The president's appointments of Susan Rice and Samantha Power certainly have caused a stir, as reflected in commentary right here at The National Interest. Without adding to the pile of overall judgments about these choices, something more can be said about how these appointments raise an issue concerning the correct and incorrect ways to draw lessons from history. Both appointees are identified with ex post facto anguish over the international response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and a determination not to let a similar event happen again. Rice is quoted by Power, in the latter's later writing about this event, as saying that “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”
The extraction of lessons from salient (and especially unpleasant) historical episodes should go beyond a simple determination that a piece of policy was good or bad and instead examine in detail exactly why and how a policy didn't work or an initiative went sour. Such a careful approach recognizes that: most policies are not entirely good or entirely bad; some aspects of an initiative can be executed well while other aspects of the same initiative are executed poorly; the right policy may be pursued for the wrong reasons, or the wrong policy for noble reasons; and multiple national interests are typically at stake, some of which are better served by a particular policy than are others.
Extraction of lessons, for example, from the Iraq War—one of the most salient, unpleasant and costly episodes in recent American history—should take this kind of careful, fine-grained form. It should not be a simple matter of declaring that the war stank and this means the United States should not intervene militarily again in the Middle East. The latter, simplistic approach is what some advocates of intervention in Syria depict as the frame of mind that they are battling against, warning Americans that they should not be afraid of intervening in Syria just because they got traumatized in Iraq. No doubt some Americans do have that frame of mind, as reflected in what is usually described as war weariness of the American public. But as far as serious debate among policy elites is concerned, the depicted frame of mind is a straw man.
Many important lessons can be, and have been, drawn from the Iraq War and the decision to launch it, lessons that should be applied to possible interventions elsewhere, Syria included. Substantively, for example, there are lessons about foreign perceptions of U.S. troop involvement, the importance of ethnic and sectarian rivalries, and the inability to inject a liberal democratic culture through the barrel of a gun. The procedural lessons are just as important, including ones about failing to plan sufficiently for later phases of an occupation, rejecting expert judgment about the challenges likely to be encountered in those phases, and failing to have any policy process leading to the decision to undertake such a major expedition.
A contrast to such careful lesson-drawing is the never-again, I'll-go-down-in-flames way of reacting to a past episode. If we are to take Rice and Power at their word, this approach is not a straw man. And it is a really bad way to apply history to current policy issues. It ignores or discounts the aforementioned complexities about mixtures of good and bad and the trade-offs among different interests. It overstates the similarity between the historical episode that has had the searing effect and whatever is the policy problem of today. Swearing in advance to take a particular side in a future policy debate without knowing the details of the problem that will be debated is a very bad way to make policy. To the extent that emotion and guilt over some past horror come into play, this gets even farther away from careful examination of policy options and makes bad policy even more likely.
This approach already has damaged U.S. interests. Excessive and simplistic application of the grandaddy of all international policy wonks' guilt trips—the response to the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s—has been a major factor in such damage, including that resulting from the U.S. decision to intervene in Vietnam in the 1960s. As for the Iraq War, Paul Wolfowitz was especially fond of telling us that Saddam Hussein was a latter-day equivalent of Adolf Hitler.
The no-more-Rwandas version of this approach also has caused damage, less severe than that of the wars in either Vietnam or Iraq but harm that is still in the process of being incurred and tallied. Of particular note in this regard is the intervention in Libya two years ago, an action that Rice and Power reportedly supported strongly. The notion that this intervention was wise appears to rest on the idea that the target was a dictator nobody particularly liked and that in the civil war that was then ongoing people were getting hurt, as is always the case in civil wars. The notion also rested on the myth, unsupported by evidence to this day, that Qadhafi was planning some sort of genocidal bloodbath in eastern Libya and that failure to intervene would mean Rwanda all over again. The dictator was swept aside with U.S. and Western help, at minimal material cost to the United States, and so the episode gets casually put in the win column.
The actual balance sheet on Libya is far more extensive than that. The disliked dictator had already, through an enforceable agreement with the United States and Britain, given up his unconventional weapons programs and gotten out of international terrorism. He was still a quixotically inconvenient and sometimes disagreeable cuss, but he was not a threat. What we have had since he was ousted is extremist-infested disorder in Libya that has given rise to a flow of arms to radicals in the Sahel and incidents like the fatal encounter at a U.S. compound in Benghazi. (If Rice were being nominated for a position requiring Senate confirmation, this is the aspect of the Benghazi incident she ought to be grilled about, not some manufactured silliness about talking points.) We also have sent a very unhelpful message to the likes of the Iranians and North Koreans and have perversely affected their motivations regarding the possibility of reaching their own agreements with the United States.
It is remarkable that the Libyan intervention is so often considered a success. Let us hope that in the future when lessons are drawn from this episode—by either advocates or opponents of some future intervention—they will be drawn carefully, rather than in the simplistic manner that seems to have become respectable even among presidential appointees.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Adam Jones, Ph.D. CC BY-SA 3.0.
