The most prominent civil wars in recent years have not started with a clear, firing-on-Fort-Sumter beginning. Instead they have been slid into as protests grow, confrontations between the regime and an opposition become more physical, and the government's use of lethal force is increasingly matched by oppositionists firing back. This was the pattern in the civil war in Iraq unleashed by the U.S. invasion and later in Libya and Syria.
Now the same process may be occurring again in Iraq. A spurt of lethal violence this week between the Shia-dominated regime and a Sunni resistance has featured such war-like encounters as helicopter-borne government troops firing on a Shia village. This is another stage in an escalating confrontation between the opposing sectarian forces in Iraq. Again, there is no one point in the escalation at which anyone can declare that a civil war has now begun. But that does not mean one is not beginning.
Any new civil war in Iraq at this time would not really be altogether new but instead a resumption of the unresolved conflict that earlier reached a peak about six years ago. Resumption would be a reminder both of the overall results of the U.S. invasion and of the later surge of U.S. troops. We have known all along that the surge never led to the political reconciliation within Iraq that it was supposed to facilitate. Now we can say also that whatever improvement in security it fostered was temporary.
There are still two grounds for optimism that Iraq will not fall over the brink into a round of fighting anything like the earlier round. One is that unlike during Iraq's earlier political history that the U.S. invasion and subsequent fighting disrupted, and also unlike present-day Syria, the majority religious sect in the country is also the dominant sect in the regime. This is not a situation of a subjugated majority trying to get its day of dominance. A minority that sees itself as repressed can still cause quite a ruckus, but maybe there is less potential for full-blown civil war than when there is a clear disjunction between demographic patterns and patterns of political power.
The other possible reason for optimism concerns the extensive ethnic and sectarian cleansing that occurred in the earlier round of fighting. With the confessional communities now being more thoroughly sorted out and separated than before, there is less of the street-by-street hostile interface that feeds civil war at the retail level.
Even if Iraq does not go over the brink, its teetering on the brink needs to be included in any comprehensive balance sheet on the Iraq War. Rather like the heavy cost of caring for wounded American veterans, the sectarian violence and instability in Iraq is an open-ended cost that keeps adding up as the years go by.
The purpose of noting this should not be just to refight old policy wars over the Iraq War. It should be to try to learn a lesson applicable to other situations. Syria is the most obvious relevant current situation, but there are sure to be others in the future. The basic lesson, briefly stated, is that where there is strong communal antagonism but a weak political culture for managing such antagonism, even a big effort by outsiders is unlikely to have a lasting beneficial effect on political stability.
The Council on Foreign Relations has just released a “Global Governance Report Card” (prepared chiefly by Stewart Patrick) that assesses how the international community has been doing over the past five years in addressing six major global challenges: climate change, finance, nuclear proliferation, armed conflict, public health and terrorism. Any evaluation this ambitious offers selections and judgments that can and will be shot at, but the report card (backed up by more detailed discussions in each subject area, including which states and organizations have been doing well or poorly) offers useful food for thought.
One of the main impressions is that the grades the global community has earned are unimpressive. They range from a B on finance and terrorism to a D on climate change, with the average somewhere around a C+. The world community is coasting through its curriculum. The dean's list does not appear to be in sight.
Another immediate impression is the relative performance in the different subject areas, especially that D for climate change. The graders probably have this about right. The pattern of performance reflects more attention to short-term attention-grabbers and less to long-term disasters in the making. Severe recessions and terrorist attacks command immediate attention; slow destruction of the planet does not.
For each of the six areas the United States gets its own separate grade for its part in the global performance. The U.S. grades vary in tandem with the world grades but are always a notch or two higher—ranging from a B+ for finance and terrorism to a C- for climate change. Does this reflect a U.S.-centric bias? Perhaps. It also raises questions about the size of roles and responsibilities for different actors. The United States gets credit for doing more than most others about most of these problems, but some would argue (while others would not) that the United States, given its size and power, should be expected to do more.
One can also raise issues of consistency in the evaluations. On global finance Germany is dinged as a “laggard” for initially pushing for austerity measures that “undermined market confidence and intensified economic challenges” elsewhere in Europe. But the discussion of the United States gives no hint of a parallel macroeconomic issue in America, including an issue of persistent unemployment. The only criticism made of the United States in this section (other than points about its relations with the IMF and World Bank) is about Congressional inaction on the deficit that “subjected the U.S. Treasury bond market to unnecessary risk”—even though that market has shown no sign of anxiety and interest rates remain historically low.
Obviously different people can bring different values to such questions and to this exercise as a whole. Even when values are not involved, to say whether the world community has left a given situation in good or in poor shape often does not point to any one policy lesson. In the armed conflict category, for example, the report card laments how messy Iraq has been since the U.S. withdrawal and how messy Afghanistan looks to be as the United States is drawing down there. Should the main lesson be that the United States should not have attempted any nation-building in those countries (and in Iraq, never have gone in at all), or that it has not done enough in the way of nation-building? One can find people on both sides of such questions.
