The tragic loss of 30 U.S. service members and eight Afghans in the crash, apparently from enemy fire, of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan over the weekend elicits—as does any other prominent and deadly incident—attempts to draw larger lessons. The drawing is done from different angles, sometimes with an agenda attached. The Taliban, playing off the inclusion of Navy SEALs among the victims, will portray the shoot-down as a calculated reprisal for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, rather than as a lucky shot by an insurgent armed with a rocket-propelled grenade. In discussion in the United States of the war in Afghanistan, some will use the incident to emphasize costs they believe must be ended, while others will emphasize the insecurity they believe warrants staying the course. Some are questioning the advisability of a strategy that relies heavily on the use of special forces in risky missions to take out individual insurgent leaders or terrorists.
The crash of the helicopter—causing the single biggest loss of life for the U.S. military in its nearly ten years of involvement in the Afghanistan war—is significant in its own right. We need to reflect on the sacrifice that some remarkably brave warriors and their loved ones have just made. The event does not tell us anything about the bigger issues concerning the war, however, that we did not already know or should have known.
The SEALs on the Chinook were coming to the support of other U.S. special forces on the ground engaged in a tactic the NATO command in Afghanistan has used heavily over the past couple of years: a nighttime raid to kill or capture a specifically targeted insurgent leader. The U.S. military considers this tactic one of its more successful methods, and in terms of accomplishing the missions of particular individual operations it probably has been so. Many similar missions have been completed without significant losses. The vulnerability to hostile fire of an aircraft such as the Chinook when landing or taking off has been well understood as an inherent risk.
Step back from the tactical to the strategic and and one must ask the question of how much is being accomplished through even the tactical successes. The Taliban do not constitute a fixed quantity, in which their numbers go down every time one of their leaders is killed. Instead, the trend over the last few years has been in the other direction, with coalition military operations serving as a stimulant to Taliban recruitment. The targeted killing of some leaders may have a further downside in their replacement by younger Taliban who are even more intractable than the older ones.
If the strategy of using special forces to conduct nighttime raids is to be criticized, one must ask what the alternative is. If what is at stake in Afghanistan is considered important enough to the United States to fight for it, then the alternative is clear-hold-and-build counterinsurgency, which has always had serious and longstanding problems as it is applied to Afghanistan. One problem is that there simply are not enough forces available to do all the necessary clearing and holding, and that would be true even if the announced U.S. troop withdrawal were reversed and a new surge begun. Another problem is the counterproductive nature of a foreign military occupation stimulating popular resentment and support for insurgency. Yet another is the lack of that sine qua non of successful counterinsurgency: a legitimate host government that the local population considers worth fighting for.
We need to step back even farther from the tactical and operational to the strategic and consider whether the costs of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan—regardless of whether they are centered on special operations raids, counterinsurgency, or any other preferred tactic—are worth the benefit, if any, being gained for the security of Americans. That should have been the central question being asked all along about the war. To the extent the latest event gets some Americans who have not thought hard about that question to do so, the terrible loss in Wardak province may have a small silver lining.
Any thought that the recent national embarrassment over the debt ceiling and deficit was a single, exceptional spasm of thuggish importunity has been dispelled by a smaller-scale repeat performance that put most of the Federal Aviation Administration out of business for almost two weeks. Once again Democrats caved to tactics that Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) appropriately labeled as “bullying.” The chief bully this time was John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. A major Republican objective throughout the stalemate was to overturn a decision of the National Mediation Board regarding voting rules for airline employees seeking to organize a union. An overturning of the decision would make it harder for employees to unionize and in this case would have served principally as a favor to Delta Air Lines. A more immediate issue in the negotiations, and the one on which Democrats ultimately caved, was a demand by Mica—in the name of saving $16 million a year—to end subsidies for service to certain regional airports. While saving that $16 million, the impasse cost the federal government about $300 million in uncollected taxes on air tickets. The treasury has lost that money forever—it has been pocketed by the airlines.
