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Paul Pillar

Israeli-Palestinian Diplomacy is Alive

The deal between Israel and Hamas to exchange captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for about 1,000 imprisoned Palestinians is one of the oh-so-rare bright spots in anything having to do with negotiations between Israel and Palestinians. The deal is good news, of course, for the prisoners on both sides being released and for their families. For the rest of us, the good news is that despite the strong and unrelenting animosity in both directions between the two parties that struck the deal, a deal was nonetheless struck. And this was a complex agreement. It involves a phased release of the Palestinian prisoners and a possible side agreement between Israel and Egypt, which played a mediating role, entailing an Israeli apology for the recent killing of Egyptian security personnel following a cross-border Palestinian raid.

The motives of the two parties to the agreement are not all pure. They both would like to sideline the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas. Isn't it ironic that such bitter adversaries as Hamas and Israel share an interest in sticking it to someone who has been an interlocutor to both?  It is further ironic that the Israeli government, which has repeatedly avowed its refusal to have anything to do with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, is willing to strike a separate deal with Hamas itself.

Political and diplomatic conditions have evolved in ways that made a deal more feasible now than before. Abbas's statehood initiative at the United Nations, for example, may have given Netanyahu's government all the more incentive to make Abbas look irrelevant. Probably at least as important is that the Palestinians' turn to peaceful protest rather than violent resistance to Israeli occupation lessened Israeli concerns about future violence involving some of the released prisoners.

The main lesson from the prisoner swap deal is that even strong enmity between the parties does not preclude agreements, including complex agreements, if there is sufficient will to strike a deal. Yes, some of the final status issues that divide Israel and the Palestinians are inherently challenging, but the main impediment to a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian agreement is not the challenging nature of the issues but a lack of will to resolve them.

UN, Post-Conflict

The Long European View of Security

I was in Brussels today speaking at a conference on radicalization and jihadi terrorism. The host was the Royal Institute for International Relations, which is underwritten by the Belgian foreign ministry. The institute in recent years has taken on the alternative shorter name of the Egmont Institute, after the ornate palace where it holds its events, including today's conference. The builder and first resident of the Egmont Palace was a mid-sixteenth century Count of Egmont, who also was a legendary Flemish nationalist and warrior who met his death resisting Spanish rule. The drama of the count's life was the basis of a play by Goethe titled Egmont, for which Beethoven wrote incidental music, including the frequently performed overture. The setting of this palace was a fitting reminder of how long and extensive is the experience of people in this part of the world with threats to security and with finding ways to deal with them.

The ambassador who is head of the institute remarked to me in a private conversation that Americans seemed to him to have a “siege mentality”—a reference to U.S. responses on immigration, homeland security, aggressive counterterrorist measures and other matters. This was the observation of an official of Belgium, a country that has far more historical and geographic basis for feeling besieged than does the United States. If it wasn't the Habsburg rule that the Count of Egmont battled against, it was subjugation by the French to the south or the Dutch to the north, or Belgium being turned into a battlefield by great powers, including in the world wars of the twentieth century.

People in this part of the world, including European participants in the conference, being part of a culture that has developed amid that kind of history and is less encumbered than America by a twenty-first century siege mentality, are better able than Americans to see the downsides of that mentality and the policies that sometimes result from it. There were many references to downsides associated with the American “war on terror.” There also were reminders from European participants of how much the present-day Islamist variety of terrorism is not as different in important respects from earlier varieties, with which the Europeans also have had long experience, than Americans tend to think.

A recurring major theme of the conference was that radicalization is not to be equated with propensity to become a terrorist. The more diverse political traditions of nearly every European country in contrast with the historically more homogeneous American political culture leads Europeans to be less quick to see a security threat emerging out of every radical or alien-sounding thought. It is a difference that Louis Hartz identified half a century ago in his analysis of what he called the liberal tradition in America. It is a difference we see today in some perspectives toward the Arab Spring.

All of this is a reminder of how much America's peculiar geography and history have led to peculiar views—although Americans themselves do not tend to see them this way—of security and of interactions with the rest of the world.

