Several explanations can account for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's outburst this week, in which he accused the United States of in effect working in parallel with the Taliban by keeping Afghanistan unstable and thereby having an excuse to keeping U.S. troops there indefinitely. Karzai has vented with increasing frequency and openness over the past couple of years about various aspects of the U.S. and allied military presence and operations in his country. When he does this he is speaking more to his own citizens than anyone else, as part of an effort to insulate himself politically from everything that is unpopular about foreign soldiers and his government's dependence on them. An immediate point of friction evidently was disagreement over the terms of handing over a detention facility to Afghan control.
It would be easy to blow this off as just Afghan politics. It also would be easy to brush aside the illogical aspects of Karzai's remarks. This included some of what he said about negotiations, including his comments concerning alleged separate talks (which U.S. officials quickly denied) between the United States and the Taliban. We nonetheless ought to reflect on why the Afghan leader evidently considers it good politics to say the things he said.
The episode illustrates the near-inevitability of significant friction and resentment among the locals from prolonged military operations, no matter how well those operations may have been received earlier (as indeed the intervention in Afghanistan was received earlier by many Afghans). It also illustrates how easily the motives behind such operations get misunderstood, in ways that no amount of public diplomacy or public statements can correct. The U.S. military commander and the U.S. ambassador were speaking for nearly all Americans when both noted how preposterous it was, given the sacrifices the United States had made over the past twelve years on behalf of Afghanistan (and on behalf of Karzai's government), that it would intentionally keep Afghanistan unstable to provide an excuse for staying there even longer. The very preposterousness of the idea demonstrates the strength of the tendency toward misinterpretation of motives.
In the United States, the issue of what sort of presence might continue in Afghanistan beyond next year appears to be in flux. Especially given Karzai's most recent comments, there is an emerging similarity to what happened at the end of America's war in Iraq. The Bush administration negotiated an agreement with the Iraqi government to pull out entirely. Then there was more discussion in this country about whether a total pull-out was a good idea. The Obama administration raised—half-heartedly, according to its American critics—with the Iraqis the possibility of revising the agreement. Iraqi resistance to a revision was strong enough that the original agreement stayed in place. That was good, but it opened the door to perpetual second-guessing among those in this country who contend that the Iraq War could have been a win if we had played our cards a little better.
There are major differences between the American war in Afghanistan and the one in Iraq, especially in how they began and why they were ever fought at all. In Afghanistan the United States missed a chance to declare a win once the Taliban were ousted from power and their al-Qaeda allies were rousted from the country. But with occupation and counterinsurgency dragging on, there has been a convergence in some characteristics of the two expeditions. The final point of convergence may be the perpetual second-guessing that appears likely to take place with Afghanistan, too, about the U.S. presence that will or will not be left behind and how things might have come out differently with a different presence.
One regularly hears much talk in Washington about accountability, but also regularly sees examples of how the concept of accountability gets applied in this town in an inconsistent and warped way. There are the inevitable calls for heads to roll after any salient untoward event, and huzzahs to senior managers who do roll heads in response. I have addressed previously what tends to be wrong about how such episodes play out. Too often there is no consideration of whether the untoward event is or is not part of some larger pattern of malfeasance or incompetence, whether those at any one level in a chain of command could reasonably be expected to prevent all such events when the action is at some other level, and whether there is any reason to expect the changes in personnel to result in any change in institutional performance. Nor is there consideration of why those who roll heads and collect the huzzahs but who also are part of the same chain of command should be allowed to determine—in a very un-Truman-like, the-buck-didn't-get-to-me way—that accountability stops just below their own level.
The converse of this is that in some instances in which there is a proven pattern of error, and good reason to believe that if we trust the same people who led us into failure in the past we are likely to be led into failure again, no accountability seems to be taking place. Accountability in this instance would not necessarily mean losing a particular job; it could mean being discredited as a source of policy advice. There is such a thing as malpractice in policy analysis. The most obvious example of lack of this type of accountability is that neocons—the people who gave us the Iraq War—still get listened to. Not only that, but they still get listened to on matters eerily reminiscent of getting us into the Iraq War.
Another example is brought to mind by the latest set of recommendations from veteran Middle East peace processor Dennis Ross. A fair reaction to this comes from Lebanese commentator Rami Khouri. Khouri observes that it is understandable to think about how the Obama administration, with its new secretary of state, might try to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. But, he continues,
Less understandable is why a leading American publication—the New York Times in its Sunday Review section—should turn for advice on this issue from former diplomat Dennis Ross...I say this is less understandable because Ross has almost nothing but failure to show for his 11 years of leadership on Arab-Israeli and other Middle Eastern issues in the White House and State Department, between 1993 and 2011. Only in Washington could a serial failure in Arab-Israeli diplomacy such as Ross be consulted on how to move ahead in Arab-Israeli diplomacy.
