It will be fascinating to watch whatever comes out of the remarkable post-election protests in Russia. There are immediate questions of U.S. policy toward Russia, of course, of the sort that Paul Saunders discusses elsewhere in these spaces. But the protests also raise a larger question, with implications beyond Russia, of the relationship between economic and political development. The core issue is whether centers of economic power can persist for long without a distribution of political power that reflects it. Does the creation or enhancement of economic strength lead inevitably to ultimately irresistible demands for political change?
Vladimir Putin evidently has seen what he regards as a political danger along these lines, to which he has responded with the persecution and imprisonment of the most prominent and politically daring of the nouveau super-rich, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. We will now see what happens with the just-declared presidential candidacy of another oligarch (and owner, among other things, of the New Jersey Nets), Mikhail Prokhorov. But the recent protests are not the work of the oligarchs. Nor are they primarily the doing of the economically disadvantaged or of the sorts of intelligentsia who led protests when the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago. As the New York Times describes it, the vanguard of the most recent protests is an urban middle class that economically has done fairly well under Putin. Their current unhappiness lends strong support to the idea that economic betterment does stimulate demands for political rights to catch up.
Some of the most interested outside observers of what is going on in Russia are leaders in China. Their country is one of the leading examples, and certainly the most important one, of a disconnect between sweeping, even explosive, economic change on one hand and static, authoritarian politics on the other. And so far the disconnect shows no sign of ending. The current issue of The Economist has a piece about how Bill Clinton's prediction a decade ago that China's joining the World Trade Organization would likely have “a profound impact on human rights and political liberty” has not yet come true. The Chinese Communist Party has so far kept that from happening by adapting its instruments of political control to a free-market economy. It has worked to ensure, for example, that party cells are established in private firms.
One can think of reasons specific to each country as to why China has been better able than Russia to dampen any political reverberations from an economic wave. The Chinese Communist Party's control is institutionalized in ways more directly related to the country's founding myth than is true of Putinism in Russia. But the political-economic story is far from over in either country. The disconnect between economics and politics will have unsettling effects in both nations, even if it takes longer to show up in one of them.
Image: Leonid Faerberg
It sure is hard to get away from the incessant ringing of alarm bells about the Iranian nuclear program, which receives attention as if it were the greatest threat to civilization as we know it. That certainly is true for any reader of my hometown newspaper, the Washington Post. This week's Sunday Opinion page is dominated by the subject, with a graphic at the top showing a stylized rocket with a radiation symbol taking off from Iranian territory. The page includes a piece by former Bush administration official Michael Makovsky and his associate Blaise Misztal that criticizes the Obama administration for not hewing rigorously to the line that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be the worst possible thing that could happen to the world and must be stopped at all costs. The article is remarkable for the circularity of its reasoning in trying to ascribe dangers to that eventuality. For example, Makovsky and Misztal say that U.S. credibility would be “drained if, after numerous warnings to the contrary, we permit Tehran to cross the nuclear threshold”—which would not be a problem if, per the very aspect of the Obama administration public posture that they are criticizing, the United States does not keep trumpeting how “unacceptable” an Iranian nuke would be. They also say Iran and Israel “would have incentives to initiate a nuclear first strike.” A first strike by Iran would be insane and suicidal and therefore not involve any incentive to do it. A first strike by Israel would be a problem with Israel, not a problem with Iran, and in any event an Israeli first strike even with conventional means is the very sort of danger that the constant drum-beating about the Iranian nuclear program only encourages. Some of the other consequences Makovsky and Misztal mention, such as driving up oil prices, would be far less likely a result of an Iranian nuclear weapon than of any use of military force to try to prevent one.
In the next column over is an op-ed by Ray Takeyh, under the title “Why Tehran seeks the bomb,” that speaks of a purported hope by Iranian leaders that a nuclear-weapons capability would insulate their regime against foreign efforts to undermine it, out of fear over what would happen to the nuclear weapons amid political instability. Takeyh does not make clear whether he believes this hope is well grounded, but he seems to believe it is. Some relevant history might suggest otherwise; this idea wasn't much of a factor in foreign perceptions of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the apartheid regime of South Africa or General Musharraf's rule in Pakistan.
With all the attention in the paper to the Iranian nuclear program, it should not be surprising that the weekly contribution at the bottom of the same page by the Post's ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, is about this subject as well. Specifically, it concerns some sloppy or tendentious writing of headlines, such as “Iran's quest to possess nuclear weapons.” Pexton correctly judges that this headline was misleading and did not belong atop a news story, given that Iran does not yet appear to have decided to build nuclear weapons.
