Surely one of the most arresting images to come out of the Arab Spring is that of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, prone on a hospital bed inside the defendant's cage in a courtroom where he is standing—or maybe it's lying—trial for abuses allegedly committed as his power was coming to an end. I have always thought the cage that is used in some countries to confine defendants in courtrooms adds a significant degree of humiliation and degradation, well beyond anything to which defendants in American courtrooms, seated openly at a defense table next to their attorneys, are subjected. The message seems to be either that the charged person is equivalent to a wild animal or that the physical arrangement in the courtroom symbolizes the imprisonment that a presumed guilty person has coming to him. Europeans criticized the perp walk to which Dominique Strauss-Kahn was subjected. That treatment of an accused person seems mild compared to what the man in the cage—who also supposedly is not to be considered guilty before a verdict is rendered—is subjected.
The trial of Mubarak, along with family members and associates, will no doubt be an attention-hogging spectacle in the weeks ahead. Among other interesting dimensions is the question of how much Mubarak and his lawyers will be able to associate the former president and his actions with the generals who are currently running the show in Egypt.
But the humiliation already inflicted on Mubarak raises other questions about messages to be sent and behavior to be influenced, and raises them in a way in which the interests of Egyptians may conflict with those of their brother Arabs. One man on the street in Cairo justified the trial in such behavior-influencing terms, not as something being done for either justice or vengeance. “The only reason we want to try him — the sole reason — is so that he can serve as an example for the person who follows him,” he said. “There is a limit to power.” The prospect of such treatment, however, can only reduce any incentive rulers in other Arab states might otherwise have to step down in response to popular pressure.
Take your pick: influencing the decisions of future rulers in Egypt or of current ones elsewhere.
News out of Xinjiang—the vast portion of Central Asian steppe that the map tells us is part of China—is sometimes hard to come by. The Chinese regime's proclivity for squelching word of anything anywhere in China that hints of challenges to the regime's authority combines with the sheer remoteness of this region to make good information about dissent or unrest there sparse. But the word that has dribbled out over the years indicates the regime is very concerned about separatist activity and sentiment among the predominantly Muslim Uighur population.
The latest news concerns lethal violence in Kashgar, a city near the westernmost point of both Xinjiang and China as a whole. Kashgar is farther from Beijing (over 2,500 miles) than it is from more than two dozen other national capitals. Although the map says this is part of China, the Chinese regime is confronting its Uighur problem more as a remote imperial power, trying to assert its control in an area inhabited by an alien population. In other words, they have a challenge that in some ways is similar to the one the United States faces in trying to project its power in the same part of the world.
The two powers confronting such a challenge ought to be able to help each other. China needs to be a big part of the regional diplomacy and cooperation that the United States requires to deal with its predicaments in the region, including how to extract itself safely from the civil war in Afghanistan. Thanks to the maps drawn by nineteenth century British and Russian diplomats who designed Afghanistan to be a buffer between their two empires, China even shares a (small) border with Afghanistan.
It is next door in Pakistan—where there are so many things that Washington wants Islamabad to do, or to do more vigorously, but rarely seems to be muster the leverage that gets results—that China could be of most help. In the report from Kashgar, local Chinese officials charged that the violence in question was perpetrated by members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement who had trained in Pakistan. The public Chinese accusation about a Pakistani connection was especially significant given the length and depth of the Chinese-Pakistani alliance. China has given Pakistan many reasons to be grateful, including probably assistance in the design of Pakistan's early nuclear weapons. There are corresponding reasons to think China has more leverage with Pakistan than the United States does.
Of course, experiences with North Korea should temper any hope about China using its leverage with nearby allies. But that case is different because of China's concern about the effect on itself of an implosion of the North Korean regime, including possibly waves of refugees heading into China. Events in Pakistan are not going to cause waves of Pakistani refugees to trek across the Karakoram Mountains into China.
So the posture toward China when the subject comes up of Islamic militants crossing borders in Central and South Asia should be, “We're in this together.” The one important hazard to avoid is getting sucked into equating a fight against terrorists with oppression against a subject population. The Chinese have shown a proclivity for doing so in its treatment of the Uighurs. But they are not the only country to be guilty of such conflation; Russia and Israel are a couple of others that have done so as well. The United States ought to be able to craft policies that keep its hands clean of any condoning of oppression while still maximizing its chances for benefiting from someone else's leverage.
