I have spent much time around government lawyers, and nearly all of the ones I have known have consistently conducted themselves with a couple of important objectives in mind. One is to apply legal analysis fully and fairly to whatever subject is at hand, not shying away from noting legal requirements even when they become policy inconveniences. Another is to support the larger missions of those they are advising by pointing out legal ways, if they exist, to accomplish those missions.
Against that background it is disconcerting to read that the issue of the most recent Egyptian military coup and its ramifications for U.S. aid is being side-stepped in Washington by just not offering any legal opinion about the nature of the Egyptian generals' move. A senior administration official said, “We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say.”
Setting aside the legal issue about characterizing the coup, whether any suspension of U.S. aid to Egypt at this time makes sense is a question about which reasonable people can and do disagree. It is not a clear-cut policy call. I happen to believe that suspension would be an appropriate response to the overthrow by the military of a freely elected president. If the generals' promises about moving back in the direction of democracy are to be believed, such a suspension need not last long. There is good reason to believe a suspension would increase the likelihood the generals will keep their promises. The appropriateness of a suspension is made all the greater by indications since the military ousted Mohamed Morsi that so far the generals are moving less toward democracy than toward a replay of initial installation of military rule six decades ago.
The fact that there is a legal issue, given a statutory requirement to suspend aid in such circumstances, makes the costs of not recognizing the reality of the Egyptian coup all the greater. Failure to recognize this reality is an act of hypocrisy, which fosters additional foreign cynicism about anything the United States says concerning democratic or other values. It also is a staining of our own political culture. It is a compromise of our respect for the rule of law, even when it is our own law. The rule of law represents one of the most fundamental differences between the United States and the least desirable polities of the world. We cannot afford to treat it casually.
To be sure, there is a problem of Congress using legislation to tie the hands of the executive branch in unhelpful ways that can impede effective foreign policy. Congress does too much of this; it ought to do less, especially when doing so is essentially political posturing, as it often is. At a minimum, Congress ought to incorporate more consistently than it does in legislation related to foreign policy the possibility of an executive branch waiver. But this is all a larger problem that is not solved by simply flouting whatever law is, for better or for worse, on the books.
There have been in recent American history too many other indications of an erosion in respect for the rule of law, from those within government whose functions are all about making or executing the law. There has been, for example, the ignoring of judicial review requirements on a matter that, as we see in current debate about electronic surveillance, is controversial enough even when the law is observed. There have been presidential signing statements, which are a way of explaining an interpretation of a law but at times have been used instead to declare an intention not to obey a law. There is the falling into disuse of the Congressional declaration of war, replaced by Congressional expressions that are outdated or unclear regarding the legal basis for the use of military force. If these things are all part of a coherent pattern, we ought to be worried.
The nature and causes of negative attitudes toward the United States have long been a subject of debate. The lines of debate most often pit an emphasis on what is changeable because it flows from U.S. policies against what is unavoidable because it flows from the inherent attributes of a superpower. There is plenty of direct anecdotal evidence to shed light on this question, including what comes from the mouths of the most extreme adversaries of the United States. More systematic evidence comes from survey research, such as the most recent product of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, based on polling in over three dozen countries. The overall picture this survey provides of the standing of the United States in world opinion is familiar, including abysmal numbers in most of the Middle East. This survey also continues a broader pattern in which there has been some reduction of positive sentiment toward the United States since the early days of Barack Obama's presidency, but with the numbers still better in most of the world than they were under his predecessor.
The most interesting results of this latest survey, however, come from the same questions being asked about China that are asked about the United States. Such a comparison can aid in understanding the different components of sentiment toward the United States. Comparisons can be instructive because some aspects of China that might shape attitudes toward it are similar to the United States whereas other important attributes are very different.
Worldwide the United States still has a distinct lead over China as measured by the Pew survey's recording of overall favorable versus unfavorable sentiment. The margin is surprisingly small, however, in some countries where there is reason to expect it wouldn't be. In Britain the plurality for the United States over China in favorable ratings is ten percent, and in Australia it is only eight percent. Given that these are two of America's closest allies, these results provide food for thought.
Some survey questions addressed specific issues that may contribute to the general sentiments. Drone strikes, for example, are quite unpopular in most places; because the United States uses such strikes and China doesn't, this can only hurt the United States in the U.S.-China comparison. Conversely, the United States has a clear advantage on most elements of what is generally considered soft power—except science and technology, where China gets good marks.