By the way—and another reason Sunday breakfast had a robust Iranian (or anti-Iranian regime) flavor while having the newspaper open to this place—the facing page consists of a full-page advertisement placed by a front group for the Mujahedin-e Khalq, the Iranian terrorist organization whose apologists overlap with those beating the drums about the Iranian nuclear program. Presumably carrying the ad was a decision of the Post's business office, taken in pursuit of much-needed advertising revenue, and not of the news or editorial staffs.
Go back to the opinion pages of the Post just a couple of days earlier, and one gets more of the same. The lead editorial, criticizing administration officials such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta for spelling out the reasons a military attack on Iran would be a very bad idea, is mostly a replay of a piece written a few days earlier by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about which I had some observations at the time. Then on the op-ed page is an item with the title “Iran's deadly ambitions” by former Bush-administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen. Thiessen portrays what is, if he were to be believed, a full-blown cooperative relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda, dedicated to using terrorism to kill Americans.
Ah, that brings back memories—some recent and highly instructive ones. A major part of the Bush administration's tremendous effort to sell the idea of launching an offensive war against Iraq was to promote the notion that Saddam Hussein's regime was acting in cahoots with the terrorist group that did 9/11. As preposterous as such a cooperative relationship would have been, it was a key part of the sales job because the American public's outrage over 9/11 provided the political fuel for making even something as extreme as a major war of aggression thinkable. So the administration, and the neocon promoters of the war outside it, took even the most casual contacts and squishiest reporting and spun out of them a tale of what the president came to describe as an “alliance” between Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda. It was a fantasy. Now Thiessen is doing the same thing with Iran.
A major prop for Thiessen's story is a formal designation of several al-Qaeda members by the Treasury Department in July, accompanied by a Treasury undersecretary's reference to a “secret deal” between Iran and al-Qaeda—apparently another of the Obama administration's attempts to sound conspicuously tough on Iran, no matter how much the tough words may be exploited by those who want to take confrontation with Iran to a far more destructive level than the administration itself wants to. Because nothing new about this story seems to have surfaced in the intervening five months, allow me to replay what I observed about it at the time:
It has been known for some time that al-Qaeda members have been inside Iran. It has been less clear just what the terms of their residence there have been. Most indications suggest that it has been something between imprisonment and house arrest. At least some of the al-Qaeda people in Iran have been able to conduct business of the group from there, but it is unclear again how much of this business is condoned or even known by the Iranian regime. Probably the most that can be said is that the regime, or elements within it, have reasons to have some dealings with the al-Qaeda members, notwithstanding the sharp differences in their objectives. Tehran wants to cement and sustain the rule of the Shia Islamic Republic; al-Qaeda wants to overthrow the established order in the Middle East and establish a Sunni Caliphate.
Despite the provocative phrase “secret deal,” Treasury's announcement says nothing else about any such agreement. The only dealings it describes all seem to have to do with the imprisonment of al-Qaeda members. Only one of the six designated individuals, named Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, is described as “Iran-based”; the other five all live and operate somewhere else and are included in the announcement because they are part of the same network as Khalil. The one bit of business Khalil is said to have with Tehran is that he “works with the Iranian government to arrange releases of al-Qa'ida personnel from Iranian prisons.” One of the other five is said to have “petitioned Iranian officials on al-Qa'ida's behalf to release operatives detained in Iran”—with no indication whether he succeeded. Any connection between the Iranian regime and the group's other activities involving movement of money and operatives is all a matter of innuendo, at least as far as Treasury's announcement is concerned.
In his version of the story, Thiessen tries to connect the idea of dealings with Iran with another al-Qaeda member, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman (since deceased), whom he describes as having been al-Qaeda's operational commander. And so from a report about some other al-Qaeda members asking the Iranians to please let some of their guys out of prison, Thiessen makes the huge leap to saying that “Iran was working directly with al-Qa'ida's operational commander.” There is not a shred of evidence to support that statement. Thiessen goes on to raise the incredible specter of Iran giving al-Qaeda a nuclear weapon.
As the old saying goes: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. The American public was so fooled by the phony conjured-up alliance that was part of Iraq War sales campaign that at one point a solid majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein not only was in league with al-Qaeda but was personally involved in the 9/11 attack. It would be shameful if the public, and the press and punditry that shape public views, were to be fooled again.