A visit to Russia by a Republican Congressional delegation led by Dana Rohrabacher of California has featured some unusual twists. The trip was at least partly arranged by action-film star Steven Seagal, which makes it only slightly less weird, as far as the role of entertainers is concerned, than Dennis Rodman being a point man for engagement with the leader of North Korea. Then there is the whole idea of GOP legislators being activists for greater security cooperation with the Russians. They belong to the party whose presidential nominee last year described Russia as the principal geopolitical adversary of the United States—an “absurd statement,” according to Rohrabacher this week.
The general idea being promoted by the delegation is sound, and to the extent the trip makes a difference it may well be to the good. A major theme of the trip is the importance of cooperation against Islamist terrorism. Bilateral cooperation with a wide range of partners has long been an important component of U.S. counterterrorism. The list of those partners is very long, longer than most of the public is apt to expect, and has included many states that have generally been thought of as U.S. adversaries. Acting on shared interests between Russia and the United States in opposing certain varieties of terrorism makes sense. But any such cooperation should be undertaken with eyes open about a couple of things that the Congressional delegation, based on its comments, does not seem to appreciate fully.
One concerns the limits of what can be done in counterterrorism even with robust international cooperation. A focus of discussion on the trip naturally was the Boston Marathon bombing, given the Russian ties of the ethnic Chechens who were the alleged perpetrators. Rohrabacher made a comment on this subject that did not levy blame specifically on either Russia or the United States but included the assertion that greater cooperation between the two countries could have prevented the bombing. Based on what is publicly known so far, that assertion is not supportable. Although we do not know all that Russian authorities knew before the incident about the elder Tsarnaev brother, we do not have a good basis for believing that they knew he was doing, or would do, terrorism, including doing it in Boston.
The other note of caution concerns not getting sucked into, or providing cover for, the other country's agenda. Saying, as the Congressmen did, that the United States and Russia share a common interest in defeating “radical Islam” covers a broad set of objectives, some of which the two countries really do share and others of which they do not. They share an interest in countering terrorism, and more specifically terrorism as the United States defines it. They do not share an interest in taking hardline approaches toward other kinds of dissident activity, including in the north Caucasus, that Moscow would be inclined to include as well under the label of radical Islam. It was unhelpful for Seagal to dismiss as “rumors” the serious human-rights concerns that have been raised about the current Putin-backed boss of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
One of the many problems stemming from the United States pitching counterterrorism as a boundless, worldwide “war on terror” is that it has provided a handy banner under which other countries have pursued, sometimes brutally, their own campaigns against ethnically based dissident movements. Putin's Russia certainly has done so in the Caucasus. So has another foil of the Congressmen's trip to Russia—China, in its handling of resistance from Uyghurs.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0.
The State Department released this week the government's legislatively mandated annual report on international terrorism. There is no doubt what headline the administration hopes will be taken away from the release of the report, which covers the calendar year 2012. In a background conference call for reporters on Friday, Senior Administration Official One got immediately to the main message being pushed: that “one of the most noteworthy conclusions” in compiling the report was a “resurgence of terrorist activity by Iran and Hezbollah.” In fact, activity by Iran and Hezbollah was the only subject of the press backgrounder, and Iran and Hezbollah were treated as two peas in a pod that jointly account for this “alarming trend.” The other briefer, Senior Administration Official Two, joined in the messaging with gusto, warning anyone who might look at Hezbollah as a political actor that it is “a terrorist organization, and not just a terrorist organization, but a broad organization that is morally bankrupt to its very core.”
Most of the incidents involving Iran that were cited as part of the “resurgence” were a set of largely unsuccessful attacks against Israeli personnel early in the year in places such as New Delhi, Tbilisi and Bangkok. Nothing was said, in either the report or the backgrounder, about why Iran would perpetrate such attacks at that particular time against those particular targets. The failure to address that question is all the more glaring because the answer to the question is clear. The attacks were tit-for-tat terrorism in response to (possibly in addition to other attacks on Iran) the serial assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists—five to date, through early last year. The Iranians made the retaliatory nature of their own operations all the more obvious by even mimicking the method of attack used against the most recent scientist to die: an explosive attached to the victim's vehicle.
The killings of the scientists were just as much acts of international terrorism as were the retaliatory Iranian attacks. The legal definition that defines terrorism for purposes of the State Department's report is “premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” But don't expect to find any mention of the assassinations in the report. They are not noted anywhere, including in the section on Iran or the section on Israel (which begins with the statement, “Israel continued to be a stalwart counterterrorism partner in 2012.”) The absence of any mention of the assassinations is certainly not due to any lack of awareness among U.S. officials about the international nature of the assassinations and who was behind them.
