Benjamin Netanyahu will not support any agreement between the United States and Iran. Or to be more precise, he will not support any agreement that is at all reasonable and in both U.S. and Iranian interests and thus has any chance of being negotiated. Give Netanyahu credit for consistency: he has long made it abundantly clear that he has no use at all for any negotiations with Iran or for any settlement of differences with Iran, on the nuclear issue or on anything else.
Netanyahu thus is doing what he can to destroy the prospects for an agreement. This includes his usual scare-mongering as well as rhetorical tactics such as trying to equate Iran to North Korea. He has depicted Iranian President Rouhani as representing nothing new and ordered a boycott of Rouhani's speech at the United Nations before he heard a word of what the Iranian said. In particular, Netanyahu is making demands that he knows would be deal-killers and suggesting that anyone who does not agree with those demands is endangering the security of Israel. Perhaps if a fantasy agreement somehow were reached in which the government of Iran declares that it has been evil and mistaken all these years, agrees to demolish all facilities having anything to do with its nuclear program, invites teams from the Israeli Defense Forces into Iran to perform the demolition, and has President Rouhani agreeing to use his Twitter account not only to convey Rosh Hashanah greetings but also to recite lyrics from Hatikvah, then Netanyahu would announce his support for the agreement.
To understand Netanyahu's posture one needs to realize that it is not only, or maybe even primarily, about a possible Iranian nuclear weapon. It is partly a matter of heading off any rapprochement between Iran and the United States, which would weaken the Israeli claim to being America's sole reliable and important partner in the Middle East. It is partly a matter of sustaining the Iranian nuclear issue as the regularly invoked “real problem” in the region that serves to divert attention from matters the Israeli government would rather not talk about or be the subject of international scrutiny. And it is partly a matter of Netanyahu riding a topic he has made a signature issue of his own in Israeli domestic politics and a basis for his claim to tough-guy leadership.
It is pointless to talk about how an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 could be fashioned to win Netanyahu's acceptance, because such acceptance will not be forthcoming. Anyone interested in the peaceful resolution of differences with Iran needs instead to view Netanyahu—and the Israeli Right of which he is a part, and those in the United States who unthinkingly and automatically follow his lead—as irredeemable spoilers and to think about how their efforts at spoiling can be countered.
One way to counter them is to talk directly to Netanyahu's bosses: the Israeli people. Ordinary Israelis, most of whom have not performed strategic analysis about what an Iranian nuclear weapon would or would not mean and instead approach the subject on a more emotional level, have genuine and understandable concerns about such a weapon if one were to materialize. They would have understandable concerns even without their leadership incessantly stoking fears about the subject. The Israeli people need to be spoken to about what is the best way to achieve their objective of avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon. They need to have explained to them why a negotiated agreement with Iran is that way, and why their prime minister's way is not. This will not cause the prime minister to end his efforts at spoiling, but it might energize other voices in Israel and help to make the spoiler-in-chief's efforts less credible, reduce any Israeli backing for Netanyahu taking the ultimate spoiling step of launching his own military attack on Iran, and lead those in the United States who really care about Israeli security to think again about falling in line behind Netanyahu.
This is certainly not the only important issue on which Netanyahu's government is acting contrary to the interests of Israel and its citizens. It would be great to hear more plain speaking by American leaders on those other issues, and on how Israelis are not being well-served by their own leaders. Unfortunately we have not heard much of that, but the Iranian nuclear issue is as good a one as any on which to start. Ideally Israelis would hear such a message from the very top of American leadership.
The Israeli government has complained about a paucity of trips to Israel by President Obama. So it could hardly stand in the way of a trip even if it knew it was for this purpose. Netanyahu's government also could hardly deny him the privilege of addressing the Knesset for this purpose. The government let it be known it was unhappy Obama did not address the Knesset on his last trip to Israel. And of course Netanyahu has been given the privilege of performing before the U.S. Congress, with members repeatedly jumping up and down out of their seats as if they had ants in their pants.
More calculation would have to be devoted to the timing of delivering such a message, relative to where negotiations with the Iranians stood. But were such a public message to be delivered, it ought to contain passages similar to these:
My friends, the people of Israel--
You need make no apologies for having strong concerns about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Anyone who knows anything about the history of the Jewish people and what has been inflicted upon them in the past, or who has listened to outrageous and hateful rhetoric about Israel from some past Iranian leaders, can appreciate those concerns. The United States not only appreciates them; it shares them.
Even the closest of allies have differences—sometimes over goals, sometimes over the best ways to achieve those goals. The governments of the United States and Israel have their differences. But there is no difference over a commitment to the security of the State of Israel. And there is no difference over the objective of avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon. On these matters, there is no daylight between us.
The commitment of the United States to the objective of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon is demonstrated by the extraordinary measures it has taken, by itself and as a leader of international coalitions, toward that end. Those measures have included in particular one of the most comprehensive sets of sanctions ever imposed on a state—sometimes at economic and other cost to the United States.
So we agree on the goal. All that remains for us, Israelis and Americans, to talk about is the best way to achieve that goal. All those sanctions I just mentioned begin to point to that way. For if the sanctions are not to be just a spiteful way of inflicting pain on a country we may not like, but instead are really going to be put in the service of our shared goal, then they have to be used as leverage. That means using them to obtain an agreement that gives the Iranians the sanctions relief they seek in order for us to gain what we seek: arrangements that will assure us that Iran's nuclear activities will not be used for any military purpose.
