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.
Amid much talk lately about “red lines”—to the point that the term would be a strong candidate for cliché of the year—we should reflect on the relative inattention, as Richard Falk points out in a recent commentary, to what used to be one of the most fundamental and important red lines of all. The line in question, which Falk notes the United States once played a leading role in formulating, is “the prohibition of the use of international force by states other than in cases of self-defense against a prior armed attack.”
Falk has been around long enough to rile adversaries on many issues about which he has been outspoken (and I have disagreed with some of his past positions). It was nearly forty years ago that I took a graduate course in international law from him, and he is now in his eighties. But he does speak some uncomfortable truths. Many he has spoken in connection with his current function as the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. Most recently he incurred irresponsible vitriol, including some from U.S. officials, when he noted—accurately—that U.S. policies have something to do with stimulating the kind of violent extremism exhibited by the Boston Marathon bombers. His observation about disregard for the once-prominent norm against aggression gets to another set of truths.
Erosion of respect for this norm, specifically in discussions of U.S. policy, is a recent phenomenon. Throughout the twentieth century the United States largely observed it, and as far as significant warfare is concerned rigorously observed it. Moreover, the United States expended much blood and treasure in campaigns that, whatever other U.S. interests they may have served, were responses to someone else's aggression and ensured that the aggression would not be allowed to stand. World War II was the largest such effort; Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990-91 were others. The U.S. response to the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956 was an example of upholding the norm of non-aggression even when it meant opposing close allies.
The big departure that led the United States astray from this path was the invasion of Iraq in 2003—the first significant U.S. war of aggression since the nineteenth century. Despite the costly unpleasantness that followed the invasion, this episode seems to have had a lasting effect on American debate in extending the range of respectable policy options to include ones that earlier would have been ruled out as being beyond the red line of non-aggression. Most Americans of just a couple of decades ago, even after the Soviet Union imploded, would have been taken aback by how much some beyond-the-line possibilities, such as an unprovoked attack on Iran, are deemed respectable enough to be seriously considered today.
Falk does not discuss non-aggression in absolute terms. He suggests that in individual cases other considerations, such as humanitarian ones, often appropriately come into play. He also appears to accept the frequently-advanced (though not necessarily valid) idea that we are living in an era in which the ubiquity of terrorism means some rules of international conduct need to be revised. His principal lament is that the rule of non-aggression is not being carefully updated but instead simply abandoned. That, he says, means “normative chaos,” which “in a world where already nine countries possess nuclear weapons seems like a prescription for species suicide.”
That's probably putting the point too strongly, but such a world is nonetheless not in U.S. interests. The United States, despite (and as the Iraq War experience suggests, perhaps even because of) its standing as the militarily most powerful state, has more to lose than to gain in such a world.
Restoring, respecting, and fostering a norm of non-aggression is in the interest of the United States even if one does not approach the subject, as Falk does, with an emphasis on international organizations and international law. Even the most hard-boiled realist, focused like a laser on U.S. national interests, can see the benefit to the United States of having such a norm. This leads to part of an answer to the question that Danielle Pletka posed and Jacob Heilbrunn highlighted as a fair question to realists: what do they want, as distinct from what are they against? They ought to want a world in which states do not start wars whenever and wherever they feel like it.
China this week got about as far as it ever has gotten into the Middle East peace process by hosting back-to-back visits by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was still only, as the New York Times coverage put it, a dipping of China's toe into that process. The odds are that Beijing will not be wading much farther into that water any time soon. The new Chinese leadership certainly has plenty on its plate right at home, including uncontrolled corruption, near-catastrophic environmental degradation, and the need to adapt to a slowdown in economic growth. Moreover, continued festering of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not hurt Chinese interests as severely and directly as it hurts the interests of the United States, because of the latter's association with the Israeli occupation and other controversial Israeli actions.
