achieving a durable Arab-Israeli peace, ensuring the free flow of oil and avoiding a regional hegemon. (Possible responses to the fixation, rather than Iran itself, may endanger the first two objectives and disprove that Iran is the main problem with the third.)
Nonetheless, Kissinger raises more fundamental questions about what he sees as a “redefinition of heretofore prevalent principles of foreign policy.” He asks, “Will democratic reconstruction replace national interest as the lodestar of Middle East policy? Is democratic reconstruction what the Arab Spring in fact represents?” Kissinger is blurring together the concepts of humanitarianism and democracy as drivers of intervention, but that is fair because the prevailing outlook he is criticizing badly blurs them together as well.
Kissinger correctly notes some of the more precise questions that need to be asked but have barely been addressed:
U.S. public opinion has already recoiled from the scope of the efforts required to transform Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Do we believe that a less explicitly strategic involvement disclaiming a U.S. national interest will make nation building less complex? Do we have a preference as to which groups come to power? Or are we agnostic so long as the mechanisms are electoral? If the latter, how do we avoid fostering a new absolutism legitimized by managed plebiscites and sect-based permanent majorities? What outcomes are compatible with America’s core strategic interests in the region? Will it be possible to combine strategic withdrawal from key countries and reduced military expenditures with doctrines of universal humanitarian intervention? Discussion of these issues has been largely absent from the debate over U.S. foreign policy regarding the Arab Spring.
Reasonable people can disagree about the appropriate answers to many of these questions. The single aspect that any good strategy for the region must have, however—and is a requirement even to be called a strategy—is a long-term perspective that looks beyond the ostensibly pressing situations of the moment. The dominant perspective so far toward the Middle Eastern uprisings has too often been to strive for an immediate warm feeling in one's tummy by helping to overthrow a despised dictator or by convincing ourselves that we are saving lives. The prospect of subsequent messiness has not intruded much into that thought process. Steve Hendrix has a report in Sunday's Washington Post about how messy the post-overthrow situation is in Libya, where people can't even agree on where to dump garbage. Kissinger puts it nicely: “We must take care lest, in an era of shortened attention spans, revolutions turn, for the outside world, into a transitory Internet experience—watched intently for a few key moments, then tuned out once the main event is deemed over.”
We have a comparative lull at the moment in what has been saturation attention to Iran and its nuclear program. The lull comes after the concentrated warmongering rhetoric associated with the recent visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the AIPAC conference in Washington, and before the opening in mid-April of the only channel offering a way out of the impasse associated with the Iranian nuclear issue: direct negotiations between Iran and the powers known as the P5+1. It is a good time to reflect on how much the handling of this issue underscores the gulf between Israeli policies and U.S. interests. The gulf exists for two reasons. One is that the Netanyahu government's policies reflect only a Rightist slice of the Israeli political spectrum, with which many Israelis disagree and which is contrary to broader and longer-term interests of Israel itself. The other reason is that even broadly defined Israeli interests will never be congruent with U.S. interests. This should hardly be surprising. There is no reason to expect the interests of the world superpower to align with those of any of the parties to a regional dispute involving old ethnically or religiously based claims to land.
An article this week by Ethan Bronner in the New York Times addresses one of the drivers behind the Israeli policy: a historically based obsession of Mr. Netanyahu, for whom an Iranian nuclear weapon would be, as Bronner puts it, “the 21st-century equivalent of the Nazi war machine and the Spanish Inquisition.” The extent to which the issue is a personal compulsion of Netanyahu is reflected in estimates that even within his own cabinet (and even with the support of Defense Minister Ehud Barak), a vote in favor of war with Iran might be as close as eight to six. A former Likud activist who has become a critic of Netanyahu explains, “Bibi is a messianist. He believes with all his soul and every last molecule of his being that he—I don't quite know how to express it—is King David.” It is not in a superpower's interest to get sucked into projects of someone with a King David complex.
Given—as several Israelis who have been senior figures in the country's security establishment have noted—that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not pose an existential threat to Israel, one has to look to other reasons for the Israeli agitation about the Iranian nuclear program. Besides Netanyahu's personal obsession, there are the broader Israeli fears and emotions, the desire to maintain a regional nuclear-weapons monopoly and the distraction that the Iran issue provides from outside attention to the Palestinians' lack of popular sovereignty. Columnist Richard Cohen, in a piece last week that is clearly sympathetic to Israel, mentions one more reason: a desire to stem a brain drain to the United States of Israelis who would rather live in a more secure place. Clearly there is no congruence with U.S. interests here. In fact, taking in the talent that is found among the Israeli émigrés is a net plus for the United States and the U.S. economy.
