One of the most insightful commentaries about the Pentagon Papers, on the occasion of their full and official public release this week, is from Leslie Gelb, who headed the Department of Defense task force that wrote the studies. In an interview on NPR, Gelb strongly disagreed with the contention of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked portions of the papers forty years ago, that the Vietnam War would not have happened if what was in the Pentagon Papers had been publicly known all along. Yes, there were government lies, says Gelb,
But the main reason we got involved in the Vietnam War was because of what we believed, namely that we were in a mortal struggle with communism - Soviet Union and China; that the domino theory applied, that if we allow North Vietnam to conquer South Vietnam, the dominoes would fall throughout Asia and the rest of the world. Almost every one of the people in the national security field believed that, including Daniel Ellsberg.
One can add that the believers included journalists who later would win fame for their exposé-like writings about the Vietnam War, including David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan—the latter being the reporter who received the leaked papers from Ellsberg. The Pentagon Papers are a wonderful resource for understanding the American involvement in the first half of the Vietnam War. I have used them repeatedly in my own writing and research. But their contents would not have trumped the very broadly held sentiments, of the sort described by Gelb, that drove the United States into the war.
The notion that revelations of secret documents can change public policies for the better comes mainly from two sources. One is the perennial though erroneous belief that if something is secret it must be more insightful and revealing than what could come from careful study of, and reflection on, what is available to anyone, even without a security clearance. The other source is the self-interest of those who leak classified material and who attempt to portray themselves as heroes rather than as information vandals who take it on themselves to decide what should be publicly revealed and what should not. Ellsberg has long struck this pose for himself, as well as more recently trying to confer hero status on the Army private whose wholesale compromise of U.S. diplomatic traffic has had the effect of impeding the conduct of all U.S. foreign policy, no matter how worthy its objectives. (Full disclosure: I have tangled with Ellsberg in discussion of these issues on the radio, with Ellsberg's contribution to the discourse deteriorating into personal attacks on me and my integrity.)
Besides the wholesale damage, there is the retail damage that comes from leakers deciding which material to reveal and which not to reveal, thus producing an incomplete picture that conforms to the leaker's own bias. When Ellsberg committed his big leak, he did not include portions of the Pentagon Papers that addressed attempts to start peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Those portions were officially declassified a little later in the 1970s. When I used those portions for some research I was doing at the time on peace negotiations, I paid the copying fee and got my copy from the Department of Defense. Ellsberg says he did not leak that part because he did not want to jeopardize peace negotiations or to give the government of the day an excuse not to try to negotiate. It is unlikely that would have been a result. The events covered in that portion of the Pentagon Papers, like the events in the other portions, were already in the past. The result of the selective leaking was to nurture a biased, incomplete picture of what Lyndon Johnson's administration was doing about Vietnam. I consider the U.S. intervention in Vietnam to have been as much of a tragic blunder as most Americans have come to think of it, but the peace diplomacy was a part of the overall Vietnam story—a part we would not have learned about if it were up to Ellsberg.
The White House sent to Congress on Wednesday a report on Libya that contains the administration's argument as to why the continued U.S. involvement in the war there supposedly does not violate the War Powers Resolution. The argument, according to State Department legal adviser Harold Koh and White House counsel Robert Bauer, centers on the contention that this isn't really the sort of conflict that the War Powers Resolution was intended to cover. Or rather, maybe the conflict as a whole is, but not the U.S. part in it. It certainly would be hard to say that the overall conflict is not a war. (The editors at the Associated Press, bowing to the obvious, recently determined that their stories would refer to the conflict as a “civil war” rather than a popular uprising or something else.) It would be interesting to know what most of the NATO allies think of Washington's position that the U.S. contribution to this conflict is so peripheral that it doesn't even count as involvement in a war—especially coming on the heels of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's lambasting of the allies (in which he invoked the Libya conflict itself as an example) for not contributing more to joint military tasks.