A negotiated agreement is the only way we can obtain such assurance. Whatever you or we may think about Iran, it is a sovereign state that neither one of us can control. We will get what we want from the Iranians only as part of an agreement in which they get much of what they want. The shape of such an agreement has been apparent for sometime, even though distrust and politics on each side have prevented us from getting there until now.
There is simply no other way to achieve our shared goal. Other paths not only would not achieve it but would entail major other costs and risks as well, to Israel as well as to the United States. Threats and pressure alone will not do the job. Iran is a proud state, as is Israel and as is the United States. Just as neither you nor we would give in to demands some other state might make of us under threats and pressure, we should not engage in wishful thinking that Iran would do so.
The use of military force would not do the job. It would not erase technical know-how. Worse, it would almost certainly lead the Iranian regime to take a decision which, according to the Israeli and U.S. intelligence services, it has not taken, which is to build a nuclear weapon. Rather than achieving our goal, the goal would be thrown beyond our grasp. Iran under those circumstances also probably would renounce its international obligations regarding nuclear activities and would end all international inspection arrangements on its territory. This would be the opposite of the enhanced inspection measures which, under a negotiated agreement, would provide our most direct assurance that Iran's nuclear activities were being limited to peaceful purposes.
Worst of all, the use of military force would condemn Israel to unending warfare with another major regional state. That is not something I would wish on you, our Israeli friends, any more than I would wish it on Americans.
Image: Adapted from Flickr/zeevveez. CC BY 2.0.
Debate about U.S. policy toward Syria has clearly exhibited some of the downsides of a reality about any discourse on foreign policy: that everyone is free to criticize anyone else's position or recommendations, but the incumbent president is the only one who has to come up with a real policy and try to make it work. The Syrian issue is an especially troubling demonstration of some of these downsides because it is one for which, as I have observed since early in the conflict, there are no good solutions. It is far easier to knock down someone else's ideas about this issue than it is to defend any ideas of one's own. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post has noted how President Obama's handling of the Syrian situation has been roundly criticized by many people who never get around to declaring what they would do instead if they had the responsibility for making policy. A contribution to debate that is all criticism and no positive alternatives is unhelpful not only because it does not directly get us any closer to a workable policy. It does not even get us indirectly closer to an improved policy; the best policy option is not necessarily the one that is least often the target of vocal, public criticism.
The discourse on Syria has exhibited other significant defects, some of which Sargent touches upon. There has been a confusion of process with outcome. This is what President Obama seemed to be complaining about when he said he wasn't trying to win “style points.” The problem with this particular focus on decision-making style is not only that it may be unfair to an incumbent trying to deal with an intractable situation. It is that some of the methods likely to win points with pundits and the public are less likely than other methods to arrive at sound policy. We like our leaders to appear decisive and resolute. We do not like them to appear vacillating and uncertain. Those preferences are understandable; they are connected to the very nature of leadership. The trouble comes when the yearning for decisiveness means criticism of the very sort of thoroughness and deliberation that is necessary to consider options carefully in the interest of arriving at the best (or least bad) option. The benchmark at the opposite end of this spectrum is the decision to launch the Iraq War, made by a president who trusted his gut and had no policy process at all to consider whether the war was a good idea.
Obama has been charged with short-circuiting his own habitually thorough decision-making by taking a walk with Denis McDonough around the south lawn of the White House and suddenly deciding to throw the question of an attack on Syria into the lap of Congress. But rather than abridging or cutting corners in the policy-making process, this was a move to make it more thorough, by involving in that process the legislative branch—which, by the way, is supposed to have war-declaring power under the Constitution.
This gets to another unhelpful conflation in debate and criticism about policy toward Syria, which is a confusion of motives with results. Did Mr. Obama make his move to Congress not out of some scruples of a former constitutional law professor but at least as much to spread responsibility to his political opponents and get buy-in for what would be a costly and risky military move? Of course he did. And when he made his other big change on Syria and ran with the Russian proposal on chemical weapons, was he grasping a lifeline that helped him to get out of the consequences of his own earlier mistake when he talked about use of chemical weapons as a game-changing red line? Yes again. But this is another example of how popular yearnings about leadership style conflict with what may be necessary to arrive at better rather than worse policies. We don't like to see our leaders change their minds because this looks indecisive, and pundits criticize this as vacillation. But changing one's mind and one's policy course may be necessary to adapt to new circumstances, to take advantage of new information, or as in the present case, to prevent previous mistakes from being compounded.
Given that I have criticized some of President Obama's moves on Syria, I ought to respond to Sargent's challenge to put up or shut up and say exactly how I would have done things differently. I would have followed all along a policy of non-intervention, for the fundamental reasons that there is no U.S. interest clearly served by one particular outcome of the Syrian civil war than another outcome, that it would be difficult or impossible for U.S. action to achieve a particular outcome of that war anyway, and that U.S. intervention would be more likely to increase than to decrease the overall violence and destruction associated with that war. I would have endeavored to articulate this reasoning, clearly and publicly. I may have won some style points for consistency, although I also would have been pilloried on the Washington Post editorial page and elsewhere for not doing more about the suffering in Syria.
I would have made greater efforts to internationalize consideration of Syria's political future, with full participation of both Russia and Iran. I would not have elevated the significance of chemical weapons far above that of the other sources of 100,000 deaths and other casualties in this war, and I would not have portrayed use of these weapons as a game-changer. I hope that after the chemical incident on August 21st I would have had the diplomatic agility to work with the Russians on an initiative to get Syria to surrender its chemical munitions, which should not have required threats of a U.S. air war. I can't say I would have been that agile, but if so we may have gotten to a situation similar in important respects to where we actually are now. Once again, style is not the same as outcome.