Those agitating for a war with Iran got a jolt of reality last week in the form of remarks by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who reminded his listeners at a Saban Center forum why a military attack on Iran in the name of setting back its nuclear program is an atrocious idea. The agitators naturally see the need to push back against the defense secretary, no matter how vacuous the pushback is when examined at all closely. Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in trying to take on Secretary Panetta, exhibits some of the usual characteristics of the prowar agitation, especially the tactic of making the rosiest possible assumptions about the aftermath and consequences of an attack.
Singh allows that the secretary of defense may know of what he speaks when Mr. Panetta noted that an attack would set the Iranian program back only a year or two because some of the nuclear targets are very difficult to reach. But Singh doesn't want to concede the point, saying that recent explosions such as at a missile facility “suggest they are vulnerable” (what does that have to do with the problem Panetta mentioned of not being able to reach—or even to locate—some of the nuclear facilities?) and adding an observation about centrifuges having specialized components, which does nothing to refute the observation that the most that could be expected from an attack is a short delay of the Iranian program.
To Secretary Panetta's reminder that an attack would increase support for the Iranian regime both inside Iran and elsewhere in the region, Singh asserts “it is far more likely” that Arabs “would at least privately cheer a successful attack”—ignoring repeated indications that the prevailing Arab view is instead one of concern about what Iran is doing but opposition to anyone starting a war against it. Singh cites a poll to try to support his point, but the latest poll I am aware of—which I discussed here recently—showed that 64 percent of those polled in five Arab countries believe that Iran has a right to its nuclear program and that the international community should not pressure Iran to give it up, let alone go to war over it. As for sentiment inside Iran, Singh says “far from bolstering the regime an attack may undermine it,” ignoring the strong view of Iranian opposition leaders that an armed attack is the worst thing that could happen to their movement and the best thing that could happen to hard-liners in the regime. In what is perhaps the biggest stretch in his piece, Singh mentions as supposed support for his view a reference in a speech by Supreme Leader Khamenei to how previous Iranian regimes had shown vulnerability in the face of foreign powers—which sounds much more like an expression of defiance and determination not to make the same mistake.
Then there is all the economic and political damage that, as Secretary Panetta also reminded his audience, would result from the Iranian response to an attack, the subsequent escalation and the resulting larger war. Singh tries to turn tables on the secretary by criticizing him for making it sound like we would not strike back hard to their striking back—as if our tough talk would be enough to diminish the Iranian response to an armed attack on their territory. To have some sense of how little sense this makes, ask yourself if someone else's tough talk would diminish our response to an armed attack on our territory. One might add that it would not be necessary for Secretary Panetta to say any of this if it were not for people like Singh agitating for a disastrous war in the first place.
The end of Singh's piece exhibits another common attribute of the agitation, which is to promote the notion of having to be resigned to the inevitability of a military attack. “The timing may not be up to us,” says Singh. But of course not only the timing, but also whether to launch a war at all, would be very much up to us (or to the Israelis, if they are the ones who start such a war). The idea that “we would have no choice” to launching a war or “there would be no other option” is probably the single most persistent theme in the prowar campaign. The strategy is clear and simple. It really doesn't matter to the prowar crowd how feeble their arguments are (one can easily picture Singh wincing at some of his own) as long as the idea of a war with Iran is kept prominently in play. Keep it in play long enough (maybe until after a new president takes office) while continually repeating the further theme that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be absolutely unacceptable, and eventually there would be a time to declare that we have “no other option” but to launch a crazy war, even when a case had never really been made for one.
The conference on Afghanistan that was just held in Bonn was underwhelming in its results, and it was no surprise that it was. The Pakistanis stayed away, the Iranians attended but were rather snippy, aid donors held back to see what other aid donors would do, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai painted a discouraging picture of what looked like indefinite dependence of his country on international largesse. The conference communique hardly broke any new ground.
It would be a mistake to conclude from this result, however, that vigorous multilateral diplomacy involving players in the region should not be a major front in the handling of the Afghan problem in the months and years ahead. The conflict in Afghanistan cries out for heavy regional involvement. The country poses security problems to its neighbors at all azimuths. These include Pakistan's concerns about ethnic separatism, China's concerns about Islamic extremists, Iran's concerns about narcotics, India's concerns about Pakistan, and many other worries among these and other regional players. The players with worries are also players who can be part of the problem in Afghanistan if they are not part of the solution. There is no reason Afghanistan should remain primarily an American project. Because of geographic proximity and other factors, the regional players have plenty of incentive to stay involved somehow, whether or not a constructive and cooperative channel for involvement is provided to them.