The hypocrisy in this is underscored when one notes that Mica has shown no hesitation in going to the public trough in a big way, notwithstanding the inefficiencies, when his own parochial interests are involved. He has pushed hard for a commuter rail project in his district in central Florida that will cost $1.2 billion when completed—much of this coming from both the federal government and the state of Florida—but serve only 2,150 commuters a day and is judged by the federal government to be one of the least cost-effective mass transit endeavors in the nation. A principal beneficiary of this project will be the railroad company CSX, which would receive $432 million for tracks that its freight trains could continue to use at night and for improvements to other tracks that it owns elsewhere in the state. CSX has been a major donor to Mica's campaigns.
We really shouldn't be surprised to see a prompt reprise of belligerent tactics from the Republican side on Capitol Hill, given how well such tactics worked for them in the deficit spectacle. It's a time-tested principle in facing bullies and hostage-takers; if you give in to them you can expect to get still more belligerent treatment from them. Nor should we be surprised by the perverse economics involved in such things as losing $300 million to save $16 million. The big extortion caper we witnessed regarding the debt ceiling was much less about debt and the deficit than about ramming through an ideological agenda, protecting certain narrow economic interests, and damaging the political opposition.
One might look at future elections as a vehicle for voters to administer the punishment that such behavior so richly deserves. A new New York Times/CBS News poll would seem to offer hope in that regard. Congress receives historically high disapproval ratings, with Republicans in Congress rated even worse than Democrats. Eighty-five percent said members should compromise to get things done rather than stick to their positions, 63 percent favored increasing taxes for the wealthiest bracket and 82 percent correctly perceived that the disagreements over raising the debt ceiling were mostly about gaining political advantage rather than doing what is best for the country.
I am not optimistic, however, that such numbers predict that the appropriate electoral punishment will be administered. The procedures and mores of government, including sound policy-making methods in the executive branch and responsible legislative habits in Congress, have never—despite their importance—been the stuff of winning electoral campaigns. They have never had as much resonance with the electorate as have simple themes such as not raising taxes. Ultimately the effective working of government depends not just on the electoral sanction of voters throwing out lousy leaders but also on leaders themselves accepting the need to observe certain habits such as a willingness to engage in give-and-take, a respect for broad as well as narrow interests, an acknowledgment that no one point of view has all the answers and simple civility. Those habits used to be readily in evidence in Congress; it is hard to find them in some parts of Capitol Hill today. Some possible reforms such as an end to gerrymandering would encourage their return. Until that happens, the bullies and hostage-takers will be motivated by how their tactics have succeeded and will be little deterred by fear of being held to account at the next election.
Thursday's op ed page in the New York Times provides multiple reminders of how much Israeli policies toward the occupied territories, while damaging many things, are not least of all damaging to the interests of Israelis. Nicholas Kristof's column, in the course of calling the U.S. Congress to account for its “tomfoolery” in cheering on some of the most destructive Israeli actions in the territories, also notes the basic contradiction between Israel's program of colonization of the territories and the fundamental Israeli objective of a free and democratic Jewish state. In the apt words of Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, “If things don’t change pretty soon, chances are that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will slip through our fingers. As that happens, the dream of the Jewish people to be a free people in their own land also slowly disappears.”
Elsewhere on the same page, a piece by the Israeli journalist Dimi Reider and Palestinian columnist Aziz Abu Sarah describes the less obvious connection between the colonization program and the grievances of Israelis who currently are demonstrating over the high cost of living and the high cost of housing in particular. Much of the lack of affordable housing in Israel is due to policies that have essentially taken resources away from remedying that shortage and used them instead to subsidize settlements in the occupied territories. As the writers put it, “Israel today is facing the consequences of a policy that favors sustaining the occupation and expanding settlements over protecting the interests of the broader population.”
The allocation of housing budgets is not even the largest part of how colonization of the occupied territories has significantly hurt the economic interests of Israelis. A host of other expenses, most of them outlays related to security that would not have been incurred if it were not for the settlements, as well as secondary economic effects of the occupation may have cost Israel more than $50 billion since the 1967 war in which the territories were seized. The direct annual cost of maintaining control over the occupied territories is an estimated $700 million.