The Longest War

Now at the ten-year mark, America's war in Afghanistan is still subject to competing interpretations of its progress, or lack of it. The data on casualties, violent incidents, number of Afghan army troops and much else can be—and are—parsed in different ways to reach different conclusions. When a war has gone on for this long, however, its sheer longevity has consequences, for the war itself and for how we think about it. Three thoughts in particular are relevant.

First, NATO's forces have worn out their welcome. They were welcome in many respects early in Operation Enduring Freedom and in some respects and by some Afghans even now. But the biggest motivation for insurgency in Afghanistan has for some time been opposition to foreign occupation. The longer the foreign troops have been on Afghan soil, the more grating has been their presence and the more Afghans there are who take up arms against the foreigners, no matter how many of their predecessors have been killed off.

Second, the amount of time that has transpired ought to make us skeptical that there are more corners in this war yet to be turned and more lights to see at the end of tunnels. One sometimes hears that it was only recently that a winning strategy was implemented, or that sufficient resources were applied to the task. Such hopeful expressions wear thinner with each passing year.

Third, we need to resist the psychological tendencies that commonly accompany costly efforts, especially the treating of sunk costs as if they were an investment to be recouped. The longer a war goes on, the more marked are such tendencies. There are ample indications of such tendencies in discussion of the war in Afghanistan. One hears the hope, echoing Lincoln, that those who have died will not have died in vain. But the dead will never come back, no matter what happens henceforth in the war. The only calculation to make is how much can be accomplished with still more dying.

Afghanistan

The Abuse of Foreign Aid

The United States does not do foreign aid well. This includes bilateral development assistance as well as subsidies to multilateral efforts, including contributions to international organizations that are more in the nature of dues than aid. The problem is not new. Back in the 1960s and 1970s the biggest influence on the size and shape of U.S. foreign aid was Representative Otto Passman, a Louisiana Democrat who chaired the House appropriations subcommittee that covered the subject. Passman never met a foreign aid program he liked, and his consistent approach to the subject was to cut, cut and cut some more. Such Congressional treatment, coupled with a broader American public dislike for aid programs and for international organizations, firmly established the United States as the Scrooge of the West. In a calculation by the Congressional Research Service a few years ago, of all the aid donors of Europe and North America plus Japan and Australia (22 nations in all), the United States ranked second to last (above only Italy) in overseas development assistance as a percentage of gross national income (GNI). Even the now teetering-on-default Greece ranked higher. The highest country on the list, Norway, spent 0.87 percent of GNI on development assistance; the United States spent 0.18 percent. Otto Passman is no longer with us, but U.S. aid is now facing more substantial cuts.

There are different legitimate views about both the economic and the political efficacy of overseas development assistance, centered particularly on issues of how much the benefits go to broader populations in the countries concerned as opposed to elites. It would be worth discussing how better to shape incentives through carefully designed conditions attached to aid. The Millennium Challenge Corporation created by the George W. Bush administration had some of the right ideas. But the most conspicuous conditions imposed by the U.S. Congress have nothing to do with political or economic betterment and instead lots to do with the pathologies of U.S. politics. There has been the insertion of anti-abortion dogma, for example, even in family-planning programs that don't do abortions anyway. And then there is the manipulation of aid and contributions to international organizations as another manifestation of Congress's thralldom to Israel.

Israel itself, the largest recipient of all forms of U.S. aid combined, enjoys its $3 billion annually without the slightest whiff of conditions despite behavior that has been highly troublesome to U.S. interests, including the continued colonization of disputed territory that makes the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever more distant. Meanwhile, there is an aid-slashing uproar on Capitol Hill about the far smaller assistance given to the Palestinian Authority, just because the Palestinian leadership had the temerity to ask for multilateral reaffirmation at the United Nations of what supposedly is a goal shared by the United States and Israel and a central purpose of what passes for a Middle East peace process—namely, Palestinian statehood.