Another administration official, speaking anonymously, expanded on why the U.S. military's part of the Libya war—which includes such things as surveillance, aerial refueling of attack aircraft, and firing missiles from drones—doesn't count as war. "We are not engaged in sustained fighting,” he said. “There has been no exchange of fire with hostile forces, we don't have troops on the ground, we don't risk casualties to those troops." Many who have been involved in war would consider those odd criteria for defining what constitutes being in a war or not being in war. Members of the Navy and Air Force would understandably question whether troops on the ground should be a defining characteristic. And if our military operations stay largely free of two-way fire and risks of casualties to our troops, that can be function of good strategy and good generalship rather than not being in a war at all. (The Clinton administration considered the casualty-free air war against Serbia over Kosovo to constitute U.S. involvement in a war, but to be in compliance with the War Powers Resolution because Congress passed an appropriation specifically for this campaign.) As for whether fighting is “sustained,” tell that one to the many veterans whose war experiences consisted of long periods of boredom interspersed with short bursts of danger and fighting.
The notion that support functions performed by military personnel in a war theater, even if those functions do not directly involve exchanges of fire with the enemy, somehow do not constitute being in a war is at odds with how the U.S. military is organized and how it fights war. The forces have both tooth and tail, and the tail is commonly larger than the tooth. The administration's strange interpretation of this subject is an insult to anyone who has served in a war zone in, say, a logistical support capacity.
Perhaps even more strange is the argument of Koh and Bauer that there is little chance of the U.S. role escalating into something more deadly because the Western military effort is constrained by the United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized the use of force only to protect Libyan civilians. How does that square with the voluminous evidence that this war has become much more about regime change? Oh, say the administration's lawyers, regime change may be a “diplomatic goal,” but that is separate from the “military mission” of protecting civilians. I see—so the mission of allied forces in World War II in Europe was to protect civilians and maybe to enforce the neutrality of Poland; overthrowing the Nazi regime was only a “diplomatic goal.” For the second time in the past few days I must invoke Clausewitz, who pointed out long ago that wars are the use of military force to accomplish political and diplomatic goals. Separating the two is nonsensical.
The importance of involving Congress in decisions about going to war should not rest on fine lines being drawn about tactics currently being used and casualties currently being incurred. Notwithstanding the wording of Security Council resolutions, there is significant potential for deeper U.S. involvement in this conflict. Doug Bandow recently noted in these spaces the possibility that Qaddafi's departure would be followed by a new phase in the civil war and new pressures for the allies to sort things out and engage in more nation-building.
The War Powers Resolution has been heavily criticized from the day it was passed (over Richard Nixon's veto). Maybe it needs to be replaced with something else. A panel convened a few years ago by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, and headed by former secretaries of state James Baker and Warren Christopher, drafted a suggested alternative. But the flaws of the current law are not a reason for the kind of contorted reasoning we are hearing to justify lack of Congressional involvement in the Libyan decision.
Such sophistry is unbecoming to the Obama administration. And it constitutes obfuscation of the issues at stake, hindering informed and honest debate on important issues of war and peace.
Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke carefully laid out in a speech on Tuesday the extremely severe consequences if the limit on the national debt is not raised in time. (President Obama also addressed the subject more briefly in an interview earlier in the day.) Some of the undesirable consequences, in the form of market reactions to doubt about future U.S. willingness to meet its financial obligations, can begin to occur as a result of the brinksmanship, even before any default occurs. Given the dangers, why are Congressional Republicans acting so recklessly in holding the debt limit hostage to their demands?
One first has to consider the possibility that they just may not fully understand those dangers. With some on the airhead wing of the Republican Party, as represented by Sarah Palin, this may be a factor. But I would give most of the Republican negotiators credit for more intelligence than that.
So we have a classic game of chicken, in which one side dares the other to give in to avoid a calamity. It is a game that the Republicans have forced upon the Obama administration. As the foremost theorist of coercion and bargaining, Thomas Schelling, observed, if someone challenges you to a game of chicken and you say you would rather not play, you have just played (and lost).
