Prize-awarding committees sometimes use their decisions to make some sort of political or policy statement. The committee that bestows the Nobel Peace Prize seems to have done so with increasing frequency in recent years, giving the prize to recipients who represent current aspirations more than past accomplishments. One risk of this practice, beyond any controversial or questionable aspects of the particular statement being made, is that it debases the award itself by moving it farther from any connection with actual accomplishment. Those who award Pulitzer prizes have now done so by giving this year's prize in the public service category to the Washington Post and Guardian US for publishing purloined secrets about the National Security Agency. And the Pulitzer people have done so for motives less noble than those of the Nobel people.
The articles for which this prize was awarded were vehicles for making public the national security secrets that were stolen wholesale by a turncoat contractor who is now a guest of the Russians. Publication of the articles, in short, facilitated an act of treason. The NSA activities that were the initial focus of the publications were duly subject to well-established procedures of Congressional oversight. If members on the oversight committees who believed these operations were part of an appropriate balancing of security and privacy outnumbered members who had a different view, well, that's part of how representative democracy works. If disclosures of this type grabbed the public's attention after the public's preferences regarding national security had changed gradually but significantly in the years since 9/11, that's part of how the chronic attention deficit disorder in American politics tends to work. There is nothing unlawful or scandalous about this. What is scandalous is that the prize-winning publications have continued to print disclosure after disclosure that has nothing whatever to do with the privacy of the American public but instead only reveals to the world, including U.S. adversaries, details about legitimate foreign intelligence collection operations of NSA. There is no way this can plausibly be described as “public service.”
Set aside for the moment the substantive merits or demerits of what has been disclosed. Consider, as one might expect the Pulitzer committee to do, the quality and significance of the journalism. The publications that received the prize were not the ones that published these articles because their journalists were more skillful or harder working than those at other newspapers. They became the outlets because the secret-stealer and his immediate confederates chose them as newspapers with high reputations and wide readership. The material was dumped in their laps. Why should anyone receive a prize for that? This is the antithesis of enterprising, shoe-leather investigative journalism that ought to be recognized and rewarded. (The principal Washington Post journalist involved, Barton Gellman, has demonstrated his impressive skills as an investigative reporter on other subjects, but not on this one.)
The journalists and newspapers involved had to do some processing of the stolen material, of course. Here what stands out is the very bad editorial judgment displayed in publishing a stream of disclosures that is unconnected to the issue of the privacy of the American public and that serves no worthwhile public purpose.
The only apparent purpose served is to sell newspapers (and win Pulitzers) with material that is interesting and titillating. This episode is one more piece of evidence that the media in general—including apparently the prize-bestowing segment of the journalism profession—have such a strong and self-interested appetite for leaks that it is almost impossible to find objective reporting on the subject. Perhaps the “public service” Pulitzer category ought to be renamed “media service”.
Every past and present recipient of a Pulitzer holds an award that is a bit less valuable and distinctive today because of the debasement that has just occurred.
Now that Secretary of State Kerry's attempt to breathe life into the diplomacy known as the Middle East peace process has been widely pronounced—even by those who appropriately salute his efforts—to be a failure, different quarters are chiming in with recommendations for what to do next about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some suggestions are helpful; others would only help to perpetuate the Israeli occupation and lack of an agreement, and may be tacitly intended to do just that.
The New York Times editorial board proposes that the United States, as a last act before ending this phase of its active diplomacy on the problem, post on the international bulletin board its own sense of what the principles of a final settlement ought to look like. This is probably worth doing, and it has the merit of reflecting the fact that the basic lines of a feasible two-state solution have been apparent for some time. Perhaps this would help to clarify who is resisting such a settlement and who is not. This has been tried before, however, most notably with the Clinton parameters, and it was insufficient to push the process over a finish line.
A couple of other limitations and uncertainties, revealed in the most recent diplomacy, would have to be overcome for such a U.S. declaration of principles to help. One concerns whether the Obama administration would be able and willing to backtrack on how, in its recent efforts to get some kind of preliminary agreement, it moved away from the consensus feasible settlement and adopted certain Israeli positions, such as regarding a continued troop presence in the Jordan River valley, that were bound to be unacceptable to any Palestinian leader. The other uncertainty concerns the ability of one of the parties—with the Israeli government demonstrating this skill in virtuoso form—to use mixtures of procedural and substantive issues to put off any agreement even without explicitly rejecting U.S.-promulgated principles. The Netanyahu government has done this with its “Jewish state” demand and, more recently, with its reneging on a commitment to release Palestinian prisoners. The latter tactic resembles the familiar North Korean ploy of selling the same horse twice by making new demands for compensation in return for doing something it was already supposed to do anyway.
A different, but old and familiar, proposal that comes from those most sympathetic to an indefinite Israeli occupation has been voiced anew by Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post and Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for New East Policy. This notion is that a Palestinian state is not something to be created from above through negotiations but built up from below through a long process of developing Palestinian institutions. The idea is that statehood is not a gift to be given to the Palestinians, but something they must earn by being good administrators. The appropriate role for the United States and other outsiders, according to this formulation, is to provide assistance and tutelage in being good administrators. Thus Diehl says, “The Obama administration could have kept the forward movement going by continuing to promote the construction of Palestinian institutions — including a democratic, corruption-resistant government — and by pushing Israel to turn over more security responsibility and remove impediments to the Palestinian economy.” Similarly, Singh writes that “a greater emphasis should be placed on Palestinian economic growth and reform” and addressing “corruption in the PA.”