The Iranian nuclear issue only reconfirms the noncongruence of U.S. and Israeli interests that should have been apparent from other issues. Most of those issues revolve around the continued Israeli occupation and colonization of disputed land inhabited by Palestinians. The United States has no positive interest in Israel clinging to that land—only the negative interest involving the opprobrium and anger directed at it for being so closely associated with Israeli policies and actions. Another reminder of the lonely position in which the United States finds itself almost every time it automatically condones Israeli behavior came last week, when the United Nations Human Rights Council voted for an inquiry into how Israeli settlements in the occupied territories affect the rights of Palestinians. Initiation of the inquiry was approved with thirty-six votes in favor, ten abstentions and a single no vote by the United States.
If the United States escapes a war with Iran by achieving success in negotiations (which Netanyahu and his government have in effect denounced and have helped to subvert by waging a covert war against Iran), Americans ought to reflect on how close they came to disaster by following the man who thinks he is King David. If it does not escape a war, it will be hard to find any silver lining in the consequences. But perhaps one would be that Americans would then be more likely to understand how contrary to their own interests it has been to follow the preferences of the Israeli government. Perhaps that could be a first step toward a more normal—and more beneficial for the United States—U.S. relationship with Israel.
We constantly find new material to illustrate Winston Churchill’s observation that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried. Traditional democratic theory offers several reasons why democracy is better than the other forms, including the positive effects that broad political participation may have on popular attitudes and outlooks. I have always thought the most important aspect of the superiority of democracy is instead simpler and more direct: that the power to vote rulers out of office is the best safeguard against rulers acting continually and blatantly against the interests of the ruled—as happens in countless autocracies around the world.
In practice, holding rulers accountable to the ruled doesn't always work smoothly even in a democracy. Some of the issues involved are related to what Robert Merry addresses in his insightful commentary on an earlier piece of mine that expressed concern about what kind of foreign policy a finger-in-the-political-wind Mitt Romney would follow. Merry notes that with regard to that most important of presidential decisions—going to war—the dominant pattern in American history has been one of popular deference to presidential leadership, with the electorate withdrawing that deference only after a war goes sour. Given current signs of lowered American patience for more war, Merry concludes that if Romney leads the nation into some misguided military adventure, it would be because of his own impulses more than any popular sentiment.
Several questions can be raised about this, one of which concerns the effects of popular sentiment on decisions other than going to war. Sometimes playing to the electorate implies inaction when action would be more in the nation's interests. This might be true, for example, of whether to undertake a concerted effort (to the annoyance of the Israeli government) to promote a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, or to undertake a comprehensive U.S. rapprochement with Iran. Moreover, if a president doesn't have any particular impulses of his own in foreign policy, even a slight puff of the political wind may be enough to set him off in whatever direction has a plurality of popularity at the moment. Notwithstanding the currently growing American aversion to another war and especially a prolonged war, popular sentiment might tend to favor something described as a one-time strike, even if it in fact carried the danger of leading to a longer war. Finally, even if a president factors into his thinking the possibility of the public eventually turning against him if one of his initiatives goes awry, that negative turn may come too late to be very important to him—just as most of the battering that George W. Bush's popularity took as a result of the Iraq War going sour did not come until after he had been elected to a second term.
Let us focus for a moment on democratic accountability, in the form of the aforementioned issue of voters punishing an incumbent for policies gone bad. The American pattern that Merry correctly describes, of the public turning against wars only after they have become long and costly, points to one of the deficiencies in accountability in the United States. Accountability is not achieved until after much damage as already been done, and maybe even after a president who was responsible for the damage has been reelected.
Another deficiency, which appears at least as much in domestic as in foreign policy, concerns the electorate's frequent inability to determine which incumbent or former incumbent is most responsible for something. We see this today in how the state of the economy is playing in the current election campaign. President Obama inherited from his Republican predecessor—in addition to a couple of already-long wars—the deepest recession since the Great Depression. But regardless of how much the White House or Democrats offer charts showing how many jobs were lost under the Republican president and how many have been regained since their man came into office, voters tend to make their current feelings about current economic problems a referendum on whoever is the current president. An irony—an undemocratic one—is that Republicans are profiting politically from the severity of a Republican president's recession. If the recession had not been as severe, and the lingering effects on employment not as long-lasting as the ones we are seeing today, the Democratic president the Republicans are trying to unseat would be losing fewer votes over the economy and the Republicans would be less likely to regain the presidency.