Another type of accountability-shedding, which one sees especially on Capitol Hill but also elsewhere, is that someone who supported what turned out to be a failure disclaims responsibility on grounds of having been misinformed. This certainly has been a pattern regarding the Iraq War ever since it turned sour. Some proponents of the war have confessed to having made an error; a larger number have used the excuse of having been misinformed by the Bush administration, the intelligence community, or both about Iraqi weapons programs . The excuse gets repeated even though very few members of Congress ever bothered to look at what the intelligence agencies were saying either about the weapons programs or about anything else concerning Iraq, and even though there would not have been a case for launching this offensive war even if everything the administration had said about the weapons had been true.
A similar way of shedding responsibility, again a favorite of members of Congress, is to immerse oneself in the political mood of the moment and to disregard how that mood represents a change from earlier moods. Here the outstanding example is the practice that gets euphemistically called enhanced interrogation techniques. Scott Shane has an excellent description in the New York Times of the state of play about this issue that confronts John Brennan, and particularly about the question of how he will handle a reportedly damning report prepared by Democratic Congressional staff. He faces Democrats who have moved strongly into the anti-torture camp, Republicans who haven't moved as much, and employees involved in the interrogation process who have seen public and political standards about this subject shift markedly between the early post-9/11 days, when they were doing some of this stuff, and now, when people want to hold someone accountable for doing that stuff.
Given past patterns, the smoothest way out of this bind may be found in the report itself, in which, according to Shane, people involved in the interrogation program are described as having given “top Bush administration officials, members of Congress, the American public and even their own colleagues — possibly including Mr. Brennan himself — a deeply distorted account of its nature and efficacy.” Here's a prediction: Mr. Brennan will find places at lower levels to satisfy the appetite for accountability, while further determining that both he and members of Congress had been “misinformed.”
A story from northwest Pakistan involves a discrepancy between reality and perception with regard to U.S. drone strikes. Last month two attacks in the tribal belt generated the kind of spreading news that has come to be routinely associated with the drones. A couple of al-Qaeda types are killed, but so are several villagers. The Pakistani foreign ministry lodges a protest with the U.S. embassy. According to American officials, however, the United States and U.S. drones were not involved at all in the attacks. “They were not ours,” said one official.
American speculation is that the Pakistani military conducted the attacks and attributed them to the United States to escape blame for the collateral damage. If so, this represents a reversal of a previous Pakistani practice of claiming responsibility for what really were U.S. drone strikes, to escape the embarrassment of allowing the Americans to conduct, or not preventing them from conducting, attacks on Pakistani territory. So a variable in this case is whatever public relations problem the Pakistani military and government most want to avoid in any given week.
There is a larger phenomenon at work, however, which helps to account for the believability of the Pakistani cover story. Once the United States gains a reputation for something, for good or for ill, the reputation not only becomes hard to shake but also gets applied by foreign populations in an exaggerated or overly expansive way. People are reacting to the reputation more than to individual events, because their perception of an event is heavily colored by the reputation.
This phenomenon can sometimes work to the advantage of the United States. It is involved in deterrence; a reputation for striking back can dissuade others from some transgression without actually having to strike them. But more often lately it has been a disadvantage. This applies particularly to the reputation the United States has acquired for Muslim-bashing. Americans tend not to understand the phenomenon fully because they see this reputation as a bum rap and know their intentions are better than that. They not only do not realize what is coloring other Muslims' interpretation of American actions in their part of the world; they also miss how some of their actions are adding to the reputation and thereby coloring the interpretation of future events.
The policy lesson in this is to take full account of the reputation-based multiplier effect in weighing the costs and benefits of actions ranging from drone strikes to military deployments and much else. The policy-maker needs to realize how existing reputations will color how foreign publics and governments interpret whatever action is being contemplated. He also needs to realize how the action may in turn affect the reputation of the United States and thus affect how the United States will be either thanked or hated for future actions—maybe even actions the United States itself does not commit.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Rebecca Kennison. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Vali Nasr has caused a stir—the kind that sells books—with a broadside against the Obama White House's handling of policy on Afghanistan. His book and the broadside in it, excerpted in the current Foreign Policy, have already been the focus of a Michael Gordon article in the New York Times. Nasr's tale would appear to complement a pattern that David Ignatius identified and on which I commented last week, of decision-making being highly centralized in the White House.
Nasr's story does indeed do that to a degree, but the story itself is of a flavor that hardly qualifies it as a confirmatory source. It is a highly parochial viewpoint, with a tone that approaches vindictiveness. The strong subtext is the writer's intense personal loyalty to his boss at the time, Richard Holbrooke. Anything in which Holbrooke was prevented from getting his way is treated as ipso facto bad for the cause of sound policy toward South Asia. It is the sort of account that gets one thinking that there must be another side of this story, with neither side having exclusive rights to credibility. We may have to wait for post-Obama-administation memoirs to get the other side.