As broad as the six subject areas are, in a sense they are not broad enough. Under terrorism, for example, high marks are given for attention to terrorist finance and terrorism with unconventional weapons—and yes, there certainly has been plenty of attention to those topics—but the world community is rated as doing a “poor” job of “fighting terrorism while protecting human rights.” Some might go farther and argue that protection of human rights deserves to be a major category in its own right. The main lesson here is that interactions and trade-offs abound. When the world community has messed something up it often has been a matter of focusing too narrowly on some single objective—such as stopping terrorism, overthrowing a dictator, or reducing a deficit—with insufficient attention to all the other interests and costs involved.
The seemingly scripted national response to the Boston Marathon bombing continues. Over the past few days that response has included expressions of patriotism and community spirit that have included ovations for law enforcement officers and special observances at baseball games. This is the lemonade-out-of-a-lemon positive side of responding to a lethal event. It is a reaching back to the larger but otherwise similar communal expressions after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with Americans now attempting to revive and relive the positive side of what they remember from the aftermath of that earlier tragedy.
Defiance is one of the themes of the collective expressions. It was a theme of a rousing speech in which President Obama talked about how the Boston Marathon would be held next year with people running harder than ever and cheering louder than ever. The message is that Americans will not let terrorists disrupt their lives.
But Americans have been letting terrorists, including the latest two, disrupt their lives a lot. Just think about the week-long saturation news coverage of this one story, and of all the work that wasn't getting done and other matters not being tended to across the country as people followed the story. Then late last week was the extraordinary happening of a major American city and several of its suburbs being locked down for a day. This greatly lengthened the tally sheet of the costs and consequences of one terrorist act and, more to the point, the response to it. Possibly the lockdown offset some of the physical toll of the bombing in the form of fatal traffic accidents that did not occur and other violent crime that was not committed because the streets were empty. But the economic cost of shutting down a city-full of businesses, though impossible to calculate with exactitude, was certainly very large.
All of this was done ostensibly for the purpose of tracking down a single, bleeding, 19-year-old fugitive suspect. It was a prudent assumption that this person would have had little compunction about killing again if he could have and thought he needed to kill to stay at large. But there also was little or no reason to believe that at the time he was being chased he posed more of a threat to public safety than the average garden-variety armed robber whom the Boston police probably deal with every week.
One can understand and even sympathize with public officials who order something like the lockdown. Given the enormous public attention to the case, if the suspect had evaded the dragnet there would have been a chorus of recriminations about how this was Tora Bora all over again. But note that we are talking here not about terrorism, or even about fear of terrorism, but instead about the politics of the fear of terrorism.
All of this brings to mind the observations of John Mueller, who has written most extensively about how American reactions or overreactions to terrorism have entailed costs that greatly exceed the costs of terrorism itself. Mueller has made many comparisons between terrorism and other sources of death and destruction to make his point about terrorism being an especially overblown threat. It was if the fates wanted to punctuate that point that they also gave us last week an explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant that killed significantly more people than the marathon bombers but received much less attention in the news media.
Americans have inflicted on themselves, especially over the past eleven and a half years, costs from their responses to terrorism that go far beyond all that lost business in Boston. One of the biggest indirect costs came from Americans becoming so fearful and angry that they allowed themselves to be bamboozled into supporting a war against a country that had nothing to do with what had made them fearful and angry. There also have been severe, disgraceful departures from what otherwise would have been thought of as important legal and moral principles associated with the United States, involving especially the treatment and rights of detained persons.
It is as if once anyone utters the T-word, many American minds go haywire and suddenly forget legality, morality and longstanding American values and jurisprudence. And so we have Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte and Representative Peter King arguing that the suspect now recovering in a Massachusetts hospital should be handled as an “enemy combatant” rather than face justice in a criminal court. Why? Because of his Chechen ancestry? He is a U.S. citizen accused of committing a crime in the United States. Based on what we know at the moment, there is no more reason to treat the Boston Marathon bomber as an “enemy combatant” than to treat the Boston Strangler that way.
Americans do not have to respond like this; such behavior is not part of our DNA. We faced far more frequently perpetrated terrorism in the United States in the 1970s than we have ever since without responding this way. Perhaps some of the reasons for how the nation acted in the 1970s (including post-Watergate views of certain federal agencies) provided no more of a lasting basis for sound national policy than some of the reasons (including post-9/11 Islamophobia) for the responses we see today. But Americans have a long, long way to go before we can honestly say we are not letting terrorism disrupt our way of life.
Image: Flickr/Linus Bohman. CC BY 2.0.