Terrorism is a condemnable, immoral activity, no matter where and when it occurs and no matter who perpetrates it. It should not be excused or overlooked no matter what stimulated or motivated it, what causes or objectives it was intended to advance, or what relationship one may have with the perpetrator.
Last week President Obama made a refreshingly sensible and honest speech about terrorism and the policies needed to cope with it. If any such policies are to have credibility, remaining terrorism must be called to account with honesty and consistency. This week the administration failed to do that.
Many who offer opinions on policy toward Iran, and particularly on how to handle negotiations over its nuclear program, implicitly claim an unusual ability to read the minds of Iranian decision-makers. Assertions are made with apparent confidence about what the Iranians want, fear or believe, even without any particular evidence in support. Several possible explanations can account for the misplaced confidence.
One is that we are seeing common psychological mechanisms in action. A well-established human tendency is, for example, to interpret cooperative behavior on another person's part as a response to one's own behavior, while ascribing uncooperative conduct to innate orneriness on the part of the other person. Thus there is a failure to understand how firmness in Iran's negotiating position is a response to firmness on the Western side, and there is an accompanying tendency to interpret a lack of Iranian concessions as indicating an Iranian desire to stall and drag out negotiations.
Another explanation is that a particular frame of mind is imputed to the Iranians because it implies a U.S. policy that is politically popular for other reasons. Loading ever more onerous sanctions on Iran is a popular political sport, especially on Capitol Hill, to show toughness or love for Israel. The politicians who play that sport therefore favor a view of the Iranian mindset according to which the Iranians are simply not hurting enough and need to hurt some more, after which they will cry uncle.
A third explanation is that the supposed interpretation of Iranian thinking is a cover for another policy agenda held by the person offering the interpretation. This is especially the case with some of those arguing for more vehement threats of military attack against Iran. Some of those proponents have made no secret of the fact that they believe (for whatever strange reason) that war with Iran would be a good thing. Saber-rattling gives them a better chance of reaching that goal, because if an agreement is not reached with Iran then the advocates of saber-rattling would be among the first to cry that U.S. credibility would be damaged if the military threats were not carried out.
These possibilities come to mind in reading an op ed by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In particular, they are brought to mind by Ross and Makovsky's statement, in explaining lack of progress in the negotiations, that “Iranian leaders seem not to believe that we will use force if diplomatic efforts fail.” What is their basis for that observation? Have the Iranian leaders themselves said anything like that? No, they haven't. Ross and Makovsky seem to be basing such an observation solely on the Iranian negotiating position itself, and in so doing they are implying only a single cause for that position. Whatever Iran does in the way of making or not making concessions is all supposedly a matter of whether the Iranians see the possibility of U.S. military force being employed. Every other carrot, stick, belief or perception evidently does not matter at all.
Actually, those other things matter a lot. There is the little business of sanctions, for example. Ross and Makovsky are to be complimented for stating that if Iran is prepared to make the kind of concessions we are looking for, then “we should be prepared to lift the harsh economic sanctions.” But they do not mention that the United States and its negotiating partners have given the Iranians little or no reason to believe that we are so prepared. Instead, the only sanctions relief that has been incorporated in the Western proposals is stingy in comparison with the panoply of sanctions that Congress keeps piling on. We do not need any magical insight into secret Iranian thoughts to realize how important this dimension is in shaping Iran's negotiating behavior. We only have to look at the demands and proposals that Iran has advanced at the negotiating table, as well as the actual economic damage that the sanctions have inflicted.
Ross and Makovsky get something else right, but for the wrong reason. Their piece is partly an argument in favor of making a comprehensive proposal rather than taking a step-by-step approach; they pooh-pooh the idea of confidence-building that is associated with step-by-step. A comprehensive proposal is a good idea, but precisely because a lack of confidence—which is glaring on both sides—is a major part of the problem. The Iranians lack confidence that the United States and its P5+1 partners ever want to get to an end state in which they fully and formally accept a peaceful nuclear program, with uranium enrichment, in the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran, rather than indefinitely stringing out negotiations while the sanctions continue to inflict their damage. Again, we do not need to be mind-readers to realize this; the Iranians have been quite explicit in stating that they require a clearer idea of where the negotiations are heading.
So a “going big” comprehensive proposal is a good idea—but not as Ross and Makovsky pitch it, as some kind of ultimatum with a threat of military force functioning as an “or else” clause of the proposal. That kind of clause only stokes Iranian doubts about the West's ultimate intentions and feeds Iranian interest in a possible nuclear weapon as a deterrent.
What is the explanation for Ross and Makovsky's assertions about Iranian thinking? Are they exhibiting one of those psychological heuristics, or covering a hidden agenda, or something else? I don't know; I don't pretend to be able to read their minds.
