The brouhaha over some of the National Security Agency's collection activities is the most recent example of a tendency—by the public, the press and the Congress—to treat certain controversial issues of public policy as if they were problems with particular government institutions even when they really aren't. Of course, government institutions, like other institutions, often have problems, whether of ineffectiveness, inefficiency or even malfeasance. But what I am referring to instead are policies and programs that, although implemented by a particular department or agency, exist for reasons found elsewhere—and with the mere existence of the policy or program, more than how it is implemented, being the main point of controversy.
This phenomenon can arise with any government component, but intelligence agencies seem especially liable to be viewed in this misplaced way. Scott Shane of the New York Times observes that U.S. intelligence agencies “have entered a period of broad public scrutiny and skepticism,” citing controversies over interrogation and drone strikes as well as the more recent attention to electronic surveillance. The fact that these agencies, by mission and charter, do not make policy means that any perceptions that they are the drivers of whatever policy is the subject of controversy are very likely incorrect. The secrecy that surrounds these agencies and contributes to ignorance about them is another factor, although occasionally journalists shed corrective light on the subject, as Walter Pincus of the Washington Post has done with regard to the specific NSA-implemented electronic collection programs that are at the center of the most recent controversies.
Those programs do not exist because someone at NSA thought it would be nifty to expand the agency's operations by doing something like that. They exist because the American public—with its desires and demands expressed through the political branches of government—wanted vigorous intelligence efforts on behalf of counterterrorism and because the technology is such that large-scale electronic collection is one of the most promising ways of making such efforts. NSA is implementing the programs because it is the component that happens to have the mission and capability to do such things. The purpose, general parameters and limitations of the programs all have been set outside the agency. The specific operational designs are the work of NSA, but any design that was not intensive and extensive would not have delivered the expected vigor.
The Central Intelligence Agency has figured even more often than NSA into such misdirected controversy. Although recent times have featured issues involving the handling of detainees, a variety of covert actions that later come to light have for many years illustrated the popular conflation of controversial policies with the agency charged with implementing them. The legal framework for covert action that has been in place since the 1970s forces the direct involvement of the most senior policy-makers, including the president, and Congressional leaders. What the agency doing the implementing can and cannot do is carefully detailed and circumscribed. CIA frequently gets involved in implementation because it happens to be the agency with the most capability to do things overseas covertly. But it makes about as much sense to refer to an operation as a “CIA covert action” as it would to refer to the “Department of Defense war in Iraq.”
One reason for the conflation of institutions with policies, and for the projection onto the former of controversies about the latter, is that this imparts a satisfying concreteness to what might otherwise be a rather inchoate and difficult-to-understand issue. Directing one's dissatisfaction to a known, named institution with familiar initials feels better than directing it against a policy process in which there may have been many hands. Hauling officials from those institutions before Congressional committees in public hearings makes things even more concrete and seemingly tractable by applying specific names and faces to the subject.
Another reason for treating controversies this way is that it helps the public and political leaders to avoid having to confront squarely the role that the public and political leaders themselves played in bringing about what became controversial. It makes it easier to overlook the inconsistency of their own mood swings, their changing demands, and their prior support for what later came to be seen as blunders or scandals.
This lack of self-confrontation by the public and political class (and often by the press) leads to the biggest cost of the misdirected conflation of institutions with issues. It impedes the correction of national mistakes. Reducing the chance of blunder or scandal in the future requires full discussion and understanding of everything that led to blunders and scandals in the past. Simply characterizing something as a problem with the XYZ agency does not do that.
There is a second, lesser though still significant, cost that concerns the impact of the conflation on the institutions themselves and the people who work in them. The people in the intelligence agencies are mostly accustomed to being buffeted by such uproars and are pretty good about soldiering on regardless of being knocked around over controversies not of their own making. But knock people around enough times and it is bound to have some effect on concentration and morale. The hazard is increased by the fact that these people are part of a larger federal work force that also has been subjected to other forms of abuse. If we keep treating people in such ways, then we are likely to see real institutional problems develop.
Sometimes our political leaders act so contrary to their declared purposes, even in the face of repeated explanations and clear reasoning as to why what they are doing is counterproductive, that we have to move beyond the oft-ignored reasoning, squarely address the motives and politics involved, and think about how the leaders in question can be shamed if not coaxed into doing their jobs more responsibly. We have such an occasion with the passage in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, by a vote of 400 to 20, of H.R. 850, the “Nuclear Iran Prevention Act,” which among other pressures would endeavor to end what is left of Iran's oil exports by coercing remaining customers to cease their purchases.