Even worse is when incumbent politicians (other than the president) have a positive political interest in their constituents being bad off economically. The higher that unemployment remains, the lower is Barack Obama's chance for reelection. That means that Republican members of Congress have a political interest in defeating or delaying legislation that would create jobs. They may have an ideological impulse to do so anyway, but their political interest in doing so—bearing in mind that their leaders have declared the defeat of Obama to be their number-one priority—certainly subverts democratic accountability.
This last factor may point to a respect in which the American type of presidential government, in which different parties may control the executive and legislative branches, is inferior to British-style cabinet government, in which policy is set by what amounts to a temporary party dictatorship and it is very clear which party is responsible for the policies and their consequences. But the same perverse incentives about making the electorate worse off may apply even if the party opposed to the president does not control a house of Congress. Even if Republicans did not have a majority in the House of Representatives, they could still push up the price of gasoline by talking about a possible war in the Persian Gulf region. Voters tend to blame the president for higher gas prices, and thus higher prices hurt Obama's reelection chances, even though the president's policies are not actually causes of the price rise.
There is no way around these deficiencies short of somehow making the American public more knowledgeable about actual responsibility for policies, or somehow reducing partisanship that is so intense that defeating the other party's president takes precedence over the good of the nation as a whole.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has undertaken an important initiative that is good not just for Egypt but also for Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and anyone else genuinely interested in Middle Eastern peace. It will be good for those interests, that is, if not subverted by reflexive rejection of doing business with Islamists or by a lack of genuine interest in a Palestinian-Israeli peace. As described in a report by David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times, the Brotherhood is trying to work with both Hamas and Fatah to encourage reconciliation between the two parties, with the intention of having a single Palestinian interlocutor capable of representing all Palestinians while negotiating a peace settlement with Israel. In making this initiative, the Egyptian Brotherhood has necessarily moved away from previous exclusive backing of Hamas—which began as a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood—and more specifically from any approval of armed struggle against Israel and instead has opened up new channels to Fatah. Brotherhood leaders explain that a unified Palestinian leadership with the earnest backing of an Egyptian government offers the strongest possibility for meaningful peace talks with Israel.
The Brotherhood already claims some positive results, although how much is due to the Egyptian efforts and how much reflects moves Hamas was making on its own is unclear. After a senior Brotherhood leader urged Hamas to be more flexible in its talks with Fatah, Hamas agreed to having Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas head a provisional Palestinian unity government. To the extent the Egyptian influence is being felt, it helps to cement the positive effect that the exodus from Syria has had on the thinking and direction of Hamas's external political leadership.
Several important developments are being demonstrated here. One is the Egyptian Brotherhood's effort to act constructively and responsibly as it makes the transition from opposition movement to the largest element in a new Egyptian government. Brotherhood leaders describe what they are doing in exactly those terms. One member who is now chairman of the Arab affairs committee in the upper house of the Egyptian parliament says, “Any movement of the size of the Muslim Brotherhood, when it is in the opposition it is one thing and then when it comes to power it is something completely different.”
Also being demonstrated is the Brotherhood's commitment to maintaining Egypt's own peace with Israel. Brotherhood leaders see this commitment as linked to Palestinian peace with Israel, just as Anwar Sadat once did. They say that peaceful coexistence between Israel and a Brotherhood-led Egypt can serve as a model for Hamas, provided Israel is willing to accept a fully independent Palestinian state. And indeed it can.
The current inclinations of Hamas itself are also being displayed. Cooperation with this initiative by Hamas's Egyptian brethren complements and confirms the Palestinian group's recent statements indicating its acceptance of coexistence with Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders.
It is hard to find anything not to like in any of this. The United States should find ways to applaud and encourage the course the Egyptian Brotherhood has set.
The biggest problem involves Israeli hang-ups. There is the overall Israeli dyspepsia over anything having to do with Islamists, which is why the Brotherhood's political success has made Israel uncomfortable. More specifically is the Israeli refusal to have anything to do with Hamas (except prisoner exchanges) or even with a Palestinian government or authority including Hamas, no matter how much of the Palestinian political spectrum Hamas represents or what the group is saying or doing now. On top of that are reasons to doubt whether the current Israeli government even wants to negotiate a two-state solution creating a truly independent Palestinian state, no matter who the Palestinian interlocutors are.
If Israeli inflexibility on these matters continues, the United States should make use of the Egyptian initiative to separate itself from that inflexibility. Political realities, especially during an election year, set well-known limits, but ways can certainly be found to applaud and encourage publicly what the Brotherhood is doing without appearing to interfere in Egyptian politics and maybe even without, for now at least, mentioning Hamas.