Image: White House/Flickr.
The op ed from President Hassan Rouhani in the Washington Post should be read carefully on at least four levels.
The first is as one measure of the overall earnestness and seriousness with which the current leadership of Iran is approaching relations with the United States and with the rest of the outside world. Can you find an unreasonable phrase anywhere in the piece? I can't.
The second is as a contrast with what we had become accustomed to hearing under the eight-year tenure of Rouhani's predecessor. The contrast is so sharp one would never guess, if we did not already know it was so, that such pronouncements were coming from successive presidents of the same country, separated not by a coup or revolution but instead by a peaceful election. Rouhani's piece in the Post adds to the numerous other indications over the past several weeks that his election marks a profound change in attitude and approach in Tehran.
Third, Rouhani's statements about what Iran wishes to do on issues of high concern to both it and the United States is consistent with what any dispassionate and well-reasoned analysis would arrive at as necessary to facilitate resolution of these issues. On the nuclear question, any resolution will have to recognize—and provide assurances to the West of being limited to—a “peaceful nuclear energy program.” On the more pressing issue of the Syrian war, Rouhani's statement of his government's “readiness to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition” should be acted upon, both because Iran already is a player, for better or for worse, in the Syrian situation and because working together in addressing the Syrian situation can have beneficial spillover effects in dealing with the nuclear question and other issues.
Fourth, the article contains sage advice about other aspects of the American approach to foreign policy, including on matters that do not directly involve Iran. As with Vladimir Putin's recent missive, Americans ought not to need foreign presidents to point out truths about their own policies and approach toward the world, but they are truths nonetheless. Among Rouhani's observations that are too often forgotten, or never appreciated in the first place, in American discourse is that the world is for the most part not a zero-sum place and that dealing with other nations involves simultaneous competition and cooperation. He correctly observes that a unilateral approach that “glorifies brute force and breeds violence” does not solve shared problems such as terrorism and extremism. He notes that too often “security is pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others, with disastrous consequences.” A glaring example of this in the Middle East that does not directly involve Iran but is condoned by the United States comes readily to mind.
Perhaps the most trenchant of Rouhani's observations is:
We and our international counterparts have spent a lot of time — perhaps too much time — discussing what we don’t want rather than what we do want. This is not unique to Iran’s international relations. In a climate where much of foreign policy is a direct function of domestic politics, focusing on what one doesn’t want is an easy way out of difficult conundrums for many world leaders. Expressing what one does want requires more courage.
This aptly describes how some foreign policy issues—certainly including the Iranian nuclear issue—get addressed in the United States. One of the biggest deficiencies in American discourse about that issue is that it goes little beyond declarations of how badly we don't want an Iranian bomb, with almost no sense of what we do want other than to hurt Iran and no vision for the future other than, by implication, perpetual hostility.
The new Iranian administration has opened a door to a better relationship, and one better for the United States, about as widely as such doors ever are opened. The United States would be foolish not to walk through it.
Image: Office of the President of Iran.
Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran, he and his appointees have piled up indication upon indication, in their words and their actions, that they strongly want a new and improved relationship with the West and that they will do what they can to bring one about by facilitating a mutually acceptable agreement regarding Iran's nuclear program. Only those outside Iran who are determined to subvert the prospect of a better relationship with the Islamic Republic can deny that there now is a major opportunity for achieving one and specifically for settling the nuclear issue in a manner fully protective of U.S. interests.
Legitimate questions have been raised about how much flexibility can be expected from the Iranian side when, under the convoluted Iranian constitution, it is not the president but the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last say on many issues. But it would be impossible for Rouhani, who has had a close and longstanding relationship with Khamenei, and the president's administration to do and say everything they have over the past few weeks if this ran against the wishes of the supreme leader. Now Khamenei, in addition to past indications of his views such as placing a religious imprimatur on a rejection of nuclear weapons, has given more direct evidence that he also is thinking in terms of a different course for U.S.-Iranian relations. He gave a speech to commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that paralleled in important respects a speech that Rouhani had just given to the IRGC. Khamenei indicated that he is quite in favor of “correct” diplomacy as long as Iran's honor is protected. “Heroic flexibility” is how the supreme leader's own staff translated into English the concept that he was propounding.
Khamenei also—and this is where his speech most resembled Rouhani's—said the IRGC should not get immersed in politics. This admonition indirectly recognized the potential of hardliners in the Guard and elsewhere in the regime to be spoilers. Even the supreme leader cannot necessarily carry the day if such hardliners are given sufficient ammunition.
Unfortunately some outside Iran, led most conspicuously by the current prime minister of Israel, are doing their best to give them ammunition. Benjamin Netanyahu continues his effort to stoke perpetual hostility between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Last year in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly he entertained us with cartoon bombs. This year he will make demands that include what he fully knows would be deal-stoppers (specifically, an end to all Iranian enrichment of uranium). His efforts are most conspicuously being aided in the United States by Senator Lindsey Graham, who is so amenable to letting Netanyahu lead the United States into a war with Iran that, even before any negotiators have had a chance to sit down following Rouhani's election, he has announced his intention to introduce a resolution calling for such a war.