There is another sense in which Nasr's story gets to something Ignatius and I were talking about, which is how a small group characterized by a strong sense of mutual loyalty is prone to groupthink. The White House is hardly the only place in government where such groupthink can arise. The acute within-group loyalty, which comes through strongly in Nasr's account, in Holbrooke's AfPak unit at the State Department made it a prime candidate for groupthink as well. Even more obvious was another psychological phenomenon associated with such groups, which was the framing of just about everything in ins-vs.-outs, us-vs.-them terms.
The resulting dysfunction illustrates one of the things wrong in a faux-Machiavelli manual (in the same issue of Foreign Policy) by Elliott Abrams on how any president can “have his way on national security.” There are many things wrong with it, the most basic of which is the unstated assumption that an unrestrained president “getting his way” is better for the republic than a president having to deal in a more bridled way with other parts of the government, or at least of the executive branch. It is interesting that this perspective comes from Abrams, who was in the middle of one of the most vivid demonstrations—i.e., the Iraq War—of how disastrous it can be for the republic when a president and a few appointees make policy unbridled by things like bureaucracies and policy processes.
Even if one accepts the presidential-power purpose of Abrams's advice, there are other things wrong with it—contradictions, for example. Abrams is most often a fervent bureaucrat-hater; high on his list of maxims is “Don't let your cabinet secretaries put career officials in top positions.” But later on he says, “Often, the best asset can be career officials themselves—if they can be brought around.” So it is only most bureaucrats he hates, and not the ones that are “brought around” to his views.
The basic justification that Abrams, and many others, make for staffing huge portions of the executive branch with temporary political appointees is that this will ensure the president's policies are carried out. But carrying out the policies of whoever is the political master of the day is part of the essence of what a truly professional bureaucracy is all about. Conversely, many of those appointees, however much they claim to be the president's men (and women), aren't really. They are political people with their own ideas, and their own ambitions to make their marks before they leave government.
The situation Nasr describes regarding Holbrooke is a strong demonstration of this. Of course, the problem was made especially acute because the person involved had a self-image and sense of self-importance that were colossal even by Washington standards. (In a possibly apocryphal story, a State Department wheels-down cable sent when Holbrooke arrived on a foreign trip read, “The ego has landed.”) Would President Obama have been following Abrams's advice if he had never appointed Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton (on whose presidential campaign Nasr and Holbrooke were working when they forged their close relationship) to their posts? Perhaps, but the republic would not necessarily have been better off for it. This question also brings to mind Lyndon Johnson's earthy explanation, involving a camel being inside a tent rather than out of it, as to why he kept on J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI.
The biggest set of obstacles to achieving an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program involves each side's inclination to believe the worst regarding the other side's intentions. A major body of opinion in the United States holds that Tehran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and that any indications to the contrary—including the Iranian denials of an intention to build a nuclear weapons, the fatwas by the supreme leader saying that such weapons are un-Islamic, the continued adherence to the nonproliferation treaty, the acceptance of international inspectors, and the Iranians' restraint in accumulating any stockpile of medium enriched uranium—constitute posturing, lying or stalling. A corresponding body of opinion in Iran, which may include the supreme leader, believes that the United States is determined to achieve regime change and intends to squeeze and punish Iran until such change is indeed achieved. The Iranians have been given plenty of reason to believe that, and so when they see or hear something about the United States instead wanting to reach agreements with the Islamic Republic, the Iranians suspect that this is just posturing, lying or stalling.
With such a deep hole of distrust out of which to dig, the results of the negotiations in Kazakhstan this week between Iran and the P5+1 were encouraging. The P5+1 had the good sense to make at least modest changes in its previous negotiating position, by putting a bit more sanctions relief on the table and reframing a key demand regarding one of the critical Iranian nuclear facilities. The parties still have a long way to go, especially regarding the sanctions side of things. But the Iranians strove to put a positive spin on the results. The movement in the P5+1 position may have been small, but it caught their attention. When the chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, made his customary post-round appearance before the press, this was the first time he did so without displaying photographs of any of the assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists.
With this situation of discernible but reversible progress at the negotiating table, the worst thing that anyone—especially anyone who supposedly favors restricting Iran's nuclear program to preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon—could do at this moment would be anything that stokes the Iranian suspicions about true U.S. intentions. But that is what is being done right now in Congress, with two draft measures in particular. One is a bill—a kind that members by now could write in their sleep—to pile still more sanctions on Iran. Probably even worse is a Senate resolution introduced by Lindsey Graham and Robert Menendez that for most part is just another expression of Congressional love for Israel but that ends with a clause that gives a green light for Israel to launch a war against Iran.
That latter resolution would be extraordinarily inappropriate even if it came at a less promising and critical time—a “turning point,” according to Jalili—than now. The resolution condones what would be an act of aggression that, despite supposedly being taken in the name of nuclear nonproliferation, would be committed by a state that has long had an arsenal of nuclear weapons that is totally outside any international control regime, against a state that has no such weapons and hasn't even decided it wants to build any. The resolution also means happily surrendering to a foreign state the decision to start a war that would have serious repercussions for the United States.