In private discussion with the Israelis, the United States should point out that if Israel is genuinely interested in a peace settlement with the Palestinians, what the Egyptian Brotherhood is doing is as good as it gets, especially coming from the biggest political actor in the biggest Arab state. If the Israelis are not genuinely interested in a settlement, a negative posture toward the Egyptian initiative will serve only to underscore to the world Israel's responsibility for the impasse. And if Mr. Netanyahu raises issues of Hamas's past involvement in terrorism, he should be reminded that if the United States applied a once-a-terrorist-always-a-terrorist standard, it never would have had any dealings with some who have occupied the positions he does now of Israeli prime minister and leader of Likud.
This time the Romney campaign's gaffe of the week did not come from the candidate. Instead, it was the explanation from a senior aide of how once Romney secures the Republican nomination he can revise his positions for the general-election campaign as easily as erasing an image on an Etch A Sketch. This explanation does not tell us anything new about the candidate, whose record as a political chameleon was already well established. The incident brings to mind Michael Kinsley's definition of a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say.”
Some in the hard-core Republican base to whom the candidates in the primary campaign have been appealing are apt to be disturbed by the aide's comment. And Romney's Republican opponents are striving to exploit the remark to the fullest, to the extent of distributing Etch A Sketches to reporters. Conversely, some voters open to backing Romney in the general election may be reassured by the idea that he doesn't really believe in all that right-wing stuff he has been emitting in the campaign so far—although that leaves open the question of whether it makes sense to vote for someone out of a belief that he does not mean what he says in his campaign. As for figuring out what Romney really believes and how a President Romney would act, most speculation about that will center on domestic matters, such as whether a being a self-described severe conservative squares with enacting Romneycare. But let us speculate for a moment about foreign policy.
The starting point for any such speculation is the realization that, as Jacob Heilbrunn puts it, “Romney's overwhelming desire has been to please whatever audience he is before” and that “his only sincere belief appears to be in his own personal advancement.” His positions will be determined above all by whatever it takes to win the next election he faces. Thus the policies of a first-term President Romney, assuming he is not content to be a one-term president, would be determined above all by whatever will help him to win a second term. Predicting the policies of such a first term is less a matter of determining what Romney “really” believes (on many foreign-policy matters he probably does not know what he really believes) than of forecasting how the politics of major issues will play over the next four years.
Romney's November opponent, President Obama, already has a track record in office that provides a basis for extrapolating his behavior in a second term. That record is not a Romney-like one of being shaped overwhelmingly by what plays well politically. Some aspects of that record on important issues, such as an initial (albeit later abandoned) resistance to continued Israeli expansion of settlements on occupied territory, have not been vote-winners. One cannot just extrapolate in a straight line from a first to a second term, however. Although a second-term President Obama would continue to feel some legacy effects of old political baggage (especially on the war in Afghanistan), a big difference from the first term would be that he would never be running for office again. That fact and the political freedom it implies would be one of the most important determinants of the policies of a second Obama term. And it would mark a big difference from what would determine the policies of a first Romney term, which would be whatever it takes to win a second Romney term.
So the choice will be between a foreign policy that is shaped overwhelmingly by whatever is seen to be politically advantageous and a foreign policy that is shaped by a less politically minded sense of what is in U.S. interests. A populist response would be to go with the first alternative, out of a belief in democratic principles and in the idea that, in foreign as well as domestic policy, the people ought to determine what is in their own interests. One problem with this view is that what a leader sees as politically advantageous is not to be equated with whatever a majority of the populace, not coached and not manipulated by the leadership, happens to believe. This is illustrated by what the George W. Bush administration did in launching an offensive war in Iraq, which most Americans would not have supported without the administration's ardent pro-war sales campaign lasting over a year. Bush came into the presidency, as Romney would, as a novice and cypher as far as foreign policy was concerned. During his first few months in office, he fumbled around for a defining and inspiring theme for his presidency. After 9/11, he figured he found that theme in being a “war president.” He bought into the neoconservatives' Iraq scheme as a way of developing that theme and reaping a political advantage from it—which he did long enough to win a second term. The disastrous consequences of that choice, and the resulting negative impact on his popularity, did not fully set in until his second term, when it no longer mattered as far as reelection was concerned.
Even without a reprise of anything like that episode, a more basic problem with the populist view of foreign policy is that often most of the people do not know what is in their best interests (even if they later come to realize that some things they earlier favored were not in their interests). That observation sounds elitist, of course, and it would be poison for any politician to utter it openly. But the truth of it has been demonstrated by something like the Vietnam War, which was not caused by anything like the neocon manipulations that led the United States into Iraq. Even without coaching or manipulation by leaders, most Americans believed in the early 1960s that it was necessary to draw a line in Vietnam to stop a worldwide communist advance.
