With the double milestones in Afghanistan of NATO turning over the remainder of its combat role to Afghan government forces and the announced imminent opening of peace talks with the Taliban, it is an appropriate time to note a few lessons demonstrated by this war.
Foreign military expeditions are more likely to be longer and costlier than expected than to be shorter and cheaper. Most Americans would have been astounded back in the autumn of 2001 if told that U.S. troops would still be fighting and dying in Afghanistan more than eleven years later. Other examples come easily to mind, the Iraq War of the past decade being an especially obvious one. An exception to this pattern was Operation Desert Storm in 1991, aided by the clarity and limited nature of the objective of liberating Kuwait.
Finding off-ramps is hard. The initial goals of the intervention in Afghanistan, of rousting the perpetrators of 9/11 from their haven and ousting their then-allies from power, were noble. They were achieved in the first few weeks of the intervention, after which it probably would have been better to declare the operation a success and go home. But mission creep is a ubiquitous phenomenon.
Welcomes get warn out. Afghanistan used to be a rare oasis in the Muslim world of favorable sentiment toward the United States. The dissipation of much of that goodwill is the almost inevitable result of the damage, frictions, and anger that come from foreign occupation and the operations of a foreign military force.
Diplomacy usually shapes final outcomes. Most armed conflicts, including civil wars, end with some negotiated coming to terms. That is true even of most one-sided outcomes. The surrender Grant accepted at Appomattox was not unconditional; it was a negotiated surrender, which let Confederates keep their horses and the officers among them keep their sidearms. Again, there are exceptions; the Sri Lankan government's final eradication of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 did not involve a coming to terms. The conditions for any similar outcome have never been present in Afghanistan.
Increased pressure doesn't necessarily mean increased results. There has been much talk over the past couple of years from some quarters in the United States that any easing of the pressure on the Afghan Taliban would only make the Taliban less interested in making peace. We aren't hearing elaboration of that view from the same quarters today, as the Taliban's acceptance of peace talks occurs at the same time NATO steps down from its combat role.
Adversaries' interests, like ours, change. We have a tendency to pigeon-hole other actors as either friends or implacable enemies and to view them that way forever. This view usually is mistaken, as it would be today in Afghanistan. The Taliban would have little or no interest in the United States without the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and the United States would have little interest in the Taliban without their prior association with al-Qa'ida. Today the Taliban's incentives are against any renewal of the association. It is entirely realistic to look forward to a peace agreement that cements that change.
Hassan Rouhani's stunning and sweeping victory in the Iranian presidential election is already generating much debate among expert Iran-watchers about how to interpret this outcome. There are different views, for example, on what inference should be drawn regarding the posture of Supreme Leader Khamenei toward the election. Was this outcome one that the leader might have anticipated and is part of a skillful management of contending factions, or does the election result instead indicate that the leader's control of Iranian politics is less than was often surmised? There also are different views on what role sanctions-induced economic strain may have had on the election. These are genuine questions on which objective and well-informed observers can disagree. Not genuine is the spin from some other fast-off-the-mark commentators who are endeavoring to deny any significance to Rouhani's victory and to portray the Iranian regime as nothing but the same old recalcitrant adversary—a spin motivated by opposition to reaching agreements with Iran and the favoring of confrontation and even war with it.
Useful implications for policy toward Iran can be drawn without resolving all these analytical questions, even the genuine ones. Sometimes a particular course of action is the best course under any of several different interpretations of exactly what is going on in another nation's capital. This is one of those instances. In particular, there are clear implications for approaching the next stage of negotiations on, and policy toward, Iran's nuclear program—which, for better or for worse, is the subject dominating discussion of relations with the Islamic Republic.
One thing that the Iranian election would have changed no matter what the outcome on election day is that we soon will not have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to kick around any more. The end of his distracting and annoying presence can only be to the good. Perhaps at least a little more serious attention will be devoted in the United States to policy and diplomacy when there is a little less energy allocated to expressing outrage over the outgoing Iranian president's mistranslated quotes about wiping maps and his other intentionally inflammatory rhetoric.