Members of Congress, as we all know, are fond of making political gestures to play to whatever audience they are trying to play to. In private conversation members can be quite candid about this and will exhibit a bifurcated approach to their jobs in which the world of gesture-making is divorced from the world of sound policy-making. Seeing their political careers dependent on playing to audiences, members tend to be quick to brush aside any costs or hazards entailed in the gestures. This is particularly true of sense-of-the-Congress resolutions, which, as proponents of any such resolution can always point out, do not entail any changes carrying the force of law.
The trouble with this casual attitude toward gesture-making statements is that there often is someone else with an agenda who knows how to exploit the statements to advance the agenda. Even something as legally soft as a sense-of-the-Congress resolution will subsequently be cited as policy and precedent. Anyone who supported or even acquiesced in the gesture will forever be counted as backing the policy it implies, thereby making it seem that the policy is not the project of a determined minority even if it really is. Any qualifications or caveats that are incorporated in the statement get forgotten or are left unmentioned in later agitation by the determined minority to implement their favored policy.
All of these hazards are inherent in a draft joint resolution that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved this week. The resolution, one of the endless series of Congressional love letters to Israel, “urges” in its final operative paragraph
that, if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with United States law and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.
Forces of reason worked hard to modify this paragraph to make it slightly less bad than it was in the original version—which was co-authored by Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ)—and those forces deserve commendation for their efforts. Changes included insertion of the word “legitimate,” limiting of the subject to a nuclear weapons program, and referring to Congress's constitutional responsibilities. But proponents of a war will take “legitimate” to be a declarative statement rather than a condition, reference to an Iranian nuclear weapons program perpetuates a falsehood that this is the kind of program Iran has now, and mention of Congress's responsibility will be taken as an invitation for Congress to pass a later war resolution. The fact that the modifications hardly eviscerated the message of the paragraph is reflected in the fact that the resolution's main outside proponent, AIPAC, crowed about the committee's approval.
The resolution is an open invitation to Israel to start a war with Iran and to drag the United States into that war. The resolution may accurately be referred to as either the “Backdoor-to-War Resolution” or the “Green Light Resolution.”
Once passed by both houses of Congress—which, if Congress stays true to form, it surely will be—the resolution will repeatedly be cited by proponents of a war as policy and as a commitment. It will be exploited the way such statements have been exploited in the past. Neocon defenders of the Iraq War repeatedly cite the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998—which Bill Clinton had no use for but signed when he was mired in the Lewinsky scandal and on the eve of getting impeached—as indicating that overthrowing the Iraqi regime had broad bipartisan support and was not just a neocon project.
The resolution will be described as a “commitment” alongside Barack Obama's boxing-himself-in declarations that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable. In a somewhat heated debate I got involved in at a private dinner earlier this week, a prominent neoconservative commentator argued that the United States must never back down from Obama's “commitment” because to do so would severely damage U.S. credibility. I pointed out, without getting a response, that exactly the same argument about protecting U.S. credibility was the main reason for the U.S. decision to go in big in Vietnam in the 1960s (when the argument wasn't any more valid than it is now).
I will not take this space to review all the reasons a war with Iran, either initiated by the United States or getting dragged into it by Israel, would be folly from the standpoint of U.S. interests. Those reasons range from the counterproductivity of an action that would lead Iran to take the very decision (i.e., to make a nuclear weapon), that it has not taken thus far, to the poisoning of relations with generations of Iranians to come, regardless of what kind of regime is in power in Tehran in the future. Since we are dealing with a Congressional gesture, let us stay in gesture-land for the moment and just make a few observations about issues of right and wrong and thus what the United States should or should not declare itself to be in favor of.
The postulated Israeli taking of military action would be an act of aggression. It would be aggression committed against a state that does not have any nuclear weapon, has not decided to build a nuclear weapon, and has foresworn any intention to build such a weapon. It is a state that is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and subjects all of its nuclear activities to regular international inspection. Even if Iran were to junk all of those commitments and build a weapon, it would be joining a club that already has nine other members.
The would-be aggressor, Israel, is one of those nine. Unlike Iran, it has never subjected any of its nuclear activities to any international law, control regime, or inspection. It has a large arsenal of nuclear weapons but has never admitted to having any.
If Israel initiates a war, it would be acting on a long series of threats that it has been making to do just that. Iran, in contrast, has never threatened to attack Israel, notwithstanding the rhetorical bombast and anti-Israeli invective that many in Israel and the United States have tried to confuse with declarations of operational policy.
Actions are more important than words, of course. Israel has a long (and recent) history of repeatedly throwing its weight around by using military force and attacking neighboring states and populations. That history has included the war of conquest in 1967, the long-term military occupation of part of Lebanon, and highly destructive attacks against Palestinians in Gaza followed by a suffocating blockade. The Islamic Republic of Iran, by contrast, has never launched a war against anyone (although the Iranians fought like tigers when Saddam Hussein committed aggression against them by initiating the Iran-Iraq War).