The promoters of the legislation say they are acting in the name of precluding an Iranian nuclear weapon. In fact they are acting in the opposite direction, by significantly damaging the prospects of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran—an agreement that would be by far the most assured way of precluding an Iranian nuclear weapon. If simply piling on still more sanctions were ever to get the Iranians to cry “uncle” and unilaterally abandon all nuclear activities, this would have happened long ago as a result of the countless previous rounds of sanctions that Congress has imposed. No matter how much sanctions hurt, Iranian leaders have no incentive to make concessions unless they are presented with proposals in which concessions mean significant relief from the sanctions. This measure in the House will be further evidence to Tehran that the United States does not want an agreement and instead only wants to punish Iranians and to change their regime. In short, it helps to kill, not to elicit, the sorts of concessions we supposedly want from Iranian leaders. It also is a further indication of the sort of hostility that stokes whatever interest there might be in Tehran in building a nuclear weapon.
These realities do not have to be explained again here. I have addressed some of the relevant principles in the past. The role of negotiations and the conditions needed for them to succeed are addressed in a letter from former senior U.S. security officials and in a letter that more than a quarter of the members of the House of Representatives itself sent to the president just within the past fortnight. The damaging effects of H.R. 850 in particular are addressed in more recent commentaries, such as from Mark Jansson of the Federation of American Scientists and from Usha Sahay of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.
Maybe there are a few members of Congress who actually believe they are acting on behalf of the stated purpose of preventing an Iranian nuke. Maybe some think that a good cop, bad cop approach by the executive branch and Congress will aid western negotiators. But if it did, one would expect the administration to encourage this sort of legislation at least privately, and there is no indication that has happened. Maybe some other members simply look on sanctions as an alternative to war. But in addition to overlooking what it takes to make sanctions support a negotiation rather than undermining it, this approach also overlooks the view of pro-war people that sanctions and failed negotiations are boxes to be checked before going to war.
Most members of Congress are smart people, as comes through much more readily in private conversation than when microphones and cameras are on. I doubt that many of them honestly believe that what they are doing in supporting a measure such as this week's legislation is actually reducing the chance of an Iranian nuclear weapon. (Some might believe that any damage to prospects for negotiations would be small enough that they won't feel too bad about the position they have taken.) H.R. 850 reflects the preferences of elements, some foreign and some domestic, that do not want a negotiated agreement with Iran and are trying to use actions such as this bill to kill the chances for such an agreement. They do not want an agreement because they welcome continued attention to the Iranian nuclear issue, partly to distract attention from other issues. Some of them would welcome a war with Iran. Many members of Congress go along with all this to stay in good graces with the elements in question, and because expressions of hostility to Iran win votes while anything that might look as being soft on Iran risks losing votes.
The timing of the introduction of this bill, rushed onto the floor and to a vote before the August recess and just before the new Iranian president takes office, reinforces this interpretation. Amid a few hopeful indications of fresh goodwill and reason in both Tehran and Washington, the anti-agreement forces decided this was a time they needed to push back with more legislative sabotage. The timing of the bill also serves as a slap in the face of the new management in Tehran, further reducing the prospects for negotiating success. And it's not as if the House of Representatives does not have other things it ought to be doing before the recess, such as passing appropriations bills.
In short, many members of Congress are, for these sorts of political reasons, knowingly acting against their declared purpose, and in so doing also acting against U.S. interests. They ought to be ashamed for doing so. As M. J. Rosenberg suggests, we ought to be angry with them for doing so.
Image: Flickr/A C Moraes. CC BY 2.0.
As the U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian talks about talks begin this week in Washington, the consensus of expectations is appropriately low. Most of the reasons that expectations ought to be low are too familiar to need reviewing. But there are pegs on which to hang some shreds of hope—real pegs, not just illusory ones illustrating that hope springs eternal. Aaron Miller mentions several of these; the one probably most worth noting is that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly said some sensible things lately about how Israel's future identity as a democratic Jewish state depends on reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.
One must look for any pegs of hope primarily on the Israeli side, because of the immense asymmetry of this conflict. Israel is the powerful occupier that can make things, including a settlement, happen; the Palestinians are the relatively powerless subjects of the occupation. Queries that ask symmetrically whether the two sides really want an agreement need to be refocused squarely on Israel. For decades now the great majority of Palestinians have realized that ending their current miserable situation can be achieved only through a negotiated agreement with Israel leading to a two-state solution. (The main exceptions to that belief are Palestinians who have so thoroughly given up hope of attaining such an agreement that they are thinking more of trying to assert rights within a binational state shared with Jewish Israelis.) In a separate article Miller translates the asymmetry into political incentives for the leaders when he notes, “The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, needs an agreement on all the big issues, while the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, could not sign one and survive politically.”