The big misdirection of resources shows no sign of ending. Also in the news is word that the Israeli government has given final approval for the construction of more than 900 additional homes for Israelis in occupied East Jerusalem. Israel's interior minister cynically linked the decision to the concerns of the demonstrators by saying that the project was important in providing affordable housing units. He said nothing about how, under different policies, equivalent housing could have been built for less expense within Israel itself.
Anyone with a concern for the interests of Israelis, including the demonstrators having a tough time finding affordable housing, ought to feel sympathy for how they have been shamelessly manipulated by those, including within their own national leadership, who are more concerned about hanging on to captured land than about either peace or their own citizens' cost of living.
Surely one of the most arresting images to come out of the Arab Spring is that of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, prone on a hospital bed inside the defendant's cage in a courtroom where he is standing—or maybe it's lying—trial for abuses allegedly committed as his power was coming to an end. I have always thought the cage that is used in some countries to confine defendants in courtrooms adds a significant degree of humiliation and degradation, well beyond anything to which defendants in American courtrooms, seated openly at a defense table next to their attorneys, are subjected. The message seems to be either that the charged person is equivalent to a wild animal or that the physical arrangement in the courtroom symbolizes the imprisonment that a presumed guilty person has coming to him. Europeans criticized the perp walk to which Dominique Strauss-Kahn was subjected. That treatment of an accused person seems mild compared to what the man in the cage—who also supposedly is not to be considered guilty before a verdict is rendered—is subjected.
The trial of Mubarak, along with family members and associates, will no doubt be an attention-hogging spectacle in the weeks ahead. Among other interesting dimensions is the question of how much Mubarak and his lawyers will be able to associate the former president and his actions with the generals who are currently running the show in Egypt.
But the humiliation already inflicted on Mubarak raises other questions about messages to be sent and behavior to be influenced, and raises them in a way in which the interests of Egyptians may conflict with those of their brother Arabs. One man on the street in Cairo justified the trial in such behavior-influencing terms, not as something being done for either justice or vengeance. “The only reason we want to try him — the sole reason — is so that he can serve as an example for the person who follows him,” he said. “There is a limit to power.” The prospect of such treatment, however, can only reduce any incentive rulers in other Arab states might otherwise have to step down in response to popular pressure.
Take your pick: influencing the decisions of future rulers in Egypt or of current ones elsewhere.
News out of Xinjiang—the vast portion of Central Asian steppe that the map tells us is part of China—is sometimes hard to come by. The Chinese regime's proclivity for squelching word of anything anywhere in China that hints of challenges to the regime's authority combines with the sheer remoteness of this region to make good information about dissent or unrest there sparse. But the word that has dribbled out over the years indicates the regime is very concerned about separatist activity and sentiment among the predominantly Muslim Uighur population.
The latest news concerns lethal violence in Kashgar, a city near the westernmost point of both Xinjiang and China as a whole. Kashgar is farther from Beijing (over 2,500 miles) than it is from more than two dozen other national capitals. Although the map says this is part of China, the Chinese regime is confronting its Uighur problem more as a remote imperial power, trying to assert its control in an area inhabited by an alien population. In other words, they have a challenge that in some ways is similar to the one the United States faces in trying to project its power in the same part of the world.
The two powers confronting such a challenge ought to be able to help each other. China needs to be a big part of the regional diplomacy and cooperation that the United States requires to deal with its predicaments in the region, including how to extract itself safely from the civil war in Afghanistan. Thanks to the maps drawn by nineteenth century British and Russian diplomats who designed Afghanistan to be a buffer between their two empires, China even shares a (small) border with Afghanistan.
It is next door in Pakistan—where there are so many things that Washington wants Islamabad to do, or to do more vigorously, but rarely seems to be muster the leverage that gets results—that China could be of most help. In the report from Kashgar, local Chinese officials charged that the violence in question was perpetrated by members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement who had trained in Pakistan. The public Chinese accusation about a Pakistani connection was especially significant given the length and depth of the Chinese-Pakistani alliance. China has given Pakistan many reasons to be grateful, including probably assistance in the design of Pakistan's early nuclear weapons. There are corresponding reasons to think China has more leverage with Pakistan than the United States does.