That aid-slashing fulmination is now extending beyond assistance to the Palestinians themselves to include financial support to international organizations that have had anything positive to say about that goal. On Wednesday the executive board of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization approved by a vote of 40-4 full membership for the Palestinians. Afterward an unnamed official of the Obama administration made the strange comment that “We do not believe that the objective we all have—two states, Palestine and Israel—can be achieved through a culture and science organization in Paris.” Who ever said it could? Now there is scurrying to see whether existing legislation that was targeted against the Palestinians, or still more legislation that has been introduced, will mandate a cutoff of U.S. financial support to UNESCO. Yes, sir, ending assistance to the cultural and scientific projects of UNESCO certainly will advance the cause of peace in the Middle East, won't it?

The Israeli ambassador to UNESCO said, “We hope and pray that the UNESCO authorities will realize—and the Palestinians will realize—that there is a very high price to be paid, in American participation in UNESCO.” So Israel is brandishing the threat of the United States not participating in an international organization. Incredible. And humiliating for the United States.

Israel, United States

Paying a Price at the Security Council

Western governments are in one sense entitled to be “outraged” (the word that U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice used) over the vetoes Tuesday by China and Russia at the United Nations Security Council of a resolution condemning the Syrian regime's abuses against its own population. Although long negotiations already had watered down the resolution more than the United States wanted, Russia and China objected to the hint that was still in the resolution of possible future sanctions if Syrian behavior didn't change. Whether or not (as Rice charged, and as Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin vigorously denied) the Russians and Chinese are most interested in selling arms to Damascus, the vetoes can hardly be described as noble. The last two times that Moscow and Beijing cast Security Council vetoes in tandem—and neither one has exercised the veto very often in recent years—were to kill resolutions criticizing the military junta in Burma in 2007 and the regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2008. How's that for attractive company, President Assad? Probably the Russian and Chinese motivations were a mixture of concern for their own relations with the Assad regime (possibly with an arms trade) and avoiding the sort of multilateral condemnation that could in the future be directed against some of their own activities (and that gets into anything China construes as “internal” affairs).

The unfavorable turn in the Security Council proceedings, however, can partly be blamed on the Western governments' own missteps. The resolution did not get the backing of any of the BRICS, which besides China and Russia also include Brazil, India, and South Africa. The BRICS pointed out that the earlier Western-proposed Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya was supposedly about protecting endangered civilians but turned into a prolonged NATO intervention aimed at overthrowing the Libyan regime. The BRICS say they do not want something similar to happen with Syria. The BRICS have a point. Even if a NATO military intervention in Syria is unlikely, a similar bait-and-switch seems in the making with sanctions. The vetoed resolution hints at sanctions if the Syrian regime does not change its behavior, but Western leaders (including President Obama, after much hullaballoo on this subject in Washington) are talking about changing the regime, not just changing behavior. So the failure this week at the Security Council is partly a price Western governments are paying for two mistakes. One is a disingenuous resolution (and equally disingenuous rhetoric) about their intentions in Libya, and another is confusion about the purpose of sanctions (a topic I have addressed previously, with reference not only to Syria but to other target countries such as Iran).

It is hard enough to get the Russians and Chinese to cooperate on worthwhile multilateral actions. It is too bad when Western governments give them rationales and reasons to cooperate even less.

Freedom, Democracy, and Religion in Egypt

We who enjoy life in a liberal democracy tend to get so comfortable with our civic values that we sometimes lose sight of the inherent contradictions, or at least tensions, that they entail. Freedom and democracy get discussed in a mashed-together fashion as if they were a single overriding value, which they are not. Freedom—the “liberal” part of liberal democracy—bumps up against the democracy part insofar as it implies, as it should, protecting a sphere of individual liberty from the impositions of government, regardless of whether the government's actions reflect the will of the majority. Even the most stable liberal democracies reflect a compromise between these different values, and there is no clear guide to where the compromise should be struck. The writers of the U.S. Constitution did not get it quite right the first time, needing to add quickly to their original handiwork a bill of rights to nudge the compromise more in the direction of liberties.