Rouhani's win brings to Iran's presidency the candidate who was least associated with attributes of the Iranian regime that the West finds most offensive. While one must always be careful in affixing labels to individual leaders and factions in Iranian politics, the pre-election characterization of Rouhani as the most moderate of the six candidates remaining in the race until election day is accurate. The election result also is a vote in favor of flexibility and going the extra mile to reach agreement in the nuclear negotiations. In this regard one of the significant aspects of the result is not only how well Rouhani did but also how bad the result was for one of the other candidates, Saeed Jalili, the current nuclear negotiator. Conduct of the negotiations was an issue in the campaign. Yet another candidate, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati (who possibly could become foreign minister again under Rouhani) pointedly criticized Jalili in one of the candidates' debates for apparently expecting too much from the other side while offering little in return. Jalili, who before the election had been dubbed the supreme leader's man and was considered by some the favorite, finished a far-behind third place, with less than a quarter as many votes as Rouhani.
There clearly is an opportunity for diplomatic progress. More to the point, there is a challenge, to the United States and its P5+1 partners in the nuclear negotiations, to do their part to make such progress possible. This is true no matter which of several possible interpretations of the details of politics in Iran is valid. Whether the supreme leader is stage-managing a process that leads to an outcome he has always welcomed, or is being pushed toward that outcome by forces and sentiments he cannot control, the implication for western policy is the same. We should spend less time trying to interpret what's happening on the other side and more time thinking about how the other side interprets our policies. This is important because a lack of Iranian confidence in the West's desire and willingness to make a deal and to stick with it almost certainly has been one of the impediments to progress in the nuclear negotiations.
Rouhani's election presents the United States and its partners with a test—of our intentions and seriousness about reaching an agreement. Failure of the test will confirm suspicions in Tehran that we do not want a deal and instead are stringing along negotiations while waiting for the sanctions to wreak more damage. Passage of the test will require placing on the table a proposal that, in return for the desired restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities, incorporates significant relief from economic sanctions and at least tacit acceptance of a continued peaceful Iranian nuclear program, to include low-level enrichment of uranium. The sad fact is that the criticism Velayati leveled at Jalili's negotiating approach could be applied just as easily to the approach of the P5+1, which so far have coupled their demands about the nuclear program with sanctions relief that is only a pittance compared to the large and ever-growing array of sanctions applied to Iran. Passage of the test also means not making any proposal an ultimatum that is coupled with threats of military force, which only feed Iranian suspicions that for the West the negotiations are a box-checking prelude to war and regime change.
The Iranian electorate has in effect said to the United States and its Western partners, “We've done all we can. Among the options that the Guardian Council gave us, we have chosen the one that offers to get us closest to accommodation, agreement and understanding with the West. Your move, America.”
Sometimes a child is able to drag a parent into doing something the parent might not really want to do—say, taking the kid to an amusement park—through a two-step process. The first step is to nag, repeatedly and insistently, about going to the park. The parent, not wanting to be bothered about such a chore, tries to buy time and assuage the child by saying that they aren't going to the park now but they will when a suitable day arises. After some time goes by and the trip to the amusement park still has not been taken, the child's theme becomes, “But you promised.” The issue is framed no longer just in terms of the pros and cons of going to the amusement park but also in terms of the parent's credibility. The parent, worried about maintaining credibility of both promises and threats on other possible matters, gives in.
A similar process is occurring with some of those who, for whatever ill-conceived reason, would welcome a war with Iran. With some of the same people, it is occurring also with the nearer-term issue of intervening in the civil war in Syria. In each case step one is agitation in favor of threatening the use of military force. Step two is to argue that unless the threat is carried out, U.S. credibility will be damaged. Similar to the child who wants to go to the amusement park, the same persons whose urgings led us to get into an option-reducing box then yammer about the damage that results from being in that box, unless we get out of it in the particular way they want.
On Iran, it is hard to know exactly how President Obama, in his innermost thoughts, views the nuclear activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is a fair guess that he does not subscribe to the repeatedly expressed notion that those activities constitute the Greatest Threat to Mankind in Our Time. He clearly does not want a war with Iran. But he is faced with repeated, insistent nagging about this from the government of Israel, and thus from those in the United States who support that government, and thus with all of the U.S. political implications that implies. Not wanting to have his presidency completely sidelined by such things, he tries to buy time and assuage the naggers by saying that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable and that all options are on the table to prevent that eventuality. His statements are already fodder for lots of warnings about how badly U.S. credibility supposedly would be harmed if he does not make good on the promise he seems to have made. Some of the loudest voices in making those warnings are those whose pestering pressured him into making the promise in the first place.