This idea is not a prescription at all for reaching a settlement, ending the occupation, and creating a Palestinian state. It instead is a prescription for extending the occupation indefinitely by making it run smoothly. It is a method for making the principal Israeli sub-contractor for the occupation—because that is what the Palestinian Authority has become—do its part of the occupation duties tolerably well. Meanwhile, Israel arrogates for itself the function of judge in determining whether the Palestinians have performed well enough to move to the next stage of this game. There will always be some reason why they are declared not yet ready. Corruption, as mentioned by both Diehl and Singh, will be a perennial favorite issue for this purpose. If necessary, the Israelis can take direct action to make sure the economic and security performance of the Palestinians does not get too good, lest too many people start asking whether they really are ready for a state. The Israelis have done so in the past by trashing Palestinian infrastructure in the West Bank, and of course have done so in a more brutal way with the Gaza Strip in making it as difficult as possible for the Palestinian governing authority there to govern.
Singh states, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not ripe to be solved.” The obvious, glaring question to be asked in response is, “So when, after 47 years of occupation and more than two decades since the Palestinian Authority was created, will it ever be ripe?” The actual answer, of course, given the framework Singh is trying to impose, is “never.” But the false promise of statehood at the end of the rainbow helps to keep enough Palestinians docilely on the reservation while the occupation continues.
Diehl tries to encourage the idea that there actually is some sort of progression toward that ever-receding statehood pot at the rainbow's end by asserting that there has been “cumulatively enormous progress toward coexistence” and the parties “have traveled most of the path to a final settlement.” Totally ignoring trends in Israeli politics over the last twenty years, he would have us (and Palestinians) believe that the Palestinians are closer to having a state now, in the era of Benjamin Netanyahu, than they were when Israeli policy was made by Yitzhak Rabin. Amazingly, Diehl cites as progress Ariel Sharon's pull-out from the Gaza Strip, as if a unilateral action leading to a suffocating blockade and destructive military assaults is somehow a step toward a negotiated settlement providing for two states living peacefully beside each other. He also strains to reassure us about the continued construction of Israeli settlements, saying that the pace of colonization has slowed from earlier in the occupation and that most of the new housing is in “areas near the 1967 border,” apparently paying no attention to recent land appropriations that Haaretz describes as the “largest in years.”
Amid the fact-creating on the ground and the false-promise-making in print, it is understandable that more and more people talk of discarding hope for a two-solution and concentrating on trying to obtain human rights within one state. Even the son of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has made this transition. But no one has yet sufficiently explained how the nationalist aspirations of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs could be satisfied this way, and if they cannot, how a one-state solution would endure.
Perhaps action needs to be taken in the name of human rights within a single state, but without discarding the goal of two states. In this regard one of the best suggestions for where things ought to go from here comes from Henry Siegman:
A two-state outcome is still possible if Palestinians were to take their fate into their own hands, rather than waiting for a deus ex machina, by shutting down institutions such as the Palestinian Authority that serve their subjugators and launching a non-violent, anti-apartheid struggle for equal citizenship in the de facto Greater Israel to which they have been consigned. Such a determined struggle may even convince Israelis to accept a two-state outcome, for the loss of their state’s Jewish identity in a single state in which Jews are outnumbered by Arabs is a price most Israelis will not pay for a Greater Israel.
Siegman assesses that if Israel still rejected a two-state solution under such conditions, broad international backing for the anti-apartheid struggle would lead even Washington to abandon Israeli apartheid. That is hardly a given, and American policy in such circumstances would still be the most critical variable of all.
The Obama administration has to perform a balancing act in handling the Iran account. One one hand it has the task, along with its diplomatic partners, of completing negotiations with Iran of an agreement to place unprecedented limits on the Iranian nuclear program to assure that it remains peaceful. Although the negotiators still have to iron out many details, this is actually the more straightforward part of the act. The negotiations are on track, Iran is abiding by the terms of a preliminary agreement, and there is clear shape to a prospective agreement that would support nonproliferation goals as well as drawing down sanctions that have been damaging to the United States as well as to Iran.
The other part of the balancing act, which is the more troublesome part, is to deal with forces that are opposed to any agreement with Iran and are endeavoring to undermine the negotiation of one. These forces include most conspicuously the current government of Israel and its American supporters, who want to keep any Iranian competitor for influence permanently estranged and to keep the specter of an Iranian security threat around forever as a focus of attention. They include American neoconservatives, who when they were giving us the Iraq War assigned Iran to the Axis of Evil and told the Iranians to “take a number.” They include political opponents of Barack Obama who reflexively oppose anything he favors and see a political incentive to sabotage what would be one of his most significant foreign policy achievements. These elements overlap a lot and collectively do not constitute as large an opposition as this fractionated description might suggest. But anything they do under the label of opposing Iran is supported by the perceptual habits of a larger American public that has become accustomed to seeing Iran as nothing but an adversary to be confronted and opposed.
The administration has to manage these destructive forces, in a combination of parrying and propitiating, so as not to allow them to ruin the negotiations. This partly involves doing and saying certain things to display strength and resolution toward Iran, to refute accusations that the administration's posture is one of weakness and to demonstrate that the agreement that emerges from the negotiations will be the best that could be obtained. It also involves allowing people from time to time to let off some anti-Iranian steam. This applies not so much to those who are determined to sabotage a negotiated agreement anyway but rather to members of Congress who feel a need, given the political climate in which they have to operate, periodically to make confrontational gestures against Iran.