The popular impulses of the American people, at different times in U.S. history, have been a force either for extraordinary accomplishment or for bad misdirections. Those impulses provided the energy to win World War II and to sustain the efforts needed to prevail in the Cold War. Over the coming four years, nothing like those campaigns will be what is needed to protect and advance U.S. interests. During the next presidential term, a foreign policy that responds largely to popular impulses is more likely to result in misdirection than in accomplishment. The popular American need to see a foreign enemy as a negative national reference point is apt to result in needless conflict and to miss opportunities for fruitful cooperation. The impulse to slay foreign dragons also carries the danger of overextension at a time when the limits of national resources need more attention than ever. The president for the next four years needs to draw up a foreign policy (not necessarily on an Etch A Sketch) that is shaped by something other than just what will sell at the next election.
Romney Image: Jessica Rinaldi
If you want a large laboratory to study what works and what doesn't in dealing with the competing claims of ethnic, racial, religious or other communities defined in terms of mostly permanent ascriptive characteristics, look to India. It has castes among its majority Hindus. It has religious division between the Hindus and others, primarily Muslims. And it has long had institutionalized preferences governing the allocation of jobs, educational opportunities and other benefits. This version of affirmative action, or “reservation” as the Indians call it, dates back to the writing of the country's constitution. Originally the system was aimed at giving advantages to what are officially called “Scheduled Castes” or more commonly “backward castes,” which means members of the lower rungs of the Hindu caste hierarchy, as well as to some tribal groups.
Over subsequent years more groups demanded, unsurprisingly, to be included in the system of preferences. Politicians, seeing opportunities to gain votes by being responsive to such demands, duly expanded the ever-more comprehensive and complicated system of quotas for desirable things such as government jobs. Far from undoing the caste structure in India, the system of preferences codified it.
The longer the system of preferences was in existence and the more that advancement in life depended on those preferences, the more resentful those left outside the system became. In India, this now especially means Muslims. An irony is that most Indian Muslims are descended from low-caste Hindus—especially the lowest of the low, now called Dalits—who converted long ago to escape what were then the miseries of low-caste life. Present-day Muslims look enviously at their low-caste Hindu neighbors who have used preferences to lift themselves out of the worst poverty. This means still more demands to expand the preferential system further, with more politicians ready to oblige. The regional party that won a recent election in the largest and poorest Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, has promised to establish educational and employment quotas for Muslims.
As the quotas continue to expand, those in the backward castes who were the original beneficiaries look with suspicion at the newcomers. Seeing a zero-sum world of coveted government jobs and educational slots, they are afraid that preferences for someone else will mean fewer opportunities for themselves. Commenting on the possible establishment of quotas for Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, a seventy-one-year-old Dalit said, “I do not believe that Muslims are more backward. They are doing better.”
For still more consequences of such preferences, move across the eastern Indian Ocean to Malaysia, where ethnic Malays constitute a majority and have controlled the government since independence but where the minority Chinese have been more economically successful. A comprehensive system of preferences for Malays has been in place for over four decades. Within the past couple of years, the prime minister has spoken of loosening that system in response to its increasingly obvious drawbacks, but the preferences are still in place. One of the drawbacks is the encouragement of cronyism (something that has been seen in some minority set-aside programs in the United States). Another has been an entrepreneurial brain drain of ethnic Chinese fed up with the preferential system—a drain that works to the disadvantage of the Malaysian economy.
The United States should take into account the lessons from these experiences whenever it gets involved in any situation overseas (as it has more than once in recent years) in which it has some influence over how conflicting communal interests are handled. It also should heed the lessons as they apply to its own society, at a time when the U.S Supreme Court is about to look again at the American version of preferential treatment.
The tendentious and careless use of historical comparisons and analogies has long contributed to some of the biggest foreign-policy follies, such as the Vietnam War. Seeing a reincarnated Hitler in a two-bit dictator or a reenacted Munich in a decision to avoid a war has perhaps been the most frequent such misuse of history. Now three U.S. senators, as described in a sympathetic puff piece by Jackson Diehl, are reaching into more recent history to argue that getting the United States involved in more wars is a good thing and that they themselves have been both courageous and insightful in taking the lead to see that this happens. The senators—Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman and John McCain—whom their staffers affectionately refer to as the “three amigos,” are most immediately interested in getting the United States involved in the civil war in Syria. Not far behind that, they also are itching to bomb, bomb, bomb Iran, with Graham and Lieberman being lead sponsors of a Senate resolution aimed at boxing the U.S. president into doing exactly that.