One of the most instructive questions, despite its flaws, concerns whether each of the two major powers “considers” the interests of the respondent's own country in shaping its policies. The main flaw in the question is that someone else's interests can be “considered” from a hostile viewpoint, not just an accommodating one. Nonetheless, a perception that one's interests are not being considered at all is a significant data point. The clear overall pattern in the survey results is that most respondents in most countries believe that neither China nor the United States is considering their interests.
Majorities in nearly every European and Middle Eastern country believe that the United States does not consider their interests. That is also the belief of large majorities in major U.S. allies in the East Asia-Pacific region: Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Interestingly, one of the few countries in which a plurality (49 to 38 percent) of respondents believes the United States does consider their interests is China.
The comparable question that asked whether China considers the respondent's country's interests yielded similar majorities saying that it doesn't. An exception to this pattern, however, is Africa.
The issue of whether big, strong countries pay attention to the interests of littler ones probably—despite the multiple possible ways of interpreting this particular survey question—gets to what underlies a lot of the negative sentiment directed at the big countries. It is basically a matter of arrogance, and the perception of arrogance. In places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where China's resource-hungry engagement with no human rights strings attached has made it seem more solicitous of the locals (whether it really is or not), it has enjoyed a different image. But arrogance in the rising Middle Kingdom is still visible enough to shape a lot of opinion around the world.
To some extent the resentment involved is an almost inescapable part of being a big power with a big global footprint and many interests of its own to pursue and protect. This has been part of the image of the United States for years, and as China has grown stronger and projected more power it has taken on some of the same image. But the negative feelings among populations in other countries are by no means entirely inescapable. Either the United States or China could enhance its standing in the world relative to the other if it did a better job of avoiding the other's mistakes that come under the heading of the arrogance of power.
David Rieff's commentary on Samantha Power's confirmation hearing is a trenchant account of some of the worst in what we see in the process of confirming nominees for senior positions. Even by the standards of such hearings, Power's performance was notably obsequious. This was an abuse of the process by the nominee, in the sense that in a proceeding ostensibly intended to learn more about the nominee we did not learn much at all except that she really, really wants the job of ambassador to the United Nations and is willing to shape her testimony in whatever way it takes to get the job.
Rieff cites the experience of Robert Bork as the master lesson for all subsequent nominees on the need to trim their views if they expect to get confirmed. That history is no doubt a factor, but to understand the pathologies of the confirmation process we should take note of the variety of ways in which that process gets abused. Many of those ways are not the work of nominees, but in at least one respect, as Power's case illustrates, they induce from nominees behavior that only adds to the dysfunction.
A conspicuous and recent abuse was the attempt to cripple the work of the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by refusing to bring any nominees for those bodies to a vote in the Senate. Threats from the Senate majority leader about exercising a so-called nuclear option won a temporary reprieve from that tactic, although there is no assurance we won't see it revived, and the chances are it will be. One of the participants in that tactic, Senator Lindsey Graham, later acknowledged that the nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau “was being filibustered because we don’t like the law. That’s not a reason to deny someone their appointment. We were wrong.”
Even when the objective is not to cripple an agency or effectively vacate the law that created it, it has become commonplace for the confirmation process to be the vehicle for pursuing policy agendas that have nothing to do with the nominee. This is at best an irrelevance and a drag on the process. It becomes abuse when confirmation votes may be determined by it. The same Senator Graham started crossing this line last week when he used questioning of Admiral James Winnefeld, nominated for another term as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to push the idea that the Iranian regime is still an awful and extreme beast despite the election to the Iranian presidency of Hassan Rouhani. At one point Graham said “this will determine how I vote for you” before asking whether Winnefeld thought Rouhani is a “moderate.” Even setting aside the issue of the substantive validity of what Graham was harping on, why should a military officer's view on this question determine his fitness to serve as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs?
Nominees, especially those already serving in the executive branch, have somehow to make their responsiveness to questions not run afoul of policies that have already been set by the president, and not to make it seem that they are getting ahead of the president, forcing his hand, or openly criticizing him. And yet senators repeatedly and knowingly put nominees in that difficult position. At the same hearing last week of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain did so with General Martin Dempsey, nominated for another term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. McCain tenaciously tried to get Dempsey to say that the administration's policy on Syria was one of “inaction.” We should hope that the nation's senior military officer is giving his best advice in private to the president on military aspects of an important problem such as Syria, and we should expect that officer not to offer discordant characterizations of the president's policy in public. We should also hope that senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee see the job of chairman of the Joint Chiefs in similar terms, regardless of their views about Syria or any other substantive issue.
