Leslie Gelb has a piece worth reading at The Daily Beast about Americans' propensity to save their tough questions about American overseas military adventures until after such expeditions are undertaken and go sour, rather than asking the questions before the expeditions begin. “We’re doing this terrible thing all over again,” says Gelb. “As before, we’re letting a bunch of ignorant, sloppy-thinking politicians and politicized foreign-policy experts . . . quick-march us off to war.” Gelb's current concern is the push to go to war against Iran, but he is describing a pattern that has been all too familiar in the past. Gelb is well qualified to make such observations, based on his experience in directing the writing of the Pentagon Papers as well as his later work as a journalist, State Department official and president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The internal deliberations, described in the Pentagon Papers, on intervening in Vietnam in the mid-1960s were actually quite thorough in most respects, although they were trumped by images of falling dominoes and a fatalistic belief that even a losing war effort had to be waged to keep U.S. credibility intact. Deliberations outside the government were nothing close to thorough. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which became the Congressional authorization for the war, was passed speedily after only brief hearings.
Nearly four decades later, external deliberations on launching a war against Iraq were even more cursory. This time, a Congressional authorizing resolution was passed with no hearings. As for deliberations inside the Bush administration, there weren't any. Unlike with the Vietnam War, there was an astounding absence of any policy process for determining whether the war was a good idea. Many of the questions that have since been asked in public hand-wringing over the Iraq War about who said what at the time are almost irrelevant, because hardly anyone was paying attention to things that were said that turned out to be important.
Gelb lays out some questions that ought to be asked about any military action against Iran. I've raised such questions as well. In fact, I raised a large number of them almost five years ago in an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “What to Ask Before the Next War.” A couple of my questions are now outdated. With the completed withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, for example, we fortunately no longer have to wonder what Iran would do to those troops in retaliation. And in asking what a war against Iran would do to the price of oil, the possible figure I posited of $150 per barrel surely understates where the price would go in response to hostilities today. (When I was writing in February 2007 oil was selling for around $60 per barrel; this week Brent Crude was going for about $111.) But most of the questions are just as relevant as they were in 2007. If I was raising such questions five years ago, that means we should have had plenty of time to study them, especially for something as drastic as launching another offensive war. I invite you to look at the questions and ask whether public debate has adequately considered them, let alone provided answers adequate to justify another such adventure.
Be careful what you wish for regarding how other powers react to the latest effort to ratchet up pressure on Iran. Especially when the other power is as potent a competitor as China. China depends on Iran for 11 percent of its imported oil. The idea of joining in a de facto embargo of Iranian oil through ostracism of the Iranian central bank thus naturally discomfits the Chinese. It is still unclear exactly how Beijing will play this one, as it considers how the issue affects both its relations with the United States and the state of its energy-thirsty economy. An obvious response is to work ever harder to shore up China's relations with the other Persian Gulf oil producers. That is largely what Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's current trip to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates is about.
Chinese diplomacy is not necessarily always opposed to U.S. interests, but the overall pattern as China has endeavored to secure sources of energy for itself has not been encouraging. Getting oil has taken precedence over issues important to the international community. China's major investment in the Sudanese oil industry (from which China gets another 5 percent of its imported oil) has gotten in the way of any Chinese help on the Darfur problem. (More recently, however, with the secession of South Sudan, China's interest in keeping the oil flowing may give it an incentive to be helpful. It dispatched a mediator last month to help resolve a dispute between Sudan and South Sudan over arrangements for exporting the South's oil through the North.)
In the Middle East, another Chinese interest—at least as strong as the one in oil—gives Beijing a new reason to be unhelpful. That is the interest in not having the Arab Spring put any democratic, revolutionary ideas into Chinese heads. Beijing's nervousness about this has gone to such extremes as making jasmine a sort of contraband, out of fear that the flower that became a symbol for revolution in Tunisia might come to play a similar role in China. To the extent that activist Chinese diplomacy gives China greater influence on Middle Eastern regimes, any Chinese advice given on how to handle popular discontent is bound to be bad advice from a Western point of view. It would be advice on how to crack down and maintain a dictatorship rather than on how to smooth the way toward a more democratic state.
Premier Wen's delegation signed a slew of agreements with Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his trip. One of them concerned Chinese help in developing nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia. That makes economic sense for the Saudis, conserving more of their oil for export and sale rather than domestic consumption. But it is an interesting development in light of the assertion one sometimes hears that the oil-rich country on the other side of the Persian Gulf can't really be interested in a nuclear program primarily for energy generation.
