The saturation media coverage of the big story coming out of Abbottabad this week, coupled with government officials being anxious to show some leg and to elaborate on the most prominent good news story Americans have had in quite a while, has not always been conducive to public understanding of the subject at hand. There was the rushing out by the White House counterterrorist adviser of details of the raid in Pakistan acquired in the fog of war, only to require some of those details to be corrected in later renderings. Then there is a tendency, in the rush to derive lessons and implications, to oversimplify and to overinterpret.
We see some of the latter tendency in the first reports based on exploitation of that “treasure trove” of material seized in the raid. The lede of the New York Times story on this subject is that U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded that bin Ladin “played a direct role for years in plotting terror attacks from his hideout.” The implication is that this refutes an earlier view of “many intelligence analysts and terror experts” that bin Ladin “had been relegated to an inspirational figure with little role in current and future al-Qaeda operations.” I don't know what intelligence analysts were thinking before this week, and purported “terror experts” don't all speak with one voice. But I don't know anyone who subscribed to either end of the continuum of possible roles bin Ladin was playing in his hideout: either that he was directing a bevy of terrorist operations around the world, or that he was nothing but a figurehead. The initial dribble from the trove seems entirely consistent with what was a mainstream pre-May 1st expert view: that although bin Ladin had not gotten out of operational matters his preeminent roles in recent years were as a source of ideology and a symbol for a larger movement, that he provided inspiration to that movement in the form of strategy as well as ideology, and that he was not personally directing most operations around the globe that acquired the al-Qaeda label.
The one item that evidently inspired the Times story is a handwritten entry in a notebook, dating from February of last year, discussing an idea for tampering with railroad tracks to derail a train on a bridge. In elaborating on the warning that inevitably was stimulated by this item, an official at the Department of Homeland Security said, “It looks very, very aspirational, and we have no evidence that it developed beyond the initial discussion.” This puts the idea in the same category as countless other musings, by would-be terrorist peons here in the United States and elsewhere, that never make it as far as becoming an actual terrorist plot.
In assessing the relevance of any discovery for counterterrorism, for the terrorist threat to the United States, and for the challenges in combating that threat, what matters most is not the musings—even from higher-ups, not just the peons—but where the initiative for attacks or attempted attacks comes from. Most evidence in recent years indicates that most of the initiative is coming from people on the periphery of the movement, even if they have “links” pointing toward the center. We will have to wait and see if anything from the new trove contradicts that evidence.
In the meantime, amid all the excitement of the big story, let's take a deep breath and not be too quick to jump to new conclusions.
A big, politically potent event such as bagging bin Ladin is an invitation for some to try to resurrect old issues that should have been disposed of some time ago. The latest concerns the efficacy of “enhanced” interrogation techniques. House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-NY) has been most prominent among those—who are overwhelmingly Republican and/or associated with the previous administration—arguing that information gained through such techniques was critical in leading the manhunters to the compound in Abbottabad. The appropriate first reaction to such assertions is, “How in the world do you know that?” It is an appropriate question even to those with security clearances, given that we are talking about complex investigative tasks in which many different fragments of information of varying reliability are woven together to yield analytical hypotheses. It would be hard for anyone not directly involved in the investigation and analysis to make a well-founded judgment about any one fragment being critical. Given what has become public knowledge so far about the final successful phase of the hunt for bin Ladin, King's assertion appears to be untrue. And regardless of whether the picture the investigators pieced together relied at all on information obtained through coercive techniques, in the end it was a highly uncertain picture that required the president to make a gamble in ordering the operation.
Beyond the specifics of information gathered in the hunt for bin Ladin, the newly resurrected arguments about coercive interrogation ignore some more fundamental issues, one of which is how much bad information such techniques yield, along with any chance of yielding good information. The record is long and strong of coerced detainees saying what they think their interrogators want to hear, or anything else that will end the pain, however fraudulent may be what they say. We saw some of the results of this in bum dope that made its way into the Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War. To the extent that the statements of coerced detainees affected the hunt for bin Ladin, how many of those statements might have been similarly phony and extended the hunt by wasting time and investigative resources?
Another fundamental issue concerns timing and urgency. Given the well-documented experience of interrogators that patient, non-coercive techniques work at least as well as the waterboard, the pro-coercion argument has always centered around the ticking time bomb scenario—the idea that we might not have time for patience if we expect to head off an impending tragedy. But although the ticking time bomb scenario makes for interesting classroom discussions, it so far has never materialized in the real world. And the hunt for bin Ladin, lasting well over a decade, certainly was not a situation where such urgency was, or should have been, the determinant of which sorts of interrogation techniques to use.