The game of chicken that has just played out regarding the budget and debt ceiling, along with the way it played out, is a huge blot on American democracy. I'm not even talking about the bad economic consequences, which began when the game was still being played and will continue in many forms for years to come. I am instead looking at this episode as more of a political crisis and failure than an economic one. Although I have used the chicken-game terminology because those are the terms in which a strategic analyst might describe it, we can can use blunter words in talking about what has happened. An act of extortion has been committed. The extortion was perpetrated by one political element—not a majority of the American body politic—motivated by a combination of narrow pecuniary interest, stupidly conceived notions of wider economic interest and determination to bring about the downfall of political opponents. The extortionists succeeded, using the fiscal integrity of the United States as a hostage and wielding a threat of economic disaster if they did not get their way. However much the result may be sugar-coated as a compromise and the most incorrigible of the perpetrators may still express dissatisfaction that they did not get even more, the threat worked and the targets of the caper caved. The episode is no less an instance of extortion than if the perpetrators had been armed gunmen who took over the Capitol and physically held members of Congress hostage.
The United States has, traditionally and with good reason, taken very seriously the consequences of yielding to demands made by hostage takers. It has made resistance to such demands a matter of policy. One of the major tenets of U.S. counterterrorist policy for many years, unchanged through Republican and Democratic administrations, has been to make no concessions to terrorists and to strike no deals to free hostages. Resisting such concessions is important not only to deter further hostage taking and further demands by whoever is perpetrating the current incident but also to dissuade others from considering the same tactics. The United States has generally adhered to this policy, even at the price of losing the lives of some U.S. citizens who had been taken hostage. The biggest departure from the policy, which was part of what became known as the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s, certainly did nothing to strengthen U.S. interests and instead weakened them.
Now consider how the recent instance of hostage taking and extortion in Washington, perpetrated by a different variety of extremist, looks as viewed from overseas. The president of the United States has been weakened. He has caved in to extortion, with all that implies regarding expectations of how he will behave the next time he faces similar demands. Most specifically and obviously, the expectation will be that the next time there is political confrontation over fiscal matters, the result will be the same as it was this week. Foreign governments (and investors) will conclude that with increased tax revenues off the table, the United States will never get its fiscal house in order. They also will conclude that the United States simply cannot be counted on to dip further into its resources to accomplish its own goals, let alone shared ones. The next time a U.S. secretary of defense lectures allies about how they should make more of an effort to share burdens, the cynicism and annoyance will be even greater than it was before.
Once upon a time there was a general appreciation among American political leaders, voiced by both Republicans and Democrats, that however much one might disagree with whoever was the president of the day, to a large extent the prestige and effectiveness of the United States overseas was inextricably linked to the prestige and effectiveness of the president. This appreciation was related to the old idea of politics stopping at the water's edge. The perpetrators of the recent extortion over fiscal policy either don't appreciate this concept or simply don't care about it. Anything that weakens or embarrasses Barack Obama is good in their eyes.
Some of the consequences we ought to be concerned about involve a variety of would-be extortionists overseas who have been watching what has been going on in Washington. This might involve terrorists—the kind who literally use guns or bombs. The type of international terrorism that was more prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s, involving the taking of hostages and the making of demands, is less common today, but what played out in Washington can only encourage terrorists to think anew about such tactics. Another extortionist to watch is Kim Jong-il of North Korea. I earlier noted the similarities between the North Koreans and the Congressional Republicans who precipitated the debt ceiling crisis. Those very similarities are what will encourage the real North Koreans to draw lessons from this episode. The North Koreans already have shown that they extract such lessons from U.S. behavior on matters far removed from their own country. Future confrontations and crises with Pyongyang may now be both more likely and more difficult for the Obama administration to manage.
U.S. allies such as the Europeans will not play that kind of despicable hardball, but similar lessons will play into any issues that involve cross-Atlantic bargaining. Besides drawing conclusions about who has a stranglehold on U.S. fiscal policy and what this means in terms of ever getting the U.S. fiscal house in order, the main impression the Europeans will take away from this episode is the more general one of the dysfunctional nature of the U.S. political system. There will be greater skepticism about whether the United States can be relied upon for anything and about America's ability to lead. Some of the same people in the United States who have criticized President Obama for “leading from behind” have made it harder for him to do any leading from in front.
Finally there are the impressions formed in the minds of others overseas, such as those in the Middle East aspiring to create new political orders in their own countries. What they have just seen happen in Washington is one of the worst possible advertisements for representative democracy. In addition to the general dysfunction, what will be noted is how the interests of the many could be overridden by those determined to shield the wealthiest segment of society from any additional financial burden. Combine that unappealing political picture with the slowness in post-recession recovery that the reduction in government spending will only make slower, and the China model becomes more attractive every day.
Image by dbking
George W. Bush did highly regrettable things during his presidency, with the launching of the war in Iraq at the top of the list. Perhaps next on the list, and not unrelated to the very costly Iraq War, was fiscal policy that reversed his predecessor's budgetary surplus and opened a gusher of red ink. But a criticism of the former president that should have died long ago even though it keeps coming up from time to time is that he supposedly did not react properly when, as he was listening to some elementary school pupils in Florida read a story on a September morning ten years ago, his chief of staff quietly informed him that a second airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. The critics say that by staying with the students for another seven minutes he was exhibiting indecisiveness or a lack of appreciation for the seriousness of what had just happened. Actually, in continuing to hear the schoolchildren read their story for those few additional minutes, Mr. Bush did absolutely nothing wrong.