The amigos describe themselves as repeatedly having been on the right side of recent history by pushing for more military action in situations such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya and the “surge” in Iraq. As portrayed by Diehl, the trio's inspired, bellicose leadership keeps running up against others small-mindedly “playing their usual roles,” including the Pentagon cautioning about how tough some of the proposed combat missions are likely to be and “self-styled 'realists' ” pointing out how intervention in a civil conflict may only make it worse. The amigos' confidence remains undimmed. “We have a record of being right,” says McCain. The lesson of the recent history is quite simple, says Lieberman. “What it shows is that civil wars we get involved in can be settled more successfully than civil wars where we don't get involved.”
Would that it be that simple. There are at least three major problems with this use of history.
One is that the situations being discussed are not at all similar. Getting Serbs to stop doing what they were doing in Bosnia or Kosovo is not at all comparable to winning a civil war against a Syrian regime that is fighting for its life and still enjoys substantial backing from domestic elements who fear the alternative. It is a comparison not just between apples and oranges but between apples and pumpkins. Even the more recent Libyan revolt, another part of the Arab Spring, was far different from the circumstances in Syria, mostly because of the sectarian dimension in the latter country.
Second, Diehl and the amigos are too quick to declare what is the right or the wrong side of history in the recent cases they cite. Diehl states that “the consensus in Washington” is that the surge in Iraq “rescued the United States from catastrophe in Iraq and made possible the withdrawal that Obama completed as president last year.” What consensus? Probably the only conclusion clear enough to warrant that word is that the surge contributed—along with other factors, most notably the Sunni Awakening—to a reduction in the violence in Iraq that peaked in 2006 and 2007. But the surge failed miserably to accomplish its principal declared objective, which was to facilitate political reconciliation among the contending Iraqi factions. Many of the defense intelligentsia in Washington who have been most keenly interested in the Iraq War argued against completion of the withdrawal because of the continued bitter internal conflict in Iraq that the surge failed to resolve. As for Libya, it is far too early to declare that intervention wise or successful given the continued instability, atrocities and division to the point of secession in that country, not to mention the terrible example set by reneging on the deal with Qaddafi under which he gave up terrorism and development of weapons of mass destruction.
Third, the history being invoked is highly selective. Nowhere in Diehl's piece is there mention of what was by far the biggest act of military intervention that the three amigos supported. They all voted in 2002 in favor of a Congressional resolution authorizing it. That's right: the original launching of the Iraq War—the intervention with the trillion-dollar price tag, thousands of American dead, tens of thousands of American wounded and even more Iraqis dead, along with more extensive damage to U.S. interests still being incurred. Of course, we can't say in that instance that the United States intervened in a civil war; in Iraq the United States precipitated a civil war. But for the amigos to say smugly that “we have a record of being right” about the application of military force while ignoring a blunder so big and so costly that it outweighs dozens of Kosovos would be—were it not for the tragic nature of the consequences of this blunder—laughable.
The documents that were seized from the late Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad and into which Washington Post columnist David Ignatius was given an exclusive glimpse included tidbits such as bin Laden talking about killing President Obama and General David Petraeus. But such tidbits were not the most interesting aspect of the documents. The papers evidently confirm that bin Laden in his latter days was not really commanding operations. The talk about killing the president was just talk and not a serious threat. More significant is what the documents say about bin Laden the propagandist—about how he saw different themes and issues working to his advantage or disadvantage.
Bin Laden saw as a disadvantage for him and his group the dropping of “war on terror” from the official U.S. lexicon. That phrase—never making sense in the first place, as a war on a tactic—had been subject to interpretations that left many Muslims confused about just who it was the United States was going after. To the extent Muslims believed the United States was going after them, that was good from bin Laden's viewpoint. Not good for him was the more recent and sharper U.S. posture that made it clear that al-Qaeda was the target of this war. Bothered by that, bin Laden mused about possibly changing the name of his group.
The one issue that bin Laden evidently stressed to his associates should be emphasized publicly above all others was Palestine. He criticized affiliates and followers for justifying their actions as responses to local matters rather than being performed on behalf of the preeminent cause for all Muslims, which was Palestine. In making such admonitions, bin Laden was recognizing the enormous salience the Palestinian issue continues to have for for Muslims generally. It has all the ingredients for a cause well suited for exploitation by extremists. At its core is the injustice of indefinite occupation by a conquering power of land that is home to Muslims. On top of that is a added religious dimension to the conflict and the perception of the occupying power as a kind of Western, Judeo-Christian imposition on the Middle East.