There is one aspect of this week's bin Ladin story that does warrant renewed thought about the torture issue. The decentralization of jihadist terrorism that bin Ladin's demise both symbolizes and furthers means that now, more than ever, reducing the threat of terrorism directed against Americans is less a matter of coercing secrets out of members of any one group and more a matter of avoiding behavior that might stimulate would-be terrorists--even ones who do not now belong to any group--to do America harm. At a time when bin Ladin's message has been losing favor partly because of revulsion over his inhumane methods, it would be counterproductive to resort to methods that lessen the moral and humanitarian divide between us and the terrorists.
I made similar observations three years ago in a compendium in the Washington Monthly in which three dozen of us presented our views on torture. Move back a bit from my piece in this alphabetically arranged set of contributions—past the offerings from William Perry and Nancy Pelosi—and you will find one from Leon Panetta, at that time still a private citizen in California. Here is how Panetta concluded his thoughts:
Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don't. There is no middle ground. We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.
From a clear-headed, analytical point of view, the death of Usama Bin Ladin should make little difference, one way or another, regarding U.S. policy toward the war in Afghanistan. Even if his demise were to make a major difference in the fortunes of al-Qaeda, there is barely any al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan. That latter fact, which is one of the reasons Bin Ladin's death ought to be irrelevant to policy on the war in Afghanistan, is also one of the reasons continuation of this war—rationalized largely in terms of fears of what al-Qaeda has done in the past and of what it might do again in the future—is not a cost-effective use of U.S. resources.
Move away from clear-headed policy analysis and to the real political world in which policy is made, and this week's event at Abbottabad may make a good deal of difference. Any happening with the enormous popular resonance of this one presents political opportunities. Advocates on both sides of debate about the war in Afghanistan will try to spin the event in their direction. Those favoring a staying of the current course in Afghanistan, such as Senator Joe Lieberman, are already preemptively warning that it would be a mistake to interpret Bin Ladin's departure as a reason to scale down the military effort in Afghanistan. But the bigger political opportunity is on the side of those who believe that such a scaling down is wise. The opportunity lies in the following factors that are related to Bin Ladin's death and that mostly involve popular belief, or misbelief.
1. The most important factor is the widespread public belief—long nourished by rationalization of the war in terms of preventing terrorist safe havens—that the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has been preventing inroads by terrorists. Given the way the American public has tended to personalize the problem and to equate inroads by terrorists with inroads by Bin Ladin, there is a more fertile field today than there was two days ago for exactly the kind of argument that Lieberman was trying to head off. Making that argument admittedly involves a callous exploitation of public misunderstanding. But exploitation at least that callous has been used to get the United States involved in misadventures, with the Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War being the most obvious recent example. A little callous exploitation in service of an objective that is far more in U.S. interests would not be bad.
2. The taking out of Bin Ladin discredits a pro-counterinsurgency argument that was much heard during the Obama administration's lengthy policy review on Afghanistan, when the principal alternative—reportedly advocated especially by Vice President Biden—was a smaller scale presence aimed more narrowly at counterterrorist objectives. The argument was that this alternative would not work because the United States needs boots on the ground to collect the intelligence required for effective counterterrorism. Now the United States has conducted a pretty darn successful counteterrorist operation, one requiring precise intelligence, in Pakistan without having any boots on the ground waging a counterinsurgency there. It is time to remind people that there is a less costly alternative to the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.
3. The circumstances at Abbottabad also tend to discredit in the eyes of the public the argument that, even if there isn't a significant al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, the war there is needed to protect a Pakistani ally from radical influences spreading across the Durand Line. Stability in Pakistan is indeed a U.S. interest, and it would be a mistake to let our understandable displeasure over the idea that Pakistani officialdom should have known Bin Ladin's whereabouts lead us to turn our backs on Pakistan in disgust. But waging a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is not the way to promote stability in Pakistan. To the extent that disgust with Pakistan erodes popular support for prolonging the counterinsurgency at something like its current level, that is desirable even if the erosion is based on a public misunderstanding.