We should not rule out the possibility of Riyadh and Beijing springing strategic surprises on us. They have done it before, with the sale of Chinese CSS-2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s. Although there is no indication that the missiles have ever been armed with nuclear warheads, their inaccuracy gives them questionable strategic value when equipped only with conventional warheads.
In brief, the latest effort to pressure a Middle Eastern state that will never come anywhere close to challenging U.S. power is stimulating the one state that credibly poses such a challenge to become more active in the region in a way that will tend to lessen the relative influence of the United States and work against U.S. interests. It is another example of how the pressure is being exerted as if it were an end in itself, with little thought to the likely consequences.
The criticisms by Mitt Romney’s Republican opponents of his record as a private-equity artist may be motivated by desperation in trying to deny him a nomination that seems almost in his grasp, but that record is certainly fair game. Romney, after all, has repeatedly touted his business experience as supposedly a major qualification for the presidency. Since Newt Gingrich and the others have made this an issue in the primary campaign, they have tended to focus on whether companies under the control of Bain Capital slashed more jobs than they created. That focus is understandable in an election campaign in which unemployment is a major issue. But the lessons for how we view either the private-equity business or Mitt Romney’s ability to function as president go well beyond a balance sheet about jobs.
To the extent the claims and barbs of this election campaign cast light on what private-equity artists do, and on the larger effect on the economy and society of what they do, that is a good thing. Although to some extent what they do is part of the allocation of capital that is necessary for successful capitalism, to a larger extent what they do is exploitative and parasitic. It is essentially a process in which the financial clout that enables a private-equity firm to take complete control of a company is used in an exploitative mode, taking advantage of the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose relationship between the private-equity firm and the owned company. The nature of the result is reflected in companies that have received the private-equity treatment having a bankruptcy rate that is twice that of publicly owned firms that have not had that experience. Anything with a result like that is unlikely to be on balance good for the larger economy. If campaign-generated light shining on the private-equity business stimulates more debate about possibly needed regulation of the business or about how private-equity profits ought to be taxed, so much the better.
These considerations may be enough to draw some legitimate conclusions about what makes Mitt Romney tick, what motivates him and what he values most. But the relevance of his experience at Bain Capital for how he would function as president requires analysis that goes farther than that. I took a stab at such an analysis several weeks ago. I pointed out that an important distinction needs to be drawn between an executive who feels a stake in the long-term growth and health of a company and, in contrast, the private equity artist for whom a company is merely a temporary means from which to extract maximum profit and then be discarded—never mind the health or solvency of what is discarded. For a President Mitt Romney, the federal government would be one more company over which he had temporary control, to be discarded after four or eight years after extracting whatever would be for him the functional equivalent of profit.
Daniel Drezner offers this week some observations that echo mine, summarized in his headline statement that “governments are not corporations.” Not having monetary profit as a single measure of success is one obvious difference. Another major difference, most relevant to the contrast with the private-equity business, is that government does not have the freedom to get into lines of business that do well and to get out, or stay out, of ones that don’t. Government is expected to do certain things, no matter how difficult or “unprofitable” they may be. In fact, government does some of these things largely because the private sector does not see any profit in them or sees the risk of failure as too high. NASA, for example, does things for which the current state of the technology makes them too unprofitable or risky to be attractive to private enterprise. Once the government space program has blazed a technological trail, private enterprise may follow later. The suborbital trips that the nascent space tourism business is getting into now involve what government accomplished over half a century ago with the X-15 rocket plane. The space program may still present some getting-in-or-getting-out sorts of choices, but there are countless other functions of government that do not, because of political pressures or simply a firm expectation of what services government ought to provide. These range from the policing of crime to the provision of old-age assistance through Social Security to the management of difficult but unavoidable relationships with foreign states.
Mitt Romney took flak for equating corporations with people. A bigger worry in wondering how he would function as president is the notion of equating corporations with government.
The killing of an individual foreigner overseas, if carried out for a political or policy purpose by either a nonstate actor or clandestine agents of a state, is an act of international terrorism. At least that is how U.S. law defines it, for purposes such as the State Department's annual reports on terrorism. This form of terrorism is part of what put Iran on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Iranian regime perpetrated numerous assassinations of exiled Iranian political dissidents, in Europe as well as in other countries of southwest Asia. The Iranians effectively ended this assassination campaign about a decade and a half ago, largely to improve relations with the European countries on whose soil many of the assassinations occurred and perhaps also because by then Iran had bumped off nearly all of the people on its hit list. We should assume, however, that Iran retains the capability to assassinate far-flung targets again, and that it would consider doing so if searching for ways to strike back at adversaries that are striking it.