If Iran took comparably provocative steps in the wake of a negotiating round, many voices in the United States would be yelling about how this shows how hostile are Iranian intentions, how Iranians are not serious about negotiating an agreement, and how the United States must respond by making its own posture even more hard line and inflexible. We should not be surprised if when the provocation is in the other direction, Iranians might react similarly.
Bashing of Iran and coddling of aggressive Israeli action is now second nature to many members of Congress, who need no additional stimulus for that sort of thing any more. But AIPAC is giving them such a stimulus anyway. What better time than now, with AIPAC's annual policy conference coming up next week, for the organization to try to demonstrate anew that it hasn't been cowed by the Hagel nomination contest, in which it decided early to fold what it correctly determined was a losing hand.
Abba Eban famously observed that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Unfortunately we are getting to where we might be able to say the same thing about the United States with regard to Iran. The biggest past instance of missing an opportunity came in 2002, when a brief period of fruitful U.S.-Iranian cooperation was ended by George W. Bush's declaration of the axis of evil. With initiatives such as we are seeing today on Capitol Hill, there might be another big missed opportunity in the making.
David Ignatius has an interesting take on national security decision-making in the Obama administration in the wake of the reshuffle of senior positions taking place during these early weeks of the president's second term. Ignatius perceives certain patterns that he believes reinforce each other in what could be a worrying way. One is that the new team does not have as much “independent power” as such first-term figures as Clinton, Gates, Panetta and Petraeus. Another is that the administration has “centralized national security policy to an unusual extent” in the White House. With a corps of Obama loyalists, the substantive thinking may, Ignatius fears, run too uniformly in the same direction. He concludes his column by stating that “by assembling a team where all the top players are going in the same direction, he [Obama] is perilously close to groupthink.”
We are dealing here with tendencies to which the executive branch of the U.S. government is more vulnerable than many other advanced democracies, where leading political figures with a standing independent of the head of government are more likely to wind up in a cabinet. This is especially true of, but not limited to, coalition governments. Single-party governments in Britain have varied in the degree to which the prime minister exercises control, but generally room is made in the cabinet for those the British call “big beasts”: leading figures in different wings or tendencies in the governing party who are not beholden to the prime minister for the power and standing they have attained.
Ignatius overstates his case in a couple of respects. Although he acknowledges that Obama is “better than most” in handling open debate, he could have gone farther and noted that there have been egregious examples in the past of administrations enforcing a national security orthodoxy, and that the Obama administration does not even come close to these examples. There was Lyndon Johnson in the time of the Vietnam War, when policy was made around the president's Tuesday lunch table and even someone with the stature of the indefatigable Robert McNamara was ejected when he strayed from orthodoxy. Then there was, as the most extreme case, the George W. Bush administration, in which there was no policy process and no internal debate at all in deciding to launch a war in Iraq and in which those who strayed from orthodoxy, ranging from Lawrence Lindsey to Eric Shinseki, were treated mercilessly. Obama's prolonged—to the point of inviting charges of dithering—internal debates on the Afghanistan War were the polar opposite of this.
Ignatius also probably underestimates the contributions that will be made to internal debate by the two most important cabinet members in national security: the secretaries of state and defense. He says John Kerry “has the heft of a former presidential candidate, but he has been a loyal and discreet emissary for Obama and is likely to remain so.” The heft matters, and Kerry certainly qualifies as a big beast. Moreover, the discreet way in which a member of Congress would carry any of the administration's water, as Kerry sometimes did when still a senator, is not necessarily a good indication of the role he will assume in internal debates as secretary of state. As for Chuck Hagel, Ignatius states “he has been damaged by the confirmation process and will need White House cover.” But now that Hagel's nomination finally has been confirmed, what other “cover” will he need? It's not as if he ever will face another confirmation vote in the Senate. It was Hagel's very inclination to flout orthodoxy, to arrive at independent opinions and to voice those opinions freely that led to the fevered opposition to his nomination.
Nevertheless, Ignatius is on to something that is at least a potential hazard for the second Obama term. The key factor is not so much the substantive views that senior appointees bring with them into office. As the cliché goes, a president is entitled to have working for him people who agree with his policies. The issue is instead one of how loyalty—not only to the president, but collective loyalty as part of the president's inner circle—may affect how senior officials express or push views once they are in office.
In this regard it is useful to reflect on the meaning of “groupthink.” The term has come to be used loosely as a synonym for many kinds of conventional wisdom or failure to consider alternatives rigorously. But the father of research on groupthink, the psychologist Irving Janis, meant something narrower and more precise. Groupthink is pathology in decision-making that stems from a desire to preserve harmony and conformity in a small group where bonds of collegiality and mutual loyalty have been forged. It is the negative flip side of whatever are the positive attributes of such bonds. LBJ's Tuesday lunch group was one of the original subjects of Janis's writing.