4. Another factor is based not on misunderstanding but instead on an actual effect of Bin Ladin being taken out of the picture, That effect is a greater willingness of the Afghan Taliban to make deals that would require it to cut all remaining ties with Al Qaeda. It should be more willing to do so than before this week because any loyalty the Taliban felt to Bin Ladin was more to him personally—for the support he gave to the Taliban in the Afghan civil war of the 1990s—then to the group he led. This in turn should improve the prospects for negotiated settlement of conflicts in Afghanistan even without more softening up of the Taliban through allied military operations.
All of these considerations should improve the political climate for President Obama, should he choose to do so, to begin after July 2011 a military withdrawal from Afghanistan that is of more than token proportions. The question is whether he would choose to do so. There are some reasons for optimism that he would. For Barack Obama, the war in Afghanistan has always been less a matter of conviction than baggage taken on to demonstrate his national security cojones despite his opposition to the Iraq War. If he does choose to start shedding some of that baggage, one more consequence of the taking out of Bin Ladin would work in his favor:
5. The political lift that the successful operation in Pakistan gives to the president would enable him to start backing away from the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan while being less vulnerable than he otherwise would be to charges of being a wimp on national security matters.
I am writing this less than 24 hours after the news of Osama Bin Ladin's demise, and there already has been a flood of commentary on this subject the likes of which are difficult to recall. I wasn't around on V-E Day or V-J Day at the end of World War II, but it is hard to imagine the reaction of pundits and press being any more voluminous then. There probably is nothing left to say about the meaning and implications of this terrorist's death, and I am not going to try to say it. But the national preoccupation with this subject has been so enormous that the preoccupation—and its meaning and implications, and the opportunities it may present—is itself worthy of analysis.
First, some declarations. One, Bin Ladin's death is on balance a good thing; the world, and U.S. interests, are better off for it. Second, the national preoccupation with this one man is in a sense understandable, given the national trauma caused by the attack nearly ten years ago perpetrated by a group he led. And third, what happened in Pakistan yesterday was a splendid U.S. operation, warranting thanks and congratulations to all those involved, from intelligence officers who collected and assessed the information, to the brave and incredibly skilled Navy Seals who executed the raid, to the president who ordered the operation in the face of what surely were unavoidable information gaps and risks.
But the national reaction to the operation has been of a magnitude that would be appropriate if it involved something or someone bigger than what Bin Ladin really was. It would be appropriate if it had meant, say, the bumping off of a dictator whose demise would mean the introduction of an entirely new political order, or the elimination of a wartime leader whose death would mean the end of a war. Bin Ladin was neither of those things. An unfortunate irony of the huge reaction to the killing of Bin Ladin is that it continues to give him in death what he worked so hard to achieve in life: the status of arch foe of the most powerful nation on earth. It is a status that conforms with Bin Ladin's narrative of himself as the leader of the Muslim world, protecting that world against the predations of the Judeo-Christian West, the leader of which is the United States. For a decade and a half, we in the United States have unwittingly been doing Bin Ladin's bidding by helping to sustain his desired, and artificially exalted, status. As early as the 1990s some U.S. officials (especially Michael Sheehan when he was the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism) realized how counterproductive it was to build up Bin Ladin's status that way, and tried to tone down the public image that we were giving him. But the United States never was able to get very far away from its counterproductive image-building.
We could not get away from it because the image is rooted not only in the trauma of 9/11 but also in some characteristically American ways of looking at foreign threats and enemies. Americans tend to think of their foes in terms of discrete, identifiable entities. And they tend to personalize threats by thinking in terms of individual enemy leaders. And so a “war on terror” became conflated with a war on al-Qa'ida and a war on Osama Bin Ladin. In a sense the carrying over of his inflated status from life into death was Bin Ladin's final success.
The image of Bin Ladin is reflected in inaccuracies in much of the day's commentary and press coverage. Bin Ladin is said, for example, to have been the “mastermind” of 9/11. He was not. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, currently incarcerated at Guantanamo, was the mastermind of that operation. Bin Ladin was the head of an organization that provided resources useful in enabling KSM to implement his evil idea. Even the identification of Bin Ladin as “the leader” of al-Qaeda is somewhat misleading, in that although he clearly was the leader of a group that has sometimes been called more precisely al-Qaeda Central, the label al-Qaeda has commonly been applied to a looser, larger movement that Bin Ladin inspired but did not direct. Then there are other popular misconceptions on matters related to al-Qaeda and Bin Ladin, such as one citizen's observation I heard on the radio today that the killing of Bin Ladin achieves what thousands of Americans in uniform had been trying to achieve over the past ten years. No, only a very small fraction of those Americans in uniform were working on that particular objective.