Iran itself has been a victim of this form of terrorist violence. This has included some instances, such as the killing of Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan, in which Iranian interests have paralleled those of the United States. It has included during the past two years the killing in Iran of several nuclear scientists, the most recent of whom died this week from an explosive placed on his vehicle. Actions are more important than nomenclature, so if you prefer not to apply the T-word to these killings then just imagine what the reaction would be if something similar were occurring in the United States. Imagine the response if even just one scientist (let alone four or five) who was employed, say, at one of the U.S. national laboratories had been been similarly assassinated and a foreign hand was suspected. There would be screams of “act of war” and the U.S. president would be hard-pressed to hold back impulses to strike back forcefully. Now put yourselves in the Iranians' place. Not only do they face the serial assassination of their scientists, but they face it amid an environment filled with numerous other indications of foreign hostility, including the economic warfare, the saber rattling and the contest among American politicians to see who can shoot the most rhetorical venom at Iran. From this perspective, aptly described by Vali Nasr, it should hardly be surprising if Iran strikes back while it sees more reason than ever before to develop a nuclear weapon in the hope of deterring U.S.-led aggressiveness.
I don't know, of course, who is responsible for the assassinations of the scientists. I do not believe my own country is, and Secretary of State Clinton has explicitly denied “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.” Although over the last thirty years the United States has edged away from the strict prohibition on assassination embodied in Executive Order 12333, we Americans are still morally (and esthetically) squeamish enough about such things that the kind of hit job that took place this week on a north Tehran street doesn't seem to be our thing. We assassinate people, but in addition to euphemizing the act by calling it “targeted killing,” we limit the targets to people we are convinced are themselves terrorists, not scientists or something else. We also use means that we can think of as “war,” preferably means that can be employed from several thousand feet in the air so we don't get too close to the bloody reality. The one time we did get close to it, last May, we still used military means, and that was to eliminate the most notorious terrorist in the world.
My hunch about responsibility for the killing of the Iranian scientists is similar to that of Trita Parsi, who says the assassination “was likely conducted by a regional actor who prefers a military confrontation with Iran over a compromise that would permit Iran to retain nuclear enrichment capabilities, even if it doesn’t build a bomb.” The trouble for the United States is that because it so obsequiously does the bidding of the regional actor in question, it is seen as responsible for anything that actor does and can be expected to share in any resulting opprobrium or retaliation for what that actor does. This gets back to Iran's continued presumed capacity for making assassinations a tit-for-tat business. Do not be surprised if it endeavors to do exactly that, although Tehran will pick its targets, timing and methods carefully to achieve a degree of deniability. The last confirmed official Iranian involvement in committing a terrorist act that killed Americans—the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996—left tracks well enough covered that it took years of investigation to determine the Iranian role. Possibly the caper last year involving the DEA informant and the used-car salesman from Texas was intended as a reprisal for earlier assassinations of Iranian scientists, but the public story of that supposed plot is still so murky that any Iranian role can hardly be considered “confirmed.”
A further tragedy in all of this is that it is a stretch, to put it mildly, to think that murdering some scientists would delay the oh-so-feared Iranian nuclear weapon, as if the only plans and knowledge useful to the program resided in the heads of the murdered men. And this is entirely in addition to the moral dimension of what has taken place. What do we know about Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan that makes him any more worthy of being a victim of assassination than counterpart scientists in the United States or elsewhere would be?
The proper U.S. response to all this is to pursue—vigorously—negotiations with Iran, with the starting point being the most recent Iranian proposal for a new round of talks with the P5+1. That is the only way out of the larger spiral of mutually reinforcing hostility of which the assassinations are only a part. And if, as Parsi suggests, the most recent act of terrorism was intended at least partly to scuttle such talks, that is all the more reason to negotiate in earnest. To do otherwise would be, to use a hackneyed phrase, a victory for the terrorists.
The current presidential-election campaign, as it has shaped up so far, has been almost worthless as a vehicle for informed debate about U.S. foreign policy. In fact, it has been worse than useless, in the sense of imparting misconceptions and puerile formulations rather than highlighting important choices. It is easy to forget, of course, the undesirable characteristics of earlier campaigns, and if the current one seems worse that may partly be because it happens to be the one that right now is unfolding its unattractive form before our eyes. But for anyone who cares both about sound foreign policy and vigorous democratic politics—and hopes that in the American context those two things can be compatible—there is ample reason for concern.