The preponderance of evidence is still against the proposition that Netanyahu's more sensible statements reflect a change of heart or of direction. He has a history of giving lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state while doing nothing to achieve it and also making clear that his concept of such a “state” is instead a pale imitation of one in the form of subjugated bantustans. He leads a party that explicitly rejects a Palestinian state, and he is in coalition with other right-wingers who are just as explicit about not loosening Israel's grasp on the West Bank. Netanyahu has made a big deal about releasing some Palestinians from Israeli jails, but he has stoutly resisted changing the Israeli policy that is most directly antithetical to the negotiation of a bilateral agreement: the continued unilateral creation of facts on the ground in the form of expanding Israeli settlements in occupied territory. A very plausible, and perhaps the most plausible, interpretation of reasonable-sounding statements from Netanyahu about an agreement with the Palestinians is that such statements are merely tactical and are calculated to help him pose as a man of peace, to buy him some goodwill internationally, and perhaps to give him more room to do other destructive things such as starting a war with Iran.
Looking beyond Netanyahu and his cabinet, the most fundamental reason not to expect change in Israeli policy is that Israel simply isn't paying enough of a price for failing to change, notwithstanding jolts from time to time such as the European Union's recent move regarding not doing business with Israeli activities in the occupied territories. Life for most Jewish Israelis these days is pretty good, relatively safe, and still surrounded by a U.S.-provided political and economic cocoon made possible by the lock on American politics. Many Israelis are comfortable enough in the present not to face realities about the future. Some other Israelis, especially on the Right, apparently genuinely believe that the current apartheid arrangement can be sustained permanently.
Lest recall of these discouraging facts lead us to throw in the towel on peace negotiations, we need to realize that a prognosis—in the sense of an estimate of the most likely outcome—is different from a prescription. Sound policy does not mean merely adapting to what we think is most likely. It means taking into account all the costs, risks and potential benefits of different ways of pursuing more desirable rather than less desirable possible outcomes, while realizing all the while that our estimates might be wrong.
This principle is too often forgotten. It is forgotten in the Israeli-Palestinian context, for example, every time any dealings with Hamas are rejected on grounds that the group is “dedicated to the destruction of Israel” or some similar characterization. Such a description is outmoded and inaccurate, and it gives rise to an interesting inconsistency. A decades-old charter, even though it has effectively been countermanded by more recent declarations by Hamas leaders, is taken as the basis for saying that Hamas “does not recognize Israel's right to exist” and therefore should be shunned if not strangled. Yet the charter of the Likud Party, which explicitly rejects the right of a Palestinian state to exist—a rejection that prominent members of the party have in effect reasserted—is not taken as a reason for disqualifying Likud leaders as interlocutors in a negotiation ostensibly aimed at creating a Palestinian state. The important point for the present purpose, however, is that even if one believes that the worst things said about Hamas's objectives are probably true, careful consideration of cost, risks and possible benefits leads to the conclusion that Hamas should be engaged.
Let us approach Benjamin Netanyahu in the same spirit. We are entitled to retain healthy skepticism about his objectives, the more unfavorable interpretations of which may still turn out to be true. But we should give him every chance to demonstrate otherwise. We also should keep in mind how much the incentives, and the price of obstinacy, that are shaped by U.S. policy toward Israel will help determine whether we see a cooperative Netanyahu or an uncooperative one.
I have spent much time around government lawyers, and nearly all of the ones I have known have consistently conducted themselves with a couple of important objectives in mind. One is to apply legal analysis fully and fairly to whatever subject is at hand, not shying away from noting legal requirements even when they become policy inconveniences. Another is to support the larger missions of those they are advising by pointing out legal ways, if they exist, to accomplish those missions.
Against that background it is disconcerting to read that the issue of the most recent Egyptian military coup and its ramifications for U.S. aid is being side-stepped in Washington by just not offering any legal opinion about the nature of the Egyptian generals' move. A senior administration official said, “We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say.”
Setting aside the legal issue about characterizing the coup, whether any suspension of U.S. aid to Egypt at this time makes sense is a question about which reasonable people can and do disagree. It is not a clear-cut policy call. I happen to believe that suspension would be an appropriate response to the overthrow by the military of a freely elected president. If the generals' promises about moving back in the direction of democracy are to be believed, such a suspension need not last long. There is good reason to believe a suspension would increase the likelihood the generals will keep their promises. The appropriateness of a suspension is made all the greater by indications since the military ousted Mohamed Morsi that so far the generals are moving less toward democracy than toward a replay of initial installation of military rule six decades ago.