The late Abba Eban, the silver-tongued Israeli foreign minister, once famously said that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The circumstances, and Palestinian preferences and policies, that underlay his remark changed greatly long ago. But his apothegm might apply to much of the history of the U.S.-Iranian relationship. It would, tragically, apply all the more if the current opportunity is missed, either because of the ammunition being supplied to Iranian hardliners or because the side led by the United States simply does not put on the negotiating table the sanctions relief necessary to strike a deal.
No matter how the next chapters of the Syrian chemical weapons story play out, a conclusion repeatedly being drawn from the story is that threats of military force work. Both those who have an innate fondness for the making (and executing) of such threats and the Obama administration—eager to describe its handling of the Syrian issue as a success—have their separate reasons for pushing this conclusion. Expect to hear it a lot in the coming days.
The conclusion is a simple one with intuitive appeal, flowing naturally to many people ever since as children they witnessed schoolyard bullies getting their way by threatening to beat up other kids. The sequence of events over the past month does make it appear that the threatened use of U.S. military force was a leading reason for the departures that Syria and Russia took over the past week regarding chemical weapons (although Eliot Cohen offers an interesting challenge to this view, noting other important factors that shaped the Russian and Syrian decisions). The danger of the commonly accepted conclusion comes from promoting a simple belief that “threats work” without considering all of the other reasons that lead them to work or not to work, and then to apply that belief to situations where they probably will not work. The situation most often invoked, of course, is Iran and the issue of its nuclear program. The simplistic belief about the supposed universal efficacy of threats of military force thus accentuates an already widely held and mistaken assumption that the more that Iranians fear a military attack the more likely they are to make concessions about their nuclear activities.
A large corpus of scholarly work has addressed the subject of military threats and sought-after political or diplomatic outcomes, a subject that usually comes under the heading of coercive diplomacy. This research by political scientists has not arrived at some single grand conclusion that military threats do (or don't) work. Instead, the research has concerned the numerous conditions and variables that increase or decrease the chance they will work. The political scientists have had plenty of material to examine; successful and unsuccessful examples of the use of threats can be found throughout history. This is true both of threats of armed force that never materialized and ones that did. In modern U.S. history, for example, the Vietnam War and especially the air war against North Vietnam was a large and conspicuous example of a failed attempt to use armed force to get an adversary to change its policies—in this case, to get the North Vietnamese to abandon its objective of uniting all of Vietnam under its rule.
Among the other variables that matter are whatever other pressures and constraints, besides the threatened military force, the targeted regime is experiencing. Failure to take such variables into account is a shortcoming of the frequent references to the air wars in the Balkans in the 1990s as supposedly having been successful in breaking the will of Slobodan Milošović. The references routinely ignore what else was going on at the time, such as what Croatian forces were doing on the ground in Bosnia. In Syria today, the Assad regime is engaged in an intense civil war and waging a struggle both domestically and internationally not only for its legitimacy but for its very existence. Nothing remotely resembling that is true of the government in Iran.
Of particular importance are the nature of the specific issues in dispute and what they imply for the priority that each side places on them, the determination of the target regime to maintain its stance, and how defensible that stance is internationally. Here again there is a big difference between the Syrian and Iranian situations. The Syrian regime not only possesses but also, it appears, lethally used a weapon that is the subject of a near-universal prohibition. The type of (not quite so universally prohibited) weapon that is supposedly the concern with Iran is one that Iran does not possess, has never used, and hasn't even decided to build. The Iranian program that is the focus of concern is one that the Iranians believe, strongly and correctly, they are entitled to maintain under international law and the relevant international control regimes.
An added aspect of the issue involved in the Iranian case is that to the extent there is any interest in Tehran in someday developing a nuclear weapon, probably the most important motivation would be a hope that such a weapon would help to deter foreign military attack on Iran. Threatening an attack is thus more likely to stoke than to diminish any interest in such a weapon.
Among the reasons that threats of armed force often not only do not work but may even be counterproductive—stiffening the resolve of the decision-makers on the other side—is that regimes do not like to be bullied. They are even more likely than schoolkids to push back, once they have gotten their nationalist dander up. Another, somewhat related, reason is that domestic politics are affected by such threats, with hardliners being empowered or incumbent decision-makers having to modify their policies to avoid losing out to the hardliners.
A little role-reversed thinking should make these dynamics easy for Americans to understand. What would be the political impact in the United States if it became the target of some other country's threats of armed attack? Would American hardliners cower and be silenced, and would there be a surge of sentiment in favor of making whatever concessions the threatener wants? Of course not. The result would be the opposite. One of the downsides of American exceptionalist thinking is a failure to understand how many foreigners' responses to what we do are basically the same as how we would respond to similar acts from them.
In Tehran, President Rouhani has to contend with his own hardliners. Bullying Iran with threats of armed attack does not help him to do that. The conventional American wisdom, now amplified by simplistic conclusions extracted from the Syrian episode, that threats of armed force will help bring about more accommodating Iranian positions on the nuclear issue is almost certainly wrong. Not only wrong, but counterproductive. That is all the more true because such threats feed the suspicions of Iranians, who already have been given ample reason to hold such suspicions, that the United States is interested not in an agreement but only in regime change.
Different elements in the United States will continue to push the mistaken conventional wisdom about the efficacy of threats for their different reasons. The Obama administration wants to continue to portray its Syria policy as a success and also wants to placate a rightist Israeli government that appears to have little compunction about starting wars. Many Americans, including many members of Congress, voice the conventional wisdom because they simply do not know better. Then there are those who do know better but continue to promote military threats because they do not want an agreement with Iran and understand how such threats may help to kill the prospects for one.