The single biggest foreign-policy dimension of the contest among Republican presidential candidates has been a striving to see who can sound most bellicose about Iran. Much of the other Republican criticism of the Obama administration's foreign and security policy, on matters such as defense spending or the Arab Spring, seems like a striving to stake out a different position from the administration for the sake of being different from the administration, with little or no explanation of why U.S. interests would be better served by the particular alternative course being offered. As some commentators have noted, the Republicans' posturing reflects their political difficulty in dealing with Mr. Obama's foreign-policy successes. These especially include fulfillment of his commitment to end the U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq (a step that, despite creative efforts on the right to make an issue of this, is further insulated from strong criticism because it involved implementation of a troop-withdrawal agreement reached by the Bush administration). The successes also include the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the arch protagonist of Bush's “war on terror.” The candidates have to say something about foreign policy without just complimenting the president, and the rabidly anti-Iran rhetoric is most of what is left.
Another common observation is that what we are seeing right now is a primary campaign, and of course much of what we hear consists of red meat being tossed to the “base” on the right. We should be reassured, we are told, that this will change in the general-election campaign and will not be the basis for policy if one of these candidates makes it to the White House. A pragmatic chameleon such as Mitt Romney is just saying what he is saying because he needs to get his party's nomination first. Perhaps so, but that leads to several other thoughts that are hardly reassuring. One, it means electing someone in spite of what he is saying rather than because of what he is saying. Two, it raises questions about what sort of person would say anything to get nominated and elected. Three, the campaign rhetoric in the meantime is damaging to U.S. public understanding of important issues. And four, the same rhetoric is listened to, and reacted to, by foreign governments and other audiences abroad in ways that may be harmful to U.S. interests. Bellicosity, for example, nearly always induces bellicosity in return.
We are witnessing in the foreign-policy facets of the campaign, of course, one more manifestation of the heightened partisanship, and the demagoguery that often accompanies it, that is on display nearly every day in Washington. Although the partisan divide is at least as sharp and filled with animosity as ever, however, the actual course of U.S. national-security policy through several Democratic and Republican administrations has stayed within a narrow band of assumptions and habits that were nurtured during the Cold War. Those assumptions and habits include a focus on a foreign bête noire, a tendency to equate U.S. national security with international security, a related belief that the United States needs to try to manage messy situations around the globe and a tendency to rely on military force as the prime tool of management. This constellation of outlooks is essentially what Andrew Bacevich has critically described as “Washington rules.” Richard Betts similarly criticizes, carefully and with insight in his latest book, the persistence of this Cold War-nurtured outlook on U.S. foreign and security policy.
There are important choices for the United States that an election campaign, in something closer to an ideal political world, could do a lot to illuminate. Those choices would mostly involve the sorts of challenges that Bacevich and Betts make against the consensus approach that both Democratic and Republican administrations have taken. Applied to some big current issues, such challenges would involve, for example, examining exactly why acquisition of a nuclear weapon by Iran would supposedly be as awful as the rhetoric is making it out to be. The challenges also would involve questioning why the shape of the future political and social order in a country such as Afghanistan does or does not matter highly to U.S. interests. And they would involve far more careful examination than we generally see in public debate of what the consequences of any particular use of military force would be.
We are hearing very little of anything like this in the current campaign. What we do hear is coming almost exclusively from Ron Paul. But Paul is part of a package that includes other positions that are understandably viewed as on the fringe. He is filling a role more of gadfly or devil's advocate than of a serious contender for the White House.
The unchallenged consensus is part of what underlies the demagoguery on Iran. Tehran is playing the role of bête noire that had been played by others in earlier times. There are other factors also at work in the demagoguery. One is the fear factor, with the fears involving Muslims and mushroom clouds. And a major factor is that in American politics the Iran issue is also an Israel issue. As such, the rhetoric on Iran is one more way for candidates to pander to segments of the electorate that they perceive as putting Israel first.
Some of this is sordid. None of it is illuminating or educational regarding foreign-policy choices that affect important U.S. interests.
Probably the country owes some gratitude to Dennis Ross for working so long on a “peace process” that has yet to yield a comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The experience must be frustrating for someone who has been involved in such endless diplomacy—assuming, that is, that his goal is indeed to obtain an agreement and not just to keep a lid on the situation while the Israeli occupation continues ad infinitum. But Ross's article in the Sunday Washington Post, under the title “How to break a Middle East stalemate,” illustrates the very sort of thinking that has sustained the stalemate.