With this in mind, the second term appointment that becomes even more interesting regarding Ignatius's thesis is that of John Brennan. Ignatius has Brennan well-pegged, including a comment that he “made a reputation throughout his career as a loyal deputy.” One might expand on that by observing that among Brennan's talents—and they are considerable—is a knack for what is often called managing up. Earlier in his career he was a protégé of George Tenet, and during the past four years he appears to have forged a similar relationship with Barack Obama.
One ought to ask what all of this might mean for Brennan's ability and willingness to speak truth not only to power, but to his patron—and to do so especially at politically charged times when his patron may be under pressure or may have other reasons for wanting to move in a particular direction in foreign policy. This is more of a question with Brennan than it would have been with David Petraeus if he were still the CIA director. Petraeus was very conscious of the truth-to-power issue, and more generally of the importance of objectivity, when he was appointed. As he himself observed, on matters relating to Afghanistan he might find himself “grading my own work.” Because the issue was recognized and involved obvious matters such as the Afghanistan War, and because there was nothing even remotely resembling a patron-protégé relationship between Petraeus and Obama, the issue was not destined to be a significant problem. The intimate, cloistered nature of the patronage involved in the Obama-Brennan relationship is something quite different.
Against this backdrop—and given how the Obama administration appears to have signed on to the conventional wisdom about unacceptability of an Iranian nuclear weapon—one ought to look more closely at a troubling line in Brennan's statement submitted to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for his confirmation hearing. In listing some of the national security challenges that require “accurate intelligence and prescient analysis from CIA,” the statement said: “And regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang remain bent on pursuing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile delivery systems rather than fulfilling their international obligations or even meeting the basic needs of their people.” Two countries, Iran and North Korea, get equated in this statement even though one already has nuclear weapons (and recently conducted its third nuclear test) while the other forswears any intention of building any. There are other related differences as well, including ones having to do with international obligations: North Korea renounced the Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003 and has been a nuclear outlaw for ten years, while Iran is a party to the treaty and conducts its nuclear work under IAEA inspections.
The judgment of the U.S. intelligence community is that Iran has not to date decided to build a nuclear weapon and, as far as the community knows, may never make such a decision. One would think that senators would be making better use of time if, instead of asking for the umpteenth time for still more information about the Benghazi incident, they would ask instead why the nominee to be CIA director, by saying that Tehran is “bent on pursuing nuclear weapons,” disagrees with a publicly pronounced judgment of the intelligence community.
If a crunch comes that is related to this issue, perhaps the rest of the intelligence community will play a beneficial role. I have been quite critical of the intelligence reorganization of 2004 as being a poorly thought-out response to the post-9/11 public appetite to do something visible that could be called “reform.” The rapid turnover in the job of director of national intelligence is a symptom of the problems the reorganization has entailed. The current director, James Clapper, deserves the public's thanks for taking a thankless job and performing it with distinction. But maybe in the face of certain types of personal relationships and certain decision-making patterns, the new arrangement can have some payoffs. If Clapper—who does not figure into Ignatius's discussion of Obama's inner circle—becomes, on Iran or any other issue, a counterweight to any White House-centered groupthink that might emerge in that circle, he will have earned even more thanks.
Conditions seem to be as ripe as they have been for some time for the outbreak of a new Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in territory occupied by Israel. A hunger strike by several Palestinian prisoners held by the Israelis has been building suspense over what will happen when striking prisoners die. Then over the weekend was the death of a different 30-year-old Palestinian in Israeli custody. Officially the cause was a heart attack, but Palestinians charge that an autopsy shows he was tortured. Israelis do not dispute at least some of the observations made during the autopsy but say that “fractures in the ribs” of the dead man “could be testimony to resuscitation efforts.” In a clash on Monday between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli troops outside an Israeli military prison in the West Bank, several demonstrators were injured—by rubber bullets, not live ammunition, say the Israelis.
The best answer to the question of whether we are on the eve of a new intifada is: nobody knows. This is not just a cop-out, because any such outbreak is much more likely to be a basically unpredictable spontaneous happening rather than the product of anyone's conscious decision. Previous intifadas involved more spontaneity than was often perceived, because perceptions got shaped by spinning of the story to direct blame. Palestinian and Israeli leaders are already doing preemptive spinning in anticipation of a new uprising. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said on Monday, “The Israelis want chaos and we know it but we won’t let them.” Meanwhile, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to assign responsibility for keeping streets calm to Abbas's Palestinian Authority. The government released some of the Palestinian tax money it had been withholding (as punishment for the Palestinians getting their status at the United Nations upgraded last fall) so that, as an envoy of the government explained, the Palestinian Authority “won't have an excuse not to enforce calm on the ground.”
Any analysis of how a new intifada would affect the interests of the leadership on each side is apt to yield mixed results. Probably there is ambivalence and internal disagreement on both sides as to likely costs and benefits.