Israeli initiation of a war with Iran would be, even under the most charitable interpretation of Israeli motives, for the purpose of maintaining Israel's regional nuclear weapons monopoly. It also would serve the Israeli government's purpose of spoiling any chance for the foreseeable future of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, thereby helping to sustain Israel's claim that it warrants special treatment as the only reliable American partner in the Middle East. And, of course, such a war would serve the further Israeli government purpose of killing for the time being any movement toward doing something about the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
In short, the postulated Israeli attack would be thoroughly unjustified and even unconscionable. It would be nothing that the United States should condone, let alone invite or support.
Image: Flickr/Tristan Ferne. CC BY 2.0.
Reactions to the bombs at the Boston Marathon have quickly fallen into a familiar pattern. It is as if there were a manual that politicians, journalists and others involved in the reacting pull off the shelf after any terrorist attack to help them script their comments and their questions. There are, first of all, ritual denunciations that use a well-worn vocabulary. Every terrorist attack is labeled as “cowardly,” as President Obama labeled this one, even though that is one of the less appropriate of a plethora of negative adjectives that could be applied to terrorist attacks. Different terrorist operations require different degrees of moxie or courage, but with most of them cowardice on the part of the perpetrators is not a dominant characteristic, or even a characteristic at all.
Also in the early hours after a terrorist incident there are aggressive efforts in the media to offer explanations that ought to await a thorough investigation, even though the real investigation is barely getting under way. Of course, journalists gotta do what they gotta do on any story with high public salience. And there is some informative analysis that is offered despite the paucity of early hard information, especially comments about how, in general, investigations of terrorist incidents tend to proceed. Much of the quickly generated commentary in the media, however, consists of speculation that outruns the available facts. It is over-analysis, which is not helpful to public understanding.
Some of the over-analysis concerns the presumed significance of the particular target. Some perplexity has been expressed about Monday's attack by those who cannot figure out why the Boston Marathon in particular would be a target of terrorists. Such musing overlooks how many terrorist targets are targets of opportunity, with little if any symbolic significance attached to the chosen target. For terrorists whose objective is to harm as many people as possible of a particular nationality (which may or may not be true of the perpetrators of the Boston bombing), any well-populated gathering will do.
Similar over-emphasis is placed on the date of an attack and on what it might be the anniversary of. This also overlooks the opportunism involved in most terrorist operations, in terms of when, as well as where, it might be most feasible to mount an attack. In general, western analysts and commentators on terrorism devote more attention to anniversary dates than terrorists do.
The particular method of operation used, including the design of a bomb, is often seized upon in the early hours for much public speculation about who the perpetrators might be. A frequent comment is that such-and-such method of attack or bomb design is a “hallmark” of a particular group. Such observations fail to take account of how one group may copy the methods of another, or of how variation in methods can have advantages for a terrorist group.
There is a strong appetite for inferring patterns. One incident does not make a pattern, but with at least two incidents in close succession the urge to draw patterns is irresistible. The revelation on Tuesday of a letter tainted with ricin poison that was sent to Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi is sure to stimulate the pattern-drawers, even though senators were told there is no apparent connection between the letter and the bombs in Boston.
Also early in the process there is usually a focus on the domestic political implications of an incident. We have had a bit of that already in connection with this week's incident, with people taking special note of how the White House pinned the “terrorism” label on the event. The subtext for such observations was the folderol last year over the incident in Benghazi, Libya, in which some people tried to place great importance on whether and when the White House called something “terrorism.”
Expect also that there will be the usual recriminations about how government agencies failed to prevent the attack. We haven't heard much of that yet, but we will. We can expect that, also as usual, the recriminations will be based on hindsight and will pay little heed to what is or is not realistically preventable.
After a perpetrator is identified, the over-analysis takes a new turn. Major implications are extracted from that identity, even though it may say little about the shape and severity of any underlying threat. Terrorist attacks are rare public events, interrupting extended times without attacks, that are not necessarily representative of any continuing hidden reality.
Imagine that the perpetrator of the bombing on Monday turns out to be a lone individual with personal, nonpolitical and even trivial motivations—such as a runner disgruntled about not getting into the race. The public reaction likely would be one of relief, with the incident then being seen as a one-off involving a bizarrely motivated individual and not indicative of a larger threat. But this development actually would not say anything one way or another about any larger threats that do exist.
The converse of this is represented by the habitual emphasis on whether or not there are “links,” especially to the now-vaguely-defined radical Sunni phenomenon to which we append the label “al-Qaeda.” The tendency is to get alarmed if there is such a “link,” and to be more relaxed if there is not. But actually the presence or absence of such links tells us little about the chance of another bomb going off in an American city next week, next month or next year.
Instead of trying to extract more lessons and implications than are genuinely extractable from a single incident, such an event would be better used as an occasion for thinking about broader issues involving terrorism. To the extent threats from abroad are involved, the thinking should be about how developments overseas and especially U.S. policies abroad may affect the number of those disposed to resort to terrorism. The thinking also should fit anti-U.S. terrorism into a context in which it can be compared and contrasted with other forms of material harm to U.S. interests and with the physical harm that America's own actions may cause or exacerbate elsewhere.