The episode came up again in a new interview with the former president to be aired in late August. Mr. Bush explained his behavior by saying that he wanted to project calm and not “rattle the kids.” That's a politic explanation, one that we would expect to hear, and it's fine as far as it goes. Here's an even better reason he was right to respond as he did: there's wasn't anything else useful he could have done anyway.
To believe otherwise involves several common confusions. One is confusion between what is urgent and what is important. That's a distinction that applies to mundane matters in our daily lives as well as to matters that concern a president. Another confusion is between what is important and what one can do anything about. Presidents observe many things that are quite important to U.S. interests but that they can't really do much about, or that are best just left alone. This was true of some aspects of the end of the Cold War during the presidency of Mr. Bush's father, including the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe.
A related confusion is between knowing what there is to know about something and being able to do anything about it. We expect senior leaders in government to be literally up to the minute on everything related to their areas of responsibility, whether or not any actions by them depend on such a continual feed of information. (Recall the heat that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper took last year for a broadcast interview in which he showed he had not yet been informed about the arrest earlier in the day of some terrorists in the United Kingdom.) When something really significant, such as a disaster or major overseas event, occurs, the White House press corps is intent on finding out when and how the president was informed—again, whether or not there was anything he could do about it right away. If such an event happens during the night, it is expected that the president's chief of staff or national security adviser will wake him with the news. This might involve some of those 3:00 a.m. phone calls that Hillary Clinton talked about in the last presidential campaign. With many of the 3:00 a.m. calls, the best thing the president can do after receiving the news is to roll over and go back to sleep, in the interest of being well rested and clear eyed when, later on, his subordinates present him with options for decision.
Even when things can be done right away, this doesn't mean—this is yet another confusion—that the president is the one who can or should do them. Given the multiple planes involved in the 9/11 attack, conceivably steps could have been taken in the first few minutes after the second impact at the World Trade Center that would have made a life or death difference. But those steps would have had to be taken by people involved in the air traffic control system, or the defense of U.S. cities, or the security of landmark buildings—or, as it turned out, by passengers on United Airlines Flight 93. There were no presidential decisions to be made in those few minutes. And what were presidential decisions involving responses to 9/11 should not have been taken in those early minutes; if they were, they would have been hasty and ill-considered.
In pointing out these realities I am thinking of the president primarily as chief executive. We expect our presidents to play other roles, including one as a sort of empathizer-in-chief, someone who will react as we would react ourselves to anything shocking or tragic. Because our chief of state and head of government are the same person, more of this role falls on the president than it does on his fellow heads of government in other countries, where some of the empathy burden is carried by royalty or ceremonial presidents. It is a legitimate and necessary function, one that George W. Bush had to perform on several occasions (although he wasn't quite as good at it as some other recent presidents, especially Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton). It is performed primarily not in the first few minutes after an event, however, but instead in later statements and ceremonies.
Some of these same confusions and expectations underlie the compulsion for presidents (and governors or mayors) to travel to the scene of disasters, including natural disasters. Again, there is usually not much they can do there except provide photo ops. There is not even much they can learn there; if they didn't realize the situation was serious they would not have decided to make the trip in the first place. In terms of getting the necessary responses accomplished, such trips are probably on balance a net minus. Besides disrupting the political leader's schedule, they are a complication and burden for those doing the rescue and recovery work on the scene. But we expect such visits anyway, and woe to the politician who does not clear his schedule to make them.
None of these attitudes and expectations are likely to change. But the next time bad news strikes when a president is listening to someone read about a pet goat, I will probably prefer that he keep listening.
The Treasury Department on Thursday formally designated six members of what it described as “an al-Qa'ida network” under the terms of Executive Order 13224, a designation that has implications regarding the freezing of the individuals' assets and prohibition of any commercial or financial dealings with them. Such designations have nothing directly to do with states, but there was an additional angle in Treasury's announcement. The heading of the department's press release was, “Treasury Targets Key Al-Qa'ida Funding and Support Network Using Iran as a Critical Transit Point”. Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen was quoted as stating, “By exposing Iran's secret deal with al-Qa'ida allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran's unmatched support for terrorism.”
Whoa—“secret deal”? That's certainly an eye-catching phrase. It has been known for some time that al-Qaeda members have been inside Iran. It has been less clear just what the terms of their residence there have been. Most indications suggest that it has been something between imprisonment and house arrest. At least some of the al-Qaeda people in Iran have been able to conduct business of the group from there, but it is unclear again how much of this business is condoned or even known by the Iranian regime. Probably the most that can be said is that the regime, or elements within it, have reasons to have some dealings with the al-Qaeda members, notwithstanding the sharp differences in their objectives. Tehran wants to cement and sustain the rule of the Shia Islamic Republic; al-Qaeda wants to overthrow the established order in the Middle East and establish a Sunni Caliphate.