We can see these tensions playing out in the current competition among Egyptians over the establishment of a new political order in their country. The competition in Egypt has significant parallels with the issues that concerned the American founding fathers, although in the Egyptian case there is a bigger religious dimension than there was in the earliest days of the United States. I'm not talking about the Islamophobic fears being expressed outside Egypt. A retreat from democracy of the “one man, one vote, one time” variety is no more the preserve of Islamists than it is of, say, secular leftists. And an Islamist coloration of a future Egyptian government should preclude nothing regarding Egypt's foreign relations. Instead I'm referring to the same liberty-versus-democracy tension. Egyptian liberals have proposed a bill of rights to prevent an Islamist majority from imposing restrictions on individual freedoms in the name of upholding religiously based morality. Islamists charge that the proposal is undemocratic. To the extent a majority of Egyptians would favor involving their government in upholding such morality, the Islamist charge would be correct.

Americans and other outsiders do not have a stake in this, except in the sense of an empathetic placing of oneself in the shoes of Egyptians. If I were an Egyptian, I would be firmly in the camp of liberals opposed to any attempt to legislate religiously based morality and in favor of constitutional restrictions to prevent any such attempt (just as I am opposed to attempts here in the United States to let religious dogma influence laws or other actions of the state). But I would have to acknowledge that my defense of this aspect of liberty might run up against the will of the majority of the moment and in that sense would be to some extent undemocratic.

In Egypt the tension involved would become all the more acute if the Egyptian military assumed a role similar to the one the Turkish military used to play, as the guardian of a secular order. What would a good liberal democrat have to say about that?

There is no more of a school solution to these tensions for Egyptians than there was for Americans. Egyptians will have to work out their own formula for juggling conflicting values. Whatever formula they arrive at will involve some compromise of values that we, and many Egyptians, hold dear.

Egypt, United States

The Killings in Yemen and the Rule of Law

The world is a better place with Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan no longer around. Al-Awlaki was a principal figure in the Yemen-based group that calls itself al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which in recent years has been the most active Sunni extremist band seeking to inflict harm on the United States. Al-Awlaki and Khan both were skillfully using their U.S. backgrounds to put lethal ideas in the heads of impressionable young American Muslims.

But if the killing of these men was solely a matter of acting upon these sorts of observations about dangers they posed, the killings would not be fundamentally different from many arbitrary, lethal actions taken by dictatorships who have perceived threats coming from expatriates. I have said that missile strikes from drones to eliminate individual terrorists are a tool that should not be removed from the counterterrorist tool kit, but that the criteria for designating and identifying targets need to be clearer than they have been. The difference between the United States and the dictatorships is that the United States requires something more, procedurally and legally, than mere observations by the executive authority that someone poses a threat. The foundation for that requirement is the clause in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Consitution that states that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The requirement is all the more acute with U.S. citizens, as both al-Awlaki and Khan were. What happened in Yemen on Friday was essentially a long-distance execution without judge, jury or publicly presented evidence.

The rationales that some have offered for dispensing with any more procedure than there was do not cut it. We hear that Awlaki renounced his U.S. citizenship. But U.S. law specifies a procedure, which involves appearing in person at a U.S. embassy or consulate and signing an oath of renunciation. I have heard nothing about Awlaki following that procedure, without which anything anyone says about renouncing citizenship has no legal effect. Then there is all the talk about people like Awlaki being at “war” with the United States. The war terminology has been applied to terrorism so loosely, for political and other purposes, for so long that it has lost whatever usefulness it might have had—and it probably didn't have any to begin with—for making procedural and legal distinctions in cases such as this. All sorts of individual miscreants and misfits declare “war” on their societies and countries. The one clear line that can be drawn about war concerns armed hostilities with another state—a line that is the basis for a whole body of international law. But short of that, the “war” talk is metaphorical mush.

President Obama on Friday described al-Awlaki as “the leader of external operations” for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—the first time we have heard that description applied to al-Awlaki, despite plenty of earlier public attention to him. There was no more specific justification for that label. His main impact has been as a propagandist. In whatever role he played as an operational leader, he was more replaceable than as a broadcaster of ideas.