Salam Fayyad has been just about everything that U.S. administrations could have hoped for in a Palestinian prime minister. The American-educated economist is competent, honest and moderate. In his six years as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority he made admirable progress in instilling order in the bureaucracy that he led. It is no surprise that the Obama administration and Secretary of State Kerry tried hard, ultimately unsuccessfully, to keep him in the job. For similar reasons the Israelis were happy to have him around.
The Palestinian Authority or PA is a strange entity that nonetheless—at the time it was created by the Oslo accords that Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed 20 years ago—made sense. It was to be a transitional mechanism that would facilitate a change of the Palestinian leadership and political structure from a resistance movement (it was as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization that Arafat signed the accords) to a government. But Rabin, whom an Israeli extremist assassinated in response to his making peace with the PLO, is long gone. For many years now the strange entity has functioned as a stooge of a different sort of Israeli leadership, a leadership whose objective is to delay indefinitely the creation of a Palestinian state and to cling permanently to land conquered through a military invasion 46 years ago. It is misleading to consider the Palestinian Authority still to be a transitional mechanism as it was originally conceived, given that many years have gone by since, according to the timetable in the Oslo accords, a Palestinian state should already have been established. The PA, regardless of what may have been the skills and good intentions of some of those who have led it, is a Potemkin village—a prop that supports a deceptive Israeli story about peace, land, political power and especially the Israeli government's intentions.
No matter how much one might understandably consider the Oslo accords to be dead, having the PA still around serves several purposes for Benjamin Netanyahu's government. Most fundamentally, it preserves the fiction that the Israeli government actually supports a two-state solution. It also appears to relieve Israel from accountability for failing to live up to its responsibilities under international law as the occupying power in territory conquered in war. Of course, Israel really is the true power over all of the West Bank, but by being able to point to another entity that supposedly has administrative responsibilities it can say that problems and deficiencies are someone else's fault.
The PA, especially with leaders as respectable as Fayyad, has functioned for Israel as the “good” Palestinians in contrast to the “bad” Palestinians of Hamas, enabling the Israelis to continue to pretend to want to make peace with Palestinians even though it has refused to deal with fairly elected Palestinian leaders when those leaders happen to be from Hamas. Meanwhile, the purpose of indefinite postponement of a Palestinian state is served by pointing to a Palestinian movement that does not appear to have its act together while Israel simultaneously does everything possible to prevent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant party in the PA, and thus to keep the movement divided.
The Palestinian Authority embodies the concept, articulated by American advocates for the Israeli government such as Elliott Abrams, that Palestinians must “build” a state rather than merely being “granted” one. But the “building” phase continues indefinitely, with an actual state always remaining out of reach. If the PA seems to be getting too close to statehood, the Israelis can, and do, easily kick it back. After the PA's move to upgrade its status at the United Nations, Israel punished it by withholding tax revenue that belongs to the Palestinians. This exacerbated a financial crisis that has been one of the biggest challenges for Fayyad's administration. The Israelis also, of course, can use their first-choice policy tool—military force—as they did in 2002 when they demolished many of the PA's offices as well as other administrative infrastructure such as police stations. This action made it all the more difficult for the Palestinians to function in a way that demonstrates they are “building” a state. Even without Israeli use of something as blatant as the 2002 action, the many everyday restrictions Israel places on transportation and other aspects of Palestinian life make it impossible for the PA to work in a way that would ever force Israel to acknowledge that a state had been “built.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has sometimes spoken of abolishing the Palestinian Authority if Netanyahu's government doesn't take real steps toward a peace settlement. Abolition would end a charade, but it would also come with a cost to the Palestinians, mostly in the form of handing the Israelis an argument, to be used in perpetuity, that it was the Palestinians who destroyed the Oslo accords and gave up on peace. The charade is also a trap.
One can only imagine Fayyad's deepest thoughts at the moment. His resignation reportedly involved disagreements with Abbas, as well as significant opposition to Fayyad within Fatah. But he surely must be feeling some personal relief. He is too smart and too honest not to perceive the stooge-like quality of the enterprise he has been involved in. No one should complain if he were to retire from public life and move into a comfortable academic position somewhere.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/World Economic Forum. CC BY-SA 2.0.
A recent study by Jim Golby, Kyle Dropp and Peter Feaver published by the Center for New American Security examines the effects that public statements by senior military officers have on public opinion about the use of force. The study is based on survey research in which respondents were presented with real and hypothetical questions about whether the United States should apply military force to certain situations overseas. Some respondents were told that U.S. military leaders favored the contemplated action, others were told that the same military leaders opposed the action, and still others were given no cues about what the military thinks. The main finding of the research is that publicly expressed military views do make a difference on public opinion, especially when such views oppose a military action. Military opposition reduced public support for the use of military force abroad by an average of seven percentage points, while military support increased public support by three percentage points. The surveyed sample was large enough that these were significant differences.