Thus the administration is prudent not to go to the mat over some gestures that, although they may be more directly unhelpful than helpful to the negotiations and may be promoted by those whose motives are ignoble, take steam and energy away from other possible measures that would be even more destructive. We have seen this recently with some Congressional letters that were a substitute for what would have been much more damaging sanctions legislation. We may be seeing it again with the denial of a visa to Iran's newly designated ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid Aboutalebi, following Senate passage of legislation that would have had the same effect.
On the merits of the visa issue itself, the United States is acting wrongly. Denying the visa is a clear abrogation of the responsibilities of the United States as the host nation for the United Nations headquarters. No international organization could operate properly if the host nation were to behave in such a way for whatever rationale. It is not true, as has been widely asserted, that there is a “security exception” permitting such a denial. The U.S. law implementing the U.N. headquarters agreement speaks of security considerations as a possible reason for limiting travel of duly designated national representatives to the U.N. headquarters district, not for denying access to the district itself. For the law to read otherwise would have made a mockery of the headquarters agreement that placed the United Nations at Turtle Bay in the first place. In any case, it is hardly plausible that Aboutalebi, who is now a senior diplomat who has served as ambassador to Australia, Belgium, Italy, and the European Union, poses a security threat today.
If one looks beyond international legal obligations, there is room for arguing back and forth about denying a visa to Aboutalebi. If one were to take a stand in favor of reasonableness in policy toward Iran, this might not be the best place to take it. Although Aboutalebi has served as ambassador to other Western countries, it was the United States that was the victim of the hostage-taking in Tehran in 1979. That was an inexcusable terrorist act. All those who participated in it share responsibility for it. That a particular individual played a lesser role than some others does not absolve the individual of all responsibility. Nor does the notion of youthful indiscretion hold water, as a matter either of personal integrity or of affecting the incentives of youthful would-be perpetrators of similar acts in the future.
Of course, the United States has hardly applied any such standard consistently in deciding whom to do business with. Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir come immediately to mind (appropriately so, as former heads of Likud governments in Israel, given the origin of much of the current opposition to diplomacy with Iran) as two who were welcomed to the White House as foreign leaders despite having been up to their eyeballs in terrorism. In their cases, it wasn't just providing interpretation services to kidnappers but instead being leaders of terrorist gangs that killed many innocent British and others in the 1940s. U.S. inconsistency, however, does not necessarily excuse whatever is the most recent episode of inconsistent policy.
How exactly the Aboutalebi matter will affect the political and diplomatic dynamics between Tehran and Washington remains to be seen. Iranian president Rouhani has his own destructive hardliners to deal with, and this newest demonstration of U.S. unwillingness to deal normally with the Iranian government complicates his task in the first instance. But perhaps his government can partly turn the situation around, as it shows signs of doing already, by using it as an occasion to demonstrate its own ability to take a hard-nosed stance against the United States. We should hope that the U.S. and Iranian governments are finding a way to communicate and commiserate privately about how they both have to play this kind of game from time to time if they are ever to get to a more normal relationship.
The fundamental underlying observation to make in evaluating this affair is that the Obama administration's most difficult Iran-related task right now is not finding the right formulations in writing an agreement with the Iranians. It is heading off the attempts to sabotage an agreement. Looked at this way, the otherwise unsupportable denial of a visa might be a prudent way of reducing the chance of something even more damaging—and of increasing the chance of moving Iran in a direction that achieves the nuclear nonproliferation goal while making inconceivable anything like a replay of the 1979 hostage-taking. Maybe for that reason it makes some sense for the administration to go along in this instance with the anti-Iranian huffing and puffing of the likes of Ted Cruz and Charles Schumer.
Although it looked for a time, after the latest breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” that the notion of trying to buy some cooperation from Benjamin Netanyahu by freeing the spy Jonathan Pollard had expired along with talks, it appears that a stake still has not been driven through this really bad idea. It should be. Pollard's record has not changed. He was responsible for one of the most voluminous thefts of U.S. secrets ever. He is nobody's patriot, having been paid handsomely for his betrayal and having tried to peddle his pilfered secrets to other governments in addition to Israel's.
And please, let us not hear any more the gratingly oxymoronic comment that leniency should be shown to Pollard because he was “spying for an ally.” Label Israel however you want—and there are good reasons, including ones involving misuse of U.S. secrets, to question the label “ally”—but espionage is a hostile act. Insofar as anyone acts this way, they are not acting as an ally.
To release Pollard short of his duly pronounced sentence would be another blow against public understanding of the reality that it is impossible to have any effective program of national security without secrets. That understanding already has been weakened lately with the badly inappropriate lionization of another wholesale stealer of U.S. secrets, most of whose disclosures have had nothing whatever to do with the privacy rights of American citizens on whose behalf he claimed to be acting.
The sort of trade involving Pollard that has most recently been contemplated would hardly buy anything anyway. At most it would keep going for a short additional time talks that were going nowhere. To make them go somewhere would require a fundamental decision by the Israeli government to trade conquered land for peace, and releasing Pollard would not bring about such a decision.
Think about what such a trade would say about the issues under negotiation and especially about the Israeli position on such issues. It would show that whatever the Israeli government was holding out on before and that became part of the trade was not really a matter of principle or of Israeli security as had been claimed. It would reveal the whole business to be tawdry bargaining, of the sort that strings along a process enabling the Israeli government to appear to be working toward a two-state solution without really doing so, rather than a genuine and focused pursuit of peace in partnership with the Palestinians. And it would enable Netanyahu to reap whatever short-term domestic benefit comes from winning release of the spy.