The conference came at an inopportune time. It was held amid a downturn in U.S. relations with Pakistan, which is the most important of the regional players. U.S. relations with Iran are as bad as ever, with the surge in militant drum-beating on the U.S side and the incident with the downed drone not helping either. Chalk up the unfortunate timing to the desire to hold a meeting at the ten-year anniversary of the first Bonn conference on Afghanistan, which devised the structure for the current Afghan political order.
The United States needs to keep working energetically on regional diplomacy as a major front in its handling of the Afghan problem, whether it is in the form of more big conferences or less publicized negotiations. This is true regardless of the extent to which Taliban leaders get engaged in an internal peace process. Regional diplomacy aimed at joint tackling of the Afghanistan problem also can have the bonus effect of encouraging cooperation and better relations on other issues between the United States and regional powers, especially Iran and Pakistan.
Just when one might have thought that the bowing of American politicians to the preferences of the current Israeli government—even those preferences destructive to Israel's own interests—could not go any lower, we get the disgusting and totally unjustified calls by Republican presidential candidates for the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, to be fired. The ambassador's offense was to say something—anything—that linked in any way the lack of a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to hostile feelings toward Jews.
Read Ambassador Gutman's speech. It is carefully crafted and entirely consistent with U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and with what supposedly is Israel's policy as well, in the sense of a negotiated settlement of the dispute being an accepted goal). It is diplomatic, inoffensive and appropriate for the forum at which it was delivered: a conference on fighting anti-Semitism in Europe. The ambassador, who is Jewish, devotes the first part of the speech to relating how his Polish-born father tried to join the anti-German resistance and spent the rest of World War II in hiding, emerging at the end of the war to discover that the Nazis had wiped out the entire town where he grew up. The main observation Ambassador Gutman offers later in the speech about anti-Semitism is that it has multiple sources. It includes traditional hatred against Jews and often other minorities, for the sake of hatred and for no other reason than that the minorities are different from those doing the hating. It also includes hatred that reflects tensions involving the unresolved conflict over Palestine. The ambassador goes on essentially to restate policy regarding the need for a negotiated settlement of that conflict—stating it in a meticulously even-handed way that avoids suggesting that there is any more responsibility on one side of the conflict than on the other.
All of this is plainly, unambiguously true, including the observation that tensions and resentments over the unresolved Palestinian issue help to feed animosity that in many places is translated not only into pointed opposition to Israeli policies but also into diffuse animosity against Jews. There are decades of evidence for that observation. But evidently any hint that the unresolved status of the Palestinian issue has wider untoward effects is not something that the Israeli government wants anyone to hear. And if the Israeli government doesn't want it to be heard, then American politicians will express manufactured outrage that anyone is saying such things.
So we get Mitt Romney stating: "President Obama must fire his ambassador to Belgium for rationalizing and downplaying anti-Semitism and linking it to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The ambassador's comments demonstrate the Obama administration's failure to understand the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel and its appalling penchant for undermining our close ally." Nothing in the ambassador's remarks even remotely resembles “rationalizing and downplaying anti-Semitism.” Nothing Romney says gives us any reason to ignore the voluminous indications that Israeli policy toward the Palestinians does contribute to present-day anti-Semitism. And if one is worried about delegitimization of Israel, what is currently contributing to that danger more than anything else is the linking, by the Israeli government and its supporters, of Israel itself to an unending occupation of conquered territory that most other people legitimately consider as illegitimate.
We also get Rick Perry saying, "Ambassador Gutman's troubling statement is part of a pattern of hostility on the part of the Obama administration toward Israel." There wasn't the slightest note of hostility toward Israel in anything the ambassador said. And we get Newt Gingrich saying on Twitter, "Pres Obama should fire his ambassador to Brussels for being so wrong about anti-semitism"—which only demonstrates how wrong Gingrich is about it.
We could just brush this off as more of the campaign nonsense that we hear so much of, putting it alongside things like the Romney ad that portrays an old Obama description of a McCain view as if it were Obama's own view. But there is more serious damage on this one. If a whole subject—a subject that involves so much conflict and so much damage to U.S. interests, as well as so much hatred and resentment on both sides—is out of bounds for any discussion, U.S. policy making is in trouble.
An irony is that a supposed basis for Israel being a “close ally” of the United States is that the two countries both cherish the freedoms of liberal democracy, including free and open discussion of public issues.