As long as we have deeply rooted popular misconceptions of this type, we should turn them to U.S. advantage by making them the basis for mustering public support for beneficial redirections of some U.S. policies. This may seem like cynical exploitation of public ignorance. But the misconceptions are not about to go away anyway. And even if people support the right changes for the wrong reasons, the changes are still right.
One area for redirection is the war in Afghanistan. The public belief that an important mission relevant to this war has been accomplished with Bin Ladin's death provides an opportunity for bringing the costs of this war more in line with the questionable benefits. I will say more about this later this week.
A more general redirection concerns some of the attitudinal and other excesses of the so-called “war on terror.” This point was made eloquently today by David Rothkopf:
The imagery and emotional power of the losses of 9/11 led us not only to overstate the power of the man who gave the order to unleash them but to spend trillions, sacrifice thousands more American lives, trigger the deaths of hundreds of thousands of others and carve a deep wound into the psyche of the planet. We called it a "war on terror" but it went beyond a measured reaction and was bloated and misdirected by a form of grief and anger-fed national dementia. Hopefully, with this well-executed Navy Seal operation... some of the demons may be released and we may regain some of the perspective that we have lost.
Bin Laden is not Hitler. We are not in a global war against an equal nor with one with any real capability of displacing us. But we have just buried an enemy who cannily recognized that the only power right now capable of bringing down America is America. He sought to successfully use us against us and he was for too long successful to too great a degree. That is why, for this success to be truly worthy of celebration, we must bury with him the confusion and disorienting anger that has distorted our world view for a decade.
Even more generally, the political fillip that President Obama no doubt will get from this successful operation can and should be used for a range of wise choices that have required a little more political running room, especially on national security matters such as avoiding a quagmire in Libya and doing more to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
As Egypt's transition toward a more democratic polity continues—and it is very much in the U.S. interest that it does—the principal U.S. priority should be not to do anything to screw up that process or to get the United States on the wrong side of it. That means not openly picking favorites in domestic contests for power, not rejecting the outcome of democratic procedures even when we would have preferred a different outcome, and encouraging the generals who are now in charge not to cut short the transition process.
The United States also ought to be thinking about how not only a changed Egyptian domestic scene but also changed Egyptian foreign policy, and especially Egypt's regional activity, can be in U.S. interests. More active Egyptian leadership in the Middle East would be a restoration of the natural role of this most populous of Arab states—one that it once, in the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, exercised with confidence. The days of other Arabs ostracizing Egypt under Nasser's successor Anwar al-Sadat are long over. The Arab League peace initiative of 2002 represented a renunciation of the reasons for that ostracism. But it took the ouster of Sadat's successor Hosni Mubarak, and the discarding of the baggage that had become associated with Mubarak, to enable Egypt to become Egypt again, with a full and active set of regional relationships. The recent Egyptian mediation of a tentative accord between Fatah and Hamas would not have been possible under Mubarak, given his regime's collusion with Israel in strangling the Gaza Strip. Now the Egyptians are getting beyond old animosities dating from the Iranian revolution to restore a normal relationship with Iran. Normal—as in how most states have relations with most other states, especially in their own regions, regardless of the temperature of the relationship. A spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry stated, “We look at Iran as a neighbor in the region that we should have normal relations with. Iran is not perceived as an enemy as it was under the previous regime, and it is not perceived as a friend.”
A weighty regional state with normal relationships throughout its region represents the kind of diplomatic opportunity the United States can ill afford to pass up, or even to fail to play to its full advantage. Egypt may be especially useful as an intermediary with actors—including the likes of Hamas and Iran—with which the United States still has too much of its own baggage, or is still too tied up in its own political knots, to yet have a normal relationship. Egypt is one of three weighty players in the Middle East, each with its own particular kind of weight, that the United States needs to view this way, and it may turn out to be the most important of the three. The other two are Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Saudis face their own political uncertainties. Turkey is unquestionably an important (increasingly so) regional player, but its Middle Eastern role will always be somewhat limited by not being Arab.
Egypt's external transition, like its internal one, is another subject on which the United States can screw up and needs to try hard not to. Screwing up means being piqued over relationships that Cairo forges, rather than seeing as an opportunity the regional leadership of which such relationships are a part. This transition is another one that the United States needs to stay on the right side of.