Ross's recommendation is basically for the Israelis to make their occupation of the West Bank a little less pervasive and less heavy-handed and to give the Palestinians there somewhat more economic leeway than they have now. He suggests, for example, letting the Palestinians quarry rock in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank in which Palestinians do not have even nominal civil or security responsibilities and where their economic activity is, as Ross correctly describes it, “extremely limited.” He also suggests letting the Palestinians open a few more police stations in the jointly managed Area B and “gradually [ending]” Israeli incursions into the smallest portion of the West Bank, the Area A in which Palestinians ostensibly have some manner of control.
Such steps are fine as far as they go, and Ross is correct that Israel could take them without endangering its security. But the measures aren't going to break any stalemate. As the rest of Ross's article makes clear, what he is recommending is essentially an extension of the longstanding Israeli strategy of differential treatment of Palestinian territories in an effort to bolster support for the “good” Palestinians led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad and to reduce support for the “bad” Palestinians of Hamas. Making daily life a little more tolerable in the Fatah-controlled West Bank has been one half of that strategy; making life miserable in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip (through blockade and destructive invasion) has been the other half. Ross refers to the prospect of another round of all-Palestinian elections and the need as he sees it to tilt circumstances as much as possible in favor of the good Palestinians.
West Bank Palestinians no doubt would appreciate even the most modest lightening of the heavy hand of occupation, but they have experienced too much disappointing history to believe that what Ross is recommending is part of something that is, as he puts it, “producing a process that will, in time, end the occupation.” To the contrary, most Palestinians will correctly see it more as an alternative to ending the occupation by keeping the West Bank natives from getting too restless and making indefinite occupation manageable. The whole idea of giving Palestinians more autonomy was instituted with the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. That was supposed to be a way station leading to Palestinian statehood in only a few years. Why should Palestinians, nearly two decades later and with an Israeli government that seems more determined than its predecessors to cling to the occupied territories, have any hope that a smidgeon more autonomy today will have any different result?
In the game being played, the West Bank Palestinians are supposed to earn statehood by showing that they can build and run effective institutions. But of course it is up to Israel to determine when they have shown enough, and somehow the required level of achievement never seems to be attained. Meanwhile the Israelis from time to time make it hard for even the good Palestinians, not just the bad ones over in Gaza, to govern. Periodically autonomy gets reduced and the heavy hand of occupation gets heavier. Palestinians know that even if Israel takes Ross's recommended steps Israel can quickly and easily reverse them—and probably will reverse them, most likely after some security-related incident.
Ross's piece seems oblivious to the power of nationalism and the yearning for statehood, which are hardly unique to the Palestinians. This is not the only important circumstance relevant to his subject to which he seems oblivious. In arguing for a stacking of the Palestinian election deck in favor of Fatah and against Hamas, he characterizes Hamas by simply saying that it “rejects nonviolence and peace with Israel”—saying nothing about the strong indications that there is far more willingness by Hamas to be part of a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel. In any event, Ross implicitly rejects categorically any effort, which need not endanger Israel's security at all, to find out if there is such willingness.
Another big and relevant circumstance, of course, is the Arab Spring. Ross mentions it, but only as a kind of inconvenient stimulus for those inconvenient Palestinian elections that we need to make sure Hamas doesn't win. Never does he acknowledge that the vigorous striving for popular sovereignty by their Arab brethren will make the Palestinians even less likely to be satisfied with modest adjustments to continued occupation while they still lack their own state.
There also is a failure even to acknowledge current negotiating realities. Ross says that Mahmoud Abbas “imposes conditions on negotiations” that Benjamin Netanyahu sees as “harsh and unprecedented.” Ross does not use the word “settlements,” nor does he mention that the “conditions” involve cessation of the unilateral creation by one side of facts on the ground that, by their very nature, are antithetical to the whole concept of settling a dispute of territory through negotiation. That antithetical nature is reflected in the criticism of that unilateral activity by several administrations of which Ross was a part (although none of the administrations mustered the will or political strength to do anything effective to stop what they were criticizing).
That the author of such an article has played a central role in the making of policy by several U.S. administrations toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should leave us unsurprised that stalemate has persisted for so long. The stalemate will not be broken by opening a few Palestinian police stations or rock quarries. It will be broken only through an act of political courage by a U.S. president that fundamentally changes the U.S. approach toward this conflict and toward the U.S. relationship with the protagonists in the conflict.