But if President Xi Jinping and his colleagues nonetheless were to involve themselves more deeply in efforts to resolve this conflict, we should applaud them, for several reasons. The principal reason is that the outside power that has now been looked to for decades as the peace process's deus ex machina—i.e., the United States—continues to demonstrate that it is too politically crippled to perform that role. The combination of an Israeli government devoted to continued colonization of conquered and occupied territory and of political forces in the United States devoted to an unquestioning, right-or-wrong backing of that government have had this crippling effect. Barack Obama has already dispelled any hope that things would be appreciably different in his second term. His secretary of state clearly wants to try to make new things happen, but the president seems in effect to have told him, “Good luck, my friend, in seeing what you can do, but don't expect much help from me with the heavy lifting.”
A second reason to welcome greater involvement by the Chinese is that their own positions and posture toward the conflict are substantively very sensible, reasonable, and in line with the characteristics that any plausible settlement of the conflict would require. Prime Minister Li Keqiang was on target when he told Netanyahu that “the Palestinian issue is a core issue affecting the peace and stability of the Middle East. When Li said, “As a friend of both Israel and the Palestinians, China has always maintained an objective and fair stance,” he was more truthful than if a similar claim were made by the United States, which as Aaron David Miller has accurately put it, has more often functioned as Israel's lawyer. Xi presented to Abbas a “plan” that called for establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 boundaries and with East Jerusalem as its capital, with full respect for “Israel's right to exist and its legitimate security concerns.” About the only editing one might want to do to the Chinese formulation would be to refer explicitly to the possibility of land swaps, as in a recently restated version of the Arab League peace plan.
A further, subsidiary reason greater Chinese involvement with this issue would be good is that it is the type of constructive global engagement that it would be good to see China practicing in general. It would bring China closer to carrying its fair share of the weight of dealing with sticky international issues, and might encourage positive habits that would have spillover effects on otherwise unrelated issues.
Another outside power that one might expect to take up the peace process slack that the United States has proven unable to take up is the European Union. Some of the possibilities were raised by an open letter published last month by the collection of former senior officials known as the European Eminent Persons Group. The letter is admirably clear and blunt in detailing what needs to be done—and the deficiencies in what has been done so far, including by Europe. But there are limitations to what the Europeans are ever likely to do, some of which are mentioned in Mitchell Plitnick's look at the eminent persons' initiative. The letter-writers are only former officials, after all.
The EU has the impediments to action that come from still being a collection of governments and something less than a full federation. The Europeans also have some historical baggage of their own on Arab-Israeli issues that may make it easier for the Israel lobby to reach across the Atlantic and slap them down, as in a derisive dismissal by Elliott Abrams of the eminent persons' letter as a “useful reminder of European attitudes.” A similar dismissal would be more difficult to direct at China.
In any case, anyone looking for leadership on this issue from a non-U.S. outside power should not place all his hopeful eggs in one basket. An earlier phase of the endless and fruitless Middle East peace process involved a “quartet.” Maybe it's time to try a European-Chinese duet.
If President Xi needs additional incentive to take some action and some risks on this subject, how about this for a motivation: personal leadership on this subject would be a good way to distinguish himself from all those colleagues of his who dye their hair the same shade of black and wear identical suits. It would give him a historical legacy beyond all the problems back home that he shares with the collective leadership.
Xi ought to aim for a Nobel Peace Prize. Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin won the prize for their work on the subject even though what they did failed to bring lasting peace, and Jimmy Carter also got a Nobel in large part for his work on the same subject. Barack Obama won the prize just for getting elected and not being George W. Bush. If Xi dove into the subject and made any progress at all, he would have a good chance of making it to Oslo, and deservedly so.
The island kingdom of Bahrain has stuck out as a kind of sore thumb in the Persian Gulf ever since the Arab Spring got under way. It is the only one of the six monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council that has seen major political unrest during these past two or three years. It also is a place where U.S. objectives don't really fit together. Two principal attributes of Bahrain underlie these observations.
One is that it has a Shia majority, constituting about 70 percent of the Bahraini population, but is ruled by a Sunni regime. In that respect it is like Iraq before Saddam Hussein's ouster and unlike the other GCC states, which all have Sunni majorities. Economic patterns correlate with religious ones; Bahraini Shia are generally less well off than their Sunni countrymen.