Despite the provocative phrase “secret deal,” Treasury's announcement says nothing else about any such agreement. The only dealings it describes all seem to have to do with the imprisonment of al-Qaeda members. Only one of the six designated individuals, named Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, is described as “Iran-based”; the other five all live and operate somewhere else and are included in the announcement because they are part of the same network as Khalil. The one bit of business Khalil is said to have with Tehran is that he “works with the Iranian government to arrange releases of al-Qa'ida personnel from Iranian prisons.” One of the other five is said to have “petitioned Iranian officials on al-Qa'ida's behalf to release operatives detained in Iran”—with no indication whether he succeeded. Any connection between the Iranian regime and the group's other activities involving movement of money and operatives is all a matter of innuendo, at least as far as Treasury's announcement is concerned.
Maybe there is something more substantive in the classified realm that cannot be shared publicly. But Americans ought to be wary about this sort of suggestive linkage between terrorists and regimes. A major point in the George W. Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War concerned the movements of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who after the U.S. invasion would establish what became the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda but who also had spent some time in Iraq before the war. The war-selling campaign tried to draw a connection between him and Saddam Hussein's regime. But any connection was all a matter of innuendo. Later information indicated that the regime did not even know where Zarqawi was.
Of course there is not a complete parallel with what is going on now, in that the Obama administration is not selling a war with Iran. But it is under pressure from elements who are eager to talk up the evil of Iran and the need for pressure on Iran, and who even would seem to welcome such a war. Treasury's announcement this week, which strains to underscore the Iranian angle of an administrative action that is not even directed at Iran, may be partly an effort to be seen talking tough about Iran without making any inherently dangerous moves that could mean a confrontation escalating out of control.
The Treasury announcement also does not address Iranian motives in fooling around with al-Qaeda, notwithstanding the sharply different interests and objectives between the regime and the group. The motives have to do with shared antagonism from the United States. In particular, they have to do with the United States' own fooling around with the terrorist group-cum-cult known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which some in the United States foolishly believe should be accepted as a legitimate actor because it opposes the Iranian regime. Tehran is in effect saying, “If you are going to flirt with a terrorist group that is of particular concern to us, we will flirt with a terrorist group that is of particular concern to you.” It is important to remember this amid the renewed push, backed by vigorous lobbying on Capitol Hill and the paying of fat fees to notables who will speak on the MEK's behalf, to get the group off the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. If delisting were to occur, the harmful effects would include substantial damage to the pro-democracy movement in Iran. An additional effect would be to increase the incentive for Tehran to flirt even more with Sunni terrorists including al-Qaeda types, to the point that some actual secret deals might be struck.
The United States and its allies seem to have a lot of trouble finishing some of their endeavors, especially wars. There is anxiety about what will happen in Iraq if all U.S. troops leave, as they are scheduled to do under an existing U.S.-Iraqi agreement. Gregory Gause appropriately notes the irony of some of the same people who were gung-ho about using military force to inject democracy into Iraq now feeling frustrated that democracy in Iraq is not letting them keep U.S. troops there indefinitely. The irony could be extended by noting also that just as democracy is proving to be a frustration as U.S. involvement in this war nears (maybe) an end, so too was it a frustration at the beginning of the war, when popular opposition in Turkey led Ankara to refuse to allow U.S. troops to move into Iraq from the north.
There is the other, still major U.S.-led war, in Afghanistan, which, as we also are reminded in these spaces, is not Northern Ireland (where it was hard enough to bring a conflict to a close—just ask George Mitchell). The Taliban undeniably are difficult negotiating partners. But any refusal to deal with them is a prescription for endless warfare in Afghanistan, with even greater difficulty in finding so much as a halfway graceful exit from this costly expedition.
Then there is NATO's sort-of war in Libya. Having now dragged on for several months and with not a lot of obvious, measurable progress being made, the frustrations of trying to come to closure are increasingly being felt and expressed here, too. And that's without even thinking about—a lot more thought should have been given to this in the first place—what happens in Libya after Qaddafi is gone. The long, drawn-out, how-do-we-end-this frustrations in Iraq and Afghanistan all have had to do with what ensued after the old regime was toppled, an objective that in each case was accomplished in the first few weeks of Western military involvement.
In Libya, the allies haven't even gotten to that point yet. NATO doesn't appear to have a single clear vision of how to get to that point. Is it a matter of inducing Qaddafi to do something, or making his regime crumble beneath his feet, or killing him with a lucky airstrike, or a rebel army pushing him out? The lack of a strategic vision for how this war will get rid of Qaddafi is perhaps not surprising, given that regime change wasn't even ostensibly the purpose when the war began.