Results of the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections—in which the Muslim Brotherhood came in first, followed by a Salafist party—have stimulated still more of what has been a common response to the Arab Spring ever since it began: the fear that Islamists might derail or hijack democratization in Arab countries. The response has often taken the form of a simple “Islamists dangerous, non-Islamists okay” attitude. There are three basic problems with this outlook, besides its crudeness. One is lack of clarity about exactly what is the danger that Islamists supposedly pose. A second is lack of explanation as to why Islamists in particular would pose it. The third is lack of analysis of whether Islamists could carry out feared acts even if they wanted to.
If discontinuation of democracy itself is the supposed danger, bear in mind that the targets of any alarmism about this are political parties that are gaining shares of political power through democratic methods. To be sure, there is the possibility of democratically elected elements subsequently trying to retain power through undemocratic means, but why should Islamists be any more likely to try that than anyone else? It is not hard to find examples of such attempts, and they are not Islamists. One recent example is Laurent Gbagbo, the president of Ivory Coast who, after losing a reelection bid, refused to give up his office until forced out with the help of a foreign military intervention. (Gbagbo, by the way, drew most of his support from the Christian southern part of the country; his opponent who won the election gets more of his from the Muslim north.) Then there is the democratically elected Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who has been unashamedly entrenching himself into what he seems to want to turn into a presidency for life. The idea of one man, one vote, one time is a fear that has come to be associated with Middle Eastern Islamists, but only as a fear—as with the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria in 1992—and not as part of a historical record.
The notion of Islamists hijacking democracy sometimes seems to have less to do with democracy itself than with liberalism—the idea that Islamists will use political power to impose restrictions on daily life that many of us, if subjected to them, would find uncomfortable or even abhorrent. It is indeed likely that at least some Islamist parties and movements, if given the necessary political power, would effect such restrictions. But we in the West should bear in mind three things. First, this does not entail any compromise with democracy, if whatever laws are imposed are imposed by those who have been elected democratically. What we would be seeing in action is the tension between democracy and individual liberty which sometimes crops up in our own political systems (which is why we have something like the U.S. Bill of Rights). Second, any judgments we make about this involve an application of our own social values to somebody else's society. If something we see is repugnant to our values, it is quite right for us to speak up about it. But we need to remember that the line between what is repugnant and what is merely different is neither clear nor universally accepted. Third and most important, this is again nothing specific to Islamists. One doesn't even have to go far from the Arab Middle East to find non-Islamist examples. We hear today, for instance, of the rights and freedoms of Israeli women being endangered by the growing influence of government-coddled ultra-Orthodox Jewish elements. How is this any different from women's rights being endangered by Islamists who gain shares of political power in Arab countries? The use of political power to restrict freedoms and impose the narrow values of elements that have gained a share of power is also seen in the United States, under the heading of “social issues”; the work of anti-abortion forces is perhaps the most evident example.
As for the lack of analysis of what Islamists actually could do if they were bent on doing something nasty like overturning democracy, how do you suppose, say, the Egyptian military would react to that? They would be unlikely to stay in their barracks.
The strongest real reasons for the alarms about Islamists gaining political power are not the explicitly stated ones. There is, first of all, the fact that Islamist parties just happen to be, as a function of history, discipline, organization and popular appeal, currently in the best position to succeed in the new democratic politics of countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. Democratization in the Arab world certainly is fragile and can stumble badly in the months and years ahead. Islamist parties will be in the thick of any such bad news—not because they are Islamist, but because their political success has put them in that position. A related reason is that whatever anyone does not like about the changes associated with the Arab Spring—such as a downturn in the tone of Egyptian-Israeli relations—gets associated with Islamists, again not because of any particular religiously based ideology but because of political success based on popular appeal. Egyptians are sounding unfriendlier toward Israel because with Israel's pal Hosni Mubarak gone, they are expressing more freely their feelings about Israeli policy. They would be expressing those sentiments regardless of whether the Muslim Brotherhood or secular liberals were winning elections.
There are a couple of additional reasons for the alarmism. One is sloppy thinking in failing to distinguish radical Islamists (who of course have represented the most salient and worrisome form of transnational extremist violence in recent years) from all other political Islamists. A final reason is simple Islamophobia.