The issues may be even stickier with Samir Khan. It is unclear to what extent he was an intended target more than collateral damage in an operation aimed primarily at al-Awlaki. But insofar as his death could be seen to be highly likely in the strike against al-Awlaki, similar considerations ought to have entered into the decision making as if he had been the sole target. All available indications are that Khan was purely a propagandist. He produced the slick English-language magazine Inspire. His product was speech—hateful speech intended to inspire others to perform deadly acts—but still speech. And here is where we have to take extra care to distinguish what the United States did to him from many other instances in history of regimes killing expatriates merely because they felt threatened by what the expatriates were saying and writing. This includes the Islamic Republic of Iran's former habit of assassinating exiled political figures. It also includes numerous assassinations by the Soviets, perhaps most notably the murder with an axe of Leon Trotsky at the hands of an agent sent by Stalin.

We can distinguish the killings in Yemen from the murder of Trotsky by pointing to the particular motivations and political circumstances in each case, noting especially that the predominance of evil lay with Stalin, one of the biggest mass murderers in history. But assessing evil and the nobility or ignoble nature of motives is inherently subjective and thus subject to caprice and arbitrariness. More fundamental distinctions have to return to law and procedure. Probably more of a procedure lay behind the Yemen operation than behind Stalin's sending of the axe murderer—we hear some things about intra-administration drawing up of target lists for the drone operations—but we don't really know that.

The Yemen operation exemplifies how difficult it can sometimes be to reconcile certain objectives such as eliminating certified bad guys with other objectives or standards that are also very important, even if the damage from compromising them may not be immediately apparent. I do not presume to be able to determine exactly where the lines between the permissible and impermissible ought to be drawn, but I know that we need clearer lines than we have now.

Iran's Nuclear Oats

The alarmism about the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear weapon is unmatched by any comparably intense attention to exactly why such a possibility is supposedly so dire. Among the voluminous opinion pieces, panel discussions, campaign rhetoric, and miscellaneous outcries on facets of this subject, one could search in vain for any detailed analysis of just what difference the advent of an Iranian nuke would make. Most of the discourse on the topic simply seems to take as a given, not needing any analysis, that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be so bad that to prevent it warrants considering even extreme measures.

Recently Ash Jain of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy produced what appears to fill this gap. His monograph, titled “Nuclear Weapons and Iran's Global Ambitions: Troubling Scenarios,” is, at least on the face of it, a serious effort to analyze the regional and global consequences of Iranian nuclear weapons. It is the most extensive consideration of this question I have seen from anyone who clearly believes that an Iranian nuke would be very bad. As such, Jain deserves credit for taking this stab at the subject. As a serious, extensive effort, his paper can be taken as demonstrating the limits of any case about the dangers of Iranian nuclear weapons.

Jain begins by stacking the deck in describing the Iranian objectives that presumably would underlie any use to which the Iranians would put a nuclear capability. Nuclear weapons in the hands of a “pragmatic regime” driven primarily by “a desire to protect and deter outside attack” would be far different, he says, from their possession by an “ideological regime,” which is the label he pins on Iran. This is consistent with much of the alarmist rhetoric, which depicts the Iranian regime as somehow fundamentally different from most governments in how it thinks and operates and what it aspires to. But what exactly defines an “ideological regime” and distinguishes it from a “pragmatic regime”? There is plenty of ideology floating around, some of which has significant implications for foreign policy and international security, and the more one thinks about it, the more one realizes that the regime in Tehran isn't so different after all. This example ought to be too obvious to need pointing out, but we recently had a government right here in Washington that got so influenced by an ideology (in this case, the neoconservative kind) that it launched a major offensive war of choice thousands of miles away, at much cost and misery to the United States. Is this what Jain means by an “ideological regime”?