The inherent vulnerability of nominees makes the confirmation process a vehicle for showing who's boss. This is a form of abuse that goes beyond senators who do the voting, and it gets back to how Power conducted herself. Specifically, it gets to her comments about Israel, which as Rieff puts it were “so stridently one-sided as to be almost wholly indistinguishable from the talking points of Israeli diplomats.” The now well-known background to this is an interview more than a decade ago, in which Power suggested that to quell Israeli-Palestinian violence at that time the United States should consider deploying a large protective force even though this might mean “alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import.” The constituency in question, as is its custom, denounced Power as anti-Israeli. Power's later means of retaining her confirmability in the face of such accusations was to disavow, totally and tearfully, her own observations. A key event was a meeting with American Jewish leaders at which, according to the meeting's organizer, she “became deeply emotional and struggled to complete her presentation as she expressed how deeply such accusations had affected her.”
This sequence has made Samantha Power a more valuable commodity to the Israel lobby than if she had never made any comments to offend the lobby in the first place. Sustaining the lobby's power depends on repeated demonstrations of submission to that power. The lobby could not have gotten a better demonstration of submission than to have the nominated chief U.S. diplomat at the United Nations abandon all evidence of any independent thought on the issues concerned and to make herself indistinguishable from Israeli diplomats.
Besides making for more dysfunction in the confirmation process, this kind of response from a nominee, as when Power said at her hearing that the United States has “no greater friend in the world” than Israel, badly distorts the larger public discourse on important issues. To appreciate how much it is distorted, we have to listen to distinguished and experienced people who are not up for a confirmation vote, do not expect to be in the future, and thus can voice their observations in an honest and untrimmed manner. One such person is retired Marine Corps general and former Central Command head James Mattis, who last weekend explained some of the cost to the United States of the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel,” said Mattis. Moderate Arabs “who want to be with us,” he said, restrict their support for the United States because they “can't come out publicly in support of people who don't want to show respect for the Arab Palestinians.”
Image: Flickr/Jay Tamboli. CC BY 2.0.
The latest in an escalating series of disagreements between Washington and Kabul as the U.S.-led military expedition winds down concerns customs duties. The coalition never paid any taxes on all the equipment it brought into Afghanistan over the past decade. Under the terms of the agreement by which it did so—and similar to the rules tourists sometimes encounter when they bring an expensive camera or other gear with them to a foreign country—there was supposed to be paperwork to provide an accounting and an assurance that the same stuff the came in is also going out. But most of the paperwork was never filed as coalition forces were busy ramping up their war effort. Now the Afghan government is saying that without papers, it wants a fine of $1,000 per truckload. Equipping a war that has gone on for this long involves a lot of truckloads—70,000, according to the Afghans' estimate.
This tiff should not have been surprising. The United States and its allies have made much of the idea that as they withdraw they are leaving behind a robust and independent Afghan government. We should expect any such government to drive hard bargains and to try to enforce rules. Besides, the Afghan finance minister has a point when he says that much of the stuff brought into Afghanistan has been smuggled into the local economy with serious distortions as a result. More generally, this latest dispute is one more reflection of the inevitable frictions and resentments that arise from a sustained military occupation and its associated operations.
And yet, when something like this comes up there is always some annoyance as well as surprise on the American side. This is partly because of a repeatedly demonstrated tendency on the part of American policy-makers and the American public to underestimate those frictions and resentments before embarking on military expeditions. It is also because, seeing our own motives as noble and unselfish, we expect the intended beneficiaries of our unselfishness to be grateful rather than to complain. This outlook was partly captured in a statement this week by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, James B. Cunningham, who said, “We have not spent blood and resources, alongside our Afghan comrades, in pursuit of any other purpose than a stable Afghanistan that can provide for the security of its people, strengthen its institutions, and pursue the future which its people deserve.”
This is part of a recurring pattern in U.S. foreign relations and Americans' outlook toward them: being confident about the goodness of our own motives, we expect that people should like us, thank us and cooperate with us. It is a sentiment that former President George W. Bush once expressed at a press conference when, musing about anti-Americanism, he said, “I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am—like most Americans, I just can't believe it because I know how good we are.”
One problem with this outlook is that many foreigners see U.S. motives as much different and less noble, no matter how much effort the United States puts into public diplomacy to convince them otherwise. Another problem is that even foreigners who take a more benign view of U.S. objectives still have to worry about their own interests, which are never identical with those of the United States. Moreover, even when genuine gratitude is felt it tends to be, as a function both of psychology and of the imperatives of statecraft, short-lived. The operative question more often is, “What have you done for me lately?”
We need to bear all of this in mind before embarking on any initiative overseas, even for humanitarian or other praiseworthy reasons. And we should not expect to win permanent friends and long-lasting gratitude no matter how confident we may be about our good intentions.
