Reflections upon reading in a single (this Sunday's) edition of the Washington Post several items that on the surface may not seem related but have a common thread:
Nouveau riche in Great Falls: The letters to the editor contain several comments on an earlier feature article in the Post about the wealthy life styles of some in the Washington suburbs who have made their fortunes with businesses selling services to the federal government. One letter-writer expresses indignation about the “obscene remuneration received by people doing the federal government's work” and speaks disparagingly about a lack of credibility on the part of the government. Another points out that this may be the federal government's work, but it is the private sector, not the federal government, that is doing it and receiving the obscene remuneration. The latter writer notes—in a comment that is consistent with my observations, as a former manager in the federal government, of how reliance on contractors has ballooned in recent years—that before certain administrations and legislators “began demonizing the federal workforce in their attempts to 'shrink' the federal government,” much of the work in question “was done in-house, by federal workers—for much less money.”
Not all jobs in Texas are created equal: Rick Perry's declaration of his presidential candidacy immediately stimulated much comment, both pro- and anti-Perry, about the job-creating “economic miracle” in Texas for which Perry claims credit. His main theme in the claim is that jobs were created because he knows how to keep government out of the way. “The fact is, government doesn't create jobs,” said Perry in a speech earlier this month. “Government can only create the environment that allows the private sector to create jobs.” What candidate Perry doesn't mention is that during his decade as governor, government employment in Texas has grown more than twice as fast as private sector employment there—a reflection of the demand for public services from a growing population. During the most recent three and a half years (the period including the recession), private sector jobs in Perry's state declined by 0.6 percent while public sector employment increased 6.4 percent.
Bachmann and those overpaid federal employees: In his “Fact Checker” feature, Glenn Kessler awards two Pinoccchios to another GOP presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann, for using misleading language in suggesting that President Obama was responsible for pay raises given to senior civil servants in the Department of Transportation when in fact the raises occurred under George W. Bush. Besides the duplicitous language, the other thing to note is how the candidate sees political advantage in criticizing the pay raise with no reference whatever to the nature of the officials' work, how it compares with remuneration for comparable work in the private sector, or anything else other than they are government employees and their pay went up.
Professionalism vs. commodities: Andrew Bacevich has an opinion piece pointing out the flaws in a proposal from the Defense Business Board (a panel of corporate executives who advise the Pentagon's civilian leadership) to scrap the current military pension system in favor a 401(k)-type plan. The fundamental problem with this idea, notes Bacevich, is that it ignores the whole concept of military professionalism, which involves a professional ethic important for, among other things, keeping the military officer corps apolitical. The proposed change in the retirement system would “commodify” military service and treat those who both handle the most destructive power on earth and, as an inherent part of their profession, place their own lives in danger as no different from “workers at any GM plant or your local Safeway.”
Discarding Keynes (and more): An article by Greg Ip describes how “the economic ideology of the Republican Party has changed in recent years in an important and little-appreciated direction”—the rejection of what had been the consensus broadly shared since the Great Depression that the government has a vital role in using fiscal and monetary policy to smooth out the ups and downs of the business cycle. The new Republican ideology (actually, a throwback to some pre-Depression positions) is that an active macroeconomic role by government only makes things worse by generating uncertainty among firms and investors. As Ip points out, adherents of this ideology “almost surely have it wrong.”
Undoing the grand bargain: Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar describes how the new Republican line of thought also rejects another consensus that has prevailed since the Depression and was arrived at through much political and social strife during the preceding decades. That consensus or grand bargain provided that capitalism and private corporations would endure and the government would service and promote private business. In return, the federal government adopted reforms to shield and safeguard citizens, including the regulation of business and banking, the guarantee of workers' rights, and the establishment of social insurance programs. With the more recent Republican ideological turn, says Keyssar, “it's difficult not to see a determined campaign to dismantle a broad societal bargain that served much of the nation well for decades. To a historian, the agenda of today's conservatives looks like a bizarre effort to return to the Gilded Age” and to destroy or weaken institutions “without acknowledging (or perhaps understanding) why they came into being.”