Image by Mohamed Adel
Those not old enough to remember headlines from a conflict that was troubling the United States nearly half a century ago may not have paid much attention to the passing in Rome this week at age 86 of Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu. But she cut quite a figure in her day (in more ways than one, in her tight-fitting ao dai) and came to personify much of what was wrong with a South Vietnamese regime that the United States was struggling to prop up. Madame Nhu was married to the regime’s internal security chief, who in turn was the brother of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem came to power in 1955, the year following the accord that ended France’s war in Indochina and left Vietnam split between a communist north and non-communist south. Diem was a bachelor, and Madame Nhu functioned as the first lady of South Vietnam.
But she really functioned as much more than that. Strong-willed and outspoken, she was seen as a dominating influence on both her husband the security chief and her brother-in-law the president. Exactly how much influence she exerted on Diem outside of public view is impossible to say, but the outward indications were that it was substantial. Certainly she goaded the president toward the sort of hard-line and narrow-minded policies that made for a legitimacy problem in South Vietnam. The family was Catholic, and Madame Nhu especially became identified with intolerance toward the nation’s Buddhists. Some of the most searing images coming out of South Vietnam in the early 1960s were of Buddhist monks immolating themselves in protest. And among Madame Nhu’s most notorious comments were her reference to the protests as a “barbecue” and her offer to provide more fuel and matches if the Buddhists wanted to continue them.
By the last year of Diem’s rule, amid a growing Viet Cong insurgency and American frustration with the weaknesses of the regime that was supposed to stand in the communists’ way, Madame Nhu was seen as at least as big a part of the problem as President Diem. American patience with Diem might not have run out as soon as it did if Madame Nhu were not part of the picture. In the end, she was luckier than her husband and brother-in-law. When military officers overthrew the regime in 1963 in a coup that had received an American wink and nod, Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu were killed. Madame Nhu was traveling in the United States at the time; she later lived out most of her exile in Italy.
The Diem regime was an example of an all-too-familiar pattern of a non-monarchical ruling family whose less desirable qualities undercut the regime’s legitimacy. This is all the more a problem when, as with Diem in Vietnam, the regime is looked to as an alternative to an insurgent opposition. The most obvious counterpart today is in Afghanistan, in which the image among Afghans of President Hamid Karzai is being formed in part by the activities of relatives such as his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai.
But before we place too much hope in what can be accomplished by ending a problem of conniving members of a privileged family, we should recall what happened in South Vietnam after Diem’s clan was overthrown. A succession of coups and military juntas followed over the next couple of years, as the communist insurgency continued to grow. Eventually continuity was achieved when Nguyen Van Thieu outmaneuvered his fellow generals and became president, but continuity—along with more than a half million U.S. troops at the peak of the Vietnam War—was not sufficient to keep the communists and their nationalist appeal from prevailing a decade later. The Madame Nhus and Ahmed Wali Karzais do present real problems of legitimacy and stability, but they often are part of conflicts whose outcomes are ultimately determined by forces much larger than themselves.
It's only a preliminary agreement, and given the history of discord between the two parties involved, we should not take anything for granted just yet. But think about the opportunities and implications of the announcement Wednesday by Fatah and Hamas that they have agreed to form jointly an interim unity government for the Palestinians. It means the emergence of a single authority that can speak for and negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians, in both the West Bank and Gaza. It means a commitment by both of the Palestinian parties to a democratic process, with an interim government of technocrats to be followed by elections within a year. The arrangement represents the will of the Palestinian people, in the sense not only that it combines the two parties that together reflect most of the spectrum of Palestinian political sentiment but also that the unity agreement itself responds to recent popular demonstrations in Palestinian streets calling for just such an accord. It also has the backing of important regional actors. Such an agreement has long been a project of Saudi Arabia, although a Hamas spokesman gave primary credit to Egyptian mediators who had been assigned to the task since the change of government in Egypt.
And yet, a label gets in the way, and probably will make this promising development go for naught. The label “terrorist” is affixed to one of the two parties in a way that makes it clear that it never, ever could do anything to shed the label, and that it never, ever will be accepted as an interlocutor, or be part of a coalition that will be accepted. The label thus becomes another rationale for continued inaction, stalemate, and occupation. “The Palestinian Authority has to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu preemptively declared in a televised address. “Peace with both of them is impossible because Hamas aspires to destroy the state of Israel and says so openly.” Actually, Hamas leaders have repeatedly made it clear they are prepared to accept an indefinite truce, or hudna, with Israel. Why should they make any more of a formal declaration than that—how could they be expected to make more of a declaration than that—given that they face an Israel that not only has given no hint of ever being willing to recognize any right of Hamas to exist but also has gone to such lengths to kill the organization that it has resorted to measures that have inflicted substantial suffering even on Palestinians that have nothing to do with the group?