Lately there has been a lot of Western disillusionment with the Arab Spring. The cover of the current issue of The Economist poses the question, “Has the Arab Spring failed?” The usually insightful Patrick Cockburn starts a recent commentary with even stronger wording: “Has the Arab spring turned into a complete debacle?” The sources within the Middle East of such dismay are numerous, but it is not hard to see the main triggers for these questions to be asked at this time. The course of the Syrian war, in terms of both bloodiness and setbacks to the rebels, is one. The military coup and surge of unrest in Egypt constitute another.
There is plenty of analysis yet to be done, on events in the Middle East yet to unfold, that can take the form of a balance sheet on the Arab Spring. But the fact that observers in the West are coming close to writing requiems on the Arab Spring also says some things about our own habits in looking at, and thinking about, this set of regional upheavals.
We tend to impose a short time frame on those events—too short to understand their significance fully. We like revolts and revolutions to be short and snappy. This is partly a matter of limited attention span and partly a yearning to wrap up a story and feel we understand its conclusion, without the bother of having to follow it and to keep reinterpreting it for years and years. Of course, some of the Arab Spring events really have moved fast. But that is different from the time it takes to see all of the effects and implications. The Economist's Max Rodenbeck, in the feature article in the same issue, correctly notes that revolutionary upheavals sometimes take not just years but decades for all of the reverberations to be felt, and this might prove to be the case with the Arab revolts as well. Apparently unsuccessful attempts at political change may loosen things up for more successful and long-lasting change to take root later.
We have imputed too much uniformity to the revolts in Arab countries. The use of the singular term “Arab Spring” misleadingly blurs the differences between what are very different situations in different Arab countries. There certainly has been a contagion effect; it otherwise would be too much of a coincidence for this many revolts to break out in a single region within this short a span of time. But each country presents a different assortment of things that can go wrong. With many different things that can go wrong, many different things have gone wrong. This probably has contributed to the perception that the whole phenomenon is a failure if not a debacle.
We in the West naturally tend to use as a reference point past region-wide upheaval that is closer, physically and otherwise, to our own regions and own experience. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s is probably the most influential such reference point, whether or not it is referred to specifically as such. The critical differences between that change and what is going on in Arab countries gets overlooked too often—especially the fact that Eastern Europe had a political culture that was largely shared with the Western half of the continent and that included past experiences with liberalism and democracy. There never was good reason to expect a comparably smooth and quick transition in the Middle East.
The very fact that we ask questions about whether the Arab Spring is a failure assumes that there are identifiable standards for success and failure in such things and that those standards are ones that make sense to us. The prime standard applied seems to be democracy. And clearly many people in Arab countries favor something that they call democracy. Exactly what they mean by that term is a different question. What is meant varies from Arab to Arab, and what most Arabs mean by it is not necessarily what most Westerners mean by it. Moreover, standards of success and failure for Middle Easterners are likely to involve other values besides democracy. The most important values for many Arabs are not necessarily either democracy per se or the liberalism that most Westerns cherish. We have seen evidence of this in the most recent events in Egypt.
We certainly are entitled to ask—indeed, should ask—whether the events in the region are good or bad from the standpoint of our own interests and objectives, regardless of how differently people within the region may assess what is good or bad. But we are apt to disagree among ourselves on what those interests and objectives are. Even if we could agree, it is again far too early to compile a final balance sheet.
Image: Flickr/Hussein Alazaat. CC BY 2.0.
Amid a prolonged campaign to keep us scared about what is depicted as an inexorable Iranian march toward acquiring nuclear weapons, it is easy to lose sight of the cyclical nature of discourse about Iran's nuclear program, which began in the days of the Shah and has been the subject of repeated unrealized predictions about how close the Iranians supposedly were to getting a bomb. Rather than any one-way march, what we are seeing is a wheel of alarm that keeps turning around. Discourse on this subject is better understood not in terms of threats posed by Iran but instead in terms of the purposes, both long- and short-term, served by hyping of such a threat.
A couple of developments in particular have pushed the latest turn of the wheel. One is Hassan Rouhani's victory in the Iranian presidential election, which has made it harder for the alarmists to keep painting the face of Iran as a menacing one. The chief agitator on Iran, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, already sorely misses one of its most helpful props: outgoing Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even though he does not leave office until next month.