The common thread is the increased influence in the United States of a primitive ideology according to which, as far as anything that is domestic and at all economic is concerned, government is always bad and the private sector is always good. All the corollaries, such as the idea that public service and those who perform it are always to be valued less than those in the private sector, follow from that primitive ideology.
One of the consequences of the influence of this line of thought is myopia regarding what is really dysfunctional in the modern American economy. The free market is indeed a wonderful mechanism; the dysfunction flows from ways in which the operation of the private sector diverges from the principles of a free and efficient market. Amid increasing economic inequality, the reward of riches has become divorced from competitive success in building better mousetraps for the benefit of all of society. The greatest dysfunction involves a bloated financial sector in which the really big rewards go not to those who build better mousetraps but instead to those who come up with clever forms of financial engineering that benefit no one but the financial engineers.
Were it not for the influence of the anti-government ideology, these observations ought to be obvious and widely accepted—given the recent experience of the Great Recession, brought on by the huge faults of a financial sector that was subject not to too much government interference but instead to not enough of it.
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Winston Churchill, 10 November 1942
Churchill's words were inspired by events in a part of the world in the headlines today. He was referring to the allied victory a few days earlier at El Alamein, which—along with Operation Torch, the U.S.-led landings in Morocco and Algeria, that began two days before Churchill's speech—turned the tide of war in North Africa permanently against the Axis. The British Eighth Army was pushing the Germans from Egypt into Libya about the time Churchill was speaking. Three days later the British and their allies took Tobruk. After another week they captured Benghazi, the seat of this year's rebellion. Tripoli fell two months later.
A sense of relief was understandable, as was the restrained nature of the prime minister's optimism. Until then, World War II in the European theater had been three years of nearly uninterrupted setbacks at the hands of the Nazis. (A later Churchill statement: “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”) The euphoria that accompanies the overthrow of dictators in the Middle East these days seems to be less restrained. The celebratory expressions in western capitals, including Washington, were heard even as forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi were still resisting in Tripoli. Even if that resistance is soon extinguished, the recent histories in the neighboring countries of Tunisia and Egypt ought to be sufficient reminder that overthrow of the dictator is at most the first step in the establishment of a new political order. And if we need another reminder, there also is the not-quite-so-recent history of declaring Mission Accomplished in Iraq—which marked the end of the beginning of the Iraq War.
Fortunately, there seems to be no prospect in Libya of U.S. troops getting sucked into another counterinsurgency. But the role of the western powers in facilitating the current result raises important issues, first of Pottery-Barn-rule responsibility for fixing a broken nation and second of how to discharge that responsibility in a way that does not entail excessively costly and counterproductive external involvement.
The nation involved is very badly broken, largely because Qaddafi's 42-year rule left so little in the way of institutions, procedures, leaders or political forces that can be used to build a replacement order. The Transitional National Council has said some of the right things about trying to avoid an Iraq-style breakdown of order and public services, but expect major questions in the weeks and months to come about the ability or inability of new rulers to deliver on those words. Expect major questions as well about the severe divisions among the rebel elements (severe enough to have taken a fatal turn as the civil war was in progress), about the role and influence of Islamic extremists and about vengeance and score-settling against those associated with the old regime. Over the longer term, expect questions and doubts about whether the society, economics and politics in a new Libya can provide a way of life that avoids the alienation so prevalent in the rest of the region.
However these questions are answered, there will still be the longer-term damage to U.S. credibility, and to the hope of getting other states off paths of terrorism and weapons proliferation, resulting from the United States effectively renouncing an earlier understanding with the Libyan government of the day. There also will be the memory of the embarrassingly chaotic and hypocritical (in the sense of pretending that regime change was not the objective) western decision making that led to the military intervention. Those ineradicable parts of the Libya story will provide reasons to worry, but in the shorter term there will be more than enough reasons to worry within Libya itself.