Maybe Netanyahu has no shame in being part of such dealings, but it would be demeaning to the United States. It would show the Obama administration to be so desperate for what it would bill as a diplomatic success—or rather, just the absence of failure—that it was willing to play Netanyahu's cheap game. It would give political benefit to a government that has caused much trouble to U.S. interests. And it would not divert Israel from a course that is over the long term destructive to Israel's own interests.
The one good thing about Pollard being eligible for parole next year is that, if he is in fact paroled, the sordid idea of releasing him early in a deal with Israel will finally be gone once and for all.
There exists, right now, a problem with one side's obligations not being fulfilled as provided for under the preliminary agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action, that Iran reached with the United States and its negotiating partners (the P5+1) last November. This lack of fulfillment endangers the process of negotiating a final agreement. It is an understandable source of consternation to the other side, which will increasingly doubt the first side's ability and willingness to make good on its commitments, including in any final deal. Hardliners on the second side will pounce on any non-fulfillment of the terms of the JPA as a reason to scuttle the whole process.
So is Iran not living up to its commitments under the JPA? Well, we do have hardliners on our own side eager to pounce. In fact, they are so eager that they are trying to pounce even though there isn't anything to pounce on. Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), who led the recent unsuccessful effort in Congress to impose additional deal-busting sanctions after conclusion of the JPA, have sent a letter to President Obama that bemoans indications of some increased Iranian oil sales and says “If Iran moves forward with this effort to evade U.S. sanctions and violate the terms of oil sanctions relief provided for in the JPA” the United States should in effect renounce its obligation under the JPA to—this is the wording of the JPA—“pause efforts to further reduce Iran's crude oil sales.”
The senators make it sound as if Iran has some obligation under the agreement to knuckle under to sanctions, don't they? Otherwise how could Iran “violate” what they are talking about? But Iran has no such obligation. All the obligations in the preliminary agreement concerning sanctions are obligations of the P5+1 (including that very mild “pause efforts” clause, which does not entail rolling back the existing oil sanctions). All of Iran's obligations involve restrictions on its nuclear program. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran so far is in compliance with those obligations.
No, the current problem in implementing the agreement involves another part of the P5+1's side of the deal, not Iran's side. Specifically, it involves the unfreezing in installments of a small portion ($4.2 billion out of an estimated $100 billion) of the Iranian money that already was earned from prior oil sales and is sitting in non-Iranian banks. Iran has been unable to withdraw much of the money that it was supposed to have gained access to by now. It appears the problem is not direct violation of the agreement by the U.S. Treasury or any of the other governments involved. Instead, the banks that are to handle the funds are so deathly afraid of running afoul, however inadvertently, of any continuing sanctions that Treasury is enforcing that they have not made the money move. The fear is understandable, given how huge and complex the sanctions regime has become and also how huge have been fines that Treasury has levied on transgressors. The marvelous sanctions machine is so powerful that it continues to exude power and have effects even after a switch has been turned off. Treasury needs to do more than just saying “go,” and more than it has done so far to put banks into their comfort zone, for the JPA to be implemented the way it was supposed to be.
Iranian President Rouhani had a big enough challenge domestically as it was to sell a preliminary agreement that gave the P5+1 most of what it wanted in restricting the nuclear program while getting only modest sanctions relief in return. His selling task is made all the harder when even that modest relief is not properly implemented. And there certainly are hardliners on his side ready to pounce on any such developments.
This issue is a reminder of how an Iranian belief that the West and especially the United States will come through with positive action if Iran makes desired concessions is just as important as (and given how the issue has evolved, has become even more important than) an Iranian belief that it will be hit with still more negative consequences if it does not concede.
The current problem also underscores how much work—political, not just administrative—on the U.S. side remains to be done to prepare for the undoing of sanctions that will be part of any final agreement, and that necessarily will be substantially greater than the minor sanctions relief in the JPA. Members of Congress are still talking about piling on more sanctions when they ought to be discussing how to take sanctions off the pile. We have already seen how hard it is to redirect the sanctions machine. Aircraft carriers do not turn around on a dime, and neither do sanctions, especially ones as complicated and extensive as the ones on the Iranian pile. Even if the more optimistic projections of when a deal will be struck in Vienna do not prove true, it is not too soon for Congress and the administration to be working diligently on this and for it to be a subject of public discussion.
Beyond the policy issue of what to do now to bring the crisis with Russia over Ukraine to as much of a satisfactory conclusion as may be possible, we ought to reflect on our own role—the role of the West and especially the United States—in paving the road toward this crisis. To do so is not to minimize the direct responsibility of Vladimir Putin's government for what Russian armed force has done, and for the disingenuous aspects of what that government has said. Nor does it negate the role of dysfunction in the Ukrainian political system. But a significant part of this story is how the West cornered the Russian bear before the bear bit back.
More specifically, an important element in that story was the eastward expansion of NATO into what had been the Soviet empire, as well as talk about expanding it even further to embrace Ukraine and Georgia. We should not only understand the importance of that development for getting to the current crisis, but also what that development exhibited about American habits of thought and action in foreign affairs. It exhibited several such American tendencies, which also have surfaced in other ways and on other issues.