Netanyahu's government also is discomfited by recent movement, or at least appeals for movement, in diplomacy aimed at settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry really does seem to be serious about getting something done on this problem. There also have been pointed reminders lately from voices within Israel, including editorialists at major newspapers and experienced security officials such as former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, that continuing the government's current course means a bleak future for Israel of costly international isolation and even losing any identity as a Jewish and democratic state. For Netanyahu's government, one of the purposes of ringing alarm bells about Iran as the “real problem” in the Middle East is to divert attention from these truths about the conflict with the Palestinians and to divert energy from any diplomacy aimed at ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Any new attention to the Palestinian issue is a spur for that government to ring the bells yet again.
It thus was unsurprising that Netanyahu took to U.S. airwaves on Sunday to try to scare the pants off us again about the Iranian nuclear program. As usual, he conducted his fear-mongering while seemingly oblivious to major realities about this subject. He ignored the repeated and publicly expressed intelligence judgments that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon and may never decide to do so. His demand that Iran end all enrichment of uranium is clearly a non-starter and only a prescription for making diplomacy fail. The amped-up saber-rattling he demands from the United States as well as Israel only heightens whatever interest the Iranians may have in a nuclear deterrent, further impairs diplomatic prospects by making the Iranians even more doubtful about U.S. intentions, and ignores how implementation of a military threat would probably be counterproductive by leading the Iranians to make the very bomb-building decision they have not to date made. His description of the Iranian government as a “messianic, apocalyptic, extreme regime” is a crude stereotype that continues his practice of treating this entire issue in a cartoonish way, even when he is not using literal cartoons at a podium at the United Nations. He ignores that the only existential threat that a nuclear weapons state in the Middle East poses to another state in the region is the threat that Israel poses to Iran, and he ignores that the only threats of military attack in that duopoly are the threats that Israel is making against Iran rather than vice versa.
Besides not being led astray by this pied piper of alarm, there is work to be done on the issue of Iran, and all the more so in the wake of the Iranian presidential election. Some of the most important points to bear in mind are expressed in a just-released open letter to President Obama from 29 national security experts and former government officials (myself included). The letter observes that Rouhani's election presents “a major potential opportunity to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.” It calls on the administration to redouble efforts to engage Iran not only on the nuclear issue but also on other matters of concern to the United States. On the nuclear issue, it states that a new proposal is needed that, while incorporating what the United States and its Western partners are seeking regarding limiting and verifying Iran's nuclear activities, treats sanctions in terms of their stated purpose of leverage to obtain such an agreement, rather than just being unending punishment or a domestic political statement. Sitting back and expecting Iran to make the next move would likely lead to just one more episode in the long history of missed opportunities in this relationship.
While doing these things, avoiding what is unhelpful is also important. As the letter states, “no further sanctions should be imposed or considered at this time as they could empower hardliners opposed to nuclear concessions at the expense of those seeking to shift policy in a more moderate direction.” Also unhelpful would be more of the sorts of military threats that Benjamin Netanyahu likes to make.
Image: Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker. CC BY 2.0.
Israel announced this week that its ambassador to the United States beginning in September will be Ron Dermer, a 42-year-old neoconservative political operative. Dermer grew up in the United States, once worked for Newt Gingrich, renounced his U.S. citizenship in 2005, and now works for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a speechwriter and adviser. The Obama administration evidently has granted agrément, which in the absence of any indication of malfeasance is probably the right thing to have done. The administration may see Dermer's close ties to Netanyahu as a practical advantage in communicating with the Israeli government.
There are other things to reflect on, however, about this appointment. Peter Beinart provides a description of Dermer's views based on extensive reading of a series of columns that Dermer wrote several years ago for the Jerusalem Post and that, in Beinart's words, “would have fit snugly in the pages of The Weekly Standard.” The picture that emerges is of an aide who exhibits the bad sides of his current boss, and then some. Dermer's writings feature characterizations of Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are dismissive and contemptuous. He also adheres to what Beinart terms a “cartoonish view” of Arab-Israeli relations that is filled with historical inaccuracies.
Beinart isn't bothered by the idea that this is someone with Republican associations who clearly preferred a Mitt Romney victory last year and may even have done some things toward that end. That's part of a longstanding reality, says Beinart, of mutual attempts in the U.S.-Israeli relationship to affect the other guy's elections. But we should ask what this appointment further indicates in terms of the nature of the relationship.
To put this question in perspective, imagine comparable selections being made for other ambassadorial jobs, including ones involving close allies. Suppose that the United States appointed today as its ambassador to Britain a 42-year-old who had started out working for Labour Party causes before renouncing British citizenship and becoming an American speechwriter. It would be interesting to see the reaction of the Conservative-led coalition government to that. Or suppose Britain appointed a British Dermer as its envoy in Washington, which would be just as much of a shock.