If killing of innocents is what matters, then why should Hamas be out in front in making formal declarations of recognition when Israel has killed far more innocent Palestinians—most notably in Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, as documented in most of the Goldstone report (the portion that Judge Goldstone did not retract)—than anything Hamas has ever inflicted on Israelis? The techniques used by the two sides are different because Israel is the only side that has the power to kill people openly through the used of organized military force.
If the particular killing techniques—clandestine techniques that we can all agree constitute terrorism—are what matter, and if we are going to take a “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” approach such as the one the Israeli government takes toward Hamas, then consider the implications for Israel itself. This would mean that neither the United States, nor Egypt, nor anyone else should ever have dealt with Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir, who were directly, deeply involved in terrorist operations in the 1940s, such as the blowing up of the King David Hotel and the murder of United Nations Middle East envoy Count Folke Bernadotte.
And even if all the worst assumptions about Hamas and its ultimate intentions were to be true, what could possibly be lost through testing those intentions through negotiation with a coalition Palestinian government?
An Obama administration serious about negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian settlement would embrace this latest development in Palestinian politics. Sadly, the opening reaction from the White House was the familiar one of getting in line behind Israel, with an NSC spokesman reapplying the terrorist label on Hamas and saying it would not be a reliable negotiating partner. It looks like this latest chapter will just be another in the political tragedy in Washington that helps to sustain a human tragedy in Palestine.
Image by Thephotostrand
The continued demand in Middle Eastern streets for greater political rights is leading to ever more rhetorical scrambling by Israel, and by those in this country eager to come to Israel’s ostensible defense (but who really are defending a certain set of Israeli policies). The backdrop to the scrambling is, as I have described before, a threefold Israeli worry about the regional political upheaval. First, increased popular sovereignty in Arab states gives heightened attention to the lack of popular sovereignty for Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli occupation. Second, continued (and even intensified) criticism of Israel from Arab states that are more responsive than before to popular sentiment belies the Israeli contention that animosity toward Israel is chiefly a device used by authoritarian rulers to distract attention from their own shortcomings. Third, the emergence of new Arab democracies in the Middle East will remove the single biggest rationale—that Israel is the only democracy in the region—for the extraordinary special relationship that Israel enjoys with the United States.
The current rhetoric on behalf of Israel repeats most of the themes that have been heard for years—including the themes about criticism of Israel being a creature of Arab authoritarianism and about how the United States must embrace the only democratic ally it has in the Middle East. But there is a sense of greater urgency in the rhetoric. The articulate Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, recently contributed an argument as an article titled “The Ultimate Ally.” It was a game effort to do part of what ambassadors are supposed to do. But to understand what Oren was talking about, see Stephen Walt’s powerfully argued and thoroughly supported demolition of Oren’s piece. In addition to refutation of the ambassador’s points, Walt reviews some of the high (or low) points in the history of Israeli actions (especially military actions) in the region that, mainly because of the special relationship that necessarily associates the United States with most things Israel does, have heavily damaged U.S. interests.
Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy weighs in with a shorter but just as pretentiously argued article titled “The Long View: The Middle East Needs More Israels.” The article illustrates several of the traits that the argumentative line of which it is a part have long demonstrated. One is a failure to take the long (or broad) view of the consequences of Israeli policies and actions. In bestowing praise on Oren’s piece, for example, Satloff says the ambassador “understates the case for Israel’s value as a strategic asset to America” by not discussing at length “the unique contribution Israel has made to counterproliferation” with actions such as the attack on an Iraqi reactor in 1981. Left unsaid by Satloff was that the Iraqi response to that attack was to speed up Iraqi work on nuclear weapons, while switching to a different and more secretive method for producing fissile material.
Another trait in the argumentation is to knock down straw men. The usual straw man is the imaginary contention that Israel is responsible for all the ills in the Middle East. A newer, narrower straw man that Satloff knocks down is that U.S. ties with Israel are the cause of the current uprisings in Arab countries. (I don’t know of anyone who has contended that.) Yet another trait is to conflate Israel itself, and all that is good about it and even its very right to exist, with certain Israeli policies and practices that are the real causes of criticism and controversy.