That bin Laden was issuing such instruction is a further indication of the power of Palestine as an extremist cause célèbre. Bin Laden's first wish probably would have been to overthrow the House of Saud in Arabia. His strategy of going after the far enemy in the form of the United States as a way of defeating the near enemies in Arab capitals was never more than a minority view in jihadist circles. In this respect he did not see eye-to-eye with his onetime mentor Abdullah Azzam, who believed the first priority of jihad ought to be the liberation of Muslim lands from non-Muslim occupiers. That is why Azzam was a leader in supporting the Afghan jihad against Soviet occupation, and why he—himself a Palestinian—believed liberation of Palestinian land from Israeli occupation needed to be given foremost priority. The Palestinian issue has the power it does not because individual terrorist leaders like bin Laden necessarily make it their first personal priority but instead because it has tremendous resonance among the Muslim populations to which they appeal. The reason that supporters and rank-and-file practitioners of anti-U.S. terrorism cite most frequently for their hatred of the United States is U.S. condoning of Israeli occupation of Palestinian-inhabited land and of other Israeli actions that involve the killing or subjugation of Muslims.
There are many good reasons not to let the Israeli-Palestinian issue fester. Its role as a readily exploitable extremist cause is one of them.
The 140-square-mile patch of misery known as the Gaza Strip suffers from two degrees of inattention. First, any hope of being lifted permanently out of the misery rests on Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy that is now moribund. Benjamin Netanyahu’s war-mongering on Iran has succeeded in pushing the unresolved plight of Palestinians almost entirely off the Israeli-American agenda. This was demonstrated earlier this month when a visit to Washington by Netanyahu and a major AIPAC conference were remarkable for how little either one explicitly addressed the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second, to the extent that conflict gets any attention, the attention focuses more on the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), where continued Israeli colonization of conquered land is pushing a two-state solution ever closer to infeasibility. There once were a few thousand Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip (in contrast to the half million in the West Bank), but as these numbers indicate, Israelis never coveted this piece of sand as much as they do lands to the east. Seven years ago, Ariel Sharon pulled Israelis out of the strip, successfully dealing with the few diehard settlers who resisted.
Since then, Israeli governments seem to have wished that the Gaza Strip could somehow just go away. That not being possible, they instead have dealt with it as if it were a den of unruly, infectious creatures that could be cordoned off, with an occasional overt use of force to swat the creatures down. The well-being of the people who really live in the strip, and the ways in which Israel's assault on that well-being redound to Israel’s own disadvantage, do not seem to have figured into Israeli government thinking.
Whether or not anyone gives due ethical regard to the welfare of Gazans, the short-sighted cordon-and-swat Israeli approach will continually make the Gaza Strip a locus of trouble and instability. The most recent reminder of that has occurred within the past week. The trouble began with the latest Israeli swat: the killing last Friday with an air-to-ground missile of Zuhair al-Qissi, the leader of a militant group called the Popular Resistance Committees. Palestine Islamic Jihad took the lead in retaliating by firing rockets back into Israel, which in turn led to more Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip. By Tuesday, the Egyptians had brokered a truce, which was still shaky as of mid-week.
The latest round of fighting demonstrates anew how Israel’s iron-fisted approach of blockades, airstrikes and invasions never has and never will bring peace to Israel’s southwestern border. It is little more than three years since Operation Cast Lead, a full-scale Israeli invasion that killed around 1400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and inflicted such extensive physical damage to the Gaza Strip that, combined with the effects of the previous blockade, it caused a humanitarian crisis that in some ways continues today.
Neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders seem anxious for a new war right now in Gaza. Some Israeli politicians have warned that such a war would risk undoing the success the war-mongering talk about Iran has had in diverting attention from the Palestinians’ plight and focusing it instead on the Iranian nuclear program. The successful operation of Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket defensive system has relieved what might otherwise have been greater popular pressure on Israeli leaders to strike back faster and even more forcefully.
There nonetheless is talk in Israel about launching at some point another war against Gazans. Israel's finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, said “sooner or later, and I don't want to quote dates, we will have to do a 'root canal.'” The talk reflects another Israeli idée fixe, one that is just as short-sighted as the reliance on cordon-and-swat: an absolute refusal to have anything to do with Hamas except to try to crush it (and occasionally to exchange prisoners with it). This obsession continues no matter what Hamas does and no matter how substantial a portion of Palestinian opinion it may represent. Hamas has not been involved in the most recent round of rocket firing, and it was Hamas that sought Egyptian help to negotiate a cease-fire. Hamas's staying on the sidelines of this latest round follows months in which it has spoken more of moving away from violent resistance and has tried anew to reconcile with the Fatah of Mahmoud Abbas. Steinitz's comments nonetheless indicate that making things as difficult as possible for Hamas is at least as important to the Israeli government as stopping any rockets. Israel “cannot accept in the long run,” he said, a Hamas regime in Gaza.
