The lead article in the current International Security, by Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard, addresses the now firmly entrenched idea that over the past two or three years China has become markedly more assertive in its relations with other countries than it was previously. That China is “newly assertive” has become so broadly and automatically accepted that it gets expressed often enough to have become a cliché. “Newly assertive” is a descriptor that routinely gets inserted before “China,” just as easily as “long-suffering” routinely gets inserted before “Chicago Cubs fans.”
Johnston closely examines the evidence for the supposed new assertiveness and finds it wanting. The notion of new assertiveness by Beijing overstates actual change in Chinese policy and overlooks the complexity of the issues on which the assertiveness has been perceived. Johnston sees maritime disputes as the only area where one could make a case for increased Chinese assertiveness. On other matters over the past couple of years China's policy has not changed, has become more moderate, or has been an understandable response to changes in conditions that Chinese policymakers face.
Johnston's article has applicability that goes beyond China; he discusses the process of how such conventional wisdom comes into being even when the original empirical foundation for it is weak. He sees it in large part as a process of traditional journalism and the blogosphere playing off each other. A more general and more widely descriptive observation would be that it is a process of certain propositions acquiring acceptance simply as a result of frequently being voiced by others. Because acceptance for this reason means the proposition gets expressed even more times by even more voices, we have the ingredients of a self-sustaining chain reaction. Politicians as well as journalists and the blogosphere all play in the chain reaction.
One can think of other notions with current policy relevance that are sustained by similar chain reactions. This is true of much conventional wisdom about Iran, for example, starting with the idea that Iran is definitely seeking to build nuclear weapons. Note how often one sees reference to Iran's “nuclear weapons program,” even though that label is a misnomer. Another example is the usual description of the Palestinian movement Hamas as “dedicated to the destruction of Israel” or some similar formulation, despite the ample evidence of the actual objectives of Hamas leaders that shows that to be a mischaracterization as well.
The phenomenon at hand is not just a matter of there being many important issues on which people disagree, with people on one side of the issue having a more popular view than those of the other side. Naturally people who have studied a particular issue in depth will be especially annoyed by what they regard as widely mistaken beliefs on that same issue. Johnston singled out the notion of new Chinese assertiveness because he is a China specialist who studies Beijing's policies and behavior and understandably has his own well-formed views on that subject. But when a notion achieves the status of conventional wisdom, a qualitatively different phenomenon arises. It is no longer just a matter of one view outvoting another view, but instead one of the self-sustaining chain reaction. The conventional wisdom acquires a life of its own, ever more divorced from whatever empirical reality may have been the original basis for it.
The damage of this type of conventional wisdom goes well beyond the irritation that comes from any cliché. Conventional wisdom constrains policy choices. More specifically, conventional wisdom that entrenches a negative view of another international actor promotes policies that risk becoming self-fulfilling prophecies of the most destructive sort. Security dilemmas arise. A belief that the other side is obstreperous or difficult encourages policies toward that side that make it more likely it will respond in a way that really is obstreperous or difficult.
The national disgrace that is the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is still in operation largely because of another familiar national disgrace, which is partisan gamesmanship. At his press conference this week President Obama stated accurately the multiple reasons, which include significant political damage to U.S. interests overseas, the facility needs to be closed. Those reasons are even more compelling today, amid force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners, than they were when the then newly inaugurated Mr. Obama first committed to closing the place.
A prevalent theme in current commentary is that a fluent but timid president is not getting anything done about Guantanamo because he is displaying the kind of weakness that is also preventing him from getting things done on gun control and other issues. Civil libertarians and others who might usually be sympathetic to Mr. Obama charge that he has been an insufficiently tough leader in dealing with a recalcitrant Congress that has placed multiple roadblocks in the way of closing Guantanamo, including a ban on movement of any of the detainees to federal prisons or any other facilities in the United States. One is entitled to ask in such situations whether the responsibility lies with someone who cannot overcome recalcitrance or with those who are being recalcitrant. But let us instead just review the bidding on how Guantanamo got to be what it is now.
One can identify three motives—all of them misguided at best and reprehensible at worst—that have been involved. They partly correspond to different phases in the detention facility's history.
The original decision by the Bush administration to construct a jail in such an odd place was intended to keep it, and the prisoners in it, outside the reach of any laws. Subsequent decisions by the Supreme Court kept that objective from being fully realized. In any event, the objective was unworthy, given that the United States is a country of laws and not of arbitrary actions by whoever happens to have power at the moment.
A second motive, which still underlies some of the Congressional recalcitrance, is to make an ideological statement that terrorism is “war” rather than “crime” and therefore anyone suspected of involvement in terrorism should be treated differently from anyone else suspected of a crime. Making ideological statements at the expense of real damage to U.S. interests and to American principles (and doing so while disregarding the record of what has or has not worked, including the successful record of convicting terrorists in federal criminal courts) is an inexcusable way to make policy.