The latest thoughts by policy makers in the leading participant NATO countries involve the idea that Qaddafi could stay in Libya. In one respect that idea makes sense. Qaddafi is under an international criminal indictment, which tends to kill any incentive—to put it mildly—to leave one's home country voluntarily. But the concept of an out-of-power Qaddafi residing in Libya has its own problems. One of the principal ones is that Qaddafi doesn't occupy any official position at all. He's just “the leader,” floating up there somewhere above the weird political structure he calls a jamahiriya. If he doesn't leave the country, exactly what step could he take that would constitute a relinquishing of power? How could anyone be sure that he had relinquished power, let alone given up the other privileges and economic assets that he and his family have acquired? Another problem is that given the bitterness and resentment that already existed and that the civil war itself has intensified, it is unlikely Qaddafi himself would have any confidence in being able to live out his years under an alternative power structure in Libya.
The current phase of this war will end somehow, sometime, even if nobody can make a good prediction now about either means or timing. And then the war can move, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, into the messy post-regime-change phase. Given the anomic state in which Qaddafi has left Libya, the messiness is likely to be as bad as in those other two places.
The moral of this story is contained in the words that the old magician spoke to Mickey Mouse in the Disney version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Don't start what you can't finish.
I tend to look at some domestic political struggles through the eyes of one who primarily studies international conflict. From that perspective, I noted last month that the decision by Republicans in the House of Representatives to play chicken with the nation's credit means that strategic doctrine developed to deal with East-West brinksmanship during the Cold War is also applicable to the impasse over debt and budgets that the Republicans' game has produced. Consistent with that doctrine, I assessed that the Republicans' record of reckless fiscal and economic policies gives them a bargaining advantage. As strategists such as Thomas Schelling have pointed out, whichever side has the greater reputation for recklessness always has the advantage in a game of chicken. The bargaining so far on the debt question has supported that assessment. Nearly all of the substantive concessions have come not from the Republicans but from the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats.
Another problem of international security that the Congressional Republicans' behavior brings to mind is that of dealing with the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-il. There are several similarities, beginning with the puerile nature of the behavior. Both the Kim regime and the House Republicans, like children who have not yet learned the meaning of compromise, exhibit extended fits of clenched-fist insistence on getting their respective ways.
Then there is the conundrum of how to deal with such behavior, which in each case is dangerous as well as childish, in a way that does not escalate a crisis but also does not reward extortion (or blackmail, as it is sometimes misleadingly called). The conundrum has never really been solved in the case of Kim, who has honed into an art form the technique of manufacturing a crisis with misbehavior and then threatening still more misbehavior if he is not given favors or concessions. Again, the similarity with the current budget crisis is strong, beginning with the fact that there would not have been a crisis in the first place if the Congressional Republicans had not decided to play chicken with the debt ceiling. Given how the Republicans still keep their fists clenched and say no even after a string of concessions that has made the latest Democratic plan look much more like a Republican one, the issue of rewarding extortion also appears to be very much involved.
Finally there is the willingness to court larger disaster, or maybe even deliberately to precipitate it. Among the conceivable nightmares that could come out of North Korea is the possibility that Kim would do something really rash, going beyond brinksmanship—and possibly involving nuclear weapons—that would touch off a wider conflict. In looking at likely motivations, the comparison with the House Republicans partially breaks down. If Kim did something like this it would be because he saw the status quo as having become an inevitably losing proposition, one that from the standpoint of his regime could not get any worse with one more big, reckless role of the dice. If the Republicans bring on economic and financial disaster it will be not to try to shake off a losing streak but instead to try to extend wins. As demonstrated by their inability to say yes even after gaining so many concessions, the wins that are most important to them—more important even than their cherished low tax rates for upper income brackets—are political wins at the expense of President Obama and the Democrats. And here is where the parallel with the North Korean problem resumes. The Republicans, like Kim, may see what others would regard as a disaster as playing to their advantage regarding their top priority concerns: regime survival in the case of North Korea, political gains against the Democrats in the case of the Republicans.
A recent poll of Congressional insiders by National Journal suggests how disturbingly attractive a debt default would be to Republicans, because most of them believe that Democrats would take most of the blame. Among the explanations by Republicans polled: “They own the economy.” “The president spent the money; this is the Obama economy.” “The party of the president will get the credit and the blame.”
There ought to be one big difference between the problems presented by the North Korean regime and by House Republicans. The United States is a democracy, after all. Such appallingly irresponsible legislative behavior ought to be severely punished at the next election. Ought to, but not necessarily will. And if, consistent with the politically optimistic Republican projections mentioned above, it is not punished, then there will be one more parallel with North Korea. The American electorate will be playing the same role that China has all too often played in its relationship with North Korea—that of enabling destructive behavior.