The authors discuss some concerns suggested by these findings, especially the hazard of what they call “a problematic politicization of the military.” Their concerns are legitimate, but the study fails to make an important distinction between the sort of military opinions that ought to worry us (worry us, that is, because they are being expressed publicly) and the sort that ought not.
The public (and policymakers in the executive branch and Congress) ought to pay careful attention to what senior military officers say on questions that are contained within the military's area of expertise. That is where military officers can offer opinions that are more firmly grounded than what anyone else can offer. Such questions would include the costs and time required to accomplish a military mission, risks incurred in accomplishing it such as collateral damage to civilians, and the likelihood of being able to accomplish it at all.
A military officer's opinion ought not to be considered worth more than anyone else's when it goes beyond the area of specifically military expertise. Outside that area would be questions such as political and diplomatic costs of an action, national priorities in the allocation of limited resources, and how important attainment of the military objective would be to the national interest. Because these sorts of questions are just as important in any decision to apply armed force overseas as are the ones on which military officers are specially qualified to speak, an overall judgment on whether any given application of force ought to be undertaken also goes beyond the area of military expertise. Thoughtful and intelligent military officers are going to have opinions about these things and are entitled to have them, but that is not the same as having a special claim on the public's attention.
If there is a norm to be cultivated here, it is that active-duty military officers ought to insist on being heard on military questions (which is not the same as the question of whether a particular military action ought to be undertaken), while being mindful of the politicization hazard that Golby, Dropp and Feaver mention and thereby not taking advantage of their prestige, their uniform and their credibility to offer publicly their opinions on other things.
Unfortunately, too often military opinion gets handled in exactly the opposite way. On one hand, armchair generals sometimes do not defer to the military on military questions. A well known and egregious example is the public disparagement by civilian Pentagon leaders of the army chief of staff's judgment about the U.S. troop presence that would be required in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, military officers' opinions on questions that go beyond strictly military judgments sometimes are given excessive prominence, usually because politicians either want to shirk the responsibility for making a decision by pretending that a military opinion can be treated as a surrogate for a policy judgment, or want to use military officers as supporting props for promoting their own point of view.
While realizing that criticism of someone's approach to a negotiation needs to be done with some diffidence if the critic does not have direct access to either the negotiating room or either side's planning sessions, the United States and its P5+1 partners do seem to be persisting in some major errors in how they are approaching the nuclear negotiations with Iran. That's a shame, given that a deal –a good deal, from the standpoint of nuclear nonproliferation objectives—is very much attainable through well-handled negotiations.
One mistake is an apparent expectation that agreement will be reached not through hard bargaining in which the negotiators on both sides tenaciously try to extract the best possible terms for their own side, but instead through a highly asymmetric process in which there will only be some modest dickering over implementation of whatever proposal the P5+1 has put on the table. Western diplomats at the most recent round of talks expressed “puzzlement” over Iranian unwillingness to engage in the latter type of process. A pertinent question to ask about where the talks stand now is: if Tehran is serious—really serious—about reaching a deal, how should we expect their negotiators to behave? Well, Iranians are inveterate hard bargainers. If they are serious, they would behave pretty much the way they've been behaving. Maybe the expressions of puzzlement on the P5+1 side are just part of that side's own hard bargaining. Let's hope so.
One of the biggest problems in the P5+1 approach is an unwillingness to make full use of the sanctions against Iran as leverage in negotiating a nuclear agreement. In their latest proposal the P5+1 did include slightly more sanctions relief than in their previous proposal, but this still constitutes little more than tidbits in comparison with the large panoply of sanctions that have been piled onto Iran over the years. In contrast, what the P5+1 were demanding from Iran in return involved most of the curtailment of the Iranian nuclear program they are seeking, including a halt to operations at the Fordo enrichment facility. It is no surprise that the Iranians quickly declared the proposal to be unbalanced.
Using the sanctions as leverage does not mean lifting any sanctions gratis. (Although such a goodwill gesture would be helpful, it is politically infeasible in Washington.) It does mean coupling sanctions relief with curbs on the Iranian nuclear program in proposals that are not so unbalanced as to have little hope of advancing the negotiations. Intelligent use of the sanctions also does not require incorporating a lifting of all sanctions as part of one grand bargain. Partial deals—some sanctions relief for some restraint in the nuclear program—are probably more feasible for now, and would build momentum and trust for more extensive deals later on. Exactly how partial is something that would need to be determined at the negotiating table. Because neither side's concessions are infinitely divisible, deciding how big or how small to make a deal is part of the process of finding terms that each side would consider fairly balanced.
Another problem on the P5+1 side is an apparent failure to realize that an impediment to negotiating progress is a lack of confidence among the Iranians that the West wants an agreement, or at least an agreement that would leave the Iranians with anything that could be called a nuclear program. More broadly, the Iranians suspect that the West doesn't really want to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran at all.