The fact that there is a legal issue, given a statutory requirement to suspend aid in such circumstances, makes the costs of not recognizing the reality of the Egyptian coup all the greater. Failure to recognize this reality is an act of hypocrisy, which fosters additional foreign cynicism about anything the United States says concerning democratic or other values. It also is a staining of our own political culture. It is a compromise of our respect for the rule of law, even when it is our own law. The rule of law represents one of the most fundamental differences between the United States and the least desirable polities of the world. We cannot afford to treat it casually.
To be sure, there is a problem of Congress using legislation to tie the hands of the executive branch in unhelpful ways that can impede effective foreign policy. Congress does too much of this; it ought to do less, especially when doing so is essentially political posturing, as it often is. At a minimum, Congress ought to incorporate more consistently than it does in legislation related to foreign policy the possibility of an executive branch waiver. But this is all a larger problem that is not solved by simply flouting whatever law is, for better or for worse, on the books.
There have been in recent American history too many other indications of an erosion in respect for the rule of law, from those within government whose functions are all about making or executing the law. There has been, for example, the ignoring of judicial review requirements on a matter that, as we see in current debate about electronic surveillance, is controversial enough even when the law is observed. There have been presidential signing statements, which are a way of explaining an interpretation of a law but at times have been used instead to declare an intention not to obey a law. There is the falling into disuse of the Congressional declaration of war, replaced by Congressional expressions that are outdated or unclear regarding the legal basis for the use of military force. If these things are all part of a coherent pattern, we ought to be worried.
The nature and causes of negative attitudes toward the United States have long been a subject of debate. The lines of debate most often pit an emphasis on what is changeable because it flows from U.S. policies against what is unavoidable because it flows from the inherent attributes of a superpower. There is plenty of direct anecdotal evidence to shed light on this question, including what comes from the mouths of the most extreme adversaries of the United States. More systematic evidence comes from survey research, such as the most recent product of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, based on polling in over three dozen countries. The overall picture this survey provides of the standing of the United States in world opinion is familiar, including abysmal numbers in most of the Middle East. This survey also continues a broader pattern in which there has been some reduction of positive sentiment toward the United States since the early days of Barack Obama's presidency, but with the numbers still better in most of the world than they were under his predecessor.
The most interesting results of this latest survey, however, come from the same questions being asked about China that are asked about the United States. Such a comparison can aid in understanding the different components of sentiment toward the United States. Comparisons can be instructive because some aspects of China that might shape attitudes toward it are similar to the United States whereas other important attributes are very different.
Worldwide the United States still has a distinct lead over China as measured by the Pew survey's recording of overall favorable versus unfavorable sentiment. The margin is surprisingly small, however, in some countries where there is reason to expect it wouldn't be. In Britain the plurality for the United States over China in favorable ratings is ten percent, and in Australia it is only eight percent. Given that these are two of America's closest allies, these results provide food for thought.
Some survey questions addressed specific issues that may contribute to the general sentiments. Drone strikes, for example, are quite unpopular in most places; because the United States uses such strikes and China doesn't, this can only hurt the United States in the U.S.-China comparison. Conversely, the United States has a clear advantage on most elements of what is generally considered soft power—except science and technology, where China gets good marks.
One of the most instructive questions, despite its flaws, concerns whether each of the two major powers “considers” the interests of the respondent's own country in shaping its policies. The main flaw in the question is that someone else's interests can be “considered” from a hostile viewpoint, not just an accommodating one. Nonetheless, a perception that one's interests are not being considered at all is a significant data point. The clear overall pattern in the survey results is that most respondents in most countries believe that neither China nor the United States is considering their interests.
Majorities in nearly every European and Middle Eastern country believe that the United States does not consider their interests. That is also the belief of large majorities in major U.S. allies in the East Asia-Pacific region: Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Interestingly, one of the few countries in which a plurality (49 to 38 percent) of respondents believes the United States does consider their interests is China.
The comparable question that asked whether China considers the respondent's country's interests yielded similar majorities saying that it doesn't. An exception to this pattern, however, is Africa.
The issue of whether big, strong countries pay attention to the interests of littler ones probably—despite the multiple possible ways of interpreting this particular survey question—gets to what underlies a lot of the negative sentiment directed at the big countries. It is basically a matter of arrogance, and the perception of arrogance. In places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where China's resource-hungry engagement with no human rights strings attached has made it seem more solicitous of the locals (whether it really is or not), it has enjoyed a different image. But arrogance in the rising Middle Kingdom is still visible enough to shape a lot of opinion around the world.