Vladimir Putin's op ed about U.S. policy toward Syria unsurprisingly did not go down well with many American readers, principally because it was coming from Putin. They undoubtedly see an issue of whether Putin has the moral and political standing to be so preachy with Americans. As Steven Lee Myers reminds us in the New York Times, when Putin took back the presidency a year ago he “moved aggressively to stamp out a growing protest movement and silence competing and independent voices” and since then has “promoted nationalism with a hostile edge, passed antigay legislation, locked up illegal immigrants in a city camp, and kept providing arms to the Syrian government.” Speaker of the House John Boehner said he felt “insulted” by Putin's piece, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez said that upon reading it he “almost wanted to vomit.”
Okay, we don't like to be lectured to, about anything, by the ex-KGB man who is boss of Russia. But put aside the author's resumé and think about the substance of the article. There are, to be sure, some grounds on which to criticize it. Notwithstanding weaknesses in the Obama administration's intelligence case about the chemical weapons incident, Putin expresses too much confidence in the alternative hypothesis that Syrian rebels and not government forces used the weapons. He perhaps is also a little far-reaching in spinning out some of the more dire scenarios that could result from a U.S. military strike.
But much of the rest of what Putin is saying makes sense, and it would behoove Americans to think about it. He talked about the costs, which the United States would share, of doing end-runs around the United Nations Security Council on matters on which the council ought to be involved. He restated the principles of international law regarding use of military force and self-defense. He observed that in a world in which there is less respect for law and more reliance on force, there would be more people seeking to protect themselves by acquiring weapons of mass destruction. He noted how any military attack would claim some innocent victims and would constitute an escalation of the Syrian war. He observed that this war is not a struggle for democracy but instead a religiously-infused contest in which there are intolerant extremists on the rebel side. He pointed out how past U.S. reliance on brute force fosters negative attitudes toward the United States, and how it has failed to impart stability in the places it has been used in recent years.
The part of Putin's piece that Americans perhaps found more irritating than any other was his final comment about American exceptionalism. Americans get especially upset about this sort of comment because it sounds to them like an affront to the very nature of America and not just particular American policies. Probably an extra annoyance was Putin's final line invoking religion, especially coming from someone who used to work on behalf of godless communism.
But what Putin actually said here involved one of his most valid and valuable points. He said that encouraging exceptionalist thinking is dangerous because countries differ from each other on all sorts of dimensions, and there is no basis for saying that any one country's differences sets it apart in a way that does not apply to any other countries. He was not impugning the motivation of exceptionalist thinking in the United States or anywhere else—he specifically said “whatever the motivation”—but instead was pointing out undesirable consequences of such thinking.
This closing part of Putin's article was a direct response to the closing portion of President Obama's speech on Syria on Tuesday. Even the final God-invoking line was a reflection of the Obama speech. Given that a “God bless” closing has become obligatory in speeches by U.S. presidents, why can't a Russian president invoke divinity at the end of his public statements, too?
What the U.S. president said about exceptionalism in that final part of his speech was shaky enough that it shouldn't need a Putin to expose the weakness of it. Mr. Obama said that when “we can stop children from being gassed to death”—never mind for the moment that a U.S. military attack would not be stopping any such thing—“we should act.” He said, “That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.” Really? After all that has been said and felt through the years about an exceptional America, evoking a sense that this country represents a higher plane of basic goodness, what it comes down to is the will and wherewithal to fire off a bunch of Tomahawk missiles?
Exceptionalist thinking has more extensive and fundamental drawbacks than what is represented in this one paragraph in Obama's speech. Three years ago I enumerated some of those drawbacks. They include such things as an inability to understand the causes of anti-Americanism, an overestimation of the inclination of other countries to follow a U.S. lead, and a failure to understand the limitations of what the United States can accomplish overseas. These and other drawbacks are apparent in much discussion about the current Syrian problem.
It would be fortunate if this problem, and the embarrassment of having to rely on Putin to help get the U.S. fat out of this particular fire, had the compensating advantage of getting more Americans to think seriously about the downside of exceptionalist thinking. That is not likely to happen, even if the message were coming from a messenger less disagreeable than Vladimir Putin.
Remember how, three weeks ago, British officials detained at Heathrow Airport the Brazilian boyfriend of Glenn Greenwald, who has been facilitating the public spewing of secrets stolen by leaker-defector Edward Snowden? One heard hue and cry about this latest supposed overreach by security authorities, who were picking on not just a journalist but his domestic partner. Greenwald wailed that this was an escalation of “attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism,” that “to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic,” and that “even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by.” Greenwald further complained that the authorities had taken his boyfriend's computer and memory sticks and said nothing about returning them.
A couple of weeks later a senior national security adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron indicated in a statement submitted to a British court that the confiscated computer and memory sticks contained tens of thousands of highly classified documents, including secrets not only of the United States but of the United Kingdom. The adviser stated that compromise of the documents would endanger, among other things, counterterrorist techniques and the identities and possibly lives of intelligence officers. British citizens, as well as U.S. citizens, should be grateful for the alert intercept at Heathrow. The Brazilian boyfriend was serving as a courier in an international stolen-secrets ring.
This latest turn in the sordid story begun by a rogue Booz Allen contractor leads to several observations. One concerns the differential attention directed to different parts of this story by the public—not to mention by the media, for which leaked secrets are red meat, and which therefore constitute a highly biased participant in any story involving leaks. Even allowing for it being Labor Day weekend in the United States, and for the competition for attention from other stories such as a possible war with Syria, the revelation about how far Snowden's national security larceny had gone received a tiny fraction of the earlier attention to his leaks involving intercept activity in the United States.