Schelling's ideas from the 1960s help us in other ways to understand what is going on here. He taught us that the side that has the advantage in a game of chicken is the one that not only is more reckless but also is widely perceived to be more reckless. Here the Republicans have a clear advantage, with a well established record of reckless fiscal and economic policies. They especially burnished that record during the administration of George W. Bush, when the national debt nearly doubled from $5.7 trillion to $10.6 trillion. (The almost $5 trillion in debt added during Bush's eight years is more than triple the $1.5 trillion added during the preceding eight years of Bill Clinton's presidency.)
There is no more logical reason for the non-defense discretionary spending that is the Congressional Republicans' principal target to be linked to the debt ceiling than there would be to link it to reductions in military spending or to the entire revenue side of the budget equation. But the Republicans have managed to benefit somewhat from another of Schelling's principles, which has to do with a sense of natural linkage between the demand being made and the consequence being threatened if the demand is not met. Isn't it natural, they say, not to allow the debt to go up further until we do something about that out-of-control spending? This approach is facilitated by defense spending being protected by the charge of being soft on national security levied against anyone trying to cut that spending, and by the usual political anathema surrounding the raising of taxes—even though most Republicans as well as Democrats are smart enough to realize that tax increases will eventually have to be part of any deficit reduction. (The nation sure could use the cut-to-the-quick clarity of Walter Mondale, who said in his 1984 presidential campaign, “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.”)
Perhaps the main explanation for the irresponsible chicken-playing is that the Republicans who are playing the game, although they may not have an ignorantly dismissive, Palinesque attitude toward default, do have ideological priorities that are sufficiently different from those of other people that they simply aren't as scared by this latest financial threat. They even see political advantage in financial morass and economic failure. Bush's upper-bracket, deficit-accelerating tax cuts were the realization of an ideological aspiration, as was the launching of a neoconservative war of choice in Iraq. The first failed to generate growth and revenue enhancement, and the second failed to remake the politics of the Middle East. But even in failure, these tremendously expensive mistakes set the stage for the starve-the-beast attack of today on non-military programs. The Great Recession, which was in full steam when Bush handed the presidency to Obama and led to the emergency funding that spanned both administrations and added further to the mountain of debt, set the stage even further.
Besides the ideological aspirations, there is the openly declared, overriding Republican priority of defeating Barack Obama and the Democrats. That objective is so important to them that they look at even economic disaster in electoral terms. And this is where the Republicans see the chicken game working to their advantage no matter how the administration responds. If Obama blinks and gives in to the demands for major domestic spending reductions, that will further slow the already fragile economic recovery and sustain unemployment at high levels, increasing the chance of beating Obama in November 2012. If the president doesn't blink and default occurs, the national and global economic consequences would be even worse—which is to say from the Republicans' political point of view, even better. Economic disaster would happen during the one-term presidency of Barack Obama. He would become a Herbert Hoover, to be succeeded, the Republicans hope, by a couple of decades of presidential election victories by their own party.
I don't know for sure, of course, that this is how the Republicans are thinking. But the explanation is consistent with what they have been saying and doing. And it is frightening.
An article in Monday's New York Times describes how old habits are dying hard among some former Taliban who have come over to the government side in northern Afghanistan. The fighters, who are supposed to be converted under a U.S.-financed program into a village self-defense force separate from the national police, are shaking down the locals to hand over ten percent of their earnings as an “Islamic tax.” This is not sitting well with many Afghans, who smell a step back to the kind of warlordism that led many of them to support the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s.
I would not hold this development against the U.S. military commanders who have pushed for this program. It is a reasonable idea for trying to expand some modicum of government presence in areas where that presence is especially thin, amid a counterinsurgency in which the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan government partner do not have—and will not have, even under any of the more hawkish timetables being discussed—the forces to secure Afghanistan. The lesson from this story is instead that it is one more indication of how thin and blurry is the line between good guys and bad guys in this war, and thus between victory and defeat.