Jain allows that “some analysts” see the Iranian regime, like many other regimes, concerned with its own survival and with deterring and preventing hostile actions from those who have given it good reason to be perceived as threats—in this case, Israel or the United States. Then he dismisses this view in a single sentence as “inconsistent not only with Iranian activities on the ground but with the longstanding public statements of its own leaders.” But he never actually addresses the record of Iranian activities on the ground. That record in fact shows a lot of pragmatism and even caution. Jain does go on to quote at length the public statements of Iranian leaders—to depict an Iran driven by revolutionary and aggressive objectives—but does not weigh any of this rhetoric against the fundamental interests of defense and survival. He also does not distinguish between what is merely rhetoric or political blather for domestic or international purposes and what represents genuine, active objectives of the Islamic Republic.

None of this, however, is what is most significant about Jain's paper and what it demonstrates about the limits of argumentation about an Iranian nuclear weapon supposedly being a dire threat. Jain does not fall back on the familiar but crude notion of Iranian leaders as a bunch of mad mullahs who are irrational, cannot be deterred, and cannot be trusted not to push the launch button for any crazy reason. Instead Jain takes the more sophisticated approach one more often hears in discussions of this subject among policy elites: that the real danger of an Iranian nuke is not that Tehran would launch a nuclear bolt out of the blue but instead that such capability would somehow lead to other forms of aggressive or dangerous Iranian behavior. The Iran he depicts is not an irrational actor but instead a very calculating one that pursues an assortment of regional and global objectives. And so most of Jain's paper is a scenario-by-scenario rendition of all kinds of nastiness that Iran could conceivably perpetrate, either within its own region or farther field. The possibilities discussed run from strong-arming Persian Gulf states to reduce the U.S. military presence in the region to expanding a strategic relationship with Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

All of these scenarios are put under the heading “Iran as a Nuclear Weapons State”. And each scenario has a subsection titled “Impact of a Nuclear Capability”. But here's the main thing to notice: nowhere is there any explanation of exactly how and why a nuclear capability would make a difference in Iranian behavior. The most that Jain can offer is to assert several times that because Iran would be “shielded by a nuclear weapons capability” it might do thus-and-so. We never get an explanation of exactly how such a shield should be expected to work. The scenarios are basically just a spinning out of an assortment of things one could imagine Iran doing, some of which have some relationship to things Iran is already doing and some of which are only flights of fancy. Nuclear weapons play hardly any role in these products of imagination.

In this respect Jain's approach is again typical of most of the ringing of the Iranian nuclear alarm bell one hears in sophisticated policy advocacy. The idea is that armed with a nuke, Iran would somehow become more aggressive and troublesome because it would be feeling its oats. (Jain doesn't use this phrase, but I have heard others arguing in the same direction use exactly those words.) The argument really is that vague.

If one is to get beyond arguments that are as mushy as oatmeal and to try to put together a more rigorous analysis, several things would be required to conclude that the advent of a nuclear weapon would change Iranian behavior. One is that there is something Tehran wants to do and sees it as in its interest to do but, as a non-nuclear-weapons state, is not doing now. Second, the reason Iran is not doing that behavior now is that someone else is holding over its head a threat of retribution or retaliation if it were to indulge in the behavior. Third, the other party would no longer wield such a threat if Iran had a nuclear weapon, and the reason it no longer would wield the threat is that it considers it credible that Iran would escalate to the nuclear level whatever matter is in dispute. I have thought hard to come up with plausible scenarios that meet these requirements and have been unable to do so. The last requirement, about credibility of escalation to the nuclear level, is especially hard to meet. I have not heard from anyone else any plausible scenarios that meet these requirements either.

Applying this kind of rigor to Jain's scenarios reveals how inapplicable a change in Iran's nuclear status would be to any of them. To take one example in which he endeavors to mention nuclear weapons beyond the general “shield” notion, he talks about Hizballah and Hamas possibly becoming more emboldened because Iran might extend a nuclear umbrella to these groups. So in the face of Israel's overwhelming nuclear superiority, Iranian decision-makers would be willing to risk Tehran to save Gaza? Could Tehran expect anyone to believe that? Another of Jain's scenarios, which is to create in league with Venezuela a latter-day version of the Cuban missile crisis, stretches credibility even more.