Forgetting the power of promises. The expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe broke a promise that the United States had made to Mikhail Gorbachev and that was part of a package of understandings facilitating the peaceful reunification of Germany. Breaking the promise was probably in part the arrogance associated with being the remaining superpower and feeling untroubled about the keeping of commitments. It also reflected a general American tendency, amid one-sided focus on the credibility of threats, to overlook how the making of promises and commitments is a useful diplomatic tool. Breaking promises weakens the tool. Holding one's own side accountable for fulfilling promises is important for the same reason that the right to be sued, and not just to sue, is an important civil right domestically; it is the right to be able to make an enforceable promise.
Institutional inertia. NATO has been one of the biggest success stories among multilateral alliances. It went well beyond most such alliances in constructing a joint command structure that even the French rejoined after a Gaullist spell outside it. The hazard of such institutionalization, supported in the case of NATO by a civilian bureaucracy ensconced in its compound outside Brussels, is that the institution starts being seen as an end rather than a means, which is not what alliances are supposed to be about. This was the case with much discussion about the military mission in Afghanistan, which was seen as a way to keep NATO healthy and occupied. When earlier decisions were being made about the future of the alliance at the end of the Cold War, it was psychologically hard to bring the success story to a conclusion. This would have been like breaking up a winning team. Once it was decided to keep the team in business, eastward expansion naturally followed as a way to keep the business healthy.
Impulsively using a direct U.S. hand. For the United States, NATO has been the principal means to keep a direct U.S. role in the security affairs of Europe, and along with that much of the political affairs of the continent as well. So the United States has had this additional perceived stake in not only the continuation but the expansion of NATO. Using the instrument of NATO, however, has exemplified an American tendency to think that if something is worth doing it needs to be done by the United States itself or with the United States in the lead, rather than realizing the advantages of letting others carry most of the necessary water. As the former Soviet vassals in Eastern Europe called out for inclusion in the West, an opportunity was missed to let the West Europeans carry most of that water. In the first few years after the end of the Cold War, the European Union was at a height of attractiveness and vitality, with the Maastricht Treaty (which converted the European Community into the EU) signed in 1992 and the troubles of the eurozone still some years away. The EU was the perfect instrument for leading the way in westifying the east, and surely the economic and cultural risks that the Union would take on should be considered no greater than the commitment represented by Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, which commits every member of the alliance to come to the defense of any other member under attack. But instead the order for the East Europeans became NATO first, EU second.
Insensitivity to the fears and concerns of others. The United States, relatively secure in its North American redoubt, has historically had a hard time appreciating how much other nations see the threatening side of someone else encroaching into their own neighborhood. Even though we have had our own Monroe Doctrine, we tend not to notice equivalent sentiments on the part of others. It should not have been as hard as it apparently was to anticipate how extension of a western military alliance to the borders of the old Soviet Union, and moves toward extending it even farther, would elicit some of the Russian sentiments that it has, especially in a country that lost 20 million people in World War II.
Triumphalism. The world in American eyes is in many respects like a commercial battle for market dominance, with the outcome registered in terms of wins and losses. The Cold War was a Western win; it seemed natural for the winner to extend its market penetration even more. The win-loss outlook also resembles a sporting event, and there was a yearning not just to record but to flaunt the win. Except there would not be an opportunity for anything quite like, say, MacArthur's shogunate in Japan after World War II. Expansion of NATO became a way to put a big, bright “W” on the scoreboard.
Need for an enemy. Another aspect of the typically Manichean way in which Americans tend to look at international politics is that there has to be a foe—something or somebody against whom the United States leads the forces of freedom and light. Once 9/11 came along there were Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda, but terrorist groups never make as good a foe as a state. Besides, the eastward expansion of NATO was already under way before 9/11. Iran has served as a more recent bête noire, but it has not entirely displaced Russia, which evokes old Cold War habits and actually does have nuclear weapons.
Few, if any situations, will bring into play each of these habits in the same way the stand-off over Ukraine has. But the habits appear unhelpfully in other situations as well, and Americans would be well advised to be more conscious of them.
The hang-up in current well-intentioned U.S. efforts to wring out of Israeli-Palestinian talks something that could be called a framework agreement—with the administration evidently so anxious for such a result that it is contemplating a move to buy favor with Israel that would be just as mistaken as the last time it came up—is a familiar example of each side wanting the other to move first. This sort of situation has arisen repeatedly in what we still call the Middle East peace process. The present stand-off involves implementation of a prior understanding according to which the Israelis would release some Arab prisoners while the Palestinian Authority would limit its diplomacy to talking with the Israelis and Americans rather than referring its grievances to international fora where anyone perpetuating an illegal occupation would have a decided legitimacy deficit.
Israelis are understandably reluctant whenever they are called on to release prisoners with blood on their hands. Palestinians are understandably reluctant to limit themselves perpetually to a talkfest that, 47 years and 650,000 Israeli settlers after the occupation began, still leaves them stateless.
The reluctance to go first is old. What is new in this round of the talkfest is the Netanyahu's government insistence that the Palestinian Authority perform some sort of anointment of Israel—the full and formal name of which is “State of Israel,” and which the Palestinians long ago formally recognized—as a “Jewish state”. The demand regarding the “Jewish state” formulation was not one that ever appeared during negotiation of Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, when indefinite delay was not an Israeli government objective.