For the Palestinians, unrest in the occupied territories has always drawn international attention to their plight in ways that diplomacy and lobbying alone cannot. One can fairly question whether the Oslo peace process of the 1990s would ever have happened without the first intifada, which began a few years earlier. Letting off steam against Israel in the streets might also help to divert, for a while, dissatisfaction with Abbas and his quasi-government.
The costs and risks for Palestinian leaders of an uprising are, however, substantial. They can themselves quickly become, along with the Israelis, targets for any mass letting off of steam. The Palestinian Authority would either take blame for stirring up the uprising or be shown to be impotent in its inability to control the Palestinian street. Unrest would be inconsistent with the diplomatic and political direction Abbas set with his campaign for upgraded status at the United Nations. And any uprising would surely bring an Israeli response that would entail multiple negatives, including making the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians even more difficult than they are now.
For the Netanyahu government, a new uprising would have the attraction of offering a fresh argument for why it should not be pushed into a serious peace process. How do you expect us to try to negotiate an agreement, it would say, when all that we see on the other side is disorder and violence? Any intifada, even one that began with mostly peaceful demonstrations, would inevitably spawn excesses that the Israelis could point to as evidence of malevolent Palestinian intent.
On the negative side of the ledger for the Israeli government, international reaction to an intifada would begin from a base that involves much more sympathy for Palestinians than it does for Israel. A new intifada would distract attention from Netanyahu's drum-beating campaign of alarmism about Iran. And there would be the risk that some in the international community, and most importantly the U.S. administration, would see the unrest as all the more reason for reviving a peace process.
For the United States, the first thing to do is to be ready with a well-thought-out posture before a new intifada begins. The Obama administration cannot allow itself to look like it is scrambling to put together a position. Then when (and “when,” rather than “if,” there is more unrest is the right formulation, even if the timing is unpredictable) an intifada begins, one major theme of such a position should be opposition to violence in all forms, whether the perpetrator wears a kaffiyeh or a military uniform. Another theme should be that the unrest is indeed all the more reason to pursue vigorously a peace process, because the ultimate cause of the mess is continued occupation and denial of Palestinian political rights.
And then, don't just stop at uttering themes. Use a new intifada as the occasion for abandoning past ineffective inertia and actually doing what is necessary, including exerting the necessary U.S. leverage, to resolve the underlying problem.
Image: Flickr/atphalix. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Richard Betts offers a characteristically perspicuous essay in the newest Foreign Affairs about what has happened to the U.S. use—or nonuse, or misuse—of deterrence in the years since the Cold War. His overall observation is that the United States appears to have unlearned some of the lessons that it successfully applied during the Cold War. It has used the mechanisms of deterrence in situations where this use has needlessly worsened relations with the apparent target of the deterrence; confronting Russia with an expanded NATO is the leading example that Betts analyzes. Conversely, the United States has failed to use deterrence in situations where it should have done so. Here the glaring example is the George W. Bush administration's launching of a war against Iraq—rather than relying on deterrence to keep Saddam Hussein where Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was as of May 2001: “in a box.”
In addition to the issues of NATO and relations with Russia, Betts draws policy implications regarding the handling of Iran. He reviews the reasons—which ought to be easy to understand, but seemingly to many people aren't—why deterrence of even a nuclear-armed Iran is far preferable to launching a war against Iran. He also criticizes as sometimes muddled and inconsistent the way deterrence figures into the U.S. approach toward China and the Far East—scene of a Cold War failure to use deterrence properly, in Korea in 1950. Betts appears to prefer a clear either/or approach to deterrence, in which we make unmistakable the places where we are willing to respond forcefully while not leading others to believe that we are making deterrent threats in other places.
This preference leads to one point on which Betts's analysis can be challenged, as it relates to Cold War deterrence of the USSR. Insofar as U.S. nuclear weapons figured into deterrence of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, there necessarily was some ambiguity. The West never did come up with a good answer to the question of whether, and why, the United States would risk incineration of New York for the sake of saving Hamburg. But that involves an unresolvable point of historical debate. On matters of current policy relevance, Betts's observations are astute.
Betts does not really address why lessons were unlearned and the same nation's use of a strategic concept as basic as deterrence has been so much less skillful in the past couple of decades than it was for most of the four decades before that. Let me offer two explanations.
One is that this is another indication of the tendency, which Americans in particular exhibit, to overestimate the newness of things, especially when moving from one identifiable era to another. A drastically changed world was the common way of looking at the end of the Cold War. The nature of threats was seen as having become thoroughly different from before, and thus altogether different strategies had to be used. Such views were significant exaggerations of actual change. But it nevertheless meant that many Cold War lessons were discarded not only because one generation succeeded another but also because the lessons were mistakenly seen as obsolete.