The huge, elephant-in-the-room reality ignored by both Oren and Satloff is the voluminous evidence (a sample of which Walt reviews) that anger and resentment over those policies and practices have long shaped the views—including strongly held views of the United States—of ordinary Middle Easterners in the streets, the same streets that have been erupting over the past four months. Views of U.S.-Israeli relations did not cause the eruptions, but the views are those of the same people who are participating in the revolts. The anger and resentment are not merely artifacts—as Satloff puts it in evoking this old chestnut—of “the corruption, venality, torture, and inequality of Arab governments.”
One new data point about this is in polling results from Egypt released this week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. By a margin of 54% to 36%, Egyptians believe that Egypt’s treaty with Israel should be annulled. This does not foretell any move toward an Egyptian-Israeli war; universal recognition of Israel’s overwhelming military superiority would see to that. The question was the only one about Israel in the survey, and as such probably indicated less about the treaty itself than as a barometer of popular sentiment toward Israel or Israeli policies. The point is that these are ordinary Egyptians speaking, not one of those corrupt and venal regimes. The same survey sample that gave this answer also said, by 77% to 13%, that Hosni Mubarak’s departure from power was a good thing.
Satloff is right about the Middle East needing more Israels if this means all the good things about Israel: the prosperity, the make-the-desert-bloom ingenuity, and support for liberal democratic values for at least a portion of the population. He is wrong if this means continuation of the 44-year-old occupation and the highly destructive actions that reflect a futile quest for absolute security even when it means absolute insecurity for others. It is the latter Israel that is the source of all that anger and resentment, and that also is the object of the criticism that Satloff, Oren, and others try so hard—harder now more than ever, as the Middle Eastern unrest has put them in a defensive crouch—to discredit or dismiss.
A proposal with bipartisan support of leadership in the Senate would trim by about 200 the number of positions in the executive branch that would require Senate confirmation. Supporters of the measure point to the often long time required for confirmation and to the many vacancies that invariably persist well after a new president takes office. Opponents argue that removing the Senate's role of advising and consenting to these appointments would add too much to presidential power unchecked by the legislative branch. Neither supporters nor opponents seem to be addressing a big underlying question: why should such a large proportion of the government be dismantled each time the presidency changes hands?
The United States is almost unique among advanced democracies in having a huge number of political appointees, filling jobs that change occupants with each change of presidential administration. The number of such positions, which has been growing faster than the federal government as a whole (and only some of which require Senate confirmation), was up to about 3,000 when President Obama entered office . The prevailing pattern in other democracies is a far smaller political layer, typically comprising in each department a minister, a couple of junior ministers, and small personal staff, atop a bureaucracy that extends up to someone with a title such as permanent undersecretary.
The atypical U.S arrangement makes for major disruption with every change of president, and not only for reasons having to do with Senate confirmation. The sheer number of appointments, whether or not confirmation is required, leads to numerous vacancies for months after inauguration day. The system seems to assume that the tasks of government start from scratch every four years, but of course the great majority of governmental tasks, and the problems and challenges related to them, do not follow any such schedule. Thus even without the vacancies, much time, knowledge, and efficiency is lost every time such a large proportion of the upper (and not so upper) levels of the executive branch cleans out its desks.
The huge political layer has other serious drawbacks, including a blurring of the distinction between elected political masters and an apolitical civil service. The blurring means much of the business of the government is being directed by people who are far removed from any electoral mandate but also not part of a tradition and ethic of diligently serving whoever is the political master of the day. The blurring breeds resentment and misunderstanding between the appointed in-and-outers and professional bureaucrats. And it represents a partial politicization of the bureaucracy itself, with all that implies regarding dangerous intermingling of information and advocacy.
An argument sometimes made in defense of the huge political layer is that changing the staffing of a large proportion of the government means bringing in fresh ideas. But there are much less disruptive ways of getting fresh ideas, such as consultancies that government departments use all the time already, not to mention simply listening to larger public debate about leading issues. Besides, the circles from which many of the in-and-outers come, including law firms and ideologically defined think tanks and advocacy groups, are not necessarily fonts of fresh thinking.