To some extent the resentment involved is an almost inescapable part of being a big power with a big global footprint and many interests of its own to pursue and protect. This has been part of the image of the United States for years, and as China has grown stronger and projected more power it has taken on some of the same image. But the negative feelings among populations in other countries are by no means entirely inescapable. Either the United States or China could enhance its standing in the world relative to the other if it did a better job of avoiding the other's mistakes that come under the heading of the arrogance of power.
David Rieff's commentary on Samantha Power's confirmation hearing is a trenchant account of some of the worst in what we see in the process of confirming nominees for senior positions. Even by the standards of such hearings, Power's performance was notably obsequious. This was an abuse of the process by the nominee, in the sense that in a proceeding ostensibly intended to learn more about the nominee we did not learn much at all except that she really, really wants the job of ambassador to the United Nations and is willing to shape her testimony in whatever way it takes to get the job.
Rieff cites the experience of Robert Bork as the master lesson for all subsequent nominees on the need to trim their views if they expect to get confirmed. That history is no doubt a factor, but to understand the pathologies of the confirmation process we should take note of the variety of ways in which that process gets abused. Many of those ways are not the work of nominees, but in at least one respect, as Power's case illustrates, they induce from nominees behavior that only adds to the dysfunction.
A conspicuous and recent abuse was the attempt to cripple the work of the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by refusing to bring any nominees for those bodies to a vote in the Senate. Threats from the Senate majority leader about exercising a so-called nuclear option won a temporary reprieve from that tactic, although there is no assurance we won't see it revived, and the chances are it will be. One of the participants in that tactic, Senator Lindsey Graham, later acknowledged that the nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau “was being filibustered because we don’t like the law. That’s not a reason to deny someone their appointment. We were wrong.”
Even when the objective is not to cripple an agency or effectively vacate the law that created it, it has become commonplace for the confirmation process to be the vehicle for pursuing policy agendas that have nothing to do with the nominee. This is at best an irrelevance and a drag on the process. It becomes abuse when confirmation votes may be determined by it. The same Senator Graham started crossing this line last week when he used questioning of Admiral James Winnefeld, nominated for another term as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to push the idea that the Iranian regime is still an awful and extreme beast despite the election to the Iranian presidency of Hassan Rouhani. At one point Graham said “this will determine how I vote for you” before asking whether Winnefeld thought Rouhani is a “moderate.” Even setting aside the issue of the substantive validity of what Graham was harping on, why should a military officer's view on this question determine his fitness to serve as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs?
Nominees, especially those already serving in the executive branch, have somehow to make their responsiveness to questions not run afoul of policies that have already been set by the president, and not to make it seem that they are getting ahead of the president, forcing his hand, or openly criticizing him. And yet senators repeatedly and knowingly put nominees in that difficult position. At the same hearing last week of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain did so with General Martin Dempsey, nominated for another term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. McCain tenaciously tried to get Dempsey to say that the administration's policy on Syria was one of “inaction.” We should hope that the nation's senior military officer is giving his best advice in private to the president on military aspects of an important problem such as Syria, and we should expect that officer not to offer discordant characterizations of the president's policy in public. We should also hope that senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee see the job of chairman of the Joint Chiefs in similar terms, regardless of their views about Syria or any other substantive issue.
The inherent vulnerability of nominees makes the confirmation process a vehicle for showing who's boss. This is a form of abuse that goes beyond senators who do the voting, and it gets back to how Power conducted herself. Specifically, it gets to her comments about Israel, which as Rieff puts it were “so stridently one-sided as to be almost wholly indistinguishable from the talking points of Israeli diplomats.” The now well-known background to this is an interview more than a decade ago, in which Power suggested that to quell Israeli-Palestinian violence at that time the United States should consider deploying a large protective force even though this might mean “alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import.” The constituency in question, as is its custom, denounced Power as anti-Israeli. Power's later means of retaining her confirmability in the face of such accusations was to disavow, totally and tearfully, her own observations. A key event was a meeting with American Jewish leaders at which, according to the meeting's organizer, she “became deeply emotional and struggled to complete her presentation as she expressed how deeply such accusations had affected her.”
This sequence has made Samantha Power a more valuable commodity to the Israel lobby than if she had never made any comments to offend the lobby in the first place. Sustaining the lobby's power depends on repeated demonstrations of submission to that power. The lobby could not have gotten a better demonstration of submission than to have the nominated chief U.S. diplomat at the United Nations abandon all evidence of any independent thought on the issues concerned and to make herself indistinguishable from Israeli diplomats.