Robert Satloff makes one of the more game and creative efforts to rationalize this inconsistency by saying that the conflicts with Egypt and Jordan were “essentially territorial disputes” whereas the one with the Palestinians is “existential” and raises “deep in the minds of many Israelis” that the Palestinians with whom they are negotiating “have a long-term plan to destroy Israel.” The idea of such an existential threat to an Israel that is overwhelmingly more powerful than the Palestinians and would remain so with a two-state solution is, of course, risible. It might cease to become so only over the long-term, and only because of demographic reasons and not secret plans, in the absence of a two-state solution.
The Palestinian leadership is understandably resistant to the “Jewish state” demand partly because it would implicitly bias how to resolve the “right of return” issue, which today is really more an issue of right to compensation. The reluctance also is understandable because acceding to the demand would mean having Palestinian leaders explicitly endorsing second-class status for Arabs within Israel. That latter factor gets back to the current impasse over release of prisoners. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas says Arab Israeli prisoners should be included in the release; the Israeli government strongly opposes including them and contends that was never part of its understanding with the Palestinian Authority.
So there is another inconsistency at hand. The “Jewish state” demand implicitly draws a line that leaves on the outside the more than 20 percent of Israel's residents who are not Jewish. But the Israeli government has drawn another line that also leaves these people outside the orbit of those on whose behalf Abbas can speak or negotiate.
Israeli Arabs do have some political rights, being able to vote and elect members of the Knesset—although with an unwritten rule that Arab representatives can never be part of a governing coalition or form part of the necessary support for one. That would hardly make any less offensive a Palestinian Arab leader endorsing their second class status. The fact that there exist U.S. Congressional districts with large Jewish populations that regularly elect Jewish representatives would not make it any less offensive (and not just to the establishment clause of the Constitution) if the United States were to declare itself a “Christian state” and to insist that other nations declare it so as well.
The “Jewish state” demand is clearly another way for the current Israeli government to avoid coming to closure on creating a Palestinian state while seeking to attribute blame for any breakdown of negotiations to the Palestinians. It thus is a way to continue the occupation indefinitely without admitting that this is what is happening.
More broadly, the tactic is yet another indication of this Israeli government's refusal to recognize, as a geographic and demographic reality, that Israel cannot be democratic, Jewish, and sovereign over all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. It can be any two of those things but not all three. Netanyahu's government has in effect chosen, without admitting it, democracy as the characteristic to be discarded. This choice is the fundamental reason this round of negotiations, although it was admirable for the U.S. administration to have a go at it, faces failure.
An irony of how the events in Ukraine and the associated altercation with Russia have thrown many commentators and policy critics into a Cold War mode is that those same commentators and critics seem to have forgotten (or never learned) much relevant doctrine that was developed and honed during the real Cold War. The doctrine in question embraces many principles involving any attempt to exert power and to exercise influence over other states. The most relevant aspects of doctrine involve deterrence—using threats to dissuade someone from doing something we do not want done—as well as some related concepts also involving coercive methods of trying to influence an adversary's behavior.
Sophisticated treatment of these topics can become somewhat complicated, getting into such matters as multiple levels of deterrence and stability-instability paradoxes. But what much of the commentary on current issues ignores is really rather simple. It is stuff that should be apparent upon careful but straightforward thinking about the objectives, costs, and benefits that apply to the people on the other side of a conflict. Although applications of the principles have endless variations, the principles themselves are immutable. Probably what is still the clearest statement of them came during the height of the Cold War from Thomas Schelling, who received the Nobel memorial prize in economics largely for that work.
One major point of doctrine that has been routinely ignored in the recent commentary is that successful deterrence depends on much more than just the reputation of the deterring state and its demonstrated willingness to use coercion. It depends at least as much on characteristics of the particular conflict, including how much of a stake each side feels it has in it. We should have learned this lesson with the Vietnam War. The United States went so far in demonstrating its willingness to use costly force that it built up an army of over a half million in Vietnam and fought so long that it suffered over 50,000 combat deaths. But it was unable to deter the regime in the north from waging continued war in the south because the nationalist objective of uniting a Vietnam free of foreign domination was much more important to that regime than the United States's objectives in Vietnam were to it.
I have commented previously on the fallacious nature of the notion that for the United States not to take up a gauntlet in one conflict makes it more likely that some adversary in an unrelated conflict elsewhere on the globe would do aggressive things that it would not otherwise have done. Yet that notion persists, most recently in the assertion that Vladimir Putin would not have seized Crimea if the United States had only shown more toughness elsewhere. For many, of course, such an assertion is just one more disingenuous way for Barack Obama's political opponents to bash him. But the notion gets repeated so often that many who hear it, and at least some who say it, probably believe it.
This mistaken belief is related to another erroneous notion about deterrence, which is that taking coercive action against an adversary provides deterrence, rather than making such action conditional on the adversary doing certain carefully defined things we do not want him to do. Senator John McCain exhibited this mistake when he bemoaned how the modest steps the Europeans have taken in response to the situation in Ukraine would not deter Putin. He's right about that, but not because, as he further comments, commercial interests of the Europeans keep them from implementing harsher measures now. From exactly what are we trying to deter Putin? He says he has no intention of seizing any more of Ukraine after Crimea. We may have good reason to worry about the possibility that he might do so anyway, but he has not done so yet. Unconditionally imposing costs when he has not yet done so may satisfy political and other urges on our side, but it lacks deterrence value.