The other explanation involves the post-Cold-War-victory hubris of the unipolar moment. Some—including some who got into positions to shape policy—thought we didn't have to think as much about deterrence anymore because the United States now had the freedom and the power to accomplish much more directly through the application of military force, and to do so by taking the initiative rather than waiting to respond to someone else's transgression. The Iraq War demonstrated some of what was wrong with that line of thinking. But some lessons not only get forgotten; in some quarters they never seem to get learned in the first place.
Pistachios have long been one of Iran's leading products and biggest exports after oil. Thus when the Clinton administration, during its final year in office, wanted to take a stab at rapprochement with Iran, pistachios figured in the initiative. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave a speech in which, besides acknowledging some of Iran's historical grievances against the United States, she announced the lifting of import bans on Iranian pistachios, caviar and carpets. The initiative did not go anywhere because Iranian leaders took offense at a critical reference in the speech to Iran's “unelected hands,” but it was a reminder of how important the greenish nut in the tan shell, and specifically export of the nut, is to Iran.
Thirteen years and a lot of sanctions later, it was thus somewhat surprising to hear a few days ago that the Iranian regime was imposing a six-month ban on export of pistachios. The official explanation for the move was that it was intended to help hold down the domestic price of pistachios—amid the sanctions-exacerbated inflation that is plaguing the Iranian economy. The domestic price was considered especially important right now, with the approach of the Iranian new year, when many Iranians will be buying a lot of pistachios for their holiday entertaining. A further explanation, not stated officially, was that the regime had tried to jawbone Iranian pistachio producers into accepting what amounted to voluntary price restraints and was not getting the cooperation it wanted. The suspension of exports was an exercise of leverage against the recalcitrant growers.
Either the leverage worked or the regime came to conclude that the export suspension would be self-damaging; according to subsequent reporting the suspension has been revoked. Iranian producers were alarmed that even a brief interruption of exports would mean a lasting loss of market share. Their chief competitor in this market—the country that has been the second-leading producer of pistachios and in recent years has been challenging Iran for the number one spot—is the United States. The two countries that are facing off over a nuclear program and weighty security issues in the Persian Gulf are also the world's biggest competitors on pistachios.
The picture gets more interesting when bringing into it the country that is the largest per capita consumer of pistachios—which also happens to be the country most vigorously stirring the pot over that nuclear issue: Israel. Strange as it may seem now, given the constant Israeli campaigning to pressure and isolate Iran as much as possible, in the recent past the United States has lobbied Israel not to import Iranian pistachios. Israel hasn't officially imported anything Iranian in some time, but the pistachio trade is a leaky one in which it has been well known that Iranian pistachios were making their way to Israeli consumers through Turkey or other routes. Back in the Clinton administration, Secretary Albright was on the case. In instructions sent to the U.S. embassy in Israel three years before she made that speech on Iran, the State Department said, "Reports of Iranian pistachios entering Israel . . . are a source of growing concern. Given the goal Israel has placed on the need for the international community to pressure and economically isolate Iran . . . such imports are unacceptable." The U.S. lobbying of Israel on the issue was not motivated solely or even primarily by a perspective on what it takes to influence Iran. The lobbying reflected lobbying on the U.S. government by the pistachio growers in the San Joaquin Valley of California, who were hoping to get a bigger part of the lucrative Israeli market.
Israel denied there was a significant problem but nonetheless responded by making more of an effort to crack down, so to speak, on illegally imported nuts. Israel also imposed a special tariff on all non-U.S. pistachios, to make price competition between Iranian and U.S. producers more equal than it was. Despite those measures, the issue did not go away, and late in the Bush administration the United States was still raising the matter with Israel. Even without a price advantage, many Israelis apparently prefer the Iranian variety of pistachio. “It's no secret—the taste is better,” says Tel Aviv wholesaler Moshe Mussafi.
The dessert of this story is the news over the weekend, which was a front-page item in Israel, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a government-funded ice cream budget for his residence of $2,700 annually. The ice cream comes from a gourmet shop near the residence, and the prime minister's favorite flavor is pistachio. The play of this story in Israel, especially as exploited by Netanyahu's political opponents, has been that this is an unjustified extravagance when other Israelis are being asked to observe austerity. The Iran angle does not seem to be an issue, and the New York Times article on the subject says that the pistachio ice cream was “presumably not made with an Iranian variety of the nut.” But the taste issue and the difficulties in policing the pistachio trade that have kept the Iranian product coming into Israel for years make it unlikely anyone can say this with anything approaching certainty. It is interesting to reflect on the possibility that the leader who is the most prominent and vocal antagonist of Iran in the world might, as he relaxes with his favorite treat after dinner, be savoring a product that was grown somewhere in Kerman Province.
There is not a clear lesson from this story, but some possible observations come to mind. Messing with a free market for political reasons can have odd effects. Sanctions can have odd effects, or bring odd responses. Policies that supposedly have a large diplomatic purpose are often driven by more parochial interests, especially economic ones. And perhaps something about how pistachios, like politics, can make for strange bedfellows, or at least strange lines of conflict and cooperation.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/MadMaxMarchHare. CC BY-SA 2.5.