Of course, experiences with North Korea should temper any hope about China using its leverage with nearby allies. But that case is different because of China's concern about the effect on itself of an implosion of the North Korean regime, including possibly waves of refugees heading into China. Events in Pakistan are not going to cause waves of Pakistani refugees to trek across the Karakoram Mountains into China.
So the posture toward China when the subject comes up of Islamic militants crossing borders in Central and South Asia should be, “We're in this together.” The one important hazard to avoid is getting sucked into equating a fight against terrorists with oppression against a subject population. The Chinese have shown a proclivity for doing so in its treatment of the Uighurs. But they are not the only country to be guilty of such conflation; Russia and Israel are a couple of others that have done so as well. The United States ought to be able to craft policies that keep its hands clean of any condoning of oppression while still maximizing its chances for benefiting from someone else's leverage.
The game of chicken that has just played out regarding the budget and debt ceiling, along with the way it played out, is a huge blot on American democracy. I'm not even talking about the bad economic consequences, which began when the game was still being played and will continue in many forms for years to come. I am instead looking at this episode as more of a political crisis and failure than an economic one. Although I have used the chicken-game terminology because those are the terms in which a strategic analyst might describe it, we can can use blunter words in talking about what has happened. An act of extortion has been committed. The extortion was perpetrated by one political element—not a majority of the American body politic—motivated by a combination of narrow pecuniary interest, stupidly conceived notions of wider economic interest and determination to bring about the downfall of political opponents. The extortionists succeeded, using the fiscal integrity of the United States as a hostage and wielding a threat of economic disaster if they did not get their way. However much the result may be sugar-coated as a compromise and the most incorrigible of the perpetrators may still express dissatisfaction that they did not get even more, the threat worked and the targets of the caper caved. The episode is no less an instance of extortion than if the perpetrators had been armed gunmen who took over the Capitol and physically held members of Congress hostage.
The United States has, traditionally and with good reason, taken very seriously the consequences of yielding to demands made by hostage takers. It has made resistance to such demands a matter of policy. One of the major tenets of U.S. counterterrorist policy for many years, unchanged through Republican and Democratic administrations, has been to make no concessions to terrorists and to strike no deals to free hostages. Resisting such concessions is important not only to deter further hostage taking and further demands by whoever is perpetrating the current incident but also to dissuade others from considering the same tactics. The United States has generally adhered to this policy, even at the price of losing the lives of some U.S. citizens who had been taken hostage. The biggest departure from the policy, which was part of what became known as the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s, certainly did nothing to strengthen U.S. interests and instead weakened them.
Now consider how the recent instance of hostage taking and extortion in Washington, perpetrated by a different variety of extremist, looks as viewed from overseas. The president of the United States has been weakened. He has caved in to extortion, with all that implies regarding expectations of how he will behave the next time he faces similar demands. Most specifically and obviously, the expectation will be that the next time there is political confrontation over fiscal matters, the result will be the same as it was this week. Foreign governments (and investors) will conclude that with increased tax revenues off the table, the United States will never get its fiscal house in order. They also will conclude that the United States simply cannot be counted on to dip further into its resources to accomplish its own goals, let alone shared ones. The next time a U.S. secretary of defense lectures allies about how they should make more of an effort to share burdens, the cynicism and annoyance will be even greater than it was before.
Once upon a time there was a general appreciation among American political leaders, voiced by both Republicans and Democrats, that however much one might disagree with whoever was the president of the day, to a large extent the prestige and effectiveness of the United States overseas was inextricably linked to the prestige and effectiveness of the president. This appreciation was related to the old idea of politics stopping at the water's edge. The perpetrators of the recent extortion over fiscal policy either don't appreciate this concept or simply don't care about it. Anything that weakens or embarrasses Barack Obama is good in their eyes.