We really should not need someone else's misfortune to remind us about some realities regarding terrorism and terrorist attacks. But reactions to recent incidents within the United States as well as some of the comments in this country about the attack in Norway indicate that we do. Here are some of the most important reminders:
1. Don't jump to quick conclusions about responsibility for an attack, let alone spin out instant analysis based on such conclusions. Such jumping has long been a feature of the immediate aftermath of terrorist incidents, with fingers quickly pointed at whoever are the bogeymen of the day. After the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, there were many comments to the effect that Serbs must have done it. Nowadays, of course, Muslim jihadists play that role. The hasty attributions of responsibility are partly a function of the pressure of the press to explain everything quickly, or to get comments from people who purport to be able to explain everything instantly. They also are partly the result of commentators pursing agendas, whether they concern defense budgets or anything else.
2. The threat that gets the most attention is not the only threat. Especially in the decade since 9/11, Americans have mistakenly tended to equate terrorism with the jihadist variety, or even more narrowly with a single jihadist group. This tendency has been taken so far that even ten years after 9/11, the White House can put out a document that it calls a counterterrorism strategy but is really a war on al-Qaeda strategy. The next significant terrorist attack to hit the United States might be a jihadist one, or it might be associated with right-wing ideologies having something in common with the accused terrorist in Norway, or it might be something else entirely. The Norway incident has resurrected the issue of how Rep. Peter King (R-NY) has chosen to focus his current series of hearings of the House Homeland Security Committee exclusively on Muslim extremism. King suggested that his committee should focus on Muslim terrorism and the Judiciary Committee was the better one to look at non-Muslim terrorism. Interesting division of responsibility—I didn't realize committee jurisdictions were split up that way.
3. Individual incidents are not necessarily indicative of larger trends. They might be, but not necessarily, because they depend on the happenstance of luck and of the initiative of very small numbers of individuals. What appears so far to be the case about the attacks in Norway is that they were the work either of Anders Behring Breivik alone or of Breivik aided by a couple of unnamed cells. (Remember: don't jump to conclusions about responsibility; the investigators still have work to do.) The infrequent, sporadic nature of individual attacks makes them very imperfect barometers of larger trends and phenomena, even if they are rooted in such phenomena. Right-wing extremism may very well be on the rise in Europe and pose a threat of more violence, but that would be the case whether or not Breivik existed and whether or not he carried out his attack.
4. Open societies are inherently vulnerable to terrorist attack and ultimately unprotectable. The United States is essentially the same as Norway in this respect, only larger. Security measures can raise the difficulties and lower the odds for terrorists hoping to hit certain especially attractive targets, but alternative targets are innumerable.
5. That a previously unknown individual (possibly with some help) could inflict so many casualties (more even than the 7/7 transit bombings in London) should put into perspective the limits of detection and prevention. It will be interesting to see what kind of finger-pointing ensues in Norway about failures to connect dots or respond to warning signs or whatever. My guess is that the Norwegians will take a more mature and realistic approach to assessing this incident than would Americans, who tend to think that if their government institutions are functioning properly they should be entirely incident-free.
Image by Johhanes Grodem
Several days ago a poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, conducted by the Stanley Greenberg organization on behalf of the Israel Project, generated a spurt of commentary about the hateful attitudes and nefarious intentions that the Palestinians supposedly have toward Israel. Benny Morris wrote a piece in these spaces, under the ominous title of “Eliminating Israel,” the main message of which was that most Palestinian Arabs aren't really interested in living in peace side-by-side with Israel but instead see any two-state agreement as only a stepping stone toward somehow doing away with Israel altogether and claiming all of mandatory Palestine for themselves. Morris argued that outsiders such as the U.S./U.N./E.U./Russia quartet should take this into account when considering “Netanyahu's fears regarding Palestinian leadership's real aims” in pressing for statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. Other commentaries also supportive of the Netanyahu government followed similar themes.
The first question one is entitled to ask about such commentary is: even if this accurately described Palestinian intentions, how could any Palestinian with at least half a brain see any way to accomplish such an objective? Even more to the point, how would establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which would be many times weaker than the State of Israel, bring Palestinians any closer to such an objective? If anything, creating a separate Palestinian state would appear to have the opposite effect. Everyone is familiar with the demographic trends showing that Arabs living in all the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will come to outnumber Jews. But if most of those Arabs became citizens of a separate state for Palestinian Arabs, Israel—which would have for the first time a fully recognized international border—would be secure in the prospect of retaining its Jewish majority and character as a Jewish state. All of this means that the notion of current Palestinian leaders having a “real aim” of eliminating Israel is preposterous.