As Iraq after the U.S. invasion became a violent cauldron that featured, among other forms of bloodletting, a surge of Sunni terrorism, American apologists for the war and other supporters of the invasion who were trying to cope with their cognitive dissonance put the violence in a favorable light that even got additional mileage out of the pre-war fiction about how invading Iraq would be a way of dealing with al-Qaeda. The new concept was the flypaper theory of counterterrorism: the idea that the war was serving to attract terrorists to a place where U.S. forces could more easily gun them down. Better to fight them and kill them in Iraq, went the idea, than to fight them later after they got to the United States.
The fundamental flaw in the flypaper theory as applied to what was happening in Iraq is that it assumed there was a fixed number of jihadi terrorists, some subset of whom were cooperatively coming to Iraq to be martyred. Far from there being a fixed number, the war significantly boosted the number. The great majority of those who committed terrorist violence in Iraq were not, prior to the war, previously established terrorists who had been hiding and plotting in some unreachable place in South Asia or elsewhere. Instead, they were perpetrating such violence for the first time, having been stimulated to do so by the U.S. invasion and occupation and subsequent Iraqi civil war.
In different circumstances, however, there might be something valid in a version of the flypaper theory. The key required difference would be that a specific organization is involved whose membership is closer to being fixed than is that of an inchoate movement that expands every time an angry individual decides to resort to violence. As far as U.S. interests in particular are concerned, another difference is that the United States not become what it became in Iraq: a principal stimulant and target of the violence.
Conditions something like this exist today in Syria. Not among the radical Sunni jihadists on the rebel side, whose numbers have been expanding just as they did in Iraq, but instead on the pro-regime side with regard to Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah has made a major commitment on behalf of the Assad regime, and it is paying a heavy price. The price comes in the form of substantial losses in men and materiel, as well as politically in the form of alienation from the larger Sunni Arab world, most of which favors the Syrian rebels. Former Lebanese prime minister (and thus a Sunni) Saad Hariri said that Hezbollah's decision to fight in Syria was “political and military suicide.” That's an overstatement, but the costs for Hezbollah certainly have been high.
Meanwhile, the Syrian war has indirectly raised new challenges to Hezbollah back in Lebanon. Lebanese Sunnis have gained experience fighting in Syria. Rebels from Syria have even infiltrated parts of Hezbollah's stronghold in the Bekaa Valley. These processes can be expected to continue as long as the Syrian war continues.
Such developments get overlooked by many people who profess concern about Hezbollah and its influence and who say that if Hezbollah is on one side of a war, we ought to back the other side. For anyone who really is concerned about Hezbollah and would like to see it weakened, it would be better to stand back and let the status quo continue.
It would serve Hezbollah's interests for the United States and the West to do anything that would help the group do what it has often successfully done in the past, which is to pose as champion of causes with which most Sunni Arabs and not just Shia identify. In a speech last weekend, Hezbollah's leader Hasan Nasrallah said his group is fighting in Syria to keep the country out of the hands of “America, Israel and the takfiris.” Rather than giving Hezbollah the propaganda gift of making that description seem true, it would be better to let Hezbollah get stuck more inextricably in the Syrian trap.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/FunkMonk
In his speech at the National Defense University on Thursday, President Obama made one of the most sensible, realistic, thorough and truthful statements about terrorism and counterterrorism from any senior official, let alone a president. The speech was not a piece of oratorical artwork, and it probably will not have the popular resonance of many of his other utterances. But in the sheer quality of its substance, the speech was one of his best.
The welcome and needed main message was that the United States must and should get off the track of waging a “boundless 'global war on terror.'” Accompanying that message was an accurate description of the terrorist threats that do and do not endanger U.S. interests. The president explained how the main problem is not what is left of the core al-Qaeda group but instead some parts of an assortment of foreign offshoots as well as radicalized individuals in the United States. Many of the foreign groups, including some that have adopted the al-Qaeda brand name, are primarily focused on local matters and do not pose any significant threat to U.S. interests.
Mr. Obama was candid in what can and cannot be done in countering terrorism. We “cannot erase” violent extremism. He talked of some of the vulnerabilities that are unavoidable, including the dangers faced by U.S. diplomats serving in trouble-prone places such as Libya.
The president, in multiple ways, made clear the inherent trade-offs involved in many aspects of counterterrorist policy. This included his discussion of the pros and cons of establishing either a special court or an oversight board to pass judgment on proposed drone strikes against terrorist suspects, while evidently remaining open-minded himself about the different options. It also included his reference to the need to strike a balance between security and “preserving those freedoms that make us who we are.” This aspect of the speech was a needed antidote to the tendency to think about counterterrorism in absolute terms and doing whatever is necessary to provide security.
A needed antidote to the tendency to think of a “war” on terrorism involving military force as a first-choice tool was Mr. Obama's reference to the many different instruments of statecraft that contribute to counterterrorism even if they are not labeled expressly as such. Especially welcome was his forthright discussion of the need to address “underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism.” He included under this category the promotion of democracy, foreign assistance, and—of particular note—the establishment of an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
What the president said about the detention facility at Guantanamo was admirably blunt and indicated a welcome use of what executive authorities he has to get closer to the goal of closure. He discussed how the original purpose of the facility was to keep detainees beyond the reach of any law and how this ignoble objective has hurt U.S. foreign relations by fostering a perception of U.S. disregard for law. He also correctly said that the Congressional restrictions on movement from detainees out of Guantanamo “make no sense.”