On Syria, Mr. Obama seems to have allowed himself to be pushed into a similar box, with earlier statements about how President Assad must go and more recent ones about the use of chemical weapons as a “red line.” Some of the pressures to which he has been responding involve the same sort of two-step tactic as is being used on Iran. A glaring example is provided this week by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In an opinion piece titled “How to Make Diplomacy on Syria Succeed,” Singh argues that the United States “must credibly put on the table the option of military intervention,” including direct operations by U.S. forces and not just the arming of Syrian rebels. In a separate piece published on the same day and titled “U.S. Credibility on Iran at Stake in Syria,” Singh talks in the same breath as mentioning the “military option” that “Washington's failure to push back on Iranian aggression in Syria” is undercutting “the credibility of Western warnings.” He goes on with more ominous language about a “vicious cycle” of lost influence in which “not just for Tehran” but elsewhere in the region “American influence is everywhere diminished.” What a deliciously constructed chain of entrapment: starting with the innocent goal of supporting diplomacy on Syria, we are led to threats of military force, and then to actual use of force, and then to the big prize of confrontation with Iran.
There are many things wrong with this, too numerous to mention them all. What Singh says, for example, about the impact of threats of U.S. military intervention on Syria diplomacy is inconsistent when considering the impact on both the thinking of the Syrian regime and its backers, on one hand, and the rebels and their backers, on the other. The commonly heard assertions about how threats of military force ought to aid the nuclear negotiations with Iran naively overlook how such threats are more likely to have counterproductive effects on Iranian perceptions and incentives, by lending credibility to the belief that Washington only wants regime change and to any arguments within the Iranian regime that it needs a nuclear deterrent. The talk about how actions in one theater are supposed to shape perceptions of U.S. credibility somewhere else also is inconsistent with the actual record of how governments assess the credibility of other governments.
Perhaps the most offensive thing about this approach is the manipulation involved in first pushing us—and our leaders—into a difficult position and then pushing us to do even more harmful things to get out of that same position. In a general way this is related not only to a kid who pesters his parent to go to the amusement park but also to the kid who killed his parents and then called for mercy because he was an orphan.
A perpetual, and perpetually misguided, American notion about international negotiations is that sitting down to talk constitutes some sort of reward for the party on the other side of the table—a reward to be bestowed only in return for good behavior. This notion may be involved, even if only indirectly, in the curious U.S. resistance to participation by Iran in the prospective international conference about the conflict in Syria. Perhaps the resistance has more recently lessened; on Tuesday the deputy Iranian foreign minister commented in Moscow that Iran had received a “verbal invitation” to attend the conference, without specifying who had extended the invitation. We should hope that the verbal invitation will turn out to be a firm one.
The United States has been joined in its resistance by France. Maybe Paris's posture has been rooted somehow in old French hang-ups about the Levant. The reason for the similar posture by the Obama administration, notwithstanding its leadership role along with Russia in arranging the conference in the first place, is unclear. If the administration itself does not subscribe to the talking-as-reward school of thought, possibly the policy has been just one more manifestation of an environment in Washington in which anything that could be construed as a positive gesture toward Iran is considered bad politics and the opposite is always good politics.
From the standpoint of trying to ameliorate the situation in Syria, there is no way that exclusion of Iran can help, no matter how negative and nefarious a role the Iranians are assumed to be playing. The general principle involved is that the only peace talks that are ever meaningful are ones with adversaries, not with just friends and allies. In the Syrian case, anyone playing any significant role in the conflict, positive or negative, ipso facto belongs at the table.
If the Iranians have reason to do things regarding the Syrian conflict now, with no peace talks, that we consider unhelpful, they would have no less reason to do similar things if they are excluded from any talks that do take place. There would be more possibility of change with the dialogue and deal-making at a conference. Exclusion would only increase Iran's incentive to find other ways to make its weight felt.