Nonetheless, polling data that might appear to indicate the opposite warrants further scrutiny. Unfortunately, amid the burst of commentary about the supposedly nefarious aims of Palestinians I was unable, despite much searching, to find the poll itself. Finally later in the week the Israel Project, to its credit, provided a link to the poll. The overall picture it presents is one of a Palestinian population mostly concerned with trying to get on with their daily lives and understandably pessimistic about the prospects for any political breakthroughs that would affect them. Eighty-one percent of respondents, in what is probably an accurate perception, believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu “isn't really serious about wanting peace and supporting a two-state solution.” Remarkably, despite such pessimism, a negotiated peace agreement with Israel is still the strong Palestinian preference. Two-thirds of the respondents agreed with the statement that “it is possible to find peace with Israel” as opposed to a statement that “there is no hope of peace with Israel.” Two-thirds also agreed that it is “time for diplomatic engagement with Israel” rather than with a statement that it is time for “violent resistance” against Israel. In possibly the most remarkable indication of faith in bilateral negotiations despite the well-founded reasons for pessimism, a majority said they would still want the Palestinian Authority to go to the negotiating table even if it was on the basis of conditions laid down by Netanyahu that rule out any plan that divides Jerusalem or that involves settlement of any Palestinian refugees within Israel.
The pro-Netanyahu commentaries cherry-pick from the poll some results suggesting hostile attitudes toward Jews. Morris begins his piece with part of a quotation from a hadith (a saying of the Prophet Mohammed, which serves as a kind of explanatory supplement to the Koran) which is also quoted in the Hamas charter and that makes reference to killing Jews. This hadith is poetic scripture, with flowery language that also talks about such things as Gharkad trees and people hiding behind stones. As Morris correctly notes, the hadith is “well-known” and “accepted by Muslims as canonical and weighty.” Ninety-eight percent of the respondents in the poll were Sunni Muslims. Is it any surprise that when asked whether they agree with this bit of scripture associated with their faith, a majority (73 percent) would say yes? One could probably elicit similar responses to nasty-sounding bits of scripture associated with other faiths. Some passages of the Old Testament imply a pretty hostile attitude toward certain other peoples, and many adherents to the religions for which it is holy scripture would express agreement because it is holy scripture, without this implying anything about attitudes toward political problems of the present day. One could similarly extract from the New Testament some ostensibly hostile attitudes of Christians toward Jews. (If what Morris or any other commentator is saying is not just that Palestinian Arabs exhibit peculiar hostility but instead that any Muslim—a believer in the texts of Islam—is ipso facto dangerous and untrustworthy, then he should say that explicitly and his argument can be perceived and judged as such.)
Prune away the Gharkad trees and other poetry that elicits expressions of religious faith, and there was plenty else in the poll that more directly and effectively measures Palestinian attitudes toward present-day Israel. Another quotation from the Hamas charter that was not scripture and about which the poll asked was: “Peace initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement. There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad.” A plurality of respondents disagreed with that statement. There were numerous other questions about Hamas, which fared rather poorly in the poll, in the abstract as well as in comparison with Fatah or the Palestinian Authority.
Probably some of the responses to questions involving enmity toward Jews reflected the same kind of hateful prejudice that is present in many other countries as anti-Semitism. It is unlikely that most of the responses were that. Ninety-five percent of respondents in the Greenberg poll agreed with the statement that “all religions ought to be equally accepted and welcome in society.” The poll results make it clear that the respondents made little distinction between “Jews” and “Israelis,” and Israelis were thought of mostly as occupiers and those standing in the way of Palestinian self-determination. To the extent that resentments over that situation get expressed in agreement with negative statements about a religious or ethnic group, that cannot be excused but, given the bitterness surrounding the underlying conflict, neither should it be surprising.
One can find sentiments expressed in similar terms on the other side of this conflict. In a poll in 2006, for example, Jewish Israelis were asked, “How do you feel when you hear Arabic being spoken around you on the streets of Israel?” Thirty percent said they felt “hatred.” (This is another example of a poll question being subject to multiple interpretations. Does this mean hatred from Arab toward Jew, or the other way around? My guess is that some respondents interpreted it one way, some the other way, and for still others it didn't matter because they felt hatred in both directions.) In the same poll, 50 percent said they would refuse to work at a job in which the direct supervisor was an Arab. Such sentiments, expressed in purely ethnic terms, also cannot be excused but again are not surprising.
As for one-state versus two-state resolutions of the conflict, Leila Farsakh has an informative article on the subject in a recent issue of the Middle East Journal. She notes that the idea of Jews and Arabs living together in a single state in Palestine is an old one, proposed back in the 1920s and 1930s. But most Palestinians and Zionists alike rejected the idea as a compromise of the national aspirations of each. The concept of a one-state solution has more recently been the subject of renewed talk by scholars and activists, for the obvious reason that two decades of work on a two-state solution has come up empty. But all the old practical and political difficulties, which Farsakh reviews in detail, are still present, along with the obvious fact that Jewish national aspirations have been realized in the form of a strong and well-established state. As a result, Palestinians “at the official and grassroots levels,” notes Farsakh, doubt the feasibility of a one-state option, because of not only strong Israeli opposition but “more so out of fear of Israel's economic and political domination over the Palestinians within a single state.”