Snowden, and his collaborators such as Greenwald, had a shrewd public roll-out plan. They started with the stuff about NSA collection activity within the United States, to get on the good side of a lot of public opinion by having Snowden pose as a “whistle-blower” acting on behalf of personal privacy. It was only after scoring that public relations coup that they got on with the rest of their assault on U.S. (and British) national security. Since then there has been a steady flow of divulged stolen secrets, ranging from descriptions of the entire U.S. intelligence program to details about overseas political intelligence targets or NSA's ability to decrypt coded material. Nearly all of this is far removed from any issues of privacy or civil rights or anything else that should be the least bit controversial. It is about normal, legitimate activity by arms of the government performing their assigned missions on behalf of national defense and the conduct of foreign relations. Mainstream media, feasting on the red meat, keep publishing the material. The material may be interesting, titillating, and occasionally even educational. But it is not scandalous.
The revelation of the material, however, is scandalous. The damage from the disclosures is major, including tipping off adversaries to the vulnerabilities they would need to correct to impede the collection of information about them, tipping off those same adversaries to our own vulnerabilities that they can exploit, causing a host of difficulties in relations with foreign governments, and much more. Those inside the U.S. government doing damage assessments will be kept busy for a long time by just this one case. Say what you want about whether this or that particular item ought to have been classified; the great bulk of the revealed material was classified for very good reasons.
It is now clear that Snowden was not focused on unearthing for public debate only selected matters that raise issues of privacy and that ought to be debated. He instead was, like his contemporary Bradley Manning, engaged in wholesale compromising of any secrets he could get his hands (or his keyboard) on, consequences be damned. He was conducting an unrestricted attack on U.S. government information security. Perhaps he and Manning exhibit a naïve belief that secrecy is not necessary for conducting programs of foreign policy and national security. But traitors are not all sophisticated; some are naïve.
It is well past time to discard the notion that Snowden wasn't doing something terribly wrong because he was not working all along, in classic spy-novel fashion, as an agent of a foreign government. For one thing, foreign governments (and terrorist groups) read U.S. newspapers. For another, when Snowden went to Moscow he put himself at the mercy of the Russian government. When he was given permission to stay in Russia, it could be assumed that anything he had on whatever laptop or thumb drive he had with him came into the possession of the Russian intelligence services. Given his earlier stop in Hong Kong, when he also was looking for help in where to go, probably something similar happened with the Chinese. In short, Snowden's actions entailed bushels of U.S. secrets being given to Russia and China. There are various terms that can be applied to that, but it certainly isn't “whistle-blowing.”
Vladimir Putin will not turn over Snowden to the United States. But maybe some measure of justice will be served as we recall how earlier defectors to the Soviet Union and to Russia ended up living out their days there unhappily. Once the rulers in Moscow have gotten all they want out of the defector—and Snowden already has provided his usefulness to the Russians—they haven't tended to treat their guest with lasting fondness and respect. With Snowden there is the added, and just, irony that, after having rationalized his actions in the name of protecting personal privacy from intrusion, he has ended up in a state where there has been far more governmental spying on its own residents—as there surely will be on him—than anything that has taken place in the United States.
Amy Knight recalls how Kim Philby, after he defected to the Soviet Union, led a mostly miserable existence in which he felt isolated and unwanted, spent most of his time at home drinking, and attempted to commit suicide. Knight notes that things might not be quite the same for Snowden, because in the Internet age he will not be as cut off from information as Philby was and because, having defected at a younger age, he might be better able to learn the language and start a new life as a Russian. That's too bad, but maybe with more years to live he will have that many more years to feel miserable. If he were to live for a long time in some drab apartment, to feel unwanted, to think regretfully of the girlfriend he left in Hawaii, and to sink into vodka-induced stupors, that would begin to be condign punishment for what he has done.
Image: Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. CC BY 2.0.
While President Obama expends political capital trying to win backing for a military endeavor that most Americans oppose and that received scant support at the G-20 summit meeting, upheaval in the Middle East is about to enter a new phase no matter what happens in Syria. We are probably seeing the beginning of a new wave of terrorism in Egypt. Although it would be a mistake to extract too many conclusions from a single incident, a powerful bomb—for which no one claimed responsibility—in Cairo on Thursday that was aimed at a convoy carrying the Egyptian interior minister may mark the start of such a wave. Two days later Egyptian military engineers defused a bomb placed on a railroad line near the Suez Canal.
A surge in terrorism in Egypt was made all but inevitable by events there of the last few months. The regime led by General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has excluded from political participation a major stream of sentiment in the Egyptian body politic, as represented in particular by the Muslim Brotherhood. It has exhibited brutality by killing hundreds in the process of quashing otherwise peaceful protests. The combination of an absence of peaceful channels and anger over the severe and bloody methods of the regime is just the sort of recipe that inspires a move to terrorist violence.
It is not the Brotherhood—which condemned Thursday's bombing—that will be making that move. It will be small extremist groups and cells, which probably are only now gelling and will be led by organizers who point to Egypt's history over the past year as demonstrating that the Brotherhood's commitment to peaceful political competition is foolish and ineffective. Some individual members of the Brotherhood will leave the organization to join the extremist groups. The incarceration of most of the Brotherhood's senior leadership will make it hard for those leaders to persuade the wayward individuals not to make the turn to violent extremism.