In some situations there may be a grain of truth, which can be found in Schelling's writings, in the idea that doing something forceful now can enhance deterrence against a future contingency, if the forceful action demonstrates a willingness to act in response to that particular contingency and there was reason to doubt that we would so act. But if there is not good reason for that doubt, again there is no deterrence value. The clearest recent instance of this fallacy was the failed attempt in the U.S. Congress to enact more anti-Iran sanctions legislation under the rationale that this would deter the Iranians from stalling or abandoning the negotiations. In fact, one of the least needed things to demonstrate to Tehran, given the now long history of overwhelming support in the Congress for serial enactment of sanctions against Iran, is a willingness to impose quickly still more sanctions if the Iranians did not negotiate seriously. There was disingenuousness here, too, in that much of the push for the legislation came from those who want negotiations with Iran to fail. But once again there were others who sincerely, but mistakenly, believed in the rationale.
A principle repeatedly ignored in American discourse is that in attempting to influence an adversary's behavior, getting him to believe he will not be punished if he behaves as we wish is just as important as getting him to believe that he will be punished if he does not so behave. This is true not only in situations of true deterrence, in which we want to prevent something from happening, but also in situations, for which Schelling created the term compellence, in which we want the other side to take action it is not currently taking. The principle is repeatedly ignored in discussions about the nuclear negotiations with Iran, in which a challenge much greater than convincing Iranians of American willingness to inflict more punishment is to convince them that punishment will end if they strike a deal satisfactory to us.
A similar deficiency in thinking has begun to infect the public discourse about Ukraine. Exactly what do we want from Putin at this point? Presumably it is more than just not invading eastern Ukraine, and includes positive, cooperative behavior in fashioning a settlement in which a Crimea-less but otherwise whole Ukraine can live in greater peace and prosperity and have positive relations with all its neighbors. What that behavior should be must be clear in our own minds and statements and thus clear in Putin's mind as well for any coercive or punitive action at this time to have compellent value.
Also too frequently ignored is attention to the costs of carrying out a threat—costs not just to the target of the threat, but to the side that would execute it. This attention is important not only to calculate costs and benefits if the threat ever did get carried out, but also because of how this affects credibility of the threat itself. If the other side does not believe the threat ever would be executed because doing so would be highly costly and damaging to the side making the threat, there again is no deterrent value. Such threats are worse than useless, because they risk exposing us as bluffers. Any show of military force by the United States in the vicinity of Ukraine (not the minor redeployments that merely provide some reassurance to Poland and the Baltic states) would exhibit this problem, given the patent folly for the United States to engage in a war with Russia, especially in Russia's backyard and especially given the much greater importance to Russia than to the United States of the distribution of power in this region.
Anyone guilty of exhibiting any of these mistaken ideas should take a refresher course in deterrence. If you yearn to be a Cold Warrior again, that should be one of the first things to do. Reading (or re-reading) Schelling would be a good way to fulfill that requirement.
From the 1890s until finally outlawed by the Supreme Court some fifty years later, one device used in the segregated South to maintain the white power structure and to prevent blacks from any effective political role was called the white primary. This was a sort of preliminary election, open only to white Democrats, that ostensibly was a nonofficial event not run by the state and thus did not adhere to laws and constitutional principles providing for equal treatment and universal voting rights. There would be a later official election in which blacks could vote, but it usually was meaningless because electoral contests had in effect already been decided in the white primary.
Now we have a procedure reminiscent of the white primary that is being called the “Sheldon primary,” as in political bankroller Sheldon Adelson. Republican presidential hopefuls are kneeling at the feet of the casino magnate in the hope of receiving his blessing, and thus his money, as the party's nominee for 2016. It seems that Adelson, who together with his wife dropped $93 million on political campaigns in 2012, has concluded that he erred in that year in backing for too long candidates whose ideology appealed most to him but ultimately proved unelectable. This time he wants to anoint early on someone he can stick with right through the general election. He doesn't want to see messy primary contests that would weaken the eventual nominee. If things work the way Adelson wants—and that he is willing and able to pay to make them work that way—caucuses in Iowa or the primary in New Hampshire will matter less than the Sheldon primary. Last time he let us have a good hard look at the likes of Newt Gingrich while votes in Republican primaries still meant something. Next time he doesn't want primary voters to have that much of a choice.
For this man who will likely have such enormous influence on who will be the Republican presidential nominee, the Republican party isn't even his first love among political parties. That would be the Likud party. Adelson's money also plays a very big role in Israeli politics, much of it in subsidizing a free-distribution newspaper, Israel HaYom, which has the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in Israel and functions as a cheerleader for Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud.
Nor is the United States Adelson's first love among countries. He has said that when he performed military service as a young man it “unfortunately” was in a U.S. uniform rather than an Israeli one. He has expressed the wish that his son become a sniper in the Israeli Defense Forces.
Back in the United States, Adelson does have some unsurprising plutocratic impulses, but with a blatantly narrow focus. Perhaps when the objective is to advance the interests not only of the one percent, but of whatever small fraction of one percent that an estimated net worth of $38 billion makes a person a part of, narrowness is inevitable. Adelson's biggest push for, and most lavish financing of, a domestic U.S. issue is his attempt to get online gambling outlawed. The ostensible purpose is to protect the morals of our youth, but of course it also would protect the market share of his casinos.
Adelson's most distinctive foreign policy pronouncement is that a nuclear weapon should be dropped on Iran.
The Sheldon primary is the sort of thing we get when the Supreme Court, an earlier incarnation of which eliminated the white primary, shreds efforts to limit the role of money in U.S. elections. Even if that mistake cannot be corrected, voters—including those Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and elsewhere—ought at least to be fully aware of what type of man is trying to use his wealth to make their choice for them.