The counterproductive (if one were interested in peace, that is) Israeli attitudes at play are vividly displayed in a paper published this week by Efraim Inbar and Max Singer of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a version of which appeared as an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post. Their piece is titled “The Opportunity in Gaza”—it's interesting how a violent, destructive clash is viewed as a “opportunity.” They argue for a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip now—one even bigger and more damaging than Cast Lead, with the objective of destroying as much of Hamas as possible. They blatantly recommend exploiting the U.S. electoral calendar, arguing that “until November, the U.S. is likely to restrain rather than promote international action against Israel in response to an action in Gaza.” They say “deterrence created by Cast Lead” is “wearing thin,” and “military action now could restore deterrence.” Someone should point out to Inbar and Singer than when you repeatedly have to go to war that means deterrence is not working. But they don't seem to care, fully accepting the prospect that in the future “Israel will probably have to 'mow the grass' again.” There is not a single word in their paper about the lives and livelihoods of the residents of the Gaza Strip, or the effect what they are recommending would have on those lives.
May both Palestinians and Israelis be spared from such perverse thinking.
Image: Al Jazeera/Wikimedia Commons
It is common knowledge that the wording and framing of questions heavily influence the results of public-opinion polls. Some good recent examples concern American attitudes toward the Iranian nuclear issue. A new CBS/New York Times poll seems to show a majority of Americans favoring the use of military force against Iran, with 51 percent supporting and 36 percent opposing. But look at the question that was asked: “Would you support or oppose the United States taking military action against Iran in order to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapons program?” There is nothing about diplomacy or other means to avoid an Iranian nuclear weapon. The question carries the implicit assumption that the choice is binary, with the development of an Iranian nuke the certain alternative if military force is not employed. There is nothing to get the respondent thinking about the full consequences of a particular policy choice, including the choice of military action. (I expect the results would have been significantly different if the words “going to war” were substituted for “taking military action,” even though in this instance they are substantively equivalent.) Most important, the question incorrectly implies efficacy: that military action really would “prevent” a nuclear-weapons program, rather than at best delaying such a program and most likely leading the Iranians to take a decision they had not already taken to institute such a program.
Another poll, also just out and conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and the University of Maryland, presents questions on the related subject of a possible Israeli military strike, and the results give a substantially different impression. When presented with a choice between an Israeli military strike against the Iranian nuclear program or the United States and other major powers pursuing negotiations, a large majority (69 percent to 24 percent) favor negotiations. When asked how the United States should react if Israel does strike, 25 percent say to give Israel whatever it requests, including military forces, 14 percent favor publicly supporting Israel but not providing military support and 49 percent favor staying neutral, with smaller numbers favoring public opposition to Israel. The reluctance to get involved militarily is all the more significant given that the respondents in this same poll express decidedly pessimistic—unrealistically so—views about the implications of the Iranian program and of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Fifty-eight percent believe (contrary to the publicly expressed U.S. intelligence judgment) that Iran has already decided to produce nuclear weapons and is actively working to do so. Forty-nine percent believe it is very likely and 40 percent somewhat likely that Iran actually will develop nuclear weapons. And 62 percent believe Iran would be likely to use nuclear weapons against Israel “because it is so hostile to Israel.”
The American public's aversion to a new war is not surprising given the experiences of the past decade. The aversion is also reflected in recent trends in American opinion regarding Afghanistan. The expressed aversion would undoubtedly be even clearer if Americans had a more accurate view of the nature of the Iranian nuclear program and a more realistic view of the consequences if Iran did get the bomb. (For an explanation of a more realistic view, I invite readers to see my recent article in the Washington Monthly addressing the subject.)
All of this has implications for war and peace as well as for election-year politics. If Americans could be swayed a bit less by mindless alarmism and a bit more by a sober consideration of what an Iranian nuclear weapon would mean, then their expressed aversion to a war might become so clear than even Republican presidential candidates would no longer see political advantage in saber rattling. And that would be good not only because the saber rattling benefits Iran and especially Iranian hard-liners but also because stopping it would at least marginally improve the quality of political debate in the United States.
Image: Shreyans Bhansali