A new terrorist campaign in Egypt will creep up on the sensibilities of U.S. policy-makers; it will not suddenly become a preoccupation as Syria is now. But it is interesting to compare in a couple of respects the U.S. postures toward recent events in Egypt and in Syria. Where the principal adversaries of a head-cracking regime have been peaceful political contestants (who even had won a fair election), the U.S. response was to do essentially nothing. Where much of the principal opposition to the regime has consisted of violent extremists and terrorists, the proposed U.S. response is to weigh in with military force on the side of the opposition. Legally, where U.S. law requires a suspension of aid after a military coup, the administration response has been to flout the law. Where international law prohibits the use of military force except in self-defense or with the sanction of the United Nations Security Council, the proposed response is again to flout the law.
About the only thread of consistency here, besides the illegality, is that the U.S. postures toward both Egypt and Syria have been the ones preferred by the foreign government that for many years has been the dominant influence in shaping so much of U.S. policy in the Middle East. That may make the politics of what we are seeing easier to understand. But from any other perspective what we are seeing is an embarrassing and destructive inconsistency.
Destructive, partly because it sends the message that just as the squeaky wheel gets the grease, only with a resort to extremist violence does it seem that one has a chance to get attention and even support. Maybe that is one of the thoughts in the minds of those ginning up the new terrorist campaign in Egypt.
Image: Flickr/David F. Barrero. CC BY 2.0.
After it looked this past weekend like President Obama might have an uphill fight to gain Congressional approval for a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria, the odds now appear to have swung in favor of passage of a resolution. This swing is due less to John Kerry's passionate “Munich moment” exhortations than to the fact that the Israel lobby has entered the fray, openly and explicitly, in favor of intervention. AIPAC made it official on Tuesday. The Israeli government may have the deciding vote on the matter before Congress, not so much because it appears to have been the source of intelligence that the Obama administration is relying on to make a case tying the chemical incident two weeks ago to the Assad regime (although there are interesting questions to be raised about that) but because members of Congress anticipating their next re-election campaign will be thinking about what type of vote Benjamin Netanyahu's government desires, a criterion that routinely gets equated in American political discourse with “support for Israel.”
A few days ago some were saying that a measure of political courage in the coming vote in Congress would be to buck the plurality of American public opinion, among followers of both parties, that opposes military intervention in Syria. Now a better measure would be to buck the preference of the lobby. As we have seen innumerable times before, one should not expect to see a lot of that type of courage.
Those voting in favor of a military attack should be aware that such a resort to armed force, in the very ways it would be quite consistent with how Israel has long pursued its objectives in the Middle East, would be inconsistent with a couple of the major themes in what the Obama administration has been saying in making its case. One is the theme that any U.S. military action would be strictly limited in duration as well as intensity. Neither the administration nor anyone else has adequately explained how this can be assured if subsequent escalation or retaliation from the other side follows a U.S. strike. As California Republican Ed Royce observed in a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, “the Assad regime would have a say in what happens next.” For Israel, the country that developed “mowing the lawn” into a foundation of national security strategy, this is not a worry. One simply mows the lawn again...and again. For the United States, the question is whether it wants to involve itself in this kind of endless warfare.
Another major theme in the administration's case concerns upholding international norms of behavior. But no one has explained how violation of one of the most fundamental international norms—against attacking another sovereign state if the attack is not in self-defense or under the sanction of the United Nations Security Council—is a blow in favor of norm-upholding. Here again, this is not a quandary for Israel, which has long flouted the non-aggression norm as it has gone about its repeated lawn-mowing in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere. As for the United Nations, Israeli policymakers gave up on it long ago as a lost cause, worth paying attention to only when it is time to squeeze another veto out of the United States at the Security Council or to make a fuss about someone else wanting to join the world organization. For the United States, the norm in question still has much value, at least as great as any of the norms having to do more narrowly with particularly types of unconventional weapons.
As for those unconventional weapons, here the Israeli way of doing things has been to dispense with international conventions, inspection regimes, and peaceful ways to pursue arms control and nonproliferation objectives. Instead, it has again been a matter of unilateral application of military force. Israel has, of course, long rejected any international cooperation, transparency, or honesty when it comes to its arsenal of nuclear weapons. As for chemical weapons, 189 states are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention; Israel is one of only seven states (along with Syria) that is not. The United States, which has been a major player in erecting the international structures dedicated to the peaceful pursuit of arms control and disarmament, still has a major interest in those structures and would lose much by in effect chucking them and what they represent and instead just turning to the gun.
A broader and more general way of posing the question the U.S. Congress now faces is: does the United States want to follow its powerful and privileged Israeli client on a path that not only brushes aside international law, international organization, and the peaceful pursuit of international objectives but also entails perpetual warfare, much isolation, and all of the costs and risks that go with that? The current Israeli government has chosen that path for itself; why would the United States want to take the same path?
As always with the Netanyahu government, the issue of Iran looms large. Netanyahu and his colleagues evidently have calculated, probably accurately, that a U.S. attack on Syria would serve their objectives of keeping the Iran issue boiling (and thus serving their further purposes of distracting international attention from issues directly involving Israel and precluding Iran ever becoming, in competition with Israel, a partner of the United States), diminishing the chance for a negotiated agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, and increasing the chance of a future U.S. military attack on Iran. In addition to wanting a U.S. attack on Syria that would provide ammunition to Iranian hardliners resisting agreement-facilitating concessions to the West, the Israeli government does not want a Congressional outcome on Syria that would make it harder to push through in the future an authorization to use military force against Iran. After all, if Congress were to say no to military action when a regime not only possesses a banned and abhorred weapon but has actually used it to lethal effect, how could it be expected to say yes with a different regime that has never owned or used the feared weapon, has not made any decision to build it, and where the only rationale for an attack would be that this regime has a program that maybe, someday, might help it to build such a weapon if it ever were to take the decision it has not taken?