The slim hope for that happening would require a president winning a second term and thus having four more years knowing he will never run for office again. The alternative election result in the United States certainly gives no hope for an end to the stalemate. Front-runner Mitt Romney, with his stand-with-Israel-no-matter-what approach, almost sounds like the moderate on this issue compared to his principal opponents, Newt (“We have invented the Palestinian people”) Gingrich and Rick (“All the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis”) Santorum.
O would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us.
Robert Wright at The Atlantic offered an observation this week about what may be Ron Paul's most important contribution to debate on foreign policy. That contribution, suggests Wright, is not so much Paul's specific policy positions but rather his insistence that we try to look at troubling situations and issues from the perspective of people other than Americans. Paul has applied this perspective—for which he has taken much heat from the other Republican presidential candidates—to such matters as why Iran might be interested in developing a nuclear weapon and why others resent the presence of U.S. troops on their territories (just as Americans would strongly resent someone else's troops on our own territory). Wright says that what Paul is saying helps to fill a damaging gap in “moral imagination”—the ability to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from one's own.
I agree, but the inability, or unwillingness, to consider non-American perspectives has effects that go well beyond what is captured by the concept of moral imagination. There is serious damage to U.S. interests regardless of what role any moral considerations may play. That is true under a variety of policy paradigms. Consider, for example, what a hard-boiled realist who is focused like a laser on U.S. interests would want to know. The perceptions, interests, objectives and even the emotions of those outside the United States at whom his policies are aimed are very important to know and understand. They set the boundaries of what the United States can and cannot accomplish with its own instruments of policy. Without that understanding, hoped-for results of policy initiatives are not achieved, and deleterious and unexpected consequences of those initiatives are incurred.
The most important aspect of foreign viewpoints to be understood is how foreigners view the United States itself, and U.S. policies and actions. Those views go a long way to determining how much U.S. interests can be advanced by obtaining the cooperation of foreign governments, and how much U.S. interests are endangered by countervailing action taken by governments that fear, resent or hate what the United States is doing. Realists, or more precisely neo-realists, understand well that when the United States or any other power is seen as a threat we can expect other states to balance against it in an effort to check its influence.
The perceptions of the United States among foreign populations, not just foreign governments, matter a lot for U.S. interests as well. This is true partly because popular sentiments and resentments constrain what a government (even in a not-particularly-democratic nation) can do. A regime facing strongly anti-American sentiment among its own citizens will, for that reason, be less cooperative with the United States than it might otherwise be. (See Pakistan for an obvious current example.) Anti-American sentiments, rooted in perceptions of American policies and actions, also matter to U.S. interests because of what members of foreign populations are motivated to do individually or in groups, especially in the form of extremist violence. How foreign populations feel about the United States and U.S. actions and policies, and thus what proportion of them may resort to extreme measures to strike back at the United States, will do more to determine how many Americans will become victims of international terrorism than will the hunting down of al-Qaeda minions.
Of course, many who engage in debate about U.S. foreign policy do not sound anything like realists, including that larger trend within the Republican Party that continually trumpets some version of American exceptionalism. But no matter how much exceptionalists believe that principles of international relations somehow do not apply to the United States and that America is so different from other nations that it doesn't have to pay attention to what other people think, any value of exceptionalism in foreign affairs ultimately does depend on what other people think. To be a shining city on the hill, others need to perceive you as shining, as well as being on a hill. Anything that mars the shine lessens the effect.
All of this ought to be fairly apparent, but one would not think so listening to most presidential candidates other than Paul. Somehow a careful consideration for how non-Americans think and feel has become equated with insufficient love for America itself.
It is easy to be skeptical about the latest news on the Afghan-negotiation front: a “preliminary agreement” for the Taliban to open an office in Qatar. This is, after all, merely a procedural step that will give the Taliban a fixed address and identifiable interlocutor for negotiating purposes. It says nothing about substantive issues involving the future political structure of Afghanistan. Nor does it point to any Taliban intentions or bottom lines. Some of what the Taliban said when making the announcement about the new office suggested their overriding interest is in getting NATO forces out of Afghanistan.
Modest though this step is, however, it is just the kind of basic procedural matter that has often been one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in peace negotiations. The recent experience in Afghanistan itself shows how big it can be. There was the episode more than a year ago of dealing with a supposed senior Taliban leader who instead turned out to be an imposter. Then last September there was the death of former president and head of the Afghan peace council Burhanuddin Rabbani, who met an ostensible Taliban peace negotiator who instead was a suicide bomber with an explosive hidden in his turban.