So what accounts for results in the Greenberg poll that, according to the commentators, suggest otherwise? It is an artifact of how portions of the poll were constructed, especially in forcing people to choose between two different statements that, even if logical alternatives, are not alternatives in terms of the sentiment and emotion that drive their responses. For example, respondents were asked to choose between the statements “Israel has a permanent right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people” and “Over time Palestinians must work to get back all the land for a Palestinian state.” “All” the land? Does this mean the occupied territories seized by Israel in the 1967 war, which is the territorial issue that has been debated for many years and has been the subject of nearly every conversation about Palestinians getting land back, or does it mean something more than that? With or without that ambiguity, think about how the average Palestinian, facing the clipboard-wielding interviewer, will react when asked to identify with one or the other of two sentences, one of which speaks of someone else's national aspirations and the other of which speaks about his own people's national aspirations. Naturally most Palestinians will choose the latter, the one that talks about getting land back for a state of their own. This is a simple expression of sentiment and priorities, not some scheme about making a two-state solution a device for wiping out Israel. It is hard to think of a more tendentious way to construct a survey question to generate fodder for commentators trying to argue that Palestinians don't accept Israel's right to exist.
Inconsistencies in responses to other questions in the Greenberg poll, even without reference to any other survey data or other evidence, vividly demonstrate how much the design of the questions shaped the results. For example, respondents had more than one opportunity to say whether they accepted a two-state solution. When asked a straight up-or-down question on their view about such a solution, there was almost twice as much support as when the question was made part of a two-statements comparison similar to the one just mentioned.
The seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict has generated all too much bitterness, animosity, and emotion-driven misperception on both sides. It is not helpful for supporters of one side to fancifully accuse the other side of grand, destructive plans that do not exist. In this case, the accusation serves only as one more excuse for the ruling coalition in Israel (some members of which are quite open about their intentions) to retain the West Bank—could we say “all the land”?—indefinitely and to keep Palestinian Arabs from ever having their own state.
Image by Hanini
Mickey Edwards, the former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, has in the current Atlantic a worthy set of recommendations to try to reduce the paralyzing partisan gridlock that infects American politics as a whole but especially the work of Congress. The posturing and bitterness over deficit reduction is only the most recent example. As Edwards puts it, our leaders have to try to govern “in a system that makes cooperation almost impossible and incivility nearly inevitable, a system in which the campaign season never ends and the struggle for party advantage trumps all other considerations.”
It is a system in which political parties have become too entrenched and too much a part of the institutional framework. In brief, they have become too powerful. The freedom to form and to join political parties and to use them as vehicles for aggregating, articulating and pursuing competing interests is unquestionably a major element of representative democracy. But in any list of what is dysfunctional in American democracy today, the most prominent entries would involve competition between, identification with and loyalty toward the major political parties.
Edwards reminds us of the Founding Fathers' antipathy toward parties and factions. He attributes the start of the growth of all-powerful parties to the introduction of closed primaries (and closed conventions) as means for choosing candidates. As Fareed Zakaria points out in a piece that also endorses Edwards's ideas, the evolution of American parties from their former more diverse, big-tent character to more ideologically pure entities—making them more like European parties—is what some political scientists hoped would happen. But the result is “abysmal,” says Zakaria, because unlike the parliamentary systems in which many of those European parties compete and enact their agendas before being judged again by the voters, the American system involves overlapping authorities of different institutions where nothing can get done unless the parties cooperate.
I believe there is another relevant difference from most of the European political systems that helps to explain not only the partisan impasses in the United States but also the bitterness and incivility that often goes with them. In countries with more deeply rooted class consciousness than America, even ideological purity does not keep partisans from accepting those in different parties with different viewpoints as legitimate parts of the political order, who are doing an able job of representing different interests. A person on the right looks at a political opponent on the left and does not see someone who is necessarily misguided or wrong, let alone evil, but rather as someone who is simply representing a different segment of society and a different set of interests. In America, where the sense of class and segmented society is weaker, opponents in the other party are more often seen as misguided and wrong, and maybe even evil. As the columnist Paul Krugman has repeatedly observed, this outlook is especially to be found today within the Republican Party, some members of which regard Barack Obama's presence in the White House as somehow not entirely legitimate or entirely American. And that outlook leads to giving higher priority to the fortunes of the party than to the broader national interest.
Edwards's two biggest recommendations are to take the selection of general election candidates out of the hands of party members alone (such as through primaries that select the two top vote-getters without regard to party affiliation), and to attack gerrymandering by having nonpartisan commissions draw Congressional district boundaries. He also has some lesser recommendations involving procedures within Congress. The destructive partisan attitudes that are so much in evidence today are too deeply rooted to be eliminated quickly through procedural reforms, but implementation of Edwards's ideas would go a long way toward making the American political system more effective.