The challenge that Nazi Germany posed to the Western powers prior to World War II has been by far the most frequently invoked analogy in discussions of national-security policy in the subsequent three-quarters of a century. No other historical episode gets mentioned as often by pundits and policy makers in arguing that some menace or supposed menace needs to be confronted firmly. As with the use of many other historical analogies, the lesson being drawn has been stripped and dumbed down. What is drawn from the Nazi analogy is an adage that a threat must be stopped forcefully now to avoid a bigger and costlier fight later. The finer points of when it actually is or is not advantageous to utilize force or escalate a confrontation get lost in the dumbing down. Also lost are the details of the real 1930s-era European diplomacy that is the supposed source of the lesson. The poor use of this analogy has contributed to at least as many unwise as wise uses of force. The analogy was a major influence, for example, on the thinking of the Johnson-administration policy makers who led the United States into the Vietnam War.
The misguided use of this one piece of history is being taken a step further in current agitation for yet another disastrous war, this time against Iran. The historical usage in question is displayed by the prime source of the agitation—the current rightist government of Israel—and by its American neoconservative friends. The latter are undeterred by their recent association with the campaign to launch the war in Iraq, a campaign that also repeatedly invoked the Nazi comparison. The more recent invocations have not just been the making of a point about advantageous timing in confronting threats. They seem to try to equate Iran with the threat from Nazism. The most recent neocon example of excessive use of the comparison is an op-ed by Max Boot, who mentions Hitler or the Nazis no less than three times. Boot's piece also exemplifies other common deficiencies of the neocon prowar agitation, especially a disregard for the multitudinous negative consequences of a resort to military force; see Eli Clifton's commentary on Boot's article for a helpful summary of the deficiencies.
The immediate danger, of course, of this misguided use of a historical analogy is to increase the chance of yet another war with calamitous effects on U.S. interests. It would be a war against a country that is most definitely not a Nazi Germany and whose leaders are definitely not Hitlers. There is nothing in the Iran case, in terms of either intentions or capabilities, that remotely resembles the Nazi threat. There is no intention to capture lebensraum. There is no plan for a monumental genocide. And Iranian leaders know full well that Israel is here to stay, however much political mileage some of them get from rants against it.
There also is other, broader and longer-term damage from the loose, profligate playing of the Nazi card. Repeatedly playing the card represents a failure to discriminate among different levels of threat. That undermines the tailoring of policy responses to make them appropriate for each threat. More specifically, it diminishes appreciation for the enormous magnitude of what the real Nazis did. If even problems that do not come anywhere close to what they did are rhetorically equated with Nazism, then the currency of discourse about human evil is debased. The rhetorical equation undermines understanding of the gigantic scale of the evil that the Nazis perpetrated, including the Holocaust.
There is a cry wolf problem as well. We can hope that another evil comparable in scale will never arise. But if one does, we should also hope that the most potent rhetorical ammunition would have been saved for the occasion. We would be in trouble if cries of alarm go unheeded because “This is another Hitler!” had been said so many times about lesser problems and because some of those usages led to costly, unnecessary wars.
Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J00282 / CC-BY-SA
Mitt Romney’s highly profitable career in the private sector forms the basis of much of his appeal. People aspire to wealth; when someone has been conspicuously successful in acquiring it, the belief follows that the person in question must be doing something right. Romney’s campaign has played up the idea that the candidate’s business acumen is just what the country needs in its chief executive. What it really would mean to transfer to government the skills and approach Romney demonstrated in his private-sector career, however, requires closer consideration not only of the approach itself but also of how the tasks of a government chief executive resemble or differ from the tasks Romney performed while making his fortune.
He made the fortune (i.e., the part that was not inherited) as head of Bain Capital, a private-equity firm that bought companies (often mostly with borrowed money) with the hope of reselling them for a profit. His mission was not to build businesses but instead to extract as much profit as possible from temporary ownership of them. The extraction was ruthless, which more than made up for the losses from bets that did not pay off. Although in the current economic climate Romney naturally has talked a lot about job creation and tried to associate that concept with business experience, his own experience had at least as much to do with slashing jobs as with creating them. And although Romney and his associates at Bain added value to the management of firms they bought (if they didn’t, it would be hard to resell them for a profit), ultimately the long-term soundness of a company did not matter to them because they did not intend to keep them for the long term.
Even acquisitions that could be counted as successes were handled in a way in which Bain Capital’s profits always came before the health of the acquired company. A profile of Bain’s handling of a medical-equipment company it bought shows all the ruthlessness, including the extracting of fat management fees to Bain, the layoffs, and the penny-pinching treatment of employees who were not laid off. The last act of Bain Capital’s ownership of the firm was to squeeze the firm's managers into using borrowed money to buy back Bain's share and much of its partners' shares. The transaction put the company so heavily in debt that it soon went into bankruptcy (although it later recovered).