Of course, the United States in effect insults many of its allied governments by making campaign contributions or bundling of campaign funds a prime qualification for major ambassadorships. But at least that can be seen as a general defect in how American diplomacy operates rather than a statement about any one diplomatic relationship. The Dermer appointment is something different. It is a departure even for Israel; the outgoing Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, is an accomplished historian who has taught at premier universities in both the United States and Israel.
The naming of Dermer is a statement that manipulation, with a hard-right twist, of American politics is not just something that arises from time to time in U.S.-Israeli relations but instead is the main aspect of the relationship. It also is a statement by Netanyahu that he isn't bothered if the relationship is seen that way. Perhaps he wants it to be seen that way, which would be consistent with the principle that to sustain something like the fear-based power that Israel has in American politics requires that the power be repeatedly and blatantly exercised and that people be continually reminded of it.
We all knew that this relationship was highly abnormal, even for one between supposed friends and allies. This ambassadorial appointment is a reminder that it is abnormal in ways that ought to make Americans uncomfortable.
Image: Flickr/Ted Eytan. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Lying is generally taken to be a bad thing—especially when the term “lie” is applied explicitly to shortcomings in truthfulness, which comprise more than outright lies—but there are always exceptions. We all know this from our personal lives. “White lies” often are accepted as a way to preserve the innocence of a child, harmony in a relationship, or social lubricity.
Similar things can be said about politics and diplomacy. A couple of years ago John Mearsheimer wrote a useful short book titled Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. Mearsheimer's focus was not so much the sort of self-serving and unreservedly condemnable mendacity in which political leaders sometimes indulge. Rather, it was the variety of lies that can serve legitimate purposes on behalf of a nation's interests—even though those sorts of lies, as Mearsheimer explains, also have their downsides.
Unfortunately much public discourse that touches on anything in which there was something less than total truthfulness fails to make the sorts of careful distinctions that Mearsheimer does. Truth and falsity get treated in an oversimplified, one-size-fits-all way that raises dander needlessly about worthwhile statecraft while diluting the outrage that is more appropriately directed at truly damaging deceit.
One of the most common situations in international affairs in which less than complete truthfulness is a legitimate part of upholding the national interest involves not necessarily the telling of lies but rather simply not mentioning certain activities. The activities may be well-established instruments of statecraft but are not carried out in public and cause problems only when details about them become public. Such activities include, among many other things, the clandestine collection of information about foreign governments and their doings, an endeavor that has sometimes been referred to as the world's second oldest profession.
A current example of misguided discourse about such things is much of what has been said about secrets purloined by the leaker-cum-defector Edward Snowden. The details he and his collaborators revealed about information-gathering activities of the United States overseas have to do with what is part of a long-established means of informing and supporting U.S. foreign policy, is essentially identical to what most of the same foreign countries do to inform and support their own policies, is no surprise to the leaders of those countries, and is what U.S. citizens habitually expect their government to do more of, or to do more aggressively, whenever there is a publicized “failure” of the government to know of something going on abroad. All of this is business as usual to the foreign governments as long as it is not publicized. It is only when publicity occurs that the leaders of those governments feel obligated to say they are shocked, shocked that such activities are going on and to make threats about slowing down trade talks or whatever. In short, there was no damage at all from the activities themselves. The damage has all come from the leaks.
Another subject of misdirected raised dander concerns what Mearsheimer calls “liberal lies,” although that term may imply something narrower than what he is referring to. Basically this involves openly identifying, as the basis for one's policy decisions, motives and reasons that are so noble and pure they cannot be a target of international opposition and criticism. It also involves speaking publicly as if these are one's only motivations, while leaving unstated other, less internationally noble, factors that may have influenced the decision. So one might speak publicly about democracy and human rights as motivators but say nothing about how management of a relationship with an authoritarian government was also a big part of the decision-making. Call this a lie if you wish, but it is a time-honored and very understandable way of pursuing one's own national interests, and of making public as well as private diplomacy serve those interests.
It is thus inappropriate to do what Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler—who usually performs a useful service in exposing baloney, and is an equal-opportunity baloney-exposer—did in recently taking aim at a statement President Obama made about considerations that have shaped U.S. policy toward Egypt. The president remarked during his African trip that U.S. decisions about assistance are based on whether the Egyptian regime is observing democracy and the rule of law. Kessler details how, given the Egyptian record over the last several years and the history of U.S. aid, these clearly are not the only considerations that have guided U.S. policy. His column is essentially a critique of U.S. policy toward Egypt—although like many other critiques, it doesn't offer an alternative to what the current or past U.S. administrations have done, or show why any alternative would be better. And all of this isn't really “fact-checking.”