A third motive, which is behind much of what we see playing out about Guantanamo today, is to retain the opportunity—with future elections in mind—to inflict costs and embarrassment on one's domestic political opponents. Congressional opponents of President Obama are quick to point out that legislation that has constituted much of the roadblock to closing Guantanamo gives the administration the ability to use waivers to release individual detainees to the custody of foreign countries. Such opponents are not quick to address, of course, why such hurdles and special waiver requirements should have been thrown up in the first place. But in the meantime, it enables the opponents to say the president has not used administrative powers he already has to reduce Guantanamo's prisoner population.
The biggest hoped-for partisan political payoff would come if the waiver authority were actually used. That authority is a dare to the administration to make a mistake. To release a prisoner to foreign custody the secretary of defense has to make certifications about how the receiving country will take steps that ensure the individual will not engage in terrorist activity in the future, or about “alternative actions” that will “substantially mitigate” such a possibility. All of this gets into realms in which it is impossible for any secretary of defense or president to make guarantees. Recidivism happens. With the anger and resentment building up among the men who are getting tubes shoved up their noses twice a day, there is a significant chance it will happen even with someone who was not really a threat when he was first brought to Guantanamo. Not even the most careful screening and review process is foolproof. And so the first time any alumnus of Guantanamo gets involved in what can be described as a terrorist incident, there is a ready-made issue to introduce in the next election campaign back in the United States. The administration endangered the American public, will be the charge from some members of Congress, who will disavow any responsibility themselves.
Count Guantanamo among the many issues of public policy on which the national interest has suffered at the hands of politicians who place that interest behind considerations of partisan advantage. Count it also among the issues on which the American public's unrealistic zero-tolerance attitude toward terrorism facilitates such political shenanigans.
Once again people are getting spun up over elusive details about what a Middle Eastern regime is or is not doing regarding unconventional weapons. Participants in public debates over policy get seized with questions such as the significance of a soil sample or whether certain victims of Syria's civil war had dilated pupils. People wait with bated breath on whatever else intelligence can tell us about such things. It is as if the wisdom, or lack of it, of intervening in that civil war hinges on whether a particular regime has made use, however small, of a particular category of weapon. It doesn't.
Much has been said about avoiding mistakes that were made over a decade ago in leading up to the Iraq War. Certainly we should try to avoid repeating mistakes. But the biggest mistake that is being made now—and repeats a fundamental mistake in the public discourse prior to the Iraq War—is not an interpretation of evidence regarding somebody's unconventional weapons but instead is the false equating of an empirical question about weapons with the policy question of whether launching, or intervening in, a particular war makes sense.
Whether Saddam Hussein did or did not have WMD turned out to be one of the less important realities about the Iraq War. Even if everything that was said on this subject to sell the war turned out to be true, the human and material cost of the war would have been just as great (maybe even greater, if Saddam's forces had possessed and used such weapons), the post-Saddam political and security situation in Iraq would have been just as much of a mess, and launching the war still would have been a blunder.
In Syria today, whether any chemical weapons have been used does not inform us that the Assad regime has a brutal streak; we already knew that. Nor does it tell us that many Syrians are suffering in this civil war; we already knew that, too, and the suffering does not depend on any use of unconventional weapons. Most important for the policy question facing the United States, facts about chemical weapons use would tell us essentially nothing about the net effect of various forms of external intervention in the civil war, the likely course of the war with or without intervention, and possible political futures of Syria.
There is another parallel between today's debate about Syria and the counterpart discourse before the Iraq War. In each case the issue of unconventional weapons has been used as a convenient selling point by those favoring involvement in a war for other reasons. With Iraq, the WMD question was only, as later acknowledged by Paul Wolfowitz, a convenient topic that could be agreed upon by those who might disagree about other matters. With Syria, most of the current agitation is coming not from longstanding chemical-weapons-control enthusiasts but instead from those who had already been agitating for intervention on other grounds.
The agitators on Syria have been aided by President Obama's unwise earlier declaration about how use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be a “game-changer.” Perhaps the president said this to help fend off the pro-intervention pressure he already was feeling at the time. If so, the remark was a short-sighted tactic. It opened the way for pro-interventionists to argue that U.S. credibility will be harmed if it does not now intervene in Syria.
That argument is also a familiar one associated with mistakes of the past. It also is invalid, as a matter of how people and governments actually assess the credibility of other governments. The argument was at the center—not just as a public selling point, but as a matter of genuine belief by policy-makers—of the decision to intervene in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. That war also was a blunder.