The other attribute is that Bahrain has a major military relationship with the United States, including being the home of the Fifth Fleet. This fact evidently has dominated the thinking behind U.S. policy on Bahrain. It has been a major disincentive against rocking boats regarding political and economic rights of the Bahraini people. When Saudi Arabia sent forces across the causeway to help the Bahraini regime quell Shia unrest, the United States did not make an issue of it.
In this part of the world a major expressed U.S. concern is, of course, Iran and Iranian influence. Bahrain is of special interest in this regard because of a keen Iranian interest in the place. There have been Iranian statements, going well back before the advent of the Islamic Republic, describing Bahrain as rightfully a province of Iran. During early years of Islamic Republic's history there certainly were Iranian efforts at subversion in Bahrain. In more recent years, however, there is no indication that Iran is trying to topple the Bahraini regime. Iranian influence comes in a softer form as a champion of greater rights for the majority of the population.
This week Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi gave Iran's soft power a new twist by stating that the Bahraini government had requested secret Iranian mediation between itself and its domestic opposition. Salehi said Iran was willing to use its good offices for this purpose but only openly, not secretly. The Bahraini foreign ministry denied that Bahrain had made any such request of Iran. It is impossible to know whom to believe, but it is plausible that Manama might have communicated with Iran about the need to use its influence with the Shia majority constructively. If Iran really were to contribute openly to political reconciliation in Bahrain that would be good, and would be the antithesis of clandestine subversion.
If the United States really is concerned about Iranian influence in this corner of the Persian Gulf, it is not shaping its relations in a way that effectively counters that influence. Whatever other purposes the Fifth Fleet may serve, there is not a plausible external military threat to Bahrain that the fleet defends against or deters. Meanwhile, concern about protecting this military equity has led the United States mostly to turn a blind eye to the unresolved internal conflict that is the real danger to the Bahraini political order and which has helped Iran in posing as a friend of the majority of Bahrainis.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Abadi Moustapha. CC BY 2.0.
Expressions of angst over Syria have entailed several themes, one of which concerns possible “spread” of the Syrian civil war into nearby states. Lebanon, for reasons of physical and ethnic geography, is most often mentioned as a locale of such spreading. But at least as useful as speculation about what the Syrian civil war may do to Lebanon is to reflect on how current events in Syria are echoing an earlier civil war in Lebanon. We have been through much of this before—thirty years ago, when Ronald Reagan was president.
By the early 1980s Lebanon had been suffering several years of combat among sectarian militias, reflecting disagreement over the fairness of old power-sharing agreements among the confessional communities. The biggest stirring of this already turbulent pot came in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon. The principal Israeli targets—declared targets, at least—were fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization who had been in Lebanon ever since being kicked out of Jordan a decade earlier, after losing the Black September confrontation with King Hussein. A small multinational force of U.S., French, and Italian troops entered Lebanon in August 1982 and supervised the extraction of the PLO to Tunisia before itself withdrawing to ships in the Mediterranean.
Israeli objectives were not limited just to booting the PLO out of Lebanon, however, and Israeli forces remained enmeshed in the sectarian fighting, besieging Beirut. Menachem Begin had ideas about trying to maintain a client to the north in the form of the pro-Israeli Christian government of Bachir Gemayel, who became president about when the PLO was leaving. Three weeks later Gemayel was assassinated, triggering the most horrid blood-letting of the Lebanese war. At least several hundred—and by some outside estimates perhaps something closer to 2,000—Palestinian civilians were slaughtered in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The massacre was carried out by the Christian Phalangist militia, which was allied to and supplied by the Israelis. Israeli forces, whether wittingly or not, facilitated the massacre by maintaining a cordon around the area of the camps, and fired illuminating flares that enabled the Phalangists to continue their work by night.