Besides making for more dysfunction in the confirmation process, this kind of response from a nominee, as when Power said at her hearing that the United States has “no greater friend in the world” than Israel, badly distorts the larger public discourse on important issues. To appreciate how much it is distorted, we have to listen to distinguished and experienced people who are not up for a confirmation vote, do not expect to be in the future, and thus can voice their observations in an honest and untrimmed manner. One such person is retired Marine Corps general and former Central Command head James Mattis, who last weekend explained some of the cost to the United States of the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel,” said Mattis. Moderate Arabs “who want to be with us,” he said, restrict their support for the United States because they “can't come out publicly in support of people who don't want to show respect for the Arab Palestinians.”
Image: Flickr/Jay Tamboli. CC BY 2.0.
The latest in an escalating series of disagreements between Washington and Kabul as the U.S.-led military expedition winds down concerns customs duties. The coalition never paid any taxes on all the equipment it brought into Afghanistan over the past decade. Under the terms of the agreement by which it did so—and similar to the rules tourists sometimes encounter when they bring an expensive camera or other gear with them to a foreign country—there was supposed to be paperwork to provide an accounting and an assurance that the same stuff the came in is also going out. But most of the paperwork was never filed as coalition forces were busy ramping up their war effort. Now the Afghan government is saying that without papers, it wants a fine of $1,000 per truckload. Equipping a war that has gone on for this long involves a lot of truckloads—70,000, according to the Afghans' estimate.
This tiff should not have been surprising. The United States and its allies have made much of the idea that as they withdraw they are leaving behind a robust and independent Afghan government. We should expect any such government to drive hard bargains and to try to enforce rules. Besides, the Afghan finance minister has a point when he says that much of the stuff brought into Afghanistan has been smuggled into the local economy with serious distortions as a result. More generally, this latest dispute is one more reflection of the inevitable frictions and resentments that arise from a sustained military occupation and its associated operations.
And yet, when something like this comes up there is always some annoyance as well as surprise on the American side. This is partly because of a repeatedly demonstrated tendency on the part of American policy-makers and the American public to underestimate those frictions and resentments before embarking on military expeditions. It is also because, seeing our own motives as noble and unselfish, we expect the intended beneficiaries of our unselfishness to be grateful rather than to complain. This outlook was partly captured in a statement this week by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, James B. Cunningham, who said, “We have not spent blood and resources, alongside our Afghan comrades, in pursuit of any other purpose than a stable Afghanistan that can provide for the security of its people, strengthen its institutions, and pursue the future which its people deserve.”
This is part of a recurring pattern in U.S. foreign relations and Americans' outlook toward them: being confident about the goodness of our own motives, we expect that people should like us, thank us and cooperate with us. It is a sentiment that former President George W. Bush once expressed at a press conference when, musing about anti-Americanism, he said, “I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am—like most Americans, I just can't believe it because I know how good we are.”
One problem with this outlook is that many foreigners see U.S. motives as much different and less noble, no matter how much effort the United States puts into public diplomacy to convince them otherwise. Another problem is that even foreigners who take a more benign view of U.S. objectives still have to worry about their own interests, which are never identical with those of the United States. Moreover, even when genuine gratitude is felt it tends to be, as a function both of psychology and of the imperatives of statecraft, short-lived. The operative question more often is, “What have you done for me lately?”
We need to bear all of this in mind before embarking on any initiative overseas, even for humanitarian or other praiseworthy reasons. And we should not expect to win permanent friends and long-lasting gratitude no matter how confident we may be about our good intentions.
Lately there has been a lot of Western disillusionment with the Arab Spring. The cover of the current issue of The Economist poses the question, “Has the Arab Spring failed?” The usually insightful Patrick Cockburn starts a recent commentary with even stronger wording: “Has the Arab spring turned into a complete debacle?” The sources within the Middle East of such dismay are numerous, but it is not hard to see the main triggers for these questions to be asked at this time. The course of the Syrian war, in terms of both bloodiness and setbacks to the rebels, is one. The military coup and surge of unrest in Egypt constitute another.
There is plenty of analysis yet to be done, on events in the Middle East yet to unfold, that can take the form of a balance sheet on the Arab Spring. But the fact that observers in the West are coming close to writing requiems on the Arab Spring also says some things about our own habits in looking at, and thinking about, this set of regional upheavals.