The crude and sophisticated versions of the alarm-ringing are not all that different, because the sophisticated version ultimately depends on the credibility of Iranian leaders, under certain circumstances, actually pushing that launch button. Jain concedes that “the United States might succeed in deterring Iran's use of nuclear weapons, as well as direct military aggression against its allies” but contends that the intimidation, subversion, and other behaviors he discusses “could pose a greater challenge.” The fatal flaw in the argument is that if the use of nuclear weapons is not credible because it is deterred, than the mere possession of such a weapon is strategically incapable of shielding other behavior.

A presentation such as Jain's, given all the extensive scenario-building involving a wide variety of things that most of us can agree we would not like to see Iran do, coupled with the window-dressing about “impact of a nuclear capability,” can create the impression that a lot of awful stuff could really happen as a result of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. But take a second look—bearing in mind that the issue is not how many unpleasant things we can conceive of Iran doing, but rather what difference a nuclear capability would make in its ability or inclination to do those things—and there isn't really any substance there.

One should also note how much all of this type of argumentation is not a matter of what is probable but instead only of what is possible and what Iran “could” do. (Sounds a lot like all that war-selling rhetoric about what Saddam Hussein “could” do with his presumed weapons of mass destruction, doesn't it?) Jain is not being deceptive; he duly acknowledges that he is dwelling in the realm of mere possibilities. But we ought to keep this in mind when we get to what we all know this is eventually about. “At some point,” says Jain in his conclusion, “the costs and risks of more coercive options—including military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities—may have to be weighed against the costs and risks of allowing Iran to obtain a nuclear capability.” Indeed, let there be such a weighing. And when such a weighing is done, let the same standards for assessing costs and risks be applied to the coercive options as are applied to an Iranian nuclear capability. If assessment of the costs and risks of militarily attacking Iran ranged as fancifully far into mere possibilities and bad things that “could” happen as do the discussions in Jain's paper and elsewhere of the costs and risks of an Iranian nuke, then the consequences to U.S. interests of a resort to military force would be seen to be not just very bad but horrendous.

Meanwhile, Jain deserves compliments for making perhaps the most extensive attempt I have seen to construct an argument about the hazards of an Iranian nuclear weapon. As such, his paper enables us to see just what such an argument consists of. No real shield or anything else substantial. Just some oats.

Image by Jose Cruz

Iran, Iraq, United States

The Value of Talk

One of the hoariest arguments about international diplomacy is that talk is a reward and that talking with another government somehow validates, supports or endorses the other regime. This outlook misrepresents the very purpose of the tool of diplomacy, which is not to bestow rewards but instead to advance the interests of the state wielding the tool. To forgo use of the tool doesn’t put anyone else in his place; it only handicaps the statecraft of the government that doesn’t fully use the tool. The argument nonetheless gets heard a lot in the United States, partly because it is so easy to move from the greatness that Americans associate with their own country to the idea that merely getting a conversation with U.S. representatives constitutes a prize and an expression of favor. The argument also is a way of bashing whatever administration currently has responsibility for conducting U.S. diplomacy.

The Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar and Matthew Duss of the Center for American Progress have a perceptive piece on what the diplomatic tool has accomplished regarding a state toward which the talk-as-reward often gets applied: Iran. They describe what talk or the mere willingness to talk has helped to achieve, even assuming the worst about Iranian intentions and even without any agreements being reached with the Iranian regime. A U.S. willingness to negotiate demonstrates that it is not the impediment to a better relationship. It has been instrumental in getting other powers, especially Russia and China, to cooperate further in imposing sanctions on Iran. It has had similar salutary effects inside Iran, in demonstrating that it is the Iranian regime that stands in the way of a better relationship with the West. And it has enhanced the credibility of what the United States says about Iran.

I would add some other advantages of talking with any troublesome regime (which, of course, is what the United States did with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War). Not preemptively forgoing diplomacy because of worst-case assumptions about the other side's intentions opens up opportunities if the assumptions turn out to be not altogether true. The diplomacy increases the negotiating space and permits the striking of deals that range over multiple issues. And talking to the other side reduces the chance of incidents and misunderstandings spinning out of control.