Seldom has an insignificant policy distinction been so pumped up in wider commentary and criticism. I'm referring to a distinction between, on one day, saying that a regime has lost legitimacy and the people in the country in question would be better off without that regime and, on another day, saying that it is time for the ruler of that country to step aside. Sounds to me like a distinction without a difference. But one would think, based on listening to critics of the Obama administration and of its policy toward Syria, that there is a big difference and that the administration just made a big shift in its Syria policy this week. That portrayal is largely motivated, of course, by a desire to bash Obama and to charge that Syria is worse than it otherwise would have been because he has dithered and has not come out strongly enough in favor of freedom and democracy. Critics of Obama are continuing to overstate the policy “shift” in order to preserve the future ability to score political points with that same accusation. Jennifer Rubin, for example, writes that “this is yet another reversal for the Obama team that earlier in the week had suggested such a call to go wasn’t that big a deal”—the statement earlier in the week being a remark by Secretary of State Clinton that “it's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go.” What reversal? The secretary of state did not say the United States would not call for Assad to go, but instead that such a call would not be a noteworthy new development. The secretary was right.
The administration did announce additional U.S. sanctions on Syria, but the direct effect of those is insignificant. What matters more is what other governments, especially Turkey and the Europeans, which have been more extensively engaged economically with Syria, will do. That is part of what Secretary Clinton was saying, and the administration had been working on that front well before this past week.
Amid all the energy devoted to parsing the Obama administration's statements about Syria in an effort to find either reversals or insufficient democratic gusto, there is a dearth of rigorous thinking in debate outside the administration about exactly how additional pressure and sanctions are supposed to bring about the desired result. Although the general sense that Bashar al-Assad's days as president of Syria are numbered is probably correct, there is still not a clear scenario for bringing his regime to an end. There also is still a lack of attention in most of the commentary even to the fundamental ways in which sanctions in general could work, and thus little basis for determining how well the sanctions against this particular country will work. A new piece by Andrew Tabler, for example, has some sensible things to say, including a recommendation for the Senate to end the silliness about not confirming the nomination of the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. But Tabler also states that “bringing concerted multilateral pressure to bear on Damascus” is historically “a diplomatic tactic that works with Assad, most recently in forcing him to pull his forces out of Lebanon in April 2005.” The subject evidently is how to use pressure to influence Assad's decision-making. But the decision that would be required from Assad now would be to make the ultimate political sacrifice of giving up power. The type of pressure that was sufficient to elicit a lesser decision such as the troop withdrawal is unlikely to be sufficient to elicit that sacrifice.
To the extent the envisioned scenario for getting rid of this regime is not a decision by the president to go but instead a forcible ouster or crumbling of the foundations of the regime, that raises longstanding questions (which also apply, by the way, to strategic bombing of cities in warfare) of how the infliction of pain that goes beyond a regime can be expected to lead to the end of the regime. The questions include how much the regime can shift resources to preserve the sources of power most important to it, how much the hardship inflicted on a population energizes it rather than enervating it, and how ethical it is to make a foreign population suffer to achieve a political objective.
Insofar as sanctions do work, how they work also will help determine what comes after the Assad regime and will affect the course of post-Assad Syrian history. That history is likely to be very messy in any case, but how the regime falls, which is partly a matter of to whom it falls, will matter. In thinking of possible post-Assad outcomes, it becomes apparent that one needs to be careful about what one wishes for. Under most scenarios, for example, Islamist influence is likely to be substantially greater in Syria than it is now. It is easy to imagine nervous reactions to this by Islamophobic Israelis, who will long for Bashar al-Assad as someone who was an inveterate adversary but at least one who was a known quantity who could be relied on most of the time to keep the frontier quiet. And given the large Israeli influence over American politics, it also is easy to imagine the ripple effects of that nervousness in the United States, including accusations about who “lost” Syria to the Islamists.
There are opportunities for U.S. interests in Assad's precarious position. The Saudis have seen some opportunities for their own interests, in some respects in which those interests parallel those of the United States. But benefiting from such an opportunity does not mean posturing to see who can make the strongest statements about a despised regime. Nor does it just mean looking for ways to exert pressure, pressure and more pressure on that regime. It instead requires more sophisticated thinking about how the pressure is likely to work and about what comes afterward if it does work.