Perhaps some of the thinking has been that no encouragement should be given to Iran playing any significant regional role, not just on Syria. But players in the region are not going to take instructions from Paris and Washington regarding how they should regard other regional players and whom they should deal with. Besides, anything that leads the Iranians to feel more of a stake in regional stability is on balance good. Exactly what that should mean in terms of Iranian behavior is something worth talking to them about.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Danish Interpretation Systems. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Sixteen years ago I participated in the annual summer study of the Defense Science Board, a panel of senior experts and executives from the private sector created in the 1950s to advise the Department of Defense on scientific and technical matters. The summer study is the board's biggest project each year, for which it assembles a large ad hoc task force going well beyond the board's own membership. The topic of the study performed in 1997 was DoD Responses to Transnational Threats. I worked with a science and technology subgroup that made its principal focus the use of modern information technology to collect and exploit data pertinent to terrorist threats.
The resulting report recommended aggressive exploitation of the then-new World Wide Web and data-handling technology available in the private sector to perform such collection and exploitation. The report talked about the importance of exploiting “meta-information” on use of the Internet as well as substantive information possibly pertinent to terrorist threats. The term “data mining” was used, not as a dirty word but instead as a descriptor of the kind of technology that the government ought to employ more extensively. Perhaps as a reflection of the fact that it was mainly scientists and engineers and not lawyers who wrote this part of the report, there was no mention of drawing fine lines or indeed any lines between collection abroad and within the United States.
The report was another indication, ignored by or unbeknownst to the many people who believe serious U.S. counterterrorism didn't begin until September 2001, that much serious attention was being given to the subject, and to better ways of doing counterterrorism, well before that. My own participation in the Defense Science Board study—at the time I was a government official with counterterrorist responsibilities in the intelligence community—was an indication of that. The public reaction to 9/11 would give a big boost, of course, both to the resources devoted to all kinds of countereterrorist activities and to the aggressiveness with which something like large-scale exploitation of data and meta-data could be pursued. Much of the kind of information management that the 1997 report discussed corresponded to the “connect the dots” activity that is a familiar demand after any perceived failure by the government agencies involved. Actually a better metaphor is finding needles in haystacks, or better yet, finding the few needles that matter in a stack of other needles that don't.
But the mood and thus the priorities of the public, as reflected in the press and Congress, shift over time on any subject on which security conflicts with something like privacy, depending on how long it has been since the last thing that upset the public and what the nature of the upset was. Aggressive exploitation of data that once was not only accepted but expected later becomes a matter of objection and controversy. Thus government agencies that are the target of recriminations at one time for not doing enough of something later are the target of recriminations for doing too much of the same thing. The latest hubbub about exploitation of Internet or telephonic communications should be viewed as the latest swing in the ever-swinging pendulum of the public mood about such things.
Meanwhile the hubbub provides little or no perspective to the government activity in question with regard to such things as comparing the implications of government possession of a piece of information with the far more extensive holdings of the same kind of information by private sector organizations. For all that gets said about whether the multiple controls and checks in the judicial and legislative branches are sufficient for what the government does, nothing gets said about the implications of a corporation collecting and holding such data with no checks or controls at all, save for possible eventual sanction by an often highly imperfect marketplace if something were to go badly and embarrassingly wrong.
When leaks are involved, as they are once again in the latest instance, there again is scant attention in the public discussion to the damage done by the leaks. In this case the principal damage is to cooperation and trust between government agencies and the relevant Internet and telecommunications companies. There also is undeserved direct damage to the companies themselves. The ones that have cooperated should be applauded for performing a duty in accordance with the law and with the interests of national security. Instead, because of leaks, they have been handed a major public relations headache. Their businesses have been hit with an undetermined but undeniable cost. The incentive for future cooperation has just gone down.
We also are again hearing nonsense about how a leak is somehow critical for obtaining public accountability or a public debate. Any other members of Congress who listened to Ron Wyden or Mark Udall could have joined their cause if they were so inclined and there would have been the debate. But evidently other members, including the leaderships of both parties, were not so inclined.
This is yet another instance of how what gets the attention of the public, the Congress, and the media is less a function of the intrinsic importance of the topic—even when some members of relevant Congressional committees diligently do their jobs—but instead of what becomes a flap, especially if it is sexed up by something like pilfered PowerPoint slides.
Image: Jon Hopkins, CC BY-SA 2.0.