The speech serves also as another refutation of the myth that Mr. Obama claims to have dealt a fatal blow to international terrorism. The myth seems to have been born during last year's election campaign amid subliminal fears of Mr. Obama's opponents that whatever successes his administration has had against terrorism might win him votes. The myth has underlain the silliness about talking points on the Benghazi incident, allegedly doctored so as not to contradict the mythical claim about having defeated terrorism. It also underlies some more recent silliness about the White House supposedly wanting to “punish” the Associated Press for stories that indicate there is still a terrorist threat out there. What the president actually said near the beginning of this week's speech was, “Make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists.” When he mentioned the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, he said nothing about his own decision-making but instead attributed the raid's success to the planning and professionalism of U.S. Special Forces and to “some luck.” Even then, he acknowledged the downside of the raid in the form of a “severe” negative impact on relations with Pakistan.
The speech does implicitly remind the listener of some of the negative aspects of the Obama administration's use of armed drones. One of those aspects is unnecessary opacity and slowness in lifting that opacity. It was only the day before the speech that the administration, in a letter from the attorney general to a Senate committee, finally acknowledged all of the U.S. citizens who had been killed, intentionally or otherwise, by drones.
The White House released, as an accompaniment to the speech, a fact sheet describing criteria and procedures to be used in deciding on additional strikes from armed drones. The release is a positive step toward more transparency and gives us the fullest sense yet about the policy and how it is implemented. But the complete policy guidelines remain classified, the fact sheet is vague on several points, and it raises as well as answers questions. For example, it states that the United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a “continuing, imminent threat” to U.S. persons. How can a threat that is “continuing” also be “imminent,” except perhaps for a short time before the threat is finally executed? In other places, such as in describing review procedures when a U.S. citizen is involved, the fact sheet essentially says that things will be done legally without specifying the legal principles and standards to be applied. In offering assurances that noncombatants will be protected, a lengthy footnote says that “it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants” but doesn't really eliminate the possibility that many such males will be so deemed.
The biggest hurdle to full implementation of a sensible and defensible counterterrorist policy is probably not these remaining problems in the administration's use of drones but instead the insistence of others, especially in Congress, that counterterrorism is a “war” in which military force is the preeminent tool, the grievances and conflicts that feed extremism are disregarded, the trade-offs involved in buying security are brushed aside, and the stain of Guantanamo is retained.
Reasonable people can disagree on what to do about Syria, a problem with no good solutions, and particularly about what to do regarding aid to Syrian rebels. There ought not to be disagreement, however, on not letting the United States, a would-be benefactor, get pushed around or have its diplomacy subverted by the rebels, who are the supplicants. Yet that becomes a possibility when we hear the head of the rebel Syrian National Coalition throw cold water on the peace conference that Secretary of State Kerry and his Russian counterpart agreed to arrange and say that his group will withhold agreement to attend until it sees who from the Assad regime might be coming.
In a public statement at this week's “Friends of Syria” meeting, Kerry linked the concept of increased aid to the rebels to any unwillingness by the Assad regime to participate in peace talks. One hopes he has conveyed a converse message in private to rebel representatives. There would be nothing wrong with also making such a message public. It would be part of a consistent policy whereby U.S. decisions about aid to rebels would be governed by the willingness or unwillingness of each side to negotiate and to negotiate seriously.
Amid all the talk about Assad having to go, there is no reason from the standpoint of U.S. interests to consider his departure an end in itself. It is at most a means to achieve other ends, having to do with instability or extremism in Syria. An even more fundamental distinction is between objectives, either ultimate or intermediate, and diplomatic modalities such as who exactly will be sitting at a negotiating table. In general, regardless of the objectives, including parties is better excluding them, which only makes them more likely to be spoilers. This principle goes for outsiders, including Iran.
As for the insiders and specifically the Assad regime, it would be hard to label as peace talks any process in which that regime was not fully at the table in the form of representatives of its own choice. Moreover, think of the incentives—to talk or to fight, to cooperate or to spoil—of the regime's supporters. A wide range of possibilities for a new Syria would share the common feature of not having Bashar Assad in charge. But those possibilities can be very different from each other in terms of the ability of those currently supporting the regime to live useful lives in the new Syria, or to live at all. If they do not believe their interests will be fairly represented in creation of a new order, they are more likely to see the only course as a fight to the death. Anyone who does not acknowledge that reality does not deserve assistance.