One might think, based on the current chemically-fueled commentary about Syria, that the ranks of the policy elite in Washington are filled with arms control aficionados whose fondest cause is to eliminate the scourge of unconventional weapons from the Middle East. Anyone who thinks that can be jolted back to reality by Egypt, which this week announced that it was pulling out of an ongoing review conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to protest the continued inaction on a resolution dating back to 1995 that calls for establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. That proposal was later expanded to envision a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, to include chemical and other unconventional weapons as well as nuclear ones. A conference, arranged under the leadership of a senior Finnish diplomat, was set to convene last December to discuss the proposal. But Israel refused to attend, and so the United States said it wouldn't go either, and the conference was called off. One barely heard a peep about that in the United States.
The country that balked, Israel, is of course the only Middle Eastern owner of nuclear weapons. That's nuclear weapons, which really are weapons of mass destruction, unlike chemical weapons, which aren't. In fact, the Israeli arsenal is so potent it is the only one that poses an existential threat to any other country in the region (and specifically to Iran).
U.S. policy, and American discussion of policy, about unconventional weapons in the Middle East have long been ridden with inconsistency. Nuclear weapons are perceived where they don't exist, and ignored where they do. The hyperventilation about possible use of chemical weapons in Syria is in the same tradition of inconsistency.
Former senators Joseph Lieberman and Jon Kyl, identified as co-chairs of the American Internationalism Project at the American Enterprise Institute, offered the other day a statement of what they mean by American internationalism. Their piece exhorts us to resist “calls from Democrats and Republicans alike for neo-isolationist policies” and instead to “accept both the burdens and the benefits of a robust internationalism.” The image of bipartisanship is clearly important to the Republican Kyl and the Democrat-cum-independent Lieberman, the latter of whom when still in the Senate was one of the Three Amigos along with John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
The rhetoric of Lieberman and Kyl about not withdrawing from the world sounds fine as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. Their one-dimensional treatment of their subject, in which everything gets reduced to a simple but grand choice of the United States playing or not playing a major role in world affairs, is divorced from the real policy choices the nation confronts and from any distinction among the varied policy tools available to it. A ghost from the past about which they warn—the isolationism that constituted a significant and influential current of opinion in the United States between the two world wars of the twentieth century—is today less of a ghost than a straw man. It would mean favoring severe cutbacks in military capability such as those that occurred after World War I and a withdrawal from global diplomacy reminiscent of staying out of the League of Nations and autarkic economic policies reminiscent of the Smoot-Hawley tariff. Whoever may represent this combination of views today is, for better or worse, on the fringe.
Maybe the compression required to fit thoughts into an op ed is a factor, but to argue in a single breath, as Lieberman and Kyl do, against both “diplomatic retrenchment” and “military budget cuts” is to seem oblivious to the main lines of contention in policy debates on hot topics of the day such as Syria, Iran and much else. Some of the most prominent divisions of opinion pit those who would emphasize the diplomatic tool against those who would rely on the military one. Neither side is isolationist; the issue is one of what is the best way to be an internationalist.
Lieberman and Kyl do not get into such current policy choices. One is left to wonder whether when they argue against diplomatic retrenchment and in favor of “a robust international economic and political presence” they would favor, say, the sort of U.S. diplomatic and political effort required to achieve a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and creation of a Palestinian state. One would have reason to doubt that they do. Or how about vigorous U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at a political resolution of the Syrian civil war? There is also reason to doubt they would favor that.
Their simplified version of internationalism that conflates multiple dimensions and foreign policy instruments into one leads to what can only be described as bad analysis. To talk reproachfully about the “slashing” of defense spending after the Soviet Union collapsed before the September 11th attacks “reminded us of the risks of assuming that peace will always prevail” suggests that a Cold War superpower and a terrorist group should be met by the same level and type of military capabilities. They make a similar mistake in criticizing “proposed cuts in aid and military strength” and having a “small footprint” in the world as negatively affecting “our ability to deter the threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Syria, a more assertive China, al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and individuals.” With some of those adversaries a large footprint has been more of a provocation than a deterrent and, in the case of al-Qaeda, has even been a goal of the adversary.
This sort of talk from Lieberman and Kyl is, at a minimum, unhelpful to public understanding of real choices and real foreign policy problems. But they may have a further agenda, in which their talk is not just sloppy and oversimplified analysis but serves a more specific purpose for them. The purpose might be gleaned from some of the positions earlier taken by the former senators and by the Three Amigos, who seem never to have met a war they didn't like. If their principal purpose is to push for more rather than less military spending and more rather than less use of the U.S. military, it is useful to argue that opponents of their positions are “isolationists” bent on repeating mistakes of the past. The argument obscures the fact that many of those opponents have at least as robust an internationalist perspective as Lieberman and Kyl do, even though they have different ideas about where and how to use different foreign policy tools.
We need to be wary not so much of a new isolationism as we do of arguments that use the label isolationism to confuse and obscure.
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.