The most common justification for the layer is that each president needs like-minded people to ensure that his policies are followed. But that argument assumes away the concept of an apolitical civil service, a core mission of which is to do exactly that. The current system actually makes it less likely that the president's preferences and policies (and the understanding of those preferences and policies among the members of the American public who elected the president) will be followed. Those 3,000 appointees are not clones of the president, or even of his political and policy thinking. The appointees have their own preferences and agendas, which often differ in significant ways from others in the same political party and others who supported election of the same president. Which potential appointees get the jobs and thus the opportunity to act on those preferences and agendas is the result of a haphazard process that involves luck, having the right contacts, or signing up with the right candidate during primary season. None of that has much to do with fulfilling an electoral mandate won in November.
The biggest actual reason the huge political layer has persisted is that many of those jobs are rewards for support in an election. If those rewards were not available to any candidate, U.S. democracy would be at least as strong as it is now. But no presidential candidate wants to be the only one to deny his supporters that incentive. So we probably are stuck indefinitely with the current disruptive and cumbersome system for staffing much of the government.
The allied military intervention in Libya, which may still be in only an early chapter of a possibly long story, already has displayed multiple decision-making pathologies. Some of those pathologies resemble patterns observed in earlier wars, or the in the run-up to earlier wars. There is, for example, the phenomenon of a mighty power (the United States) getting half-dragged into a conflict by lesser allies (France and the United Kingdom), which brings to mind the European crisis of 1914, in which the actions of Serbia and Austria-Hungary dragged Russia and Germany into what became World War I. Then there are the ghosts of past genocides and non-interventions, which constituted the other half of U.S. decision-making. This has been more a matter of emotion than of clear-eyed consideration of costs and benefits. It is the sort of redemptive, analogy-laden “never again” attitude that also has been in evidence in other decisions about war and peace, similar to the repeated invocations of Munich and the pre-World War II diplomacy that have contributed to earlier wars.
Other pathologies are associated with the piecemeal nature of the Libyan intervention, which already has gone from no-fly zones to offensive strikes on government forces to allied advisers on the ground and now to U.S. missile-armed drones in the air. The incremental involvement, along with the rationalizations for the escalation, have been described as mission creep, and it is indeed that. Enlarging one's objectives in the course of a war is not ipso facto irrational. Vyacheslav Molotov referred to the “logic of war” in explaining why the Soviet Union expanded its territorial demands during the Russo-Finnish War; the military effort the Soviets needed to break through the Finnish lines was large enough to bring additional objectives into reach. But what has been happening with Libya is not the logic of another war; it's just plain mission creep, born out of confusion and disagreement from the beginning of the crisis as to what the mission ought to be.
A couple of other pathological patterns associated with incremental escalation of a war are likely to become more apparent as this conflict wears on. One is the tendency—irrational but common—to treat sunk costs as an investment. Another is the belief—incorrect but also common—that the more deeply the United States sinks into a conflict the more its credibility and standing will be damaged if it extracts itself from the conflict with anything other than a clear victory. That belief has figured into the prolongation of several wars, most recently the one in Afghanistan.
Another pattern associated with incremental involvement in a war is more logical than irrational, but the logic can still have a destructive overall effect. Each individual step on the ladder of escalation may be quite justifiable; it may entail a small incremental cost in return for increasing the chance that the whole expedition will end in a win rather than a loss. In Libya, each step may seem a small additional price to pay if there is reason to believe it might be just enough to make the difference between Qaddafi staying or leaving. But when all the steps are put together, they may add up to costs and consequences that outweigh even the value of a win.
In Libya, there may yet be a good number of steps to be taken. And the appropriate metaphor is probably not steps up a ladder but rather steps down into a bog. A departure by Qaddafi may be seen as a win, but that still would leave the question of what the allies should do about chaos in his wake (an op ed by Michael Chertoff and Michael Hayden raises important questions about this). An imperative to extend the intervention beyond Qaddafi would be driven by the dangers of chaos and power vacuums (including exploitation by radical Islamists) and by a sense of responsibility based on the Pottery Barn rule. And what about humanitarian considerations of the sort that supposedly were so important in getting us involved in Libya in the first place? If there was a moral imperative to save Libyans from violence not of our own making, what about our moral obligations when Libyans are endangered by violence that results from a situation that is partly of our own making?
The outstanding recent example of the failure of decision-makers to look ahead at the burdens that would follow the forceful overthrow of a dictator is, of course, the Iraq War. The intervention in Libya will not cause damage to U.S. interests as severe as that enormous blunder, but it threatens to become one of the more distracting enterprises of Barack Obama's presidency, despite Mr. Obama's clear reluctance to step into the bog.