Of course, if one wants an incident to spin out of control because one is hankering for a war, that would be a reason not to talk. We know that George W. Bush thought along those lines when he talked with Tony Blair about how the United States might provoke an incident that could be the excuse for launching what became the Iraq War.

Iran, Iraq, United States
Diplomacy

Why Obama Can't Be a Truman

Robert W. Merry's insightful observations about the ingredients in election success or failure for incumbent presidents provide much food for thought, for both supporters and opponents of President Obama. It certainly is true that how voters treat a president up for reelection depends much more on the state of the union that he leads than on accusations that are hurled from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. Most of those who pay attention to the substance of the accusations are already true believers on one side or the other. Most of those in the rest of the electorate who pay any attention are more repelled by the accusations than persuaded by them. Let me offer a few more related observations, by way of extension and refinement, not contradiction.

First, to the extent that a presidential election is in effect a referendum on what has been happening during a president's first term, what voters are reacting to is less the president's performance per se than the overall condition of the republic and the circumstances of its citizens, regardless of how much the president was able to do anything about this. Incumbent presidents and their parties benefit politically from good times and they suffer politically from bad times, no matter what are the detailed causes of the good or the bad. The referendum results thus depend partly on things outside the control of any U.S. official, such as ominous developments overseas. And they depend partly on things for which the president shares responsibility with others, particularly Congress and maybe others such as the Federal Reserve, as is the case with economic conditions and especially unemployment, long known to be a major determinant of election results.

Second, to the extent that the election-cum-referendum does depend on the incumbent president's performance, the nature of that performance in turn depends a lot on the times and the opportunities and challenges that they present to the president. This was a major reason for the contrast between Harry Truman's two terms, as described by Merry. Truman did not somehow become less competent in the latter half of his presidency than he was in the first half. The remaking of the world order after World War II was bound to be seen as one of historic achievements. Second-term happenings such as the Chinese revolution and the Korean War did not provide as much opportunity to get on the right side of history.

Third, notwithstanding how anyone views Truman's first-term achievements, domestic matters and especially the state of the economy trump foreign affairs as an influence on election results. The closest thing to the post-World War II world-reordering moment that we have seen since then was the end of the Cold War. The president in office during that event, George H.W. Bush, did an excellent job of managing the moment. But he became a one-term president, beaten by a Democrat who realized that when it came to winning an election it was the economy, stupid.

All of the preceding points are ones of continuity. But we also should note one large difference between Truman's time and the present, which is the greatly intensified partisanship that has infected all issues of public policy, including foreign affairs. Those foreign policy achievements in the late 1940s were products of bipartisanship. (Truman's railing against a “do nothing” Republican-controlled Congress had to do with its position on his Fair Deal domestic program.) A key figure was Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Vandenberg was in every respect a partner of Truman regarding the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of NATO and other initiatives. One shudders to think of how Congressional Republicans of today, applying the attitudes and methods of today, would have responded to the same situation. There certainly would not have been any Vandenberg-like concept of politics stopping at the water's edge.

Which brings us back to the political implications of the present day's economic woes. Given how deep was the recession that Obama inherited, how stubborn has been the resulting unemployment, and how strong has been the historical connection between this one economic statistic and the reelection record of presidents, Barack Obama's prospects for November 2012 look grim. Don't think that Congressional Republicans—who have acted as though the end justifies the means and have been quite open that their overriding end is to defeat Obama's reelection bid—haven't noticed these connections. If an Obama-proposed jobs bill has no chance of passage, it is because it runs up against not only Republican ideology but also a Republican interest in sustaining high unemployment long enough to bring down the Democratic president.

I suppose a political lesson in this is that if you leave office, as George W. Bush did, amid unpopularity and bad economic times, you might as well hope that the economic conditions will be so bad that the leader of the other party will suffer political consequences four years later.

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April 20, 2014