The incidental influence that the United States exerts simply through people around the world observing its behavior is consistently underestimated, just as the influence the United States can exert intentionally by exercising its economic, military, or other instruments of hard power tends to be overestimated. Foreigners observe what Americans do, both officially and unofficially, and draw conclusions about American intentions and what America is all about. That influences their views about how the United States ought to be treated, from being cooperated with to being attacked. It also forms a point of comparison for assessing their own nations, societies, and governments.
That pattern makes significant the story of how the new U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, struck such a responsive chord among Chinese merely by being observed during his travel to take up his post. A picture of Locke (taken candidly by a Chinese-American businessman) while waiting for his flight at the Seattle airport went viral in China and elicited thousands of comments. The image could not be more mundane: Locke, wearing a backpack and with his young daughter at his side, is buying a cup of coffee at a Starbucks counter. What was so striking to Chinese is that someone important enough to be ambassador to a major power (Locke also is a former governor of the state of Washington and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce) would be traveling just like any ordinary guy on a trip with his family, lugging around his carry-on and buying refreshment at one of the concessions in the concourse. The image was sustained by another photograph, taken at the other end of the ambassador's trip, showing Locke and his family carrying their own luggage through the Beijing airport.
The thrust of the comments in China about Locke's travel was how sharply this behavior contrasted with the elitism, aloofness and special treatment exhibited by Chinese officials. A commentary by an editor of the China Daily observed that “in China even a township chief, which is not really that high up in the hierarchy, will have a chauffeur and a secretary to carry his bag.” The editor's recommendation: “Perhaps it is time for Chinese dignitaries to follow the example of humble Locke.”
The pampering and privileges of officials has become an increasingly salient issue in China, which is why the picture of Locke caused such a stir. It is not hard to find reasons the issue has become so prominent. Another story in today's news, for example, tells of how the pricey wine of Château Lafite Rothschild of France has become a status symbol among elites in China, and such a favorite among government officials that it is referred to as China's “official wine.” (China being China as far as brand names are concerned—and given that the demand for this wine far exceeds the limited amount that the French winery allocates for export to China—probably 80 to 90 percent of the “Lafite” sold in China is fake. But the status-seekers care more about the label than about authenticity and would not want to admit they had been duped into buying a fake.)
What Ambassador Locke has accomplished even before he presented his credentials and officially took up his duties was to project an image of U.S. officialdom being closer to the people than are the officials of the People's Republic. That is good for the United States in innumerable albeit intangible ways. It also stimulates—in a way that does not ruffle official relations between the two countries—further questioning by Chinese of how their political system works and, in perhaps some small immeasurable way, hastens the evolution of that system to one in which the rulers are more responsive to the ruled.
The image that Locke has projected may not be entirely representative. The United States has arrogant and aloof senior officials, too (I've dealt with some of them). And there still are all those other ways in which negative images of Americans get carried into China—even through a basketball game. Ambassador Locke probably had some choices (as airline crews like to say) in how he traveled. I commend you, Mr. Ambassador, for starting your new assignment in a way that has charmed the socks off many Chinese. You have already benefited the country you represent, and you may have benefited the Chinese people as well.
David Ignatius, in his column on Wednesday, has another paean to Robert Gates and his tenure as secretary of defense. I will not replay what I have offered previously regarding how reputation and reality have diverged on this subject. But the piece by Ignatius raises one of the very issues involved in the divergence: accountability, and how and where it is applied and should be applied. Ignatius raises it as an expression of doubt about Gates's successor, Leon Panetta:
Gates managed to find a balance between supporting the troops and holding senior officers accountable. This will be a challenge for Panetta, whose initial reaction to the December 2009 suicide bombing of a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, was to fend off what some CIA officers said was well-deserved criticism of agency members’ tradecraft. Will he take action once the field investigation is completed into the downing of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan that killed 22 Navy SEALs?
Any calamity in public service is followed by demands for heads to roll. Head-rolling gets equated with accountability. But such an equation only assures that someone is being held “accountable” for being in some position associated with some untoward event that happens to become public knowledge. It does not necessarily mean accountability for deficient or negligent performance of duties. Untoward events have many possible causes, some of which can be attributed to poor performance and some of which cannot. And only some instances of deficient or negligent performance of duty lead to untoward events, especially publicly known ones.