The massacre stimulated the Reagan administration to organize a new multinational force that eventually included 1,800 U.S. marines as well as French and Italian troops. The force initially had some success in acting as a buffer between contending elements. But the intervention later became a textbook example of the near-inevitability of getting drawn into ever costlier commitments and endeavors in any situation as messy as Lebanon at that time. U.S. military engagement included not only the marines on the ground but also combat between carrier-based U.S. aircraft and Syrian forces (which had originally entered Lebanon as part of an Arab League peacekeeping force). At one point even the 16-inch guns of the battleship New Jersey were brought into action.
Those striking back at the increasingly resented foreign forces used methods against which jet fighters and battleships are of little use. In April 1983 a truck bomb was detonated at the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63 persons. Six months later, another truck bomb was used against barracks housing U.S. troops (along with an identical and simultaneous attack against French troops). 241 U.S. servicemen were killed in that bombing—the deadliest terrorist attack against U.S. citizens until 9/11. Congressional pressure on the administration to withdraw from Lebanon increased. The last U.S. forces left in February 1984. The Lebanese civil war continued for several more years until sheer exhaustion, and a new political accord brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria, brought it to an unsatisfying end.
Some parallels between that experience and the current situation regarding Syria are obvious. There is the overall complexity of the conflict and the presence of bad guys all around. There also is Israel taking advantage of a neighboring state's civil war to pursue its own objectives, whether those are to smash a Palestinian force or to intercept long-established Hezbollah supply lines, regardless of how much its actions stoke and escalate the war. And if much of the discourse in Washington about Syria since the (presumed) Israeli attacks there over the past few days are any indication, there again is the pattern of Israeli actions increasing the chance of the United States getting sucked into the mess.
Let us hope that those eager to get into the mess will reflect more than the statesmen of 1982 did about how this all will end. Moreover, those who talk about damage to U.S. prestige or credibility also ought to think about that aspect of the experience in Lebanon. Withdrawing the U.S. troops in 1984—although it was the least bad thing the Reagan administration could have done at the time—was a U.S. defeat by Hezbollah. There is no way to sugar-coat that conclusion. It was just the sort of caving in to bad guys that we so often hear that we need to avoid. And it could have been avoided in Lebanon if the United States had not gotten involved in the mess in the first place, or at least if Israel had not—in its futile pursuit of absolute security for itself regardless of the insecurity it causes for everyone else—made the mess worse.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/James Funk. CC BY 2.0.
The lead article in the current International Security, by Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard, addresses the now firmly entrenched idea that over the past two or three years China has become markedly more assertive in its relations with other countries than it was previously. That China is “newly assertive” has become so broadly and automatically accepted that it gets expressed often enough to have become a cliché. “Newly assertive” is a descriptor that routinely gets inserted before “China,” just as easily as “long-suffering” routinely gets inserted before “Chicago Cubs fans.”
Johnston closely examines the evidence for the supposed new assertiveness and finds it wanting. The notion of new assertiveness by Beijing overstates actual change in Chinese policy and overlooks the complexity of the issues on which the assertiveness has been perceived. Johnston sees maritime disputes as the only area where one could make a case for increased Chinese assertiveness. On other matters over the past couple of years China's policy has not changed, has become more moderate, or has been an understandable response to changes in conditions that Chinese policymakers face.
Johnston's article has applicability that goes beyond China; he discusses the process of how such conventional wisdom comes into being even when the original empirical foundation for it is weak. He sees it in large part as a process of traditional journalism and the blogosphere playing off each other. A more general and more widely descriptive observation would be that it is a process of certain propositions acquiring acceptance simply as a result of frequently being voiced by others. Because acceptance for this reason means the proposition gets expressed even more times by even more voices, we have the ingredients of a self-sustaining chain reaction. Politicians as well as journalists and the blogosphere all play in the chain reaction.
One can think of other notions with current policy relevance that are sustained by similar chain reactions. This is true of much conventional wisdom about Iran, for example, starting with the idea that Iran is definitely seeking to build nuclear weapons. Note how often one sees reference to Iran's “nuclear weapons program,” even though that label is a misnomer. Another example is the usual description of the Palestinian movement Hamas as “dedicated to the destruction of Israel” or some similar formulation, despite the ample evidence of the actual objectives of Hamas leaders that shows that to be a mischaracterization as well.