There always has been a misleadingly dichotomous view of victory and defeat in Afghanistan. This view has recently become even more pronounced in response to heightened, appropriate concern over the resources being expended in this war. Those opposing any significant drawdown of forces have tried to tilt the argument in their favor by positing a gradated concept of costs against an all-or-nothing view of benefits. A more extensive pullout of forces beginning this summer would only marginally reduce spending on the war and ease pressure on the national budget, goes the argument, but staying the course at current troop levels can make the difference in whether or not Afghanistan falls apart into terror-ridden chaos. That argument is invalid not only because even the marginal cost is significant and should be considered amid current fiscal circumstances but also because the either-or picture of the consequences is invalid as well. Whatever is the effect—if any—of the course of the Afghan War on terrorist threats to the United States is at least as marginal as the war costs, given all the other more important ingredients in that threat. The picture also is invalid regarding the political and social circumstances within Afghanistan. Whether armed bands in Konduz Province do or do not identify themselves as Taliban while extorting a tithe from the citizens does not spell a difference between victory and defeat in this war.
Several of the characteristics that have been evident in the more than three decades of civil conflict in Afghanistan will continue to shape politics and society there no matter what coalition forces do or do not accomplish in the months ahead. One such characteristic is the fragility and temporary nature of loyalties and alliances. Throughout the war against the Soviets, militias and warlords frequently changed sides without changing their stripes or their habits. That is still happening in the current phase of the war, and it will continue after NATO forces are gone—no matter how long it is before they go. Another enduring characteristic, related to the first one, is that any political order that emerges in Afghanistan is more the result of many bargains struck among disparate, local centers of power than it is the imposition of a central government's rule. Yet another enduring feature of the Afghan landscape is that the Taliban has no monopoly on what we Americans would dislike, and what we might consider the attributes of a loss rather than a win.
The United States is losing an able public servant as Michael E. Leiter steps down after four years as director of the National Counterterrorism Center. The nation owes gratitude to anyone willing to become head of NCTC, who has a mixed role involving both strategy and analysis, reports to two different bosses, and sits in one of the hottest of hot seats during the inevitable recrimination phase that follows any significant terrorist incident. Leiter deserves additional commendation for consistently and skillfully keeping his organization focused on its mission, properly and objectively defined, notwithstanding the political swirls surrounding it. Former CIA director Michael V. Hayden aptly described Leiter as a “well-prepared and apolitical” official who “knows his brief, and he sticks to it.”
That kind of straightforward performance of the counterterrorist mission is not to be taken for granted. The political swirls are frequently threatening to divert or distort the mission, or to load it with political baggage. We got some taste of this with the controversial hearing convened in March by House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-NY), whose approach invited justified criticism that he was equating terrorism with Islamic beliefs. (Mr. King has announced that the next installment in his series of hearings will be this coming Wednesday.)
The United States has a substantial history of politicizing counterterrorism in the sense of taking a firm line toward some flavors of extremism and a soft or even apologetic line toward others, depending on what were the dominant political winds blowing at the time. Philip Jenkins has recounted some of this history, which includes, for example, the changing of the official approach toward violence against abortion clinics. Such violence was not even considered terrorism during the Reagan years of the 1980s; that posture changed during the Clinton years of the 1990s. Similar tendencies have been seen in the approaches toward some Latin American terrorists. Republicans have taken a soft line toward anti-Castro Cubans; Democrats have tended to be softer toward Puerto Rican nationalists. Part of the backdrop to these differential approaches has been electoral politics in states such as Florida and New York.
Now we are seeing echoes of such tendencies in news that the Department of Homeland Security has reduced its capability to analyze domestic terrorism. This move grows out of a kerfuffle a couple of years ago surrounding an intelligence report the department produced on right-wing extremism. Republicans complained that the report was an attack on conservative ideology, including opposition to abortion and immigration. The analytical unit that prepared the report has now been “effectively eviscerated,” according to the Washington Post, and even distribution of some of its previously completed work has been blocked. The consequences have already been felt by those who had been customers of the unit's reports, especially officials in the counterterrorist fusion centers across the county in which local, state, and federal officials share terrorism-related information. Those officials speak of now being inadequately served regarding analysis of home-grown terrorism.
And after the next significant incident involving the kind of terrorism that DHS is not analyzing any more—perhaps something like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, or maybe even an attack less deadly than that—it is certain that some of the subsequent recriminations will be over why government agencies hadn't written more analytic papers on the subject.