The president's appointments of Susan Rice and Samantha Power certainly have caused a stir, as reflected in commentary right here at The National Interest. Without adding to the pile of overall judgments about these choices, something more can be said about how these appointments raise an issue concerning the correct and incorrect ways to draw lessons from history. Both appointees are identified with ex post facto anguish over the international response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and a determination not to let a similar event happen again. Rice is quoted by Power, in the latter's later writing about this event, as saying that “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”
The extraction of lessons from salient (and especially unpleasant) historical episodes should go beyond a simple determination that a piece of policy was good or bad and instead examine in detail exactly why and how a policy didn't work or an initiative went sour. Such a careful approach recognizes that: most policies are not entirely good or entirely bad; some aspects of an initiative can be executed well while other aspects of the same initiative are executed poorly; the right policy may be pursued for the wrong reasons, or the wrong policy for noble reasons; and multiple national interests are typically at stake, some of which are better served by a particular policy than are others.
Extraction of lessons, for example, from the Iraq War—one of the most salient, unpleasant and costly episodes in recent American history—should take this kind of careful, fine-grained form. It should not be a simple matter of declaring that the war stank and this means the United States should not intervene militarily again in the Middle East. The latter, simplistic approach is what some advocates of intervention in Syria depict as the frame of mind that they are battling against, warning Americans that they should not be afraid of intervening in Syria just because they got traumatized in Iraq. No doubt some Americans do have that frame of mind, as reflected in what is usually described as war weariness of the American public. But as far as serious debate among policy elites is concerned, the depicted frame of mind is a straw man.
Many important lessons can be, and have been, drawn from the Iraq War and the decision to launch it, lessons that should be applied to possible interventions elsewhere, Syria included. Substantively, for example, there are lessons about foreign perceptions of U.S. troop involvement, the importance of ethnic and sectarian rivalries, and the inability to inject a liberal democratic culture through the barrel of a gun. The procedural lessons are just as important, including ones about failing to plan sufficiently for later phases of an occupation, rejecting expert judgment about the challenges likely to be encountered in those phases, and failing to have any policy process leading to the decision to undertake such a major expedition.
A contrast to such careful lesson-drawing is the never-again, I'll-go-down-in-flames way of reacting to a past episode. If we are to take Rice and Power at their word, this approach is not a straw man. And it is a really bad way to apply history to current policy issues. It ignores or discounts the aforementioned complexities about mixtures of good and bad and the trade-offs among different interests. It overstates the similarity between the historical episode that has had the searing effect and whatever is the policy problem of today. Swearing in advance to take a particular side in a future policy debate without knowing the details of the problem that will be debated is a very bad way to make policy. To the extent that emotion and guilt over some past horror come into play, this gets even farther away from careful examination of policy options and makes bad policy even more likely.
This approach already has damaged U.S. interests. Excessive and simplistic application of the grandaddy of all international policy wonks' guilt trips—the response to the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s—has been a major factor in such damage, including that resulting from the U.S. decision to intervene in Vietnam in the 1960s. As for the Iraq War, Paul Wolfowitz was especially fond of telling us that Saddam Hussein was a latter-day equivalent of Adolf Hitler.
The no-more-Rwandas version of this approach also has caused damage, less severe than that of the wars in either Vietnam or Iraq but harm that is still in the process of being incurred and tallied. Of particular note in this regard is the intervention in Libya two years ago, an action that Rice and Power reportedly supported strongly. The notion that this intervention was wise appears to rest on the idea that the target was a dictator nobody particularly liked and that in the civil war that was then ongoing people were getting hurt, as is always the case in civil wars. The notion also rested on the myth, unsupported by evidence to this day, that Qadhafi was planning some sort of genocidal bloodbath in eastern Libya and that failure to intervene would mean Rwanda all over again. The dictator was swept aside with U.S. and Western help, at minimal material cost to the United States, and so the episode gets casually put in the win column.
The actual balance sheet on Libya is far more extensive than that. The disliked dictator had already, through an enforceable agreement with the United States and Britain, given up his unconventional weapons programs and gotten out of international terrorism. He was still a quixotically inconvenient and sometimes disagreeable cuss, but he was not a threat. What we have had since he was ousted is extremist-infested disorder in Libya that has given rise to a flow of arms to radicals in the Sahel and incidents like the fatal encounter at a U.S. compound in Benghazi. (If Rice were being nominated for a position requiring Senate confirmation, this is the aspect of the Benghazi incident she ought to be grilled about, not some manufactured silliness about talking points.) We also have sent a very unhelpful message to the likes of the Iranians and North Koreans and have perversely affected their motivations regarding the possibility of reaching their own agreements with the United States.