The management of government has several important and fundamental differences from all of this. Government obviously does not have profit as a standard of success and failure. It doesn't have any single standard. Governmental leaders have to deal with multiple and often conflicting domestic interests, reflecting multiple constituencies. In this regard, the kind of private-sector business experience that would be most relevant is not the private-equity game in which everything is reduced to the game-player's profits but instead the management of a company that actually provides a good or service and in which managers have to deal regularly and over the long term with customers, suppliers, creditors, shareholders, local communities and other constituencies. Multiple and conflicting interests, moreover, are not just a matter of multiple constituencies. They also show up in many aspects of foreign and security policy, even if the nation as a whole is considered a single constituency.
Another difference is that a head of government cannot pick and choose which lines of business he wants to be in. He cannot buy into lines that look attractive, stay out of ones that don't, and cut losses in ones that he tried but that did not work out. The services that are demanded of government, moreover, are mostly permanent. The only thing permanent about Bain Capital's activities was Bain Capital's financial coffers.
In the face of this incongruity, the application of Romney's private-sector experience to politics takes a form that can be seen in some respects in his current campaign. Monetary profit becomes electability, measured not in dollars and cents but instead in poll numbers and votes. Winning an election and taking office becomes the equivalent of closing a deal and taking ownership of a company. In this framework, Romney's notorious flip-flopping is unsurprising. Just as temporarily owned companies are only means to the end of a private-equity artist's profits, so too are policy positions only temporary means to the end of greater electability. Here again, different private-sector experiences would have different implications. The line manager of an operating company may be deeply, even passionately committed to building the best possible widget and offering it at the lowest possible price—and in so doing not just making a fair profit but also providing a needed good or service. The private-equity artist's world is devoid of any such substantive commitment.
Some other echoes of Romney's private-sector methods showed up in his tenure as governor of Massachusetts. A profile of that tenure in National Journal describes an episode involving an accident in which four Boston high-school students were struck by a pickup truck after a snowfall. Romney reacted by firing the state's conservation commissioner, whose department was responsible for clearing roads. He took that action even though the commissioner was admired and respected for taking firm control of an agency that previously had been plagued with mismanagement. As the National Journal article notes, the firing “chilled other administration officials, who feared that the governor was far more willing to let the buck stop at their doors than at his.” This kind of blame-shifting technique is hardly unique to Romney; we have seen others in Washington use it. But it comes most naturally to someone who does not see organizations under him as anything for which he feels responsibility or to which he feels a lasting commitment. They are again just means to the end of profit/electability.
If Romney is elected president, the federal government would be only the latest, albeit the biggest, of the companies that he has temporarily controlled. As with the companies that Bain Capital bought and sold, there is no way of knowing in advance what substantive policies Romney would see most to his advantage. The campaign flip-flopping provides little guidance in this regard. And as with the private businesses, the long-term health of the organization would not be a concern to Romney; he would instead be concerned only with what sells and with what would be profitable for him—however he would choose to define profit in this circumstance.
At the end of his period of controlling this latest and largest company, Romney would not need to find a buyer for it. After either four or eight years, he could simply walk away from it and into one of the most comfortable and respected positions anywhere, that of ex-president. He could leave the government, as he left that medical-equipment company, deeply in debt. That's what the most recent president of his party did.
In discussions in the United States about the Middle East, misperceptions abound regarding what Middle Easterners believe and what they want regarding their own region. Some of the misperceptions are repeated often enough that they become common wisdom and an accepted baseline for discussion about U.S. policy. There is, for example, the one about how Arabs around the Persian Gulf are supposedly hankering for a military strike against Iran's nuclear program; that one apparently stems from misreading a single line by a Saudi official. Then there is the idea that the Arab League's initial stance regarding outside intervention in Libya reflects broader popularity of NATO's military action.
One of the best correctives to mistaken notions of Arab sentiment is the annual polling of public opinion directed by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution. His most recent poll of Arab opinion, released this month, was based on interviews of 3,000 respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. It is a carefully constructed poll, not designed to support a cause or prove a point. Some of the results speak directly to current policy debates.