Some of the consequences we ought to be concerned about involve a variety of would-be extortionists overseas who have been watching what has been going on in Washington. This might involve terrorists—the kind who literally use guns or bombs. The type of international terrorism that was more prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s, involving the taking of hostages and the making of demands, is less common today, but what played out in Washington can only encourage terrorists to think anew about such tactics. Another extortionist to watch is Kim Jong-il of North Korea. I earlier noted the similarities between the North Koreans and the Congressional Republicans who precipitated the debt ceiling crisis. Those very similarities are what will encourage the real North Koreans to draw lessons from this episode. The North Koreans already have shown that they extract such lessons from U.S. behavior on matters far removed from their own country. Future confrontations and crises with Pyongyang may now be both more likely and more difficult for the Obama administration to manage.
U.S. allies such as the Europeans will not play that kind of despicable hardball, but similar lessons will play into any issues that involve cross-Atlantic bargaining. Besides drawing conclusions about who has a stranglehold on U.S. fiscal policy and what this means in terms of ever getting the U.S. fiscal house in order, the main impression the Europeans will take away from this episode is the more general one of the dysfunctional nature of the U.S. political system. There will be greater skepticism about whether the United States can be relied upon for anything and about America's ability to lead. Some of the same people in the United States who have criticized President Obama for “leading from behind” have made it harder for him to do any leading from in front.
Finally there are the impressions formed in the minds of others overseas, such as those in the Middle East aspiring to create new political orders in their own countries. What they have just seen happen in Washington is one of the worst possible advertisements for representative democracy. In addition to the general dysfunction, what will be noted is how the interests of the many could be overridden by those determined to shield the wealthiest segment of society from any additional financial burden. Combine that unappealing political picture with the slowness in post-recession recovery that the reduction in government spending will only make slower, and the China model becomes more attractive every day.
Image by dbking
George W. Bush did highly regrettable things during his presidency, with the launching of the war in Iraq at the top of the list. Perhaps next on the list, and not unrelated to the very costly Iraq War, was fiscal policy that reversed his predecessor's budgetary surplus and opened a gusher of red ink. But a criticism of the former president that should have died long ago even though it keeps coming up from time to time is that he supposedly did not react properly when, as he was listening to some elementary school pupils in Florida read a story on a September morning ten years ago, his chief of staff quietly informed him that a second airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. The critics say that by staying with the students for another seven minutes he was exhibiting indecisiveness or a lack of appreciation for the seriousness of what had just happened. Actually, in continuing to hear the schoolchildren read their story for those few additional minutes, Mr. Bush did absolutely nothing wrong.
The episode came up again in a new interview with the former president to be aired in late August. Mr. Bush explained his behavior by saying that he wanted to project calm and not “rattle the kids.” That's a politic explanation, one that we would expect to hear, and it's fine as far as it goes. Here's an even better reason he was right to respond as he did: there's wasn't anything else useful he could have done anyway.
To believe otherwise involves several common confusions. One is confusion between what is urgent and what is important. That's a distinction that applies to mundane matters in our daily lives as well as to matters that concern a president. Another confusion is between what is important and what one can do anything about. Presidents observe many things that are quite important to U.S. interests but that they can't really do much about, or that are best just left alone. This was true of some aspects of the end of the Cold War during the presidency of Mr. Bush's father, including the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe.
A related confusion is between knowing what there is to know about something and being able to do anything about it. We expect senior leaders in government to be literally up to the minute on everything related to their areas of responsibility, whether or not any actions by them depend on such a continual feed of information. (Recall the heat that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper took last year for a broadcast interview in which he showed he had not yet been informed about the arrest earlier in the day of some terrorists in the United Kingdom.) When something really significant, such as a disaster or major overseas event, occurs, the White House press corps is intent on finding out when and how the president was informed—again, whether or not there was anything he could do about it right away. If such an event happens during the night, it is expected that the president's chief of staff or national security adviser will wake him with the news. This might involve some of those 3:00 a.m. phone calls that Hillary Clinton talked about in the last presidential campaign. With many of the 3:00 a.m. calls, the best thing the president can do after receiving the news is to roll over and go back to sleep, in the interest of being well rested and clear eyed when, later on, his subordinates present him with options for decision.