It is remarkable that the Libyan intervention is so often considered a success. Let us hope that in the future when lessons are drawn from this episode—by either advocates or opponents of some future intervention—they will be drawn carefully, rather than in the simplistic manner that seems to have become respectable even among presidential appointees.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Adam Jones, Ph.D. CC BY-SA 3.0.
A visit to Russia by a Republican Congressional delegation led by Dana Rohrabacher of California has featured some unusual twists. The trip was at least partly arranged by action-film star Steven Seagal, which makes it only slightly less weird, as far as the role of entertainers is concerned, than Dennis Rodman being a point man for engagement with the leader of North Korea. Then there is the whole idea of GOP legislators being activists for greater security cooperation with the Russians. They belong to the party whose presidential nominee last year described Russia as the principal geopolitical adversary of the United States—an “absurd statement,” according to Rohrabacher this week.
The general idea being promoted by the delegation is sound, and to the extent the trip makes a difference it may well be to the good. A major theme of the trip is the importance of cooperation against Islamist terrorism. Bilateral cooperation with a wide range of partners has long been an important component of U.S. counterterrorism. The list of those partners is very long, longer than most of the public is apt to expect, and has included many states that have generally been thought of as U.S. adversaries. Acting on shared interests between Russia and the United States in opposing certain varieties of terrorism makes sense. But any such cooperation should be undertaken with eyes open about a couple of things that the Congressional delegation, based on its comments, does not seem to appreciate fully.
One concerns the limits of what can be done in counterterrorism even with robust international cooperation. A focus of discussion on the trip naturally was the Boston Marathon bombing, given the Russian ties of the ethnic Chechens who were the alleged perpetrators. Rohrabacher made a comment on this subject that did not levy blame specifically on either Russia or the United States but included the assertion that greater cooperation between the two countries could have prevented the bombing. Based on what is publicly known so far, that assertion is not supportable. Although we do not know all that Russian authorities knew before the incident about the elder Tsarnaev brother, we do not have a good basis for believing that they knew he was doing, or would do, terrorism, including doing it in Boston.
The other note of caution concerns not getting sucked into, or providing cover for, the other country's agenda. Saying, as the Congressmen did, that the United States and Russia share a common interest in defeating “radical Islam” covers a broad set of objectives, some of which the two countries really do share and others of which they do not. They share an interest in countering terrorism, and more specifically terrorism as the United States defines it. They do not share an interest in taking hardline approaches toward other kinds of dissident activity, including in the north Caucasus, that Moscow would be inclined to include as well under the label of radical Islam. It was unhelpful for Seagal to dismiss as “rumors” the serious human-rights concerns that have been raised about the current Putin-backed boss of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
One of the many problems stemming from the United States pitching counterterrorism as a boundless, worldwide “war on terror” is that it has provided a handy banner under which other countries have pursued, sometimes brutally, their own campaigns against ethnically based dissident movements. Putin's Russia certainly has done so in the Caucasus. So has another foil of the Congressmen's trip to Russia—China, in its handling of resistance from Uyghurs.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0.
The State Department released this week the government's legislatively mandated annual report on international terrorism. There is no doubt what headline the administration hopes will be taken away from the release of the report, which covers the calendar year 2012. In a background conference call for reporters on Friday, Senior Administration Official One got immediately to the main message being pushed: that “one of the most noteworthy conclusions” in compiling the report was a “resurgence of terrorist activity by Iran and Hezbollah.” In fact, activity by Iran and Hezbollah was the only subject of the press backgrounder, and Iran and Hezbollah were treated as two peas in a pod that jointly account for this “alarming trend.” The other briefer, Senior Administration Official Two, joined in the messaging with gusto, warning anyone who might look at Hezbollah as a political actor that it is “a terrorist organization, and not just a terrorist organization, but a broad organization that is morally bankrupt to its very core.”
Most of the incidents involving Iran that were cited as part of the “resurgence” were a set of largely unsuccessful attacks against Israeli personnel early in the year in places such as New Delhi, Tbilisi and Bangkok. Nothing was said, in either the report or the backgrounder, about why Iran would perpetrate such attacks at that particular time against those particular targets. The failure to address that question is all the more glaring because the answer to the question is clear. The attacks were tit-for-tat terrorism in response to (possibly in addition to other attacks on Iran) the serial assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists—five to date, through early last year. The Iranians made the retaliatory nature of their own operations all the more obvious by even mimicking the method of attack used against the most recent scientist to die: an explosive attached to the victim's vehicle.