John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago was in town this week to talk about his splendid new book Why Leaders Lie. One of his findings is that more lying, and more damage from lying, tends to occur when leaders in democratic states use fearmongering with their own populations than when they lie to foreign governments or foreign publics. So this kind of lying by national leaders is one of the sources of misconception and delusion among the people.
But it is hardly the only source. Another one that Mearsheimer also identifies but is not the main subject of his book is other forms of deception, besides outright lying, by political leaders. This particularly means spinning, or the selective and tendentious use of material without uttering direct falsehoods. The Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War, for example, although it involved some lies, was at least as much a matter of imparting false impressions through spinning. And then beyond what national leaders do is the influence of bloviators and commentators, especially in the broadcast media, who are responsible for propagating much of what is false and delusional in the public mind.
Yet another source of public misconception is identified in the Washington Post's front-page story about Mitt Romney's acceptance of the fact of human-induced climate change despite the unpopularity of that acceptance on the political right. Beliefs, or disbelief, about climate change is typical of many public conceptions or misconceptions in that they are in large part a function of party or ideological identities. The Gallup poll cited in the Post article showed that 62% of Democrats but only 32% of Republicans believe that the effects of global warming have already begun to happen. Similarly, 71% of Democrats but only 36% of Republicans believe that a rise in temperatures is due to pollution from human activities.
Note that these are beliefs regarding the physical facts of what is happening in the earth's atmosphere, not preferences regarding public policy, although there are policies that implicitly can be associated with those beliefs. And unlike factual beliefs that can logically and directly be connected with ideological beliefs associated with one or the other of the parties (such as, for example, beliefs about how people's spending and work habits change in response to changes in tax rates), any substantive connection between ideology and beliefs about warming of the atmosphere is at best tenuous. Clearly the beliefs in this case are largely being formed not as part of a coherent belief system, let alone formed as a result of objective examination of evidence, but instead as a result of political identities or the influence of commentators or leaders associated with those identities. It is almost a tribal phenomenon. People believe things because certain beliefs are associated with the Republican tribe or the Democratic tribe, and because people associate themselves with one or the other of the tribes.
This source of public delusion and misconception is unfortunately self-reinforcing, as the Romney story shows. Although Mr. Romney may welcome some resistance from the right on this one issue as a way of countering his image as a flip-flopper, the fact there is any significant resistance demonstrates how much of a barrier the nation's political divide can be to better public understanding, and how political hot air can impede public knowledge of something as straightforward as atmospheric hot air.
Last year I wrote about how in the diligent and otherwise orderly policy review on Afghanistan that President Obama conducted in the latter half of 2009, the principal point of disorderliness was the insistence by the Department of Defense and the military that there was only one right way to fight the war and thus only one right level of U.S. troops. The president reportedly had to struggle to get more than one option out of the Secretary of Defense and the military and eventually had to construct his own compromise that gave the military something less than what it had insisted on. I noted that the Defense Department's posture was a classic example of standing Clausewitz on his head and making the scope and objective of a war fit military requirements rather than making the military the servant of a politically determined objective.
With an impending presidential decision on how much of a troop withdrawal to begin next month, the same dynamic appears to be at work again. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, notwithstanding his imminent retirement, has been vocal in arguing for as small a withdrawal as possible, with the uniformed military contributing arguments in the same direction. Expect to hear again, as we heard in the earlier policy review, talk on Capitol Hill and elsewhere about how the military knows best about what it takes to accomplish a wartime mission and how therefore much deference ought to be accorded to the military's views.
The military does indeed know that best, and our senior military officers are honorable leaders who do their best to determine the requirements for carrying out what they understand to be their mission, which in this case involves trying to stabilize Afghanistan through a counterinsurgency. But that is not the question before the president. The question has less to do with identifying means to accomplish a given end in Afghanistan than with identifying what the end ought to be. The question involves determining how much can be accomplished at what cost, how much the accomplishment contributes to the national interest, and whether the whole trade-off is in the national interest. The question goes well beyond the military's purview.