The West and especially the United States have given the Iranians ample basis to have these suspicions. There is the inflexibility regarding sanctions relief. There is the talk about damage that sanctions inflict on Iran and in which some Westerners take pleasure, for reasons that have nothing to do with negotiating an agreement. And there is all the talk about regime change (an outcome that some in the West openly hope sanctions will hasten).
In short, the West has given the Iranians plenty of reasons to believe that they are being strung along, with negotiations continuing as the sanctions work their effects, both economic and, as some would hope, political. The Iranians fear that this is not only a losing game for them but that the game has no end. As Scott Peterson reports in the Christian Science Monitor, the Iranians are “concerned that P5+1 demands could mount – including a requirement to stop all enrichment – with only marginal sanctions relief.”
It is thus understandable that at Almaty the Iranian deputy negotiator told journalists that if Iran was to make any concessions or take any steps as confidence-building measures this had to be “part of a larger, more comprehensive plan” with a clear “final outcome.” Part of that outcome has to be acceptance by the P5+1 of a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, including enrichment of uranium.
The deputy's comments point to a harmless way to help quell the well-founded Iranian suspicions that are impeding negotiating progress. The Iranians consider it important to get some positive statement in principle from the other side that Iran, like any other party to the Nonproliferation Treaty, has a right to a peaceful nuclear program. The P5+1 seem to consider any such statement as a concession to Iran that ought not to be made, if it is made at all, until some real curbs to the Iranian program are implemented. But the P5 +1 need to ask themselves—and to provide a clear answer to this question—whether they really want to reach agreement with Tehran (and as a subsidiary question, whether the real purpose of all those sanctions is the same as their ostensible purpose, which is to provide inducement to reach such an agreement). If the answer is no, then the negotiations are a charade, the Iranians really are just being strung along, and there would be no reason to expect the Iranians to take more risks and make more concessions.
If the answer is yes, then the kind of statement the Iranians are looking for would not be a concession at all. It instead would just be a joint declaration of what these negotiations are all about. Far from being a P5+1 concession, it would be an opportunity to get Iranian agreement to a general but clear statement of the need—if the P5+1 are to have the confidence needed to conclude a deal—for significant restrictions on, and exceptional monitoring of, the Iranian program.
So without precluding more extensive agreements with Iran in the future (including, but going beyond, issues about the nuclear program), the P5 +1 should reformulate their stance to make two sorts of interim agreements possible. One would be a partial and balanced trade of some sanctions relief for some restrictions on the Iranian program. The other would be a statement of principles that describes in general terms, with the details to be negotiated later, what a final agreement about the program should look like. Arriving at mutually acceptable language for such a declaration, even without details, would still require some hard bargaining, but the effort would be worth it.
In an essay in these spaces titled "The Crisis of Realism," Jonathan Levine makes an appeal for more, and new, realist theorizing. He won't get an argument on that from me—as someone who first developed his academic chops as an international relations theorist and still places himself in the realist camp. But Levine presents his piece as an indictment of realists as somehow being behind the times. The thread of his argument, which includes a discursion about nuclear weapons, is a bit hard to follow, but his main point seems to be that realists are stuck in a rigidly state-centric way of looking at the world that takes insufficient account of nonstate actors. His principal foil is Kenneth Waltz, who, Levine says in an overstatement, “dismissed nonstate actors as irrelevant.”
One knows something is amiss in what Levine is saying when he weaves into an indictment of realism a negative reference to the Iraq War as “what we got” from the supposed theoretical deficiency he is indicting. And Levine is not just knocking realists for not trying hard enough to stop that war; he is saying that the war flowed directly from the “Westphalian state-to-state conflict model” that he associates with realists. But the disastrous neoconservative project that was the Iraq War was one of the most unrealist foreign policy endeavors the United States has undertaken. Some of the leading realist scholars in the nation—including Waltz—were among those who explicitly opposed the war in an open letter. The Bush administration's contrived association of a state with a terrorist group was a tactic in a sales campaign that had nothing whatever to do with any realist emphasis on states as units of analysis for understanding international relations.
Realism is far more than just a habit of looking at states and not at other things. And it is not a matter of “dismissing nonstate actors as irrelevant.” The open letter against the Iraq War stated that “Al Qaeda poses a greater threat to the U.S. than does Iraq” and added—correctly—that “War with Iraq will jeopardize the campaign against al Qaeda by diverting resources and attention from that campaign and by increasing anti-Americanism around the globe.”
Good realists do make clear distinctions between states, and state interests, and nonstate actors and phenomena. Levine fails to make this distinction when he discusses the nuclear strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction in the same paragraph with suicide terrorists and says that the former was an “early casualty” of the latter. Strategic doctrine of a state involves an entirely different set of questions from motivations of individuals, be they terrorists or anyone else. Even within nonstate groups, those who send suicide terrorists are rarely suicidal themselves.