We tend to impose a short time frame on those events—too short to understand their significance fully. We like revolts and revolutions to be short and snappy. This is partly a matter of limited attention span and partly a yearning to wrap up a story and feel we understand its conclusion, without the bother of having to follow it and to keep reinterpreting it for years and years. Of course, some of the Arab Spring events really have moved fast. But that is different from the time it takes to see all of the effects and implications. The Economist's Max Rodenbeck, in the feature article in the same issue, correctly notes that revolutionary upheavals sometimes take not just years but decades for all of the reverberations to be felt, and this might prove to be the case with the Arab revolts as well. Apparently unsuccessful attempts at political change may loosen things up for more successful and long-lasting change to take root later.
We have imputed too much uniformity to the revolts in Arab countries. The use of the singular term “Arab Spring” misleadingly blurs the differences between what are very different situations in different Arab countries. There certainly has been a contagion effect; it otherwise would be too much of a coincidence for this many revolts to break out in a single region within this short a span of time. But each country presents a different assortment of things that can go wrong. With many different things that can go wrong, many different things have gone wrong. This probably has contributed to the perception that the whole phenomenon is a failure if not a debacle.
We in the West naturally tend to use as a reference point past region-wide upheaval that is closer, physically and otherwise, to our own regions and own experience. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s is probably the most influential such reference point, whether or not it is referred to specifically as such. The critical differences between that change and what is going on in Arab countries gets overlooked too often—especially the fact that Eastern Europe had a political culture that was largely shared with the Western half of the continent and that included past experiences with liberalism and democracy. There never was good reason to expect a comparably smooth and quick transition in the Middle East.
The very fact that we ask questions about whether the Arab Spring is a failure assumes that there are identifiable standards for success and failure in such things and that those standards are ones that make sense to us. The prime standard applied seems to be democracy. And clearly many people in Arab countries favor something that they call democracy. Exactly what they mean by that term is a different question. What is meant varies from Arab to Arab, and what most Arabs mean by it is not necessarily what most Westerners mean by it. Moreover, standards of success and failure for Middle Easterners are likely to involve other values besides democracy. The most important values for many Arabs are not necessarily either democracy per se or the liberalism that most Westerns cherish. We have seen evidence of this in the most recent events in Egypt.
We certainly are entitled to ask—indeed, should ask—whether the events in the region are good or bad from the standpoint of our own interests and objectives, regardless of how differently people within the region may assess what is good or bad. But we are apt to disagree among ourselves on what those interests and objectives are. Even if we could agree, it is again far too early to compile a final balance sheet.
Image: Flickr/Hussein Alazaat. CC BY 2.0.
Amid a prolonged campaign to keep us scared about what is depicted as an inexorable Iranian march toward acquiring nuclear weapons, it is easy to lose sight of the cyclical nature of discourse about Iran's nuclear program, which began in the days of the Shah and has been the subject of repeated unrealized predictions about how close the Iranians supposedly were to getting a bomb. Rather than any one-way march, what we are seeing is a wheel of alarm that keeps turning around. Discourse on this subject is better understood not in terms of threats posed by Iran but instead in terms of the purposes, both long- and short-term, served by hyping of such a threat.
A couple of developments in particular have pushed the latest turn of the wheel. One is Hassan Rouhani's victory in the Iranian presidential election, which has made it harder for the alarmists to keep painting the face of Iran as a menacing one. The chief agitator on Iran, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, already sorely misses one of its most helpful props: outgoing Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even though he does not leave office until next month.
Netanyahu's government also is discomfited by recent movement, or at least appeals for movement, in diplomacy aimed at settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry really does seem to be serious about getting something done on this problem. There also have been pointed reminders lately from voices within Israel, including editorialists at major newspapers and experienced security officials such as former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, that continuing the government's current course means a bleak future for Israel of costly international isolation and even losing any identity as a Jewish and democratic state. For Netanyahu's government, one of the purposes of ringing alarm bells about Iran as the “real problem” in the Middle East is to divert attention from these truths about the conflict with the Palestinians and to divert energy from any diplomacy aimed at ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Any new attention to the Palestinian issue is a spur for that government to ring the bells yet again.
It thus was unsurprising that Netanyahu took to U.S. airwaves on Sunday to try to scare the pants off us again about the Iranian nuclear program. As usual, he conducted his fear-mongering while seemingly oblivious to major realities about this subject. He ignored the repeated and publicly expressed intelligence judgments that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon and may never decide to do so. His demand that Iran end all enrichment of uranium is clearly a non-starter and only a prescription for making diplomacy fail. The amped-up saber-rattling he demands from the United States as well as Israel only heightens whatever interest the Iranians may have in a nuclear deterrent, further impairs diplomatic prospects by making the Iranians even more doubtful about U.S. intentions, and ignores how implementation of a military threat would probably be counterproductive by leading the Iranians to make the very bomb-building decision they have not to date made. His description of the Iranian government as a “messianic, apocalyptic, extreme regime” is a crude stereotype that continues his practice of treating this entire issue in a cartoonish way, even when he is not using literal cartoons at a podium at the United Nations. He ignores that the only existential threat that a nuclear weapons state in the Middle East poses to another state in the region is the threat that Israel poses to Iran, and he ignores that the only threats of military attack in that duopoly are the threats that Israel is making against Iran rather than vice versa.