Public discussion of the subpoena of telephone records of Associated Press reporters as part of a leak investigation has been impaired by widespread ignorance or misunderstanding of what is going on with this case, as well as by the political environment in which the issue has surfaced. To begin with, none of us on the outside have any good basis for assessing the importance or potential importance of the phone records to this particular investigation. We don't know what other leads the investigators have, and we don't know the breadth of follow-up implied by whatever leads they do have. We thus have little or no ground as uninformed critics for second-guessing how the FBI is handling the case, in terms of obtaining the records at all or of the extent of the records that were subpoenaed.
The damage of leaks appears to be widely misunderstood, given how swiftly many commentators are brushing aside the issue of damage in the current case. Leaking of classified information significantly harms national security because it is awfully hard to run an effective national security operation if what stays secret and what becomes public is determined by any individual with an ax to grind or a personal agenda to push and enough of a wild streak to break the rules. Some commentary has offered opinion on how much the particular leak that is apparently in question in the current case was or was not damaging, but that is too narrow a perspective. Any leak is a blow to the discipline needed to keep secret information secret.
Those focusing narrowly on this single leak ought to think more about what it means in terms of political incentives and what is right or wrong regarding the behavior of political leaders. Although neither the attorney general nor any other official has publicly identified the leak in question, nearly all speculation centers on AP's reporting on an overseas terrorist plot that the United States evidently was able to infiltrate and thus to neutralize. For the Obama administration, this was a good news story; the United States prevented a terrorist attack through effective counterterrorist work. Outsiders would have had stronger grounds for criticism if the administration were not vigorously investigating a leak that had worked in its favor.
A commonly stated myth is that the AP is a “target” of this investigation, or even more preposterously, that it is being “punished.” The actual target of any leak investigation is the leaker; obtaining information about the contacts and activity of journalists is only a way to try to identify that target. It is a simple matter of relative numbers. There are many potential leakers, among the many people inside government who typically have access to information about even fairly sensitive secret subjects—which is why so many leak investigations fail to come up with the culprit. But there is only one news organization that got the scoop.
Political exploitation by domestic adversaries of the administration is a major part of this story, and of course such exploitation is nothing new. This pattern has been intensified by concatenation of the latest leak case with a couple of other developments that have been making the White House's political life more complicated lately. One is a kerfuffle over some talking points composed by committee amid a confusing situation overseas, with the kerfuffle begun during the 2012 election campaign and being dragged out indefinitely to try to damage a possible candidacy in the 2016 election. Another is an inept job by a unit in the Internal Revenue Service in trying to deal with a confusing legal situation regarding political activity and tax exemption. None of these matters have anything to do with each other, but that does not stop those who smell political blood from doing the concatenating. One story is an event, two is a pattern, and three, if you work for Fox News, is a wave of scandals.
The leak case, as with any leak case, also has a broader constituency that is making a fuss and on which Fox and the New York Times are on the same side. Leaks are red meat to journalists, especially ones who work on any kind of a national security beat. And so journalists in general, and the news organizations for which they work, tend to be pro-leak. This means that readers of those organizations' products are reading articles, not to mention editorials, that are slanted in the direction of criticizing vigorous investigation and prosecution of leaks.
This constituency tries to suggest there is a First Amendment issue involved. There isn't. There is much talk of how something like the subpoenaing of reporters' phone records has a “chilling” effect on the work of journalists, but no one explains exactly how and why that should be the case. It is not apparent why even journalistic exploitation of leaks would be chilled, and there certainly is no reason to expect any effect on vigorous reporting of other sorts, including on national security matters.
Finally, discussion of the seizure of AP phone records seems to go on without reflecting on who has access to such things in the private or public sectors and how this ought to affect how we think about privacy. Phone companies have complete records of how you, I, the AP reporters and everyone else have used their telephones. Internet service providers have complete access to people's Internet searches and email. Financial institutions have to-the-penny records of people's financial assets and transactions. Some would say that giving access to the government—with the ultimate coercive power of the state—is a different matter from having a voluntary relationship with a commercial enterprise. But short of relying on smoke signals and face-to-face barter, one has to deal with some such businesses. Sometimes even the choice of a particular business is not all that voluntary. As a land-line user, for example, there is one phone company I really have to use. Moreover, when we think about institutional motivations, which should worry us more: the actions of a government institution subject to public oversight and political checks and balances, or a private sector institution motivated by profit?
In this regard it is interesting that the attention to the leak investigation has coincided with another story about journalists and about people involuntarily surrendering some of the privacy surrounding their professional activity. In this latter story, reporters for Bloomberg News were found to have exploited access to information about the activities of subscribers to Bloomberg's financial data service, including when the subscribers were logging in and logging out and what types of data they were accessing. As for how much of a subscriber's relationship with Bloomberg is voluntary, Neil Irwin notes that “if you are a high-grade financial professional, Bloomberg does everything possible to make it hard for you not to subscribe to its roughly $20,000-a-year data terminal.” As for motivation of the institution, Irwin goes on to observe that for Bloomberg, “the terminal business is so lucrative and so important that it can spare no expense to make sure” that when an event happens with any possible business or financial implication, “the news will pop up on a Bloomberg terminal first.” Evidently Bloomberg News was sparing not only no expense but also no qualms about snooping on the activities of its customers.