The killings of the scientists were just as much acts of international terrorism as were the retaliatory Iranian attacks. The legal definition that defines terrorism for purposes of the State Department's report is “premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” But don't expect to find any mention of the assassinations in the report. They are not noted anywhere, including in the section on Iran or the section on Israel (which begins with the statement, “Israel continued to be a stalwart counterterrorism partner in 2012.”) The absence of any mention of the assassinations is certainly not due to any lack of awareness among U.S. officials about the international nature of the assassinations and who was behind them.
Terrorism is a condemnable, immoral activity, no matter where and when it occurs and no matter who perpetrates it. It should not be excused or overlooked no matter what stimulated or motivated it, what causes or objectives it was intended to advance, or what relationship one may have with the perpetrator.
Last week President Obama made a refreshingly sensible and honest speech about terrorism and the policies needed to cope with it. If any such policies are to have credibility, remaining terrorism must be called to account with honesty and consistency. This week the administration failed to do that.
Many who offer opinions on policy toward Iran, and particularly on how to handle negotiations over its nuclear program, implicitly claim an unusual ability to read the minds of Iranian decision-makers. Assertions are made with apparent confidence about what the Iranians want, fear or believe, even without any particular evidence in support. Several possible explanations can account for the misplaced confidence.
One is that we are seeing common psychological mechanisms in action. A well-established human tendency is, for example, to interpret cooperative behavior on another person's part as a response to one's own behavior, while ascribing uncooperative conduct to innate orneriness on the part of the other person. Thus there is a failure to understand how firmness in Iran's negotiating position is a response to firmness on the Western side, and there is an accompanying tendency to interpret a lack of Iranian concessions as indicating an Iranian desire to stall and drag out negotiations.
Another explanation is that a particular frame of mind is imputed to the Iranians because it implies a U.S. policy that is politically popular for other reasons. Loading ever more onerous sanctions on Iran is a popular political sport, especially on Capitol Hill, to show toughness or love for Israel. The politicians who play that sport therefore favor a view of the Iranian mindset according to which the Iranians are simply not hurting enough and need to hurt some more, after which they will cry uncle.
A third explanation is that the supposed interpretation of Iranian thinking is a cover for another policy agenda held by the person offering the interpretation. This is especially the case with some of those arguing for more vehement threats of military attack against Iran. Some of those proponents have made no secret of the fact that they believe (for whatever strange reason) that war with Iran would be a good thing. Saber-rattling gives them a better chance of reaching that goal, because if an agreement is not reached with Iran then the advocates of saber-rattling would be among the first to cry that U.S. credibility would be damaged if the military threats were not carried out.
These possibilities come to mind in reading an op ed by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In particular, they are brought to mind by Ross and Makovsky's statement, in explaining lack of progress in the negotiations, that “Iranian leaders seem not to believe that we will use force if diplomatic efforts fail.” What is their basis for that observation? Have the Iranian leaders themselves said anything like that? No, they haven't. Ross and Makovsky seem to be basing such an observation solely on the Iranian negotiating position itself, and in so doing they are implying only a single cause for that position. Whatever Iran does in the way of making or not making concessions is all supposedly a matter of whether the Iranians see the possibility of U.S. military force being employed. Every other carrot, stick, belief or perception evidently does not matter at all.
Actually, those other things matter a lot. There is the little business of sanctions, for example. Ross and Makovsky are to be complimented for stating that if Iran is prepared to make the kind of concessions we are looking for, then “we should be prepared to lift the harsh economic sanctions.” But they do not mention that the United States and its negotiating partners have given the Iranians little or no reason to believe that we are so prepared. Instead, the only sanctions relief that has been incorporated in the Western proposals is stingy in comparison with the panoply of sanctions that Congress keeps piling on. We do not need any magical insight into secret Iranian thoughts to realize how important this dimension is in shaping Iran's negotiating behavior. We only have to look at the demands and proposals that Iran has advanced at the negotiating table, as well as the actual economic damage that the sanctions have inflicted.