Regarding that current preoccupation, the Iranian nuclear program, 35 percent of Arabs believe Iranian acquisition of weapons of mass destruction would be negative for the Middle East, but 64 percent nonetheless believe that Iran has a right to its nuclear program and that the international community should not pressure Iran to stop it. Partly underlying this result is a general sentiment toward Iran that does not seem as fearful as it is commonly made out to be. When respondents were asked to name two countries that pose the biggest threat to them, 18 percent named Iran. Well ahead of Iran were the United States (59 percent) and, at the top of the list, Israel (71 percent).
As for the Western intervention in Libya, there is no groundswell of support. Thirty-five percent said it was the right thing to do, but 46 percent believe it was the wrong thing to do.
A comparison of last year's results with this year's shows a bit of encouraging improvement in the standing of the United States, from the abyss to which it sank during the presidency of George W. Bush. A clear majority (59 percent) still hold unfavorable views of the United States, but those with favorable views rose from 10 percent in 2010 to 26 percent in 2011. A majority (52 percent) still say they are discouraged by the Obama administration's policy in the Middle East, but this is down from 65 percent in 2010.
Other questions disentangled these sentiments to highlight exactly what Arabs liked and disliked in what they saw coming from Washington. They like the administration's handling of the Arab Spring; when asked to name two countries that had played the most constructive role in the region the past few months, 24 percent named the United States. (The big winner in this category, as well as on other measures of the popularity of outside powers, was Turkey.) To a question that provided more options in assessing the Obama administration, a plurality (41 percent) said they have a favorable view of the president personally but “I don't think the American system will allow him to have a successful foreign policy.” When asked what was most disappointing about the Obama administration's performance over the past year, by far the dominant choice was “Palestine/Israel.” Consistent with that, when respondents were asked what two steps by the United States would most improve their view of the United States, the top choices were an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement (55 percent) and stopping aid to Israel (42 percent).
The poll strongly belied any notion that the Palestinian issue is not still a very strong and salient concern of people of the region. The poll also shows a conciliatory attitude among most Arabs coupled with realistic pessimism. Sixty-seven percent say they are prepared for peace with Israel involving a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. But most Arabs (53 percent) believe such a solution will never happen, and similar numbers (54 percent) believe the absence of a two-state solution will spell “intense conflict for years to come.”
Overall the results reveal a relatively mature and sophisticated separation of beliefs and predictions from sentiments and preferences. That is more than can be said of much American discussion of the Middle East, which reflects American politics more than realities in the region.
The incident on Saturday in which NATO airstrikes killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers at border outposts was an accident waiting to happen. In fact, similar accidents had already happened along the Afghan-Pakistani border, although with smaller death tolls. This most recent incident also has greater impact because it occurs at a moment when U.S.-Pakistani relations were already very bad and the Pakistani response will be more severe, including kicking the United States out of an airbase used to recover and service drones, cutting off NATO's supply lines for what will probably be a longer period than with previous interruptions and a possible Pakistani boycott of an international conference intended to address Afghanistan's future.
Regardless of what post-mortem inquiries uncover about the specific events on the ground that preceded the incident, the event had two fundamental causes. One is the convoluted and almost self-contradictory nature of what the war in Afghanistan has become, with lines of contention that defy logic. Militants based in Pakistan foray across the border to conduct operations in Afghanistan, while other militants—of similar ilk but organizationally separate—use the cover of chaos in Afghanistan as a base for operations in Pakistan. The rationale of a U.S.-led counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is to combat a terrorist group that has hardly anyone in Afghanistan. In the face of that last fact, the rationale sometimes instead becomes the security and stability of Pakistan, even though operations conducted as part of the counterinsurgency have if anything made things more difficult for Pakistani security forces. And the same Pakistani regime on behalf of whose stability the counterinsurgency is supposedly being waged maintains cooperative relationships with some of the very insurgents against whom the war is fought. With lines of contention like that, it is little wonder that confusion can bring about something like Saturday's lethal incident.
The second cause is that, even when the lines of contention are clearer, stuff happens in the fog of war—destructive, unintended stuff. The “friendly fire” incidents that have accounted for a proportion of casualties in each of America's recent wars are one indication of that. This is not a matter of ill-disciplined troops. It instead is a fact of life in war, one that applies even to the best led and most rigorously trained forces.
Two lessons follow. One is that there should be no straying from the exit path to get the United States out of the now-illogical war in Afghanistan. The other is that when contemplating any large-scale use of military force, the possibility of accidents like this—and whatever political or other cost to the United States flows from them—needs to be factored into the decision making. No such use of military force ever goes according to plan, and sometimes what is unplanned turns out to be most costly and consequential.