The equation of head-rolling with accountability is compatible with the practice in one of the military services—the navy—of holding the captain of a ship responsible for anything bad that happens to the ship, with everything responsibility means in terms of being relieved of command and suffering lasting and even terminal damage to the officer's career. That practice is a highly imperfect way of matching negative consequences with negative performance. Sometimes when something bad happens to a ship the skipper screwed up, but sometimes he didn't. Whatever happened may have been more a matter of circumstance and luck than of anyone's performance. It may have involved the performance of other members of the crew, even though the captain did everything that could reasonably be expected of a captain to train, direct, and discipline the crew. The practice does nothing to apply consequences to a captain who does screw up but whose poor performance, through luck or compensating good performance by other crew members, does not happen to lead to some nasty event for the ship. And the practice regarding ship captains takes attention away from applying appropriate consequences to either good or bad performance at other levels.
Despite all these flaws, one could still make an argument that on balance the navy's practice makes sense. Any alternative way of trying to apply accountability would have flaws, too. And at least with ships at sea, given the physical separation and independence of action involved, there is extra reason to focus attention and responsibility on whoever is in charge of the ship. But the reasoning weakens when applied to other types of military or civilian hierarchies, where it usually is not clear that any particular level should be presumed to bear a special share of the responsibility. In organizations in which Robert Gates had a senior position, the level that bore the brunt of anything that went wrong was usually whatever level happened to be just below Gates.
Whether in the seaborne navy or in other organizations, it is important to realize that the imperfect application of consequences for untoward events has bad consequences of its own, for the organization as well as for individuals. Members of the organization see the disconnect between the quality of the performance and the nature of the consequences, and they lose faith in the fairness of the organization. Any incentive to strive to do a better job is weakened. And when a career is ruined mostly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the organization loses the services of someone who might otherwise have still made useful contributions to it.
The downing of the Chinook in Afghanistan immediately raised the usual questions about whether someone in a position of authority had screwed up. Should, for example, that many elite troops have been concentrated on one aircraft in a hazardous operation? Last week I took part in a radio discussion about that event. One of my fellow guests, a former SEAL, when asked such questions took the appropriate posture of not trying to second guess the commanders involved. As he correctly noted, no one doing the second guessing could know all of the circumstances that led to the operational decisions that were made.
The secretary of defense should not be judged by any of us out here in the world of commentators and second-guessers simply according to whether he rolls heads Gates-style in response to the costly incident in Afghanistan. Maybe, after all the inquiries and investigations are through, head-rolling would be an appropriate response. But maybe not. Maybe it would instead be a catering to the general appetite for heads to roll and for “accountability” supposedly to be achieved after a tragedy like that. If it is, I would consider such a response to be poor performance of duty by the secretary of defense (and I would wish he could somehow be held accountable for such performance).
As the Congressional super committee goes about its work of finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions over the next ten years, difficult trade-offs will abound. Good, worthwhile programs cost money. But sometimes the trade-offs are not so acute; bad programs cost money, too. There is plenty of disagreement, of course, on whether a particular program is good or bad. But at least there ought to be agreement on being honest about the fact that any endeavor undertaken by the government, whether good or bad according to other criteria, does cost money and needs to be paid for.
The single largest contributor to the ballooning of the national debt over the past decade has not been handled with such honesty. The Iraq War, besides also representing the single biggest self-inflicted wound to U.S. national security during the same period, was also the biggest act of fiscal recklessness—reckless in the sense both of the sheer cost of the enterprise and of the failure to make any provision to pay for it, other than going deeper into debt. The George W. Bush administration was the only one in U.S. history to launch a war while cutting taxes. The direct costs of the Iraq War so far are approaching $800 billion. That alone would be over half of what the super committee is charged with finding in savings. Significant additional direct costs, such as long-term care for wounded veterans, will continue even if U.S. troops are out of Iraq at the end of this year, not to mention interest payments on the money borrowed to fund the war. If one figures in all the indirect economic and financial costs of the war, such as the impact on the price of oil, the total cost of the Iraq War to the United States is likely far higher. The dishonest approach to funding was compounded by the repeated use of supplemental war appropriations separate from the rest of the Defense Department budget, as if somehow the war costs did not count in determining how much the United States is spending on its military.