Such setbacks, or the dangers associated with them, are not unique to conflict in Afghanistan. When Charles de Gaulle was trying in 1960 to negotiate an end to the Algerian war that had been underway for six years, he granted an interview to three rebel chiefs who said they were interested in making a separate peace. In doing so, de Gaulle was assuming personal risk comparable to the risk that Rabbani unluckily took on last year. The Algerian rebels were not subjected to a body search because that would have destroyed the climate of trust and confidence that the meeting was intended to create (although a security man armed with a submachine gun was concealed behind a curtain in the presidential office). In negotiations to end the Vietnam War, it took a year just to agree on the shape of the conference table (although the negotiations that really mattered would be conducted secretly in parallel by Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger).
Several reasons make peace negotiations difficult to get under way. One is a fear of showing weakness. That not only makes belligerents reluctant to make the first move; it also encourages them to take an especially hard substantive line at the outset. Some of that may be reflected in the remarks this week by the Taliban spokesman, who seemed to be interested only in hastening a NATO withdrawal. Another reason is the distrust that accumulates during the war. Overcoming that distrust was what the risk-taking by de Gaulle and Rabbani was all about. Yet another hurdle in insurgencies is that it is impossible to separate questions of the status and legitimacy of interlocutors in a peace negotiation from substantive issues to be negotiated. The reason it took so long to agree on the shape of the furniture in the Vietnam talks was that the status of the Viet Cong and whether it had an existence separate from North Vietnam was an issue both of standing to negotiate and of how the war ought to be settled. Similarly, the status of the Taliban as negotiators cannot be separated from questions of what role they should be permitted to play in a new Afghan political order.
Negotiations on Afghanistan will be at least as difficult as those that settled some of those earlier conflicts. But negotiations are necessary and inevitable. No one is going to win this war. Imparting a modicum of stability to Afghanistan will require many bargains to be struck, many of which will involve the Taliban.
As preliminary talks turn into fuller negotiations, there will be other hurdles to overcome. One is suggested by some of the commentary about the opening of the office in Qatar—to the effect that this might help to minimize Pakistani influence. Trying to constrain Pakistan's role in this whole process would be a mistake. The Pakistanis are perfectly positioned to be spoilers. As Lyndon Johnson once remarked about retaining J. Edgar Hoover in his administration, it is better to have him inside the tent [urinating] out than to have him outside the tent doing the opposite. And once you involve the Pakistanis you necessarily have to involve the Indians and other regional players, whose involvement is necessary anyway regardless of how much more complicated this makes the whole process.
A story on NPR earlier this week brought back some personal memories from nearly four decades ago. The subject of the report—related to the seasonal topic of New Year's resolutions—was the science of overcoming addictions and other undesirable behaviors. The piece began by discussing illicit drug use among U.S. troops in the Vietnam War, which was recognized at the time as so serious a problem that it stimulated a larger antidrug effort, with President Nixon appointing a drug czar and declaring drug abuse to be “public enemy number one in the United States.” As an army lieutenant during the last year of the war, I helped to run a replacement depot outside Saigon through which nearly all the remaining U.S. troops departed Vietnam. One of the principal parts of the processing was a urinalysis to identify heroin users, who were separated from the other troops and sent to a detoxification center. The proportion of users was disturbingly high. Nixon's drug czar, interviewed on the NPR report, said about 40 percent of enlisted men had tried heroin, and of those about half became addicted.
The good news about the drug use among the Vietnam veterans was that after they had been detoxified and returned to the United States, only about five percent of those who were addicted in Vietnam became re-addicted. This was a far lower relapse rate than for people who had acquired their initial drug addictions within the United States. The principal explanation offered for this finding is that environment and circumstances are all-important. Habitual behaviors are associated for each person with a particular environment or circumstance. For the soldiers who used heroin, that environment was the war in Vietnam. Once out of that environment, they had a much better chance of kicking the habit for good. So according to the NPR story, if you want, say, to stop smoking, don't linger in that area in front of your office-building's entrance where you and others have been accustomed to having a cigarette.
Other afflictions that Vietnam veterans brought home with them were more persistent than the drug abuse. Besides physical wounds, many suffered from what we have come to know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Although similar conditions had certainly been noted with veterans of earlier wars (some who had been in World War II were said to suffer from “shell shock”), recognition of this syndrome as a major effect of the Vietnam War was slow in coming. PTSD was not even defined as a distinct disorder until the 1980s, and it wasn't until a decade after the war that Congress mandated a comprehensive study of this and other problems among the Vietnam veterans. The PTSD was persistent. A later survey conducted fourteen years later found that the proportion of veterans still suffering symptoms of PTSD had barely changed from the earlier study.