It would be especially interesting to get AP reporters and Bloomberg reporters into the same room to discuss the techniques and ethics of information-gathering and how they relate to the journalism profession.
The victor in the recent Pakistani elections, Nawaz Sharif, has indicated he places high priority on improving relations between Pakistan and India. Sharif made some significant strides in promoting detente between the two South Asia powers during a previous stint as prime minister, and he wants to recoup ground that was later lost after the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008 by a Pakistani-based group. Wasting no time, Sharif has invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Pakistan to attend Sharif's swearing-in.
This is all to the good, and has received recognition as such in India (although with caution in the case of the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party). Americans, however, need to be prepared for how a successful Sharif may bring about some changes in Pakistani-U.S. relations that may not seem so good in Washington. This is suggested by an editorial earlier this week in a major Indian daily, the Hindustan Times. The editorial said that part of what Indians ought to hope for from a new administration in Islamabad is “a government that will understand that cutting dependence on the United States and China is only possible if Pakistan has a modus vivendi with India.” Note the implication that understandably can raise American eyebrows: a looser Pakistani relationship with the United States may accompany a less hostile Pakistani relationship with India.
Sharif is indeed likely to do a good number of things that will not sit well in Washington. Some of these things he would be doing anyway, but some of them will be related to his attempted rapprochement with India. The political realities he faces include, besides the Islamist militants who have become a bigger part of Pakistani affairs in recent years, a Pakistani military that ended his last prime ministry with a coup and whose main reason for existence is to defend the country against arch-adversary India. The more political risks Sharif takes in improving relations with that adversary, the more he will have to bolster his nationalist credentials elsewhere, including on matters involving relations with the United States.
There will be a tendency in Washington to judge Sharif's performance piecemeal, involving whatever is the latest concern about security in northwest Pakistan or something else. It would be better to take a more strategic view with the big lines of conflict in South Asia in mind. Indian-Pakistani rapprochement is still worthwhile and very much in U.S. interests, even if it is accompanied by greater nationalist testiness in U.S.-Pakistani relations. It is worthwhile partly because stability in the relationship between the region's two nuclear-armed powers is important in its own right. It also is worthwhile because improvement in that relationship will make it easier for Washington to deal with some other regional issues important to it.
The most prominent of those issues involves Afghanistan. The background to just about every Pakistani policy and action about Afghanistan that is unhelpful, including ones involving the continued Pakistani relations with the Afghan Taliban, is Pakistani concern about India. To Pakistan, Afghanistan is its strategic depth in the standoff with India, and it gets apoplectic over any inroads that India itself makes in Afghanistan. The more that the Indian-Pakistani relationship improves, the less intense will be the apoplexy and the less troublesome a player Pakistani is likely to be on issues involving Afghanistan.
Image: Tore Urnes, CC BY 2.0.
If I were a political adviser to those relentlessly pushing recriminations about the attack last year on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, I think my advice would be, “Give it a rest.” This pseudo-scandal has become so forced, so contrived, and so blatantly driven by motives other than safeguarding the security of U.S. interests that the unending push has already passed the point where it serves any identifiable objectives, even partisan political ones. The subject, about which a panel of inquiry has completed its work and issued its report, is already tiresome; imagine how much more tiresome it will be to voters by 2016 after three more years of it.
A poll on Benghazi released this week by Public Policy Polling suggests that the agitation on the subject is keeping a Republican base agitated but not making wider inroads on public opinion. One has to ask what good it does Republicans to dwell on something that keeps one segment of the population angry about Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton) when that segment was already angry about Obama anyway. When asked whom the respondent trusted more on the issue of Benghazi, 49 percent said Hillary Clinton and 39 percent said Congressional Republicans. On other questions asking for an overall favorable or unfavorable rating, Clinton enjoys an eight-point margin over Congressional Republicans, the same margin as in a similar poll in March.
The poll did show that the angry base has gotten the intended message that there is supposedly a scandal involved. A plurality of Republicans (but only small percentages of either Democrats or independents) said yes to the question of whether this was the “biggest scandal in American history.” By margins of greater than three to one, Republicans polled said it was a worse scandal than Watergate, Iran Contra, or Teapot Dome. That's an interesting result given that in one case the issue involved nuances conveyed in some talking points, while each of the others involved criminal behavior in the form of attempted subversion of an American election with a subsequent cover-up, illegal diversion of arms into a foreign war, or bribery of a cabinet officer to get preferred exploitation of publicly owned natural resources.