Even when things can be done right away, this doesn't mean—this is yet another confusion—that the president is the one who can or should do them. Given the multiple planes involved in the 9/11 attack, conceivably steps could have been taken in the first few minutes after the second impact at the World Trade Center that would have made a life or death difference. But those steps would have had to be taken by people involved in the air traffic control system, or the defense of U.S. cities, or the security of landmark buildings—or, as it turned out, by passengers on United Airlines Flight 93. There were no presidential decisions to be made in those few minutes. And what were presidential decisions involving responses to 9/11 should not have been taken in those early minutes; if they were, they would have been hasty and ill-considered.
In pointing out these realities I am thinking of the president primarily as chief executive. We expect our presidents to play other roles, including one as a sort of empathizer-in-chief, someone who will react as we would react ourselves to anything shocking or tragic. Because our chief of state and head of government are the same person, more of this role falls on the president than it does on his fellow heads of government in other countries, where some of the empathy burden is carried by royalty or ceremonial presidents. It is a legitimate and necessary function, one that George W. Bush had to perform on several occasions (although he wasn't quite as good at it as some other recent presidents, especially Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton). It is performed primarily not in the first few minutes after an event, however, but instead in later statements and ceremonies.
Some of these same confusions and expectations underlie the compulsion for presidents (and governors or mayors) to travel to the scene of disasters, including natural disasters. Again, there is usually not much they can do there except provide photo ops. There is not even much they can learn there; if they didn't realize the situation was serious they would not have decided to make the trip in the first place. In terms of getting the necessary responses accomplished, such trips are probably on balance a net minus. Besides disrupting the political leader's schedule, they are a complication and burden for those doing the rescue and recovery work on the scene. But we expect such visits anyway, and woe to the politician who does not clear his schedule to make them.
None of these attitudes and expectations are likely to change. But the next time bad news strikes when a president is listening to someone read about a pet goat, I will probably prefer that he keep listening.
The Treasury Department on Thursday formally designated six members of what it described as “an al-Qa'ida network” under the terms of Executive Order 13224, a designation that has implications regarding the freezing of the individuals' assets and prohibition of any commercial or financial dealings with them. Such designations have nothing directly to do with states, but there was an additional angle in Treasury's announcement. The heading of the department's press release was, “Treasury Targets Key Al-Qa'ida Funding and Support Network Using Iran as a Critical Transit Point”. Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen was quoted as stating, “By exposing Iran's secret deal with al-Qa'ida allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran's unmatched support for terrorism.”
Whoa—“secret deal”? That's certainly an eye-catching phrase. It has been known for some time that al-Qaeda members have been inside Iran. It has been less clear just what the terms of their residence there have been. Most indications suggest that it has been something between imprisonment and house arrest. At least some of the al-Qaeda people in Iran have been able to conduct business of the group from there, but it is unclear again how much of this business is condoned or even known by the Iranian regime. Probably the most that can be said is that the regime, or elements within it, have reasons to have some dealings with the al-Qaeda members, notwithstanding the sharp differences in their objectives. Tehran wants to cement and sustain the rule of the Shia Islamic Republic; al-Qaeda wants to overthrow the established order in the Middle East and establish a Sunni Caliphate.
Despite the provocative phrase “secret deal,” Treasury's announcement says nothing else about any such agreement. The only dealings it describes all seem to have to do with the imprisonment of al-Qaeda members. Only one of the six designated individuals, named Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, is described as “Iran-based”; the other five all live and operate somewhere else and are included in the announcement because they are part of the same network as Khalil. The one bit of business Khalil is said to have with Tehran is that he “works with the Iranian government to arrange releases of al-Qa'ida personnel from Iranian prisons.” One of the other five is said to have “petitioned Iranian officials on al-Qa'ida's behalf to release operatives detained in Iran”—with no indication whether he succeeded. Any connection between the Iranian regime and the group's other activities involving movement of money and operatives is all a matter of innuendo, at least as far as Treasury's announcement is concerned.
Maybe there is something more substantive in the classified realm that cannot be shared publicly. But Americans ought to be wary about this sort of suggestive linkage between terrorists and regimes. A major point in the George W. Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War concerned the movements of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who after the U.S. invasion would establish what became the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda but who also had spent some time in Iraq before the war. The war-selling campaign tried to draw a connection between him and Saddam Hussein's regime. But any connection was all a matter of innuendo. Later information indicated that the regime did not even know where Zarqawi was.