One cannot take back all that lost money, any more than one can take back the deaths of more than 4,400 U.S. service members and the wounds to tens of thousands more. One can avoid prolonging the mistake and get U.S. troops out of Iraq on schedule by the end of this year. One can also be cognizant of the continuing costs of the currently biggest U.S. war, the one in Afghanistan, which are running close to $10 billion a month and now total around $440 billion.
And one can be honest about the fact that wars cost money and paying for them means taxes. Congressman James McGovern (D-MA) has proposed a war tax, a concept which has a long and well-established history as described by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post. Such a tax could take any of several forms, such as a surtax on top of the personal income tax, which is the form it took during the Vietnam War. Such a tax would make a major contribution to reduction of the deficit. It would force accountability on politicians who scream about the debt but also supported a costly war without doing anything to finance it. And it would lead other Americans to become more fully aware of the costs of a war.
The alternative is the situation we have right now, in which some political leaders behave as if a war were free and then, after it has contributed substantially to the deficit and the national debt, to pretend that the war had nothing to do with those fiscal problems and instead to use those problems to ride an ideological hobby horse.
The chief reason the George W. Bush administration launched a war in Iraq more than eight years ago sprang from the core tenets of the neoconservatives who pushed for the war. That reason was to use regime change in Iraq as a catalyst for stimulating change throughout the Middle East, moving the region toward what the neocons hoped would be freer and more open politics and economics. In a speech to a friendly audience at the American Enterprise Institute three weeks before the invasion, President Bush described a democratic domino theory, in which Iraq would be the first domino to fall. “A new regime in Iraq,” the president said, “would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.” Iraq seemed like a promising lead domino because of its size, oil wealth, and centrality to the Arab world. Also—given that selling a major offensive war to the American public solely on the basis of democratization of the Middle East would have been impossible—the fact that Iraq was ruled by a loathsome regime made it possible to sell the war instead with scary stories about dictators giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.
The hoped-for democratic domino effect from toppling the regime did not materialize. Rather than being inspired by what happened in Iraq after the invasion, Middle Easterners were repelled by it. If the violence, disorder, and breakdown of public services in Iraq were the birth pangs of a new Middle Eastern order, most people in the region wanted nothing of it. A fatal flaw in the neocon dream was the almost oxymoronic idea that something imposed from the outside by the United States could motivate people in the Middle East to act on behalf of popular sovereignty. As for the country that was supposed to play the role of lead democratic domino, one of the principal trends in recent years in Iraq—besides the continued violence, which has lately had an upsurge—has been the increasing authoritarianism of the regime of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Now we're in a different decade from Bush and his war, and there is a genuine burst of yearning for popular sovereignty in the form of the Arab Spring. And what is the posture of the Iraqi regime toward the Arab Spring, specifically next door in Syria, which is currently the hottest front line in the confrontation between freedom and authoritarianism? Maliki is maintaining a distinctively friendly posture toward the Assad regime, while that regime is gunning down protestors in Syrian cities. He has urged the protestors not to “sabotage” the regime and has recently hosted an official Syrian delegation. The would-be lead domino, far from inspiring freedom in a neighboring country, is on the side opposing freedom.
The cordial relationship between the Syrian and Iraqi regimes involves multiple ironies. During the early years of the Iraq War the Bush administration, which at the time was immediately concerned with Syria's failure to interdict the movement of insurgents across the border into Iraq's Anbar Province, would have welcomed such a rapprochement. The current relationship certainly is a far cry from what it was in Saddam Hussein's day, when the Syrian and Iraqi wings of the Baathist movement were bitter rivals of each other. It is hard to say what Saddam's exact posture toward Syria would be if he were still around today, but it probably would not be one of friendliness toward Bashar al-Assad.