Those with a bent for the supernatural might think that cosmic events last Friday were the sending of some sort of message. The earth encountered two asteroids, a known one that passed closely but harmlessly as predicted, and an unknown one that was smaller but still big enough to cause an explosion, estimated at 300-500 kilotons, that injured about a thousand people in Russia. The two objects were on much different trajectories, and NASA's Near Earth Object Program tells us that the two encounters occurring on the same day were “pure coincidence.” If anyone chooses to see the occurrences as a kind of warning, however, that is probably a good thing, because protection from bombardment by asteroids and comets deserves more priority and resources than it currently gets.
The insufficient priority illustrates deficiencies in our political process that manifest themselves in many other ways. One of those deficiencies, which is rooted in a more general psychological tendency, is an inability to analyze properly low-probability events and responses to them. Oh, sometimes it sounds like we are paying good attention to such events. It was just a few years ago that Dick Cheney was saying that even if there were only a one percent chance of something like an aggressive dictator getting his hands on weapons of mass destruction, we need to do something about it. But that comment did not really reflect any analysis. The probability of a problem occurring does matter, partly because of the costs and risks of trying to do something about the problem. Cheney's comment was only a rhetorical device for expressing his preference for doing something about the particular dictator he had in mind.
More generally, we tend to give too much attention to certain low-probability events that for some reason have come to frighten and fascinate us—which is true of some terrorism scenarios. Meanwhile, other low-probability events we basically ignore, even though the very high consequences if they did occur mean that if we apply good expected-utility analysis we should be paying more attention to them. Richard Posner's book Catastrophe is a useful corrective to these tendencies, describing what good policy analysis ought to look like when addressing low-probability, high-impact events. Among Posner's conclusions is that the danger of asteroid collisions probably ought to get more priority than it has received so far.
Friday's events were enough to elicit some encouraging sounds from politicians, including an op ed from Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ)—a physicist and former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory—and his Congressional colleague Donna Edwards (D-MD). Perhaps more significant, because it comes from the side of the aisle more accustomed to opposing increased spending on anything other than the military, was a statement from Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Although Smith did not say anything about increased spending, he did describe work on this subject as “critical to our future.” Smith said, “We should continue to invest in systems that identify threatening asteroids and develop contingencies, if needed, to change the course of an asteroid headed toward Earth.” One can hope that members of Congress will come to recognize protection from natural threats from outer space as being at least as much “defense” in the most literal sense as much that is funded in the budget for the U.S. Department of Defense.
It will be interesting to see how this issue plays in Russia. Astronomers tell us that hits from asteroids on the order of the ones that caused Friday's air burst and the 1908 Tunguska event (which flattened trees over a wide area farther east in Siberia) are once-in-a-century events. Russia has now taken on behalf of the planet the hits for the twentieth and—so far—the twenty-first centuries. Prime Minister Medvedev made a comment about how Friday's event shows that the whole planet is vulnerable, and a deputy prime minister was arguing for some kind of terrestrial defense system to reduce damage from similar happenings.
One might wonder, however, how much Russians will be inclined to shrug off asteroid hits as just another of the many impositions and hazards they have to put up with. The area around Chelyabinsk, where the meteor struck, has long been one of the worst spots in the world for radioactive pollution. This is because of a plutonium production and reprocessing complex that has had several accidents, including an especially bad one in 1957. The Danish filmmaker Boris Bertram made a documentary in Chelyabinsk called Tankograd (a nickname for the city, after its role as a producer of armaments in World War II) that addresses the radioactivity problem as necessarily a concern for health care professionals who have to deal with the consequences but not a subject that is dwelt upon by other citizens going about their daily lives.
The international dimension—which Medvedev noted—of the threat from objects in space gets to another shortcoming in the U.S. political process. This involves the antipathy some American political persuasions have against almost anything multilateral, especially where decisions of national security are involved. On this subject unilateralism will not work. This is not mainly because of shortcomings in what the United States can do technologically (although we ought to remind ourselves that currently we are dependent on Russian spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the international space station). NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005 successfully crashed a spacecraft into a comet. A bigger need for international cooperation may be in the detection of earth-bound objects. The currently weakest part of that effort involves the part of the sky visible only from the southern hemisphere.
The stickiest issues involving international cooperation and possible American reservations about it may concern decisions about taking preventive action once an earth-bound object is sighted. Even if an object-deflecting system is physically in place and ready to go, how is the decision made to use it? We can hope that any such situation that arises will be a straightforward one in which one can accurately say that what's good for the United States is good for the planet, and the U.S. president gives the order to save both. But one can imagine other situations, such as if the object is discovered too late to be able to keep it from hitting Earth altogether, and the issue becomes one in which intervention might make it more likely or less likely to hit certain parts of the planet.