One also continues to hear debate about policy toward Afghanistan phrased in dichotomous terms: that such-and-such is at stake and we need to stay the course to achieve that stake rather than fail to achieve it. But that, too, is not really the sort of question before the president. It is more a matter of degree. It is a matter of what amount of additional cost and effort will yield what amount (if any) of benefit, over and above what we would be seeing anyway.
The original reason and still the main rationale of the war involves terrorism. But even before the demise of Osama bin Laden, there were ample reasons to conclude that the ratio of war costs to any increase in Americans' safety from terrorism is unattractively large (and that there might be no increase at all). The reasons have to do with such things as al-Qaeda barely being in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban not being an international terrorist group, territorial control in Afghanistan not being one of the more important factors in determining what threat a terrorist group may pose, and the impossibility of even a sustained counterinsurgency securing all the territory in Afghanistan anyway.
Rationales for the war these days often invoke Pakistan and the stakes the United States has there. But events in Pakistan will shape Pakistan's future far more than events in Afghanistan, where the Pakistanis we are supposedly trying to shore up are still doing business with the Afghan Taliban we are fighting. And in another confusion of ends and means, U.S. dependence on Pakistan as a supply route for the war effort in Afghanistan reduces U.S. leverage on Pakistan to do anything else.
Then there are issues of what kind of Afghan society the United States is to leave behind, and a responsibility not to consign Afghans to barbarism. Here it is especially important to remember that we are dealing with degrees and not absolutes. As disagreeable as the Afghan Taliban are, much of what we may find alien and even repugnant in Afghanistan is not just a matter of the Taliban. A recent reminder of this is a declaration by the country's Council of Religious Scholars, which meets regularly with President Hamid Zarzai to advise him on religious matters, calling for the closing of independent media outlets on grounds of “immorality” (which means such things as coverage of the radicalizing influence of madrassas, or anything having to do with women's rights).
Americans owe gratitude to their senior military leaders, as to the troops who serve under them, for doing their best to prosecute a difficult war. Let us not add to their burden by looking to them to decide matters that are the responsibility of political leaders.
Chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat made remarks at a small but on-the-record gathering at the Brookings Institution Tuesday that deserve more notice than they will get. Erekat not only accepted President Obama's negotiating formula of mutually agreed land swaps based on the 1967 boundary as clearly and unambiguously as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the formula last month. He also said that if Mr. Obama invited the two sides to U.S.-mediated negotiations based on that formula, the Palestinians would immediately accept and begin negotiating, provided that Netanyahu accepted on the same basis. This would mean the Palestinians' setting aside their insistence on a cessation of Israeli settlement construction, even though—as Erekat said he reminded U.S. interlocutors during his current visit—this quintessentially unilateral activity is still highly damaging to the whole concept of negotiating a settlement regarding the occupied territories.
As was noted by others in the room, this Palestinian position ought to be getting headlines, but for some reason it doesn't. Maybe the Palestinians need better publicists. Probably the main reason is the messaging prowess and political muscle of apologists for the Israeli government, who have strong political reason to depict the Palestinian leadership as supposedly resisting a peace settlement, as a way of detracting attention from the reality of Netanyahu's government resisting such a settlement. Against the backdrop of the political muscle displayed in the Congressional reception of Netanyahu, Erekat observed that if he says one thing and Netanyahu says something different, he has little chance of his version being accepted. Whatever the combination of reasons, a sort of urban myth has taken hold among much of the American public to the effect that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected Israeli offers that would have given them what they say they want.
The myth has been applied, for example, to the last serious and detailed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, between the PLO and the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert in 2008. Erekat recalled how both sides brought to that negotiating table positions replete with maps based on the land swap concept. The Israeli side proposed a larger amount of swapped land than the Palestinians did, but it was the sort of gap that, with sufficient decisiveness on both sides, could have been bridged. Those negotiations ended amid Olmert's domestic political problems and the Israeli military invasion of the Gaza Strip, followed by an Israeli election and Netanyahu's coalition becoming the government. And yet the lingering belief is that the negotiations ended with the Palestinians showing their supposed lack of interest in peace by rejecting yet another generous Israeli offer.