Besides not being led astray by this pied piper of alarm, there is work to be done on the issue of Iran, and all the more so in the wake of the Iranian presidential election. Some of the most important points to bear in mind are expressed in a just-released open letter to President Obama from 29 national security experts and former government officials (myself included). The letter observes that Rouhani's election presents “a major potential opportunity to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.” It calls on the administration to redouble efforts to engage Iran not only on the nuclear issue but also on other matters of concern to the United States. On the nuclear issue, it states that a new proposal is needed that, while incorporating what the United States and its Western partners are seeking regarding limiting and verifying Iran's nuclear activities, treats sanctions in terms of their stated purpose of leverage to obtain such an agreement, rather than just being unending punishment or a domestic political statement. Sitting back and expecting Iran to make the next move would likely lead to just one more episode in the long history of missed opportunities in this relationship.
While doing these things, avoiding what is unhelpful is also important. As the letter states, “no further sanctions should be imposed or considered at this time as they could empower hardliners opposed to nuclear concessions at the expense of those seeking to shift policy in a more moderate direction.” Also unhelpful would be more of the sorts of military threats that Benjamin Netanyahu likes to make.
Image: Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker. CC BY 2.0.
Israel announced this week that its ambassador to the United States beginning in September will be Ron Dermer, a 42-year-old neoconservative political operative. Dermer grew up in the United States, once worked for Newt Gingrich, renounced his U.S. citizenship in 2005, and now works for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a speechwriter and adviser. The Obama administration evidently has granted agrément, which in the absence of any indication of malfeasance is probably the right thing to have done. The administration may see Dermer's close ties to Netanyahu as a practical advantage in communicating with the Israeli government.
There are other things to reflect on, however, about this appointment. Peter Beinart provides a description of Dermer's views based on extensive reading of a series of columns that Dermer wrote several years ago for the Jerusalem Post and that, in Beinart's words, “would have fit snugly in the pages of The Weekly Standard.” The picture that emerges is of an aide who exhibits the bad sides of his current boss, and then some. Dermer's writings feature characterizations of Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are dismissive and contemptuous. He also adheres to what Beinart terms a “cartoonish view” of Arab-Israeli relations that is filled with historical inaccuracies.
Beinart isn't bothered by the idea that this is someone with Republican associations who clearly preferred a Mitt Romney victory last year and may even have done some things toward that end. That's part of a longstanding reality, says Beinart, of mutual attempts in the U.S.-Israeli relationship to affect the other guy's elections. But we should ask what this appointment further indicates in terms of the nature of the relationship.
To put this question in perspective, imagine comparable selections being made for other ambassadorial jobs, including ones involving close allies. Suppose that the United States appointed today as its ambassador to Britain a 42-year-old who had started out working for Labour Party causes before renouncing British citizenship and becoming an American speechwriter. It would be interesting to see the reaction of the Conservative-led coalition government to that. Or suppose Britain appointed a British Dermer as its envoy in Washington, which would be just as much of a shock.
Of course, the United States in effect insults many of its allied governments by making campaign contributions or bundling of campaign funds a prime qualification for major ambassadorships. But at least that can be seen as a general defect in how American diplomacy operates rather than a statement about any one diplomatic relationship. The Dermer appointment is something different. It is a departure even for Israel; the outgoing Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, is an accomplished historian who has taught at premier universities in both the United States and Israel.
The naming of Dermer is a statement that manipulation, with a hard-right twist, of American politics is not just something that arises from time to time in U.S.-Israeli relations but instead is the main aspect of the relationship. It also is a statement by Netanyahu that he isn't bothered if the relationship is seen that way. Perhaps he wants it to be seen that way, which would be consistent with the principle that to sustain something like the fear-based power that Israel has in American politics requires that the power be repeatedly and blatantly exercised and that people be continually reminded of it.
We all knew that this relationship was highly abnormal, even for one between supposed friends and allies. This ambassadorial appointment is a reminder that it is abnormal in ways that ought to make Americans uncomfortable.
Image: Flickr/Ted Eytan. CC BY-SA 2.0.