The Arab Spring demonstrates that the idea of democratic dominoes is not just a fantasy, even though events yet to unfold in individual Middle Eastern states will depend primarily on conditions and forces within each state. Clearly a contagion effect has been involved since unrest broke out in Tunisia near the turn of the year. But the effect works only because the people in each country can rightfully say they are making a revolution themselves. Political change is not being imposed by an outside power, much less injected through the barrel of a gun.
Among the many costly ways in which the neocons' attempt to do exactly that has failed has been that the Iraq War has backfired with regard to their own objectives. Their progeny in Baghdad is resisting rather than inspiring the spread of democracy. And as for Iran—about which the neocons have been in the forefront in beating the drums—the Iraq War was one of the single biggest boosts to its regional influence. The inroads that the war allowed Iran to make in Iraq are part of the background to Maliki's friendly posture toward the Iran-allied regime in Damascus.
It is hard enough to comprehend fully how the neocons, even with the scary stories about terrorists and unconventional weapons, were able to persuade enough people nearly a decade ago to go along with their ill-conceived experiment, although the cognition-impairing effect of the national trauma over 9/11 certainly explains a lot of it. It is astounding—given how horrendously wrong the neocons have proven to be, even if one accepts their objectives—that anyone pays any attention to what they are saying today about Iraq, Iran, the use of military force, or for that matter anything about the Middle East.
Perhaps the most noteworthy exchange on foreign policy in the Republican presidential candidates' debate in Iowa Thursday night started with a question to Ron Paul about Iran. Whatever else you may think about Paul and his candidacy, there is no refuting three truths he stated regarding the hysteria-inducing subject of Iran and its nuclear program. One, as Iranians look at what is surrounding them in their own neighborhood, they have good and understandable reasons to be interested in nuclear weapons. Two, even if they were to acquire a nuke, any capability they then had would pale in comparison with what the United States faced in the form of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or China for that matter. Third, as U.S. dealings with the Soviets demonstrated, an adversary's nuclear capability does not constitute a reason to stop talking and start making a war.
Paul's plain speaking, of course, clashed with the orthodoxy in this country according to which unthinking absolutism is considered the proper response to any mention of Iran and nukes. Among the other candidates, Rick Santorum jumped to the task of exclaiming how incorrigibly awful Iran is in every respect. Probably the most curious item in his indictment was that the Iranian regime “tramples the rights of gays”—curious given that one of Santorum's own claims to fame is his conspicuously unfriendly posture toward homosexuality, which he has compared to bestiality. (Elsewhere in the debate, Santorum supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and a reversal of the Obama administration's abandonment of “don't ask, don't tell” in the military.) But Santorum also used a glaring falsehood: that “ Iran is a country that has killed more American men and women in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan than the Iraqis and the Afghans have.”
This was hardly the only factual error uttered during the debate (and Paul didn't get things quite right in characterizing what the U.S. intelligence community has said about the Iranian nuclear program), but it was the biggest whopper of the evening as far as foreign affairs were concerned. It also was the most dangerous falsehood. Inaccuracies such as Tim Pawlenty calling Michael Mullen a general rather than an admiral, or Jon Huntsman mistakenly characterizing the pace of U.S.-Chinese diplomacy, are unlikely to make any difference in public perceptions that could have policy consequences. But Santorum's assertion, against the backdrop of habitual demonization of Iran, is just the sort of falsehood that is likely to stick and to contribute to mistaken public beliefs that in turn could provide support for disastrous policies.
We've seen that sort of thing happen in the recent past. Ron Paul had something perceptive to say about that, too. After Michele Bachmann joined Santorum with an “I will do everything to make sure Iran does not become a nuclear power” comment, Paul observed, “You've heard the war propaganda that is liable to lead us into war...They're building up this case just like they did with Iraq. Build up the war propaganda.”