There is a another dimension about Israel and Iran that is based on Netanyahu's already well-established image of someone itching to pull Israel's own military trigger and attack Iran. This image has been supplemented by much commentary in Israel in recent days to the effect that Obama's supposed wavering on Syria—by throwing the issue to Congress—demonstrates how on a matter as important as Iran, Israel must rely on no one other than itself. All this gives rise to the argument, which is likely to sway some members of Congress, that if the United States does not reassure Netanyahu by taking a firm line about using military force and smiting Syria, the Israeli prime minister is apt to start a new war with Iran.
So Netanyahu's incessant saber-rattling on Iran is increasing the chance of the United States going to war against Syria, which in turn would increase his ability to sell a future U.S. war against Iran. That game works well for Netanyahu. It is an awful game for the United States.
President Obama's referral of the Syria question to Congress should not have come as a surprise. This president is not avidly seeking direct U.S. involvement in another Middle Eastern war. He is moving to do something forceful about Syria largely because he has been pressured to do something forceful about Syria. It is not surprising that he seeks as much buy-in as possible from the legislative branch. He and his political advisers also will be able to watch how this issue intensifies intramural tussles among Republicans.
Besides any reasons for the referral that may please the president's political advisers, there are good reasons that ought to please any American citizen. Involving the legislative branch on this important decision is, just as the president said in his statement on Saturday, the way a constitutional democracy ought to operate. A Congressional debate and vote on whether or not to authorize the use of military force against Syria will be an encouraging step that will, at least for the moment, reverse the discouraging atrophy of Congress's war-making power.
There also are some early signs that the debate will go beyond surface rationales and delve into some of the more important implications of the proposed use of military force. Although there is still too much focus on one reported use of an unconventional weapon, some members have explicitly acknowledged that an empirical question about a chemical weapons incident is different from the policy question of whether it makes sense to apply U.S. military force in Syria.
Another war and another vote eleven years ago weighs heavily, of course, on the minds of members as they consider the current issue. There is nothing wrong with that. Although some may consider the stewing of politicians over how they decided to fight the last war to be just as bad and backward-looking as generals preparing to fight the last war, it isn't. It is healthy for Congress and for U.S. policy for members to strive consciously to avoid the pathologies that led to the Iraq War. Just about any deliberative process about whether to employ military force will be an improvement on what happened before that earlier war, when there was no such process at all in the executive branch and only a perfunctory one in the legislative branch. This time there even will be committee hearings, which never took place before the Iraq War.
Congress being Congress, however, let us not get too high our hopes for care and profundity in the deliberative process that is about to begin. Some of the most important complexities of this issue do not lend themselves well to sound bites or easily understood positions in a re-election campaign. When a resolution authorizing military force comes to a vote, members will cast what is described as a “vote of conscience.” But like all their votes, it will be at least as much a vote of politics. There are many different political games that will get played with the Syria issue. Perhaps what we should hope for most is that even some games that are played for the wrong reasons will have the effect of promoting an outcome that minimizes damage to the national interest.
One thinks in this regard of the habit of some Republican members to oppose anything that Barack Obama has proposed. If such a habit can go to the extreme it has with health care reform—over a plan that was more of a Republican idea before Obama made it his signature domestic program, and is now the law of the land—it will not be surprising if some members one might otherwise assume would be hawkish, quick-on-the-trigger Assad-haters will vote against what would be one of Obama's biggest foreign-policy actions.
Working in the other direction will be the perennial elephant in the room on anything Congress does regarding the Middle East: the Israeli government and its lobby in Washington. The upheaval in Syria has involved a mixture of concerns for Israel, but the principal Israeli objective that seems to be most engaged in the U.S. handling of the Syria question is to sustain hostility toward Iran and to undermine prospects for an agreement with Tehran. A U.S. military intervention in Syria probably would help to serve that Israeli purpose by making it politically harder for President Rouhani and his allies to make concessions to the United States and the West that would be necessary to reach agreement on Iran's nuclear program (notwithstanding what may be a broadly shared Iranian dismay over the use of chemical weapons in Syria).
How all this nets out on Capitol Hill is uncertain, and the current betting line seems to place about even odds on either passage or rejection of a resolution authorizing the use of military force. Suppose the resolution fails; what would Obama do then?—a question he understandably declined to answer when it was shouted at him after his statement last Saturday. A negative vote certainly would be viewed immediately as a significant political embarrassment and setback for the president. This is mainly what underlies commentary to the effect that Obama has taken a risk by calling for a Congressional vote. This president, however, may perceive even greater risks in going ahead and attacking Syria after a rejection by Congress. These would include not only the domestic risks of flouting—in stark contrast to David Cameron in Britain—the will of the people's elected representatives, but also the considerable risks of an attack leading to deeper, more costly, and ultimately ineffective involvement in the Syrian civil war. So the president might at that point say, “I tried, but Congress has spoken, and I respect the decision of Congress.” If that happens, political motives and sound foreign policy calculation will have combined to produce the outcome least damaging to the national interest.