Another of Levine's errors is a widely shared one: the tendency to overstate how much in the world of the current era is new and different from previous eras. The sense of newness is a function more of our own policy analytical vocabulary and appetite for novelty than of how the world has changed. 9/11 unquestionably opened many political and public eyes about terrorism but did not mark a sea change in terrorism itself (or in the understanding of it among those who had been studying it). The end of the Cold War changed the polarity of the global system but did not involve nearly as many other changes as are implied by our collective habit of dividing time into Cold War and post-Cold War eras. During the Cold War there was much useful writing and thinking about challenges arising from the nonstate side of things, such as in a book written in the 1970s by Graham Allison and Peter Szanton, to point to only one example.
Theory and policy analysis written in the realist tradition during the Cold War had a complexity far different from the simplistic caricature that Levine presents. Realist thinkers went in different directions, for example, regarding Waltz's view about the effects of nuclear proliferation. Although Levine describes MAD as a “sacral totem” of the Cold War, very complex bodies of doctrine were developed about nuclear strategy, too, with highly refined theory involving flexible response, escalation, counterforce strategies and the like. And during the Cold War there even was a counterpart of sorts to those realist scholars opposing the Iraq War, in the form of realist opposition to the Vietnam War (with one of the leading realist scholars of the day, Hans Morgenthau, being one of the most prominent and outspoken opponents of the war from the very beginning).
Levine longs for some new realist breakthrough equivalent to the democratic peace theory of liberal scholarship. In an oft-quoted comment, the political scientist Jack Levy described the democratic peace concept as “the closet thing we have to an empirical law in the study of international relations.” Note that he said “closet thing” to a law—not a law itself. Levine himself correctly describes why our expectations should be limited when he comments that because of the “vagaries of human behavior” international relations “is not physics” and “there are no laws.” So why should we expect some big new theoretical breakthrough?
There is a lot of rich realist theory on, and in, the books that is still very applicable to problems of the present even if it was originally constructed during the Cold War. One just has to get the books off the shelf and read them.
The United States has an inveterate domestic opposition, concentrated primarily on one side of its political spectrum, to any participation in international institutions, broadly defined. Institutions for this purpose include not only general-purpose international organizations but also the legal structures provided by multilateral treaties. Often there are specific, legitimate objections involved, but most of the opposition is of a more general and visceral nature. It is opposition rooted primarily in the mistaken belief that participation in such institutions somehow compromises one's sovereignty, even though voluntary participation is itself an act of sovereignty.
The Law of the Sea convention is one of the most familiar subjects of such opposition. The convention has now been in force for nineteen years. The United States is one of only a handful of non-landlocked countries that is not a party, even though U.S. adherence to the convention has been recommended by Republican and Democratic presidents alike as well as by the Defense Department, environmentalists, the oil and gas industries, and, in the words of former Republican Senator Richard Lugar, almost everyone who deals “with oceans on a daily basis.”
Opposition cannot disguise or negate the respects in which some of these institutions can serve useful purposes and meet practical needs. They can do so for the United States just as they can for many other countries, which is why many other countries subscribe to them. To pay international institutions this compliment is not, by the way, to weigh in on the sort of the debate that political scientists have among themselves about the role of international organizations. One school of thought holds that international organizations have a life of their own, with their own independent effects on world politics. An opposing school, populated by realists, contends that international organizations are fundamentally creatures of nation-states and especially of great powers, and they continue in existence only as long as they serve a purpose for those states. That realist observation underscores how such institutions can be useful to the United States. It also shows that one does not have to be an international-organization-hugger to perceive that usefulness.
The International Criminal Court is an example of an international organization that the United States, despite having some continued well-founded reservations about the scope of its authority, has found useful. So the United States has been quietly cooperating with the court. The most recent defendant to come into the court's custody—one of those rapacious warlords operating in eastern Congo—gave himself up by walking into the U.S. embassy in Rwanda. Without the ICC to turn him over to, it would have been hard to imagine a good way for the United States to handle the situation.
The most recent multilateral convention to be opened for signature is a treaty to regulate the international arms trade. The United Nations General Assembly approved the treaty this week with 154 votes in favor and only three against. The U.S. administration had the good sense to vote yes and avoid being in a small minority consisting of odious company. But the prospects of the United States eventually subscribing to the treaty are dim, because the National Rifle Association—lining up on the same side of this issue as the regimes in Iran, North Korea and Syria—has made it clear it will oppose ratification.
In staying out of many of these institutions the United States is paying a price, whether the opposition to participation is purely an ideological statement or, as with the NRA's opposition to the arms trade treaty, an absolutist resistance to any of the sort of controls the opponent doesn't happen to like. The price comes not just in the form of being isolated or part of a mostly loathsome minority. It comes as a forgoing of tools the United States otherwise could use to help it solve real problems.