Erekat is the epitome of the weary veteran negotiator who asks, “What more can we do?” The PLO recognized the State of Israel, fully and formally, back in 1993. Its leader has repeatedly reaffirmed such other requirements as the Palestinians' security obligations. After repeatedly hearing the complaint that there was not a single interlocutor who could speak for all the Palestinians, the Palestinians endeavored to fix that with the recent accord between Fatah and Hamas, only to have that step condemned instead.
The dismay over having seen the can of a peace settlement kicked down the road for so long is palpable. Erekat observed that if the status quo were to continue this would mean it would not even make sense to continue the Palestinian Authority, which was only supposed to be a transition toward a Palestinian state, and which despite its name doesn't really have authority over its territory; the Israelis do. Pretending that the PA really does have authority doesn't fool the people in the territories. “Palestinians don't have a neon 'stupid' sign on their foreheads,” said Erekat. He was equally biting in accurately describing Netanyahu's posture toward negotiations, which has been to lay down conditions that are incompatible with anything resembling a Palestinian state worthy of the name and then to say, “Come here, boy, and negotiate.”
A wonder in all this is that a Palestinian faith in a two-state solution endures despite all the delay and humiliation. It also is somewhat of a wonder that those identifying with the current Israeli government have managed to lead many people to believe that, against all logic, Palestinians supposedly prefer a state of no agreement, with all of the abuse and disappointment that has entailed for Palestinians, over a peace agreement that would give them what they have long wanted: their own state, living in peace and security alongside Israel. The ball of peace is definitely in the Israelis' court, and Benjamin Netanyahu can hit the ball by accepting President Obama's basis for negotiations.
The greatest hazard yet to come in the political upheaval in Egypt involves a possible dashing of high hopes among the Egyptian public and a resulting souring of Egyptians on the concept of moderate, peaceful, democratic change. A newly released poll sponsored by the International Republican Institute shows just how high and probably unattainable those hopes are, and thus how great is the hazard.
The poll, taken in mid-April, depicts an Egyptian populace that is highly positive about where their revolution has already gone and where it is likely to go. Ninety-five percent of respondents supported the revolution, and about a quarter say they had personally participated in some way. Eighty-nine percent believe things in Egypt are going in the right direction, and the same number believe the revolution will make Egypt better—53% say it will make it much better. A large majority of Egyptians believe that their “current government” will be able to address Egypt's biggest problems; 39% are very confident of this and 38% are somewhat confident.
So which problems are deemed the biggest? In Egypt, as in so many other places, it's the economy, stupid. Unemployment was easily the most frequently named (by 37%) as the number one problem, and was named by 63% as one of the top three problems. The next most frequently mentioned as the top problem were security and crime (21%), corruption and financial scandals (11%), and wages and salaries (8%).
The expectations for the revolution are at least as high on the economic front as on any other. While most respondents say their own household finances got worse during the past year, 80% believe those same finances will get better during the coming year. It is hard to imagine how any regime could come anywhere close to meeting such expectations. Even if a further political transition from military rule to a genuine representative democracy goes smoothly (itself a big “if”), the structural impediments to substantially improved economic performance extend far deeper than that. Even if inspired leadership by some Egyptian Deng Xiaoping were to embark on an accelerated effort to demolish those impediments (another big “if”) and such an effort were to overcome sources of resistance such as the Egyptian military's heavy role in the economy (a tall order), the time scale for major improvement would be generation, not just a year or two.
The stage is set for major disillusionment and dismay. Maybe the lot of the average Egyptian has been bad enough that even very modest improvement will provide sufficient satisfaction. In the poll, 41% said they have trouble feeding themselves and buying bare essentials, and another 37% said they have the means for “survival” but not much more. But the disparity between current reality and hope for the near future is so great that going from very bad to somewhat bad may not be good enough.