Image by R. DeYoung
Some recurring bad-news stories are so depressingly unchanging that all one can do is sadly to take note of them. The Israeli colonization of occupied territory, which for some four decades has been driving nails into the coffin of a two-state solution in which Jewish and Arab states could live peacefully side by side, continues apace. The word this week is that the Israeli interior ministry has approved construction of another 1,600 apartments in disputed East Jerusalem and that approval for 2,700 more is only days away. Although there is little new to say about how damaging the continued construction on disputed land is to U.S. interests and to Middle East peace (and to the interests of anyone wishing Israel to be over the long term a free, democratic and Jewish state), the consequences are too serious just to let this development slide by unmentioned because of sheer fatigue over this discouraging and long-running story. For a reminder of how much this unilateral action constitutes a slap in the face of Israel's American patron—which has incurred enormous material, diplomatic, political, and security costs on Israel's behalf—I commend Matt Duss's treatment of the subject. One of the recent costs the U.S. has incurred is to expend much diplomatic capital supporting Israel's resistance against a U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood. The only added point to make is that the colonization program, along with the current Israeli ruling coalition's larger opposition to a two-state solution, is what has elicited the very Palestinian initiative that raised the issue of a new U.N. resolution in the first place.
Closely related to all this is another piece of news this week about U.S.-Israeli relations: that 81 members of the U.S. Congress—nearly a sixth of the entire Congress—will be traveling to Israel during the current Congressional recess. The travel is funded by an AIPAC affiliate, the American Israel Education Foundation. House Republican leader Eric Cantor, fresh off his role as chief extortionist in the debt-ceiling debacle, says that through the trips “Members will better understand the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.” This kind of lobbyist-funded jaunt enables us to better understand something about the members themselves and about their priorities. An appropriate reaction is the kind of indignation voiced by David Rothkopf, who notes that “Every moment spent jumping through a hoop for a potential group of supporters is a moment spent failing to address one of the many urgent issues confronting the United States.”
The trip to Israel to sit at the feet of Benjamin Netanyahu also demonstrates part of the extraordinary mechanism that leads legislators of the world's most powerful country to countenance—and even cheer—their country getting jerked around, much to its own detriment, by a small client that, at least under its current government, never stops displaying its ingratitude.
Yesterday I addressed the frequent absence of clarity, in public discussions of sanctions, regarding the objective that sanctions against any one regime are intended to achieve. Although this lack of specificity about the goal still characterizes all too many comments about sanctioning the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, official positions as well as unofficial commentary have been trending toward regime change as the explicit goal regarding Syria. The Obama administration has come close to this position but still pulls up short. White House spokesman Jay Carney, at his press briefing on Wednesday, talked again about how Syria would be “better off” without Assad, who has “lost legitimacy,” but Carney resisted an invitation to call more specifically for Assad to go.
Even if regime change is the goal, another requirement to make meaningful any discussion of sanctions—or use of any other policy tool—is some specificity about how the current regime will go. Regime change encompasses a very wide range of scenarios, after all, from the ruler voluntarily stepping down to a mob storming the presidential palace, with many other possibilities such as an armed insurrection or a military coup. However worthy a goal Assad's departure may be, and despite the increasing sense that his days are numbered, it is still hard to identify a clear and plausible route for achieving that goal.
The popular uprising in Syria continues to impress with its extent and the courage of those participating in it. But as a recent summary in the Washington Post put it, “The protest movement remains without leaders and has offered no plan for replacing Assad, other than to continue staging protests.” The Syrian resistance does not seem on the verge of emulating its counterparts in Libya and starting a civil war.
Nor does there appear much likelihood of copying Egypt, where a united military decided its interests would be better served by pushing out the incumbent president. Any actions by Syrian military officers would immediately raise issues of sectarian divides that were not a factor in the Egyptian revolt. In particular, it is hard to envision what the role would be of Assad's fellow Alawites who disproportionately occupy key positions in the security services.
It's pretty easy to see why the Obama administration has been dancing around any explicit call for regime change in Syria. One, there does not appear to be a good path for accomplishing that goal. And two, Mr. Obama realizes that if he did explicitly adopt that goal, he would be criticized—by some of the same people who criticize him now for not being more explicit—for not accomplishing, or finding more active ways to pursue, a declared U.S. objective. The criticism would be rooted in the invalid but common idea that if there's something worth doing in the world, the United States ought to be the one to do it.
Image by Steve Jurvetson