Of course there is not a complete parallel with what is going on now, in that the Obama administration is not selling a war with Iran. But it is under pressure from elements who are eager to talk up the evil of Iran and the need for pressure on Iran, and who even would seem to welcome such a war. Treasury's announcement this week, which strains to underscore the Iranian angle of an administrative action that is not even directed at Iran, may be partly an effort to be seen talking tough about Iran without making any inherently dangerous moves that could mean a confrontation escalating out of control.
The Treasury announcement also does not address Iranian motives in fooling around with al-Qaeda, notwithstanding the sharply different interests and objectives between the regime and the group. The motives have to do with shared antagonism from the United States. In particular, they have to do with the United States' own fooling around with the terrorist group-cum-cult known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which some in the United States foolishly believe should be accepted as a legitimate actor because it opposes the Iranian regime. Tehran is in effect saying, “If you are going to flirt with a terrorist group that is of particular concern to us, we will flirt with a terrorist group that is of particular concern to you.” It is important to remember this amid the renewed push, backed by vigorous lobbying on Capitol Hill and the paying of fat fees to notables who will speak on the MEK's behalf, to get the group off the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. If delisting were to occur, the harmful effects would include substantial damage to the pro-democracy movement in Iran. An additional effect would be to increase the incentive for Tehran to flirt even more with Sunni terrorists including al-Qaeda types, to the point that some actual secret deals might be struck.
The United States and its allies seem to have a lot of trouble finishing some of their endeavors, especially wars. There is anxiety about what will happen in Iraq if all U.S. troops leave, as they are scheduled to do under an existing U.S.-Iraqi agreement. Gregory Gause appropriately notes the irony of some of the same people who were gung-ho about using military force to inject democracy into Iraq now feeling frustrated that democracy in Iraq is not letting them keep U.S. troops there indefinitely. The irony could be extended by noting also that just as democracy is proving to be a frustration as U.S. involvement in this war nears (maybe) an end, so too was it a frustration at the beginning of the war, when popular opposition in Turkey led Ankara to refuse to allow U.S. troops to move into Iraq from the north.
There is the other, still major U.S.-led war, in Afghanistan, which, as we also are reminded in these spaces, is not Northern Ireland (where it was hard enough to bring a conflict to a close—just ask George Mitchell). The Taliban undeniably are difficult negotiating partners. But any refusal to deal with them is a prescription for endless warfare in Afghanistan, with even greater difficulty in finding so much as a halfway graceful exit from this costly expedition.
Then there is NATO's sort-of war in Libya. Having now dragged on for several months and with not a lot of obvious, measurable progress being made, the frustrations of trying to come to closure are increasingly being felt and expressed here, too. And that's without even thinking about—a lot more thought should have been given to this in the first place—what happens in Libya after Qaddafi is gone. The long, drawn-out, how-do-we-end-this frustrations in Iraq and Afghanistan all have had to do with what ensued after the old regime was toppled, an objective that in each case was accomplished in the first few weeks of Western military involvement.
In Libya, the allies haven't even gotten to that point yet. NATO doesn't appear to have a single clear vision of how to get to that point. Is it a matter of inducing Qaddafi to do something, or making his regime crumble beneath his feet, or killing him with a lucky airstrike, or a rebel army pushing him out? The lack of a strategic vision for how this war will get rid of Qaddafi is perhaps not surprising, given that regime change wasn't even ostensibly the purpose when the war began.
The latest thoughts by policy makers in the leading participant NATO countries involve the idea that Qaddafi could stay in Libya. In one respect that idea makes sense. Qaddafi is under an international criminal indictment, which tends to kill any incentive—to put it mildly—to leave one's home country voluntarily. But the concept of an out-of-power Qaddafi residing in Libya has its own problems. One of the principal ones is that Qaddafi doesn't occupy any official position at all. He's just “the leader,” floating up there somewhere above the weird political structure he calls a jamahiriya. If he doesn't leave the country, exactly what step could he take that would constitute a relinquishing of power? How could anyone be sure that he had relinquished power, let alone given up the other privileges and economic assets that he and his family have acquired? Another problem is that given the bitterness and resentment that already existed and that the civil war itself has intensified, it is unlikely Qaddafi himself would have any confidence in being able to live out his years under an alternative power structure in Libya.