The crisis over Crimea has naturally raised questions about possible effects of this disturbance on other issues and specifically ones that depend on U.S.-Russian cooperation. This includes the negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov raised eyebrows with a comment this week about how dealings with Iran may be an area where his government would look for possible options in responding to Western sanctions against Russia.
So far there is no indication of a change in Russian policies regarding Iran. This is not surprising. Russia is geographically closer to Iran than are any of its negotiating partners in the Vienna talks, and if there were to be any threat from an Iranian nuclear weapon—prevention of which is a main purpose of the negotiations—Russia would be at least as vulnerable as any of the others. Putin's government also can openly accept that it would be in Russia's interests as well as Iran's for the two countries to have a full and normal relationship. Putin can do so because unlike in the United States, whose interests also would be well served by a full and normal relationship of its own with Iran, he does not have strong domestic political elements dedicated to keeping relations with Iran perpetually bad.
Moscow does have, however, an option for using the Iran issue to show displeasure with the West without harming (and maybe even helping) the prospects for reaching an agreement with Iran. That option would be to reach new trade deals, either civilian or military, with Tehran. Besides being in Russia's economic interests, such transactions would be well-suited symbolically as an anti-sanctions gesture in the face of sanctions against Russia itself.
If Russia were to move in this direction, there of course would be in the United States moans of disapproval and dismay about how the anti-Iran sanctions regime was in danger of falling apart. Such dismay would come partly from those who honestly but mistakenly believe that getting the desired concessions out of Tehran is all a matter of pressuring Iran, and that more pressure through economic sanctions is always good and less pressure is always bad. The mistaken belief comes from apparent ignorance of a historical record that does not really support the catechism that “sanctions brought Iran to the table.” It also comes from failure to understand that the other side's confidence that pressure will stop if desired concessions are made is just as important as the belief that pressure won't stop if the concessions aren't made.
Expressions of disapproval and dismay also would come from those who oppose any agreement with Iran and precisely for that reason have been pushing for piling on still more sanctions at inopportune times. Expressions from that quarter, such as from Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, have already begun over the mere possibility of what the Russians might do.
Those who want, for whatever reason, to keep harsh sanctions against Iran in place for now can relax. The big, debilitating sanctions involving banking and oil are still in place, and U.S. actions have far more to do with keeping them in place than anything Russia can do unilaterally. The Treasury Department is very good at the sanctions enforcement business. It is so scarily good that even relaxations of the sanctions regime on the periphery have little practical effect because anybody who might want to take advantage of such relaxation usually has no way of moving the necessary money around if they cannot persuade any banks, fearful of being penalized by Treasury, to handle the transactions. This is probably true, for example, of a recently issued general license to permit academic exchanges between Iran and the United States.
Actually, some opening up of commerce with Iran, whether at the initiative of the Russians or of someone else, would probably help the negotiations at this point. What is most needed now to sustain Iranian cooperation and seriousness is not still more sanctions; if that were true we would have seen results long ago. What is needed more is to persuade Iranians who matter—and that includes more than those at the negotiating table—that all those sanctions really were for the declared purpose of eliciting Iranian agreement to arrangements that preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon. That is needed because the Iranians have been given much reason to be skeptical about whether that is the true purpose of the sanctions. And it is needed because, after the Iranians made major concessions in the preliminary agreement reached last November in return for only meager sanctions relief, they are still waiting for proof that their cooperation is buying the economic relief they seek.
Any failure to understand all this is a failure to understand that there are real politics in Tehran, which means factions with different views and objectives contending for power and seeing their influence rise and fall with policy successes and failures. The administration of President Hassan Rouhani has much at stake with the economic consequences of the nuclear issue. He was elected last year by people who placed in him high hopes for economic improvement. He has managed so far to clean up somewhat the problems left by his predecessor, which are due partly to economic mismanagement as well as to the sanctions. But Rouhani needs to show a lot more improvement, and fairly soon, or else he will be a lame duck for the rest of his term. He and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, are as good as it's going to get as far as Iranian interlocutors for the West are concerned. If they come to be seen as failures the alternatives will be worse.
Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has a different perspective and different position but has to deal at one remove with some of the same realities. His views toward the West are far more unreconstructed than Rouhani's and in some respects even despicable. His very pessimistic pronouncements about the negotiations are partly an effort to separate himself from possible failure but also partly a genuinely strong suspicion about Western and especially U.S. motives. Khamenei is not a dictator, however, and that is part of what it means to have real politics in Tehran. He cannot ignore the economic problems and the views about them that put Rouhani into office. He can talk about self-reliance and say sanctions be damned, but he surely knows that such lectures are an insufficient palliative.
If the negotiations were to fail—tragically, given what has been achieved so far—it would not be because of anything the Russians, annoyed about reactions to Crimea, might do, and it won't be because of a weakening of sanctions. It would be because of the efforts of hardliners elsewhere, including in the United States as well as Iran, to kill the prospects for an agreement, with the hardliners in each place playing off each other.
More specifically, it might be that given the influence of the hardliners, the U.S. position in particular would remain too inflexible to make it possible for the Iranians to make further concessions. One Western official summed up well what is most needed now in the negotiations:
The greater power has to bend. We must take steps that are large enough to convince both skeptics and pro-engagement camps in Tehran that we're serious. It's alarming that this seems out of our ability today.