Of course U.S. policy toward Egypt has been based on much more than just the extent to which whoever is in power in Egypt at the moment is respecting democracy and the rule of law. It also necessarily, and quite understandably from the standpoint of U.S. interests, has been based on such objectives as maintaining productive relations with the Egyptian military, which affects such things as U.S. access rights. But I would not expect the president to talk about such things at a news conference in Tanzania. In fact, we should consider it an inept performance if he did talk about such things. (Moreover, to apply Kessler's usual nit-picking standards, the president did not assert that democracy and the rule of law were the only criteria in making U.S. aid decisions, and in that sense he did not tell a lie.)
As Mearsheimer's discussion indicates, any assessment of the pros and cons of even outright lies is apt to be complicated. Let me suggest a standard, however, for distinguishing those instances of untruthfulness that are worthy of our outrage from those that are not. Did the lie, or other shortcoming in truthfulness, distort public debate by leading people to believe what was false, and did this make an identifiable difference in the debate or the policy? To take the subject of Kessler's column, have statements by the president or his administration led the public (at either home or abroad) to believe that U.S. policy toward Egypt has been governed solely by considerations of democracy and the rule of law? Has any such mistaken belief corrupted the public debate about policy toward Egypt? It would be implausible to answer yes to either question.
A contrasting example that also involves motivations for policies of the Obama administration toward North Africa concerns the military intervention in Libya. Administration statements fostered the belief that the purpose of the intervention was not regime change but instead to save innocent Libyans from a bloodbath. That mistaken belief took hold in some quarters, overseas as well as at home. The Russians certainly seem to believe they were misled. Understanding that is important in understanding the posture of Russia to later proposed interventions.
The most damaging example of this type concerns the untruthfulness associated with the launching of the Iraq War. Notwithstanding much of the subsequent talk about alleged lies by the Bush administration, the most flagrant lying was not contained within the substance of the administration's case for war but rather concerned explanations of the motivation and basis for launching the war. When the White House spokesman said in 2007, “The president made the decision to remove Saddam Hussein for a number of reasons, mainly the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and Saddam Hussein's own actions, and only after a thorough and lengthy assessment of all available information as well as Congressional authorization,” that was a baldfaced lie. With no policy process at all leading to the decision to launch the war, there was nothing even remotely close to a “thorough and lengthy assessment,” and the referenced intelligence estimate did not even exist until well after the president had made his decision and even after the campaign to sell that decision to the public had moved into high gear. The resulting damage, on top of the damage of the war itself, has been that a continuing mistaken belief that bad intelligence about weapons drove the war has corrupted public discourse about how to prevent similar blunders in the future.
There is plenty of destructive untruthfulness out there. The damage can occur not just through direct lies but also through less direct techniques for imparting a mistaken belief. Let's save our outrage for the genuinely damaging cases and not waste our energy on the diplomatic equivalent of white lies.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mrkgrd. CC BY-SA 3.0.
The most important consequences of the Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsi will become clear only over a long term. But for anyone who believes the coup was on balance a favorable event, an awful lot of favorable news will have to come out in the months ahead to offset what has already happened in the first few days after the generals moved. The most visible disturbing developments have occurred on two fronts, neither of which should have been altogether surprising.
One is a manifestation of the principle that closing political channels for more moderate Islamists increases the influence of less moderate Islamists. The immediate beneficiaries in this case are the hard-line Salafists of the Al Nour party, who are seizing the opportunity to assert themselves as their more moderate and compromising rivals in the Muslim Brotherhood are knocked off balance, with the army incarcerating their leaders. Al Nour includes the folks who want sharia to be the law of the land, unlike the Brotherhood, who in the writing of a constitution agreed with secularists that it ought only to be a source of principles in shaping the law. Al Nour so far can be said to be extreme only in objectives, not methods. Its assertiveness has included vetoing the candidacy for prime minister of former nuclear diplomat Mohamed El Baradei, who is the closest thing to a Western favorite among prominent Egyptian political figures.
The question of methods was raised by an even more disturbing development Monday morning, when dozens were killed as pro-Morsi protestors were gunned down in front of a military headquarters. This is likely to be a defining event for Egypt similar to, even if on a smaller scale than, bloody suppression of protests in past history, from Saint Petersburg to Beijing. The bloodshed will be associated with whoever is put into office in Cairo with the sufferance of the military. Most worrisome is how such an event may lead to an all-around escalation of violence. One can read in several ways a statement the Muslim Brotherhood issued after its supporters were felled in the street, calling for an “uprising” by Egyptians against those who would “steal their revolt” with tanks and massacres.