The customary ignorance of the American public is no doubt at play. Probably the proportion of the general population that could say today what Teapot Dome was about measures in the single digits. A scandal seems worse if you've actually heard about it. The ignorance factor was suggested by another question in the poll asking where Benghazi is. Ten percent believe it is in Egypt, nine percent in Iran, six percent in Cuba, five percent in Syria, four percent in Iraq, and one percent each in North Korea and Liberia, with another four percent being unwilling to guess. Maybe those who said Cuba have Benghazi confused with Guantanamo. It would be interesting to know what those who said North Korea think the incident was about.
Probably the failure of the agitation about Benghazi to make wider inroads on public opinion is due not only to the tiresome, contrived and partisan nature of the agitation but also to the fact that it never had a logic in the first place. The message being promoted seems to be that the administration was shying away from describing the incident as terrorism in order not to undermine, during the 2012 election campaign, a claim to having success against international terrorists. But when did Barack Obama ever contend that international terrorism has been licked? When the presidential candidates were asked in one of the debates—several months after Osama bin Laden had been killed—what each believed to be biggest national security threat facing the country, Obama replied, “terrorism.” However the incident in Benghazi is characterized, four Americans were killed. There is no way to sugar-coat that, whether the T-word is used or not.
The endless harping about Benghazi has costs beyond, and more important than, wasted time by Republicans who have better ways to try to win votes and defeat Hillary Clinton. Among those costs are the fostering of misunderstanding of some fundamental realities about such incidents and about terrorism. Shortly after the Benghazi attack I mentioned some of those realities, including the inherent hazards of overseas representation and the inability to protect every installation everywhere, and the fact that the details of such incidents are nearly always obscure initially and become clear only in hindsight. As the harping continued other costs grew. These included promoting yet another misunderstanding about terrorism: the idea that popular anger at the United States and the machinations of a group are somehow mutually exclusive explanations for any terrorist incident. Still another is the notion that nonstate violence is worth worrying about if it can be linked to al-Qaeda but is not much of a threat if it cannot. There also is the cost of inducing future secretaries of state and other officials to impair U.S. diplomacy by futilely pursuing a zero-risk approach to overseas representation.
As the pseudo-scandal continues to be pushed, other costs come to mind. An obvious one is the big distraction this entails from useful work Congress could otherwise be doing. Of course, we are no strangers to similarly ineffective use of Congressional time and attention. Probably the Benghazi kick has been no more of a distraction than the House of Representatives voting for the 33rd time (or maybe its more—it's so many there doesn't seem to be an accurate count) to repeal Obamacare. One also needs to consider, however, the drain on the time and attention of officials in the executive branch. Having five different House committees holding hearings on the same subject is an enormous diversion from the main duties of those who are responsible for diplomatic security.
The poll questions about the relative severity of different scandals brings to mind another cost: a debasing of the currency regarding what really is a scandal and what episodes in our nation's history ought to be thought about and have lessons extracted from them. Another example of this is found in a column this week by the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl. Diehl validly observes that the unending agitation over talking points about Benghazi is a misdirected digression from serious issues that ought to be addressed in a bipartisan manner, such as a failure to “adequately prepare for an emergency in post-revolution North Africa.” One might broaden the point by saying that we also ought to be discussing, again in a bipartisan manner, what assumptions underlay the Western intervention in Libya and whether it ever was a good idea. But then in an apparent effort to achieve some kind of partisan balance, or just to scratch some old itch, Diehl contends there is equivalence between the folderol over Benghazi and the episode in which in the course of selling the invasion of Iraq the George W. Bush administration made a false claim about Iraqi purchases of uranium ore in Africa, with the office of Vice President Cheney doing battle with a former ambassador who investigated the matter.
There is no equivalence at all between these two episodes. The one involving the vice president's office—like Watergate, Iran Contra, and Teapot Dome, but unlike Benghazi—involved criminal behavior. Vice presidential aide I. Lewis Libby was convicted of perjury, providing false statements to investigators, and obstruction of justice. Diehl also gets the other essentials about the episode wrong. Although he writes that what the retired ambassador, Joseph Wilson, said was mostly “grossly exaggerated, or simply false,” the principal thing Wilson said—that no such purchases of uranium ore were ever made—was absolutely correct, with the administration's claim being dead wrong. The reason the vice president's office got so deeply involved in the matter was to try to find ways to discredit Wilson and the agency that hired him because the truths they spoke were complicating the effort to sell the Iraq War.
Although Diehl says we should have had “a serious discussion of why U.S. intelligence about Iraq was wrong,” he fails to mention that on this very matter U.S. intelligence was right, having repeatedly warned the White House against using the temptingly juicy tidbit about purchases of uranium ore. The episode was one of the most salient indications that far from being misled into Iraq by bad intelligence, the war-makers in the administration were determined for other reasons to launch the war and were only using intelligence selectively to try to bolster their campaign to sell the invasion.
And lest we forget, the damage to the national interest from that expedition was many, many times greater than anything involving Benghazi. Now that's scandalous.