Ross and Makovsky get something else right, but for the wrong reason. Their piece is partly an argument in favor of making a comprehensive proposal rather than taking a step-by-step approach; they pooh-pooh the idea of confidence-building that is associated with step-by-step. A comprehensive proposal is a good idea, but precisely because a lack of confidence—which is glaring on both sides—is a major part of the problem. The Iranians lack confidence that the United States and its P5+1 partners ever want to get to an end state in which they fully and formally accept a peaceful nuclear program, with uranium enrichment, in the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran, rather than indefinitely stringing out negotiations while the sanctions continue to inflict their damage. Again, we do not need to be mind-readers to realize this; the Iranians have been quite explicit in stating that they require a clearer idea of where the negotiations are heading.
So a “going big” comprehensive proposal is a good idea—but not as Ross and Makovsky pitch it, as some kind of ultimatum with a threat of military force functioning as an “or else” clause of the proposal. That kind of clause only stokes Iranian doubts about the West's ultimate intentions and feeds Iranian interest in a possible nuclear weapon as a deterrent.
What is the explanation for Ross and Makovsky's assertions about Iranian thinking? Are they exhibiting one of those psychological heuristics, or covering a hidden agenda, or something else? I don't know; I don't pretend to be able to read their minds.
As Iraq after the U.S. invasion became a violent cauldron that featured, among other forms of bloodletting, a surge of Sunni terrorism, American apologists for the war and other supporters of the invasion who were trying to cope with their cognitive dissonance put the violence in a favorable light that even got additional mileage out of the pre-war fiction about how invading Iraq would be a way of dealing with al-Qaeda. The new concept was the flypaper theory of counterterrorism: the idea that the war was serving to attract terrorists to a place where U.S. forces could more easily gun them down. Better to fight them and kill them in Iraq, went the idea, than to fight them later after they got to the United States.
The fundamental flaw in the flypaper theory as applied to what was happening in Iraq is that it assumed there was a fixed number of jihadi terrorists, some subset of whom were cooperatively coming to Iraq to be martyred. Far from there being a fixed number, the war significantly boosted the number. The great majority of those who committed terrorist violence in Iraq were not, prior to the war, previously established terrorists who had been hiding and plotting in some unreachable place in South Asia or elsewhere. Instead, they were perpetrating such violence for the first time, having been stimulated to do so by the U.S. invasion and occupation and subsequent Iraqi civil war.
In different circumstances, however, there might be something valid in a version of the flypaper theory. The key required difference would be that a specific organization is involved whose membership is closer to being fixed than is that of an inchoate movement that expands every time an angry individual decides to resort to violence. As far as U.S. interests in particular are concerned, another difference is that the United States not become what it became in Iraq: a principal stimulant and target of the violence.
Conditions something like this exist today in Syria. Not among the radical Sunni jihadists on the rebel side, whose numbers have been expanding just as they did in Iraq, but instead on the pro-regime side with regard to Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah has made a major commitment on behalf of the Assad regime, and it is paying a heavy price. The price comes in the form of substantial losses in men and materiel, as well as politically in the form of alienation from the larger Sunni Arab world, most of which favors the Syrian rebels. Former Lebanese prime minister (and thus a Sunni) Saad Hariri said that Hezbollah's decision to fight in Syria was “political and military suicide.” That's an overstatement, but the costs for Hezbollah certainly have been high.
Meanwhile, the Syrian war has indirectly raised new challenges to Hezbollah back in Lebanon. Lebanese Sunnis have gained experience fighting in Syria. Rebels from Syria have even infiltrated parts of Hezbollah's stronghold in the Bekaa Valley. These processes can be expected to continue as long as the Syrian war continues.
Such developments get overlooked by many people who profess concern about Hezbollah and its influence and who say that if Hezbollah is on one side of a war, we ought to back the other side. For anyone who really is concerned about Hezbollah and would like to see it weakened, it would be better to stand back and let the status quo continue.
It would serve Hezbollah's interests for the United States and the West to do anything that would help the group do what it has often successfully done in the past, which is to pose as champion of causes with which most Sunni Arabs and not just Shia identify. In a speech last weekend, Hezbollah's leader Hasan Nasrallah said his group is fighting in Syria to keep the country out of the hands of “America, Israel and the takfiris.” Rather than giving Hezbollah the propaganda gift of making that description seem true, it would be better to let Hezbollah get stuck more inextricably in the Syrian trap.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/FunkMonk