The current phase of this war will end somehow, sometime, even if nobody can make a good prediction now about either means or timing. And then the war can move, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, into the messy post-regime-change phase. Given the anomic state in which Qaddafi has left Libya, the messiness is likely to be as bad as in those other two places.
The moral of this story is contained in the words that the old magician spoke to Mickey Mouse in the Disney version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Don't start what you can't finish.
I tend to look at some domestic political struggles through the eyes of one who primarily studies international conflict. From that perspective, I noted last month that the decision by Republicans in the House of Representatives to play chicken with the nation's credit means that strategic doctrine developed to deal with East-West brinksmanship during the Cold War is also applicable to the impasse over debt and budgets that the Republicans' game has produced. Consistent with that doctrine, I assessed that the Republicans' record of reckless fiscal and economic policies gives them a bargaining advantage. As strategists such as Thomas Schelling have pointed out, whichever side has the greater reputation for recklessness always has the advantage in a game of chicken. The bargaining so far on the debt question has supported that assessment. Nearly all of the substantive concessions have come not from the Republicans but from the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats.
Another problem of international security that the Congressional Republicans' behavior brings to mind is that of dealing with the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-il. There are several similarities, beginning with the puerile nature of the behavior. Both the Kim regime and the House Republicans, like children who have not yet learned the meaning of compromise, exhibit extended fits of clenched-fist insistence on getting their respective ways.
Then there is the conundrum of how to deal with such behavior, which in each case is dangerous as well as childish, in a way that does not escalate a crisis but also does not reward extortion (or blackmail, as it is sometimes misleadingly called). The conundrum has never really been solved in the case of Kim, who has honed into an art form the technique of manufacturing a crisis with misbehavior and then threatening still more misbehavior if he is not given favors or concessions. Again, the similarity with the current budget crisis is strong, beginning with the fact that there would not have been a crisis in the first place if the Congressional Republicans had not decided to play chicken with the debt ceiling. Given how the Republicans still keep their fists clenched and say no even after a string of concessions that has made the latest Democratic plan look much more like a Republican one, the issue of rewarding extortion also appears to be very much involved.
Finally there is the willingness to court larger disaster, or maybe even deliberately to precipitate it. Among the conceivable nightmares that could come out of North Korea is the possibility that Kim would do something really rash, going beyond brinksmanship—and possibly involving nuclear weapons—that would touch off a wider conflict. In looking at likely motivations, the comparison with the House Republicans partially breaks down. If Kim did something like this it would be because he saw the status quo as having become an inevitably losing proposition, one that from the standpoint of his regime could not get any worse with one more big, reckless role of the dice. If the Republicans bring on economic and financial disaster it will be not to try to shake off a losing streak but instead to try to extend wins. As demonstrated by their inability to say yes even after gaining so many concessions, the wins that are most important to them—more important even than their cherished low tax rates for upper income brackets—are political wins at the expense of President Obama and the Democrats. And here is where the parallel with the North Korean problem resumes. The Republicans, like Kim, may see what others would regard as a disaster as playing to their advantage regarding their top priority concerns: regime survival in the case of North Korea, political gains against the Democrats in the case of the Republicans.
A recent poll of Congressional insiders by National Journal suggests how disturbingly attractive a debt default would be to Republicans, because most of them believe that Democrats would take most of the blame. Among the explanations by Republicans polled: “They own the economy.” “The president spent the money; this is the Obama economy.” “The party of the president will get the credit and the blame.”
There ought to be one big difference between the problems presented by the North Korean regime and by House Republicans. The United States is a democracy, after all. Such appallingly irresponsible legislative behavior ought to be severely punished at the next election. Ought to, but not necessarily will. And if, consistent with the politically optimistic Republican projections mentioned above, it is not punished, then there will be one more parallel with North Korea. The American electorate will be playing the same role that China has all too often played in its relationship with North Korea—that of enabling destructive behavior.