If disillusionment does set in, we will see how thin and fragile is the sentiment in favor of democracy. Egyptians seem enthusiastic enough at the moment about their newly found political liberties; large majorities say they they did not bother voting before but did so in the recent constitutional referendum and intend to do so in the next elections. The fact, however, that—even though at the moment Egypt is governed by a military dictatorship—democracy and free elections did not rank high on Egyptians' list of current concerns (neither one was mentioned as one of the three highest problems by any more than 6% of the respondents) speaks to the thinness. Many would lose whatever fragile faith they have in democratic procedures if they do not see those procedures leading to improvement in their daily material circumstances. And this would mean renewed appeal for strongmen or extremist ideologies.
Signs are increasing that the American people are growing tired enough over fighting two and a half (or whatever the right number is, depending on how you count what's going on in Libya) wars for their fatigue to affect policy, especially through the actions of their elected representatives in Congress. The war in Afghanistan, now the largest and most expensive in terms of ongoing operations, and now in its tenth year of U.S. involvement, has been the subject of several expressions of impatience. Less than two weeks ago a resolution in the House of Representatives calling on the administration to accelerate a withdrawal from Afghanistan came very close to passing (the vote was 204 to 215). Now Norm Dicks (D-WA), an influential Democrat on national security matters who is the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on defense, has become an outspoken critic of the war. “I just think that there’s a war fatigue setting in up here,” says Dicks, “and I think the president is going to have to take that into account.” Skepticism about the war is increasingly being voiced by Republicans as well. Even Sarah Palin is expressing unease.
On Libya—on which Congressional dissent is fueled in part by the administration's blatant violation of the War Powers Resolution—two resolutions of protest were put to a vote in the House of Representatives on Friday. One that was introduced by Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and called directly for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Libyan conflict was defeated but attracted 148 votes, including 87 Republicans. The other, which was proposed by Speaker John Boehner as an alternative to the Kucinich resolution and passed, called on the administration to provide a more detailed explanation of the costs and objectives of the U.S. involvement in the war.
Then, of course, there is the Iraq War. It is still by far the most expensive of the expeditions in terms of cumulative costs, with the bill now exceeding $800 billion in direct costs and with all the eventual indirect costs making it more like a three trillion dollar war. But simply adhering to existing policy and agreements will mean that an end to this nightmare is just seven months away. There is no need for new action by Congress.
In general, bowing to popular fatigue is not necessarily a very careful and effective way of formulating national security policy. And throwing into the same hopper three wars that have been fought for different reasons (whether looking at the original rationales or at objectives that later emerged, which in each case were different from the original rationales) doesn't necessarily represent careful policy-making either. But when drawing down or terminating each of these expeditions is in the national interest—which it is—then the national war fatigue is a force for good. It can and should be harnessed to effect a change of course in Afghanistan and Libya and to resist any diversion from the course toward the exit in Iraq.
There are multiple reasons that drawing out rather than drawing down these expeditions would be contrary to U.S. interests; most have to do with the counterproductive nature of military activity that generates or stimulates more of the very kinds of extremism that some of the expeditions supposedly are intended to defeat. But monetary cost is another important reason. It is part of what underlies the unease on Capitol Hill. Amid all the concern about debt and deficits, the monetary cost of the wars should be a major shaper of policy. The cost of the war in Afghanistan in the current fiscal year is $118 billion. One can do all sorts of comparisons with the non-defense federal expenditures that House Republicans are determined to cut (and are using extortion regarding the debt ceiling to try to get their way) to appreciate how much that is and how important a reduction in that part of the federal budget is to addressing the deficit issue.
As for Iraq—where the continuing problems of creeping authoritarianism and festering ethnic and sectarian distrust would not be solved by extending the U.S. troop presence—the appropriate question is how much more of what already is an enormous burden, fiscal and otherwise, it is reasonable to ask Americans to bear. Maybe we should recall the part of the war-promoters' sales pitch that concerned expenses. Iraq is flush in oil, they said. This war could be fought on the cheap, they said. Paul Wolfowitz declared, “There is a lot of money there,” which could be put to “a good use instead of building Saddam’s palaces.” Surely there is a limit to how much more a nation that was duped into such a misadventure should be expected to endure.