As with other phases of political upheaval in Egypt, the United States lacks the power to repair, much less control, the course of events there. The task of dealing with those events, if only as a matter of bilateral relations, has just become even more difficult. It now ought to be harder than ever to do the Egyptian military the favor of not calling their coup a coup.
Amid the fast-moving political drama in Egypt, we should think about larger messages the events there are sending, to those outside as well as inside Egypt, that may prove more important than who is in the presidential palace in Cairo next month or even next year. Egyptian dissatisfaction with Mohamed Morsi was grounded primarily in the dismal state of the Egyptian economy. But national leaders in many other countries have presided over economic failure without getting overthrown by military coups. Morsi was freely and fairly elected, just as much as many of those other leaders were. In this respect, the action the Egyptian military took this week is quite different from its ouster two years ago of Hosni Mubarak, whose entrenched position in power was the result of a rigged system in which no opposition leader ever had a fair chance to displace him.
Because Morsi bears the Islamist label, his election resurrected old phobias about whether democratically elected Islamists would respect democracy once in power. Some of the histories of fascist and communist parties may provide a good basis for asking such a question, although no one ever persuasively made the case as to why Islamists per se should be any more prone than those of other political stripes to put a nation into a “one man, one vote, one time” situation. The fear nonetheless has been widespread. It underlay international (including U.S.) acquiescence when the Algerian military in 1992 aborted an electoral process in which, after the first round of what was supposed to be a two-round national election in Algeria, it was apparent that the Islamic Salvation Front was going to win a overwhelming victory.
Similar fears persist today, as reflected in Islamophobically-enhanced characterizations of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as “a secretive, ideological Islamist underground movement” that “methodically engineered a takeover of Egypt's political system.” That is a grossly inaccurate description of what has happened in Egypt over the past year. Morsi and the Brotherhood never came close to “taking over” the Egyptian system, as demonstrated in recent days especially by the postures of the police and the military. Jonathan Steele in The Guardian, while making no apologies for Morsi's overall performance, goes into more detail about how his conduct during his one year in the presidency gives scant evidence for making an argument that he was knavishly taking Egypt in an undemocratic direction. Morsi quickly retreated, for example, when decrees expanding presidential power proved unpopular. The Brotherhood-heavy composition of the cabinet was a result largely of opposition parties' refusal to participate in it.
The Muslim Brotherhood was necessarily an “underground” organization during the many years under Mubarak and before, when it was legally banned. When it was given the opportunity to play by democratic rules, it did so.
That leads to what ought to be our main concern about this week's events in Egypt, which is nicely articulated by Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations. Husain also is no apologist for Morsi, saying that he is “not a fan of the Muslim Brotherhood” and opposes “their politicization of my religion.” But he observes that given the Brotherhood's prominence among Islamist organizations in the Middle East, what has happened to the democratically elected Morsi will lead extremist Islamists in the Arab world to say, “We told you so. Democracy does not work. The only way to create an Islamist state is through armed struggle.”
Those who, out of their distaste for anything Islamist, are welcoming the Egyptian military coup, ought to be careful what they wish for. They may wind up with something that is not just distasteful but dangerous.
As for near-term U.S. policy, President Obama ought to ignore advice for the United States to try to stage-manage the next chapter in the Egyptian political story. The futility of doing so is reflected in the negative reactions from different sides to just about anything the able American ambassador, Anne Patterson, has said that can be interpreted as weighing in on internal Egyptian politics. U.S. military aid to Egypt, however, provides some leverage over the generals. That leverage ought to be used to encourage a prompt return to a democratic process—which would not be telling Egyptians what sort of government they ought to have but instead would be help in enabling Egyptians to determine themselves what sort of government they should have. Existing U.S. law providing for suspension of military aid after a coup ought to make the exertion of such leverage easier.
After the military coup in Algeria two decades ago, militant Islamists took up arms and the country was plunged into civil war. Over the next several years as many as 200,000 Algerians were killed. The same demonstration to Algerian Islamists that they would not be allowed to participate successfully in democratic politics was not lost on Islamists elsewhere in the region. It was in the early and mid-1990s that violent Egyptian Islamists conducted most of their ultimately unsuccessful terrorist campaign in Egypt. Back in Algeria, the civil war finally concluded around 2002, when the Armed Islamic Group was vanquished. An even more radical splinter of the AIG called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat survived. It continues to operate today across much of western Africa under the name it later adopted: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.