Recognition of lingering problems of veterans, including especially PTSD, fortunately has been earlier and more complete with our most recent wars than it was with the Vietnam War. But the problems are no less serious, and no less chronic and lingering, for being recognized. Problems both invisible, including the psychological demons, and visible, including lost limbs, are long lasting or permanent and will be part of the legacy of the wars for decades to come.
The medical care and other economic costs entailed by that legacy are large and important in their own right, of course. They also can serve as a metaphor for the broader political and other consequences of our most recent wars. Those consequences include the short-term and the long-term, the visible and the invisible, the expected and the unexpected. Unexpected consequences of foreign wars are almost always numerous and extensive. They can be either positive or negative, although most of the unexpected results tend to be negative; what is planned for tends to be more what is wished for than what is feared. Anything close to a full balance sheet on the wars will be a long time in coming. People still argue about the balance sheet for the Vietnam War.
Words can be misused in public and political debate in many tendentious ways that both offend semantic integrity and make discourse more misleading than enlightening. The current political campaign offers many examples, of course. One type of misuse is to ascribe such broad meaning to a term that important distinctions among different possible policies are effectively erased because the term as used comes to embrace them all. This has especially been the case with the term war.
The term had already been thoroughly abused in recent years in connection with counterterrorism and the so-called “war on terror.” The loose and slanted use of the term was, and still is, intended to obfuscate distinctions among the nature of the problem of terrorism, the importance of the problem and methods to deal with the problem. The chief underlying motivation for the obfuscation is to get people thinking in terms of military measures as the main way to combat terrorism. Rather than making an explicit policy argument about the pros and cons of using that policy tool compared with the use of other tools, proponents of the tool use twisted semantics instead. That is a poor way to arrive at policy on any topic. There have been other disadvantages of the “war on terror” terminology, including the misleading tendency to think of the problem as involving a single wartime foe and to think of counterterrorism as having a definite beginning and a definite end. As my former colleague Philip Mudd pointed out last week, the extension of the war metaphor to the handling of terrorist suspects (as reflected in legislation imposing restrictions on the executive branch regarding imprisonment and trials) has the further disadvantage of portraying terrorists exactly as they want to be portrayed—as warriors—rather than as thugs.
Recent expansive misuse of the term war by presidential candidates has been intended to convey the notion that resort to real war—that is, using military force to attack someone—would be no big deal because it isn't essentially different from other things that we could be doing or things that others are already doing now. Rick Santorum, in an exchange with Ron Paul about Iran in a debate last month, said that Iran “has been at war with us since 1979,” citing an Iranian connection with some of the improvised explosive devices used in Iraq. (Santorum followed this statement with some really ignorant remarks about how Iran is ruled by the “equivalent of al-Qa'ida,” that its “principal virtue” is martyrdom and that its “theology teaches” that its objective is to “create a calamity.”) By this use of the term war, Santorum is telling us that the extreme step of attacking Iran militarily would supposedly only be a continuation of something that has been going on for three decades anyway. Of course, in using the Iraqi IED allusion he never mentioned that it was the United States, not Iran, that invaded Iraq and started the war there. Nor did he point out that if someone else's use of a supplied munition constitutes the supplier being at war, then the United States has been at war with many other countries that Americans no doubt do not realize they have been at war with.
In a similar vein, Rick Perry said this in a written response to a question from the New York Times about executive power to use armed force:
There have been numerous examples where a President must direct our armed forces to engage even in the absence of an “imminent” threat. For example, during the Cuban Missile crisis, when there was no imminent threat of missile launch, President Kennedy preemptively acted with a blockade against Cuba (an act of war) on the basis of the Monroe Doctrine and his power to defend the nation as our Commander-in-Chief.
Setting aside the conceptual problem of how an act can be termed preemptive when there is no imminent threat, note how Perry's parenthetical labeling of the naval quarantine as an “act of war” erases the huge differences between policy options that the U.S. decision makers were weighing during those momentous thirteen days in 1962. Not a shot was fired as part of the quarantine; it was carefully designed so that none would be unless the Soviets tried to insert more missiles into Cuba. The principal alternative policy option under consideration would have indisputably been an act of war: a military strike against the Soviet installations already in Cuba. The Kennedy-administration decision makers opted against that alternative because of the risk of escalation to catastrophic levels. Candidates such as the two Ricks may not understand the difference between such policy options, but we should all be thankful that those who had war or peace in their hands during the missile crisis understood the difference.