The phenomenon at hand is not just a matter of there being many important issues on which people disagree, with people on one side of the issue having a more popular view than those of the other side. Naturally people who have studied a particular issue in depth will be especially annoyed by what they regard as widely mistaken beliefs on that same issue. Johnston singled out the notion of new Chinese assertiveness because he is a China specialist who studies Beijing's policies and behavior and understandably has his own well-formed views on that subject. But when a notion achieves the status of conventional wisdom, a qualitatively different phenomenon arises. It is no longer just a matter of one view outvoting another view, but instead one of the self-sustaining chain reaction. The conventional wisdom acquires a life of its own, ever more divorced from whatever empirical reality may have been the original basis for it.
The damage of this type of conventional wisdom goes well beyond the irritation that comes from any cliché. Conventional wisdom constrains policy choices. More specifically, conventional wisdom that entrenches a negative view of another international actor promotes policies that risk becoming self-fulfilling prophecies of the most destructive sort. Security dilemmas arise. A belief that the other side is obstreperous or difficult encourages policies toward that side that make it more likely it will respond in a way that really is obstreperous or difficult.
The national disgrace that is the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is still in operation largely because of another familiar national disgrace, which is partisan gamesmanship. At his press conference this week President Obama stated accurately the multiple reasons, which include significant political damage to U.S. interests overseas, the facility needs to be closed. Those reasons are even more compelling today, amid force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners, than they were when the then newly inaugurated Mr. Obama first committed to closing the place.
A prevalent theme in current commentary is that a fluent but timid president is not getting anything done about Guantanamo because he is displaying the kind of weakness that is also preventing him from getting things done on gun control and other issues. Civil libertarians and others who might usually be sympathetic to Mr. Obama charge that he has been an insufficiently tough leader in dealing with a recalcitrant Congress that has placed multiple roadblocks in the way of closing Guantanamo, including a ban on movement of any of the detainees to federal prisons or any other facilities in the United States. One is entitled to ask in such situations whether the responsibility lies with someone who cannot overcome recalcitrance or with those who are being recalcitrant. But let us instead just review the bidding on how Guantanamo got to be what it is now.
One can identify three motives—all of them misguided at best and reprehensible at worst—that have been involved. They partly correspond to different phases in the detention facility's history.
The original decision by the Bush administration to construct a jail in such an odd place was intended to keep it, and the prisoners in it, outside the reach of any laws. Subsequent decisions by the Supreme Court kept that objective from being fully realized. In any event, the objective was unworthy, given that the United States is a country of laws and not of arbitrary actions by whoever happens to have power at the moment.
A second motive, which still underlies some of the Congressional recalcitrance, is to make an ideological statement that terrorism is “war” rather than “crime” and therefore anyone suspected of involvement in terrorism should be treated differently from anyone else suspected of a crime. Making ideological statements at the expense of real damage to U.S. interests and to American principles (and doing so while disregarding the record of what has or has not worked, including the successful record of convicting terrorists in federal criminal courts) is an inexcusable way to make policy.
A third motive, which is behind much of what we see playing out about Guantanamo today, is to retain the opportunity—with future elections in mind—to inflict costs and embarrassment on one's domestic political opponents. Congressional opponents of President Obama are quick to point out that legislation that has constituted much of the roadblock to closing Guantanamo gives the administration the ability to use waivers to release individual detainees to the custody of foreign countries. Such opponents are not quick to address, of course, why such hurdles and special waiver requirements should have been thrown up in the first place. But in the meantime, it enables the opponents to say the president has not used administrative powers he already has to reduce Guantanamo's prisoner population.
The biggest hoped-for partisan political payoff would come if the waiver authority were actually used. That authority is a dare to the administration to make a mistake. To release a prisoner to foreign custody the secretary of defense has to make certifications about how the receiving country will take steps that ensure the individual will not engage in terrorist activity in the future, or about “alternative actions” that will “substantially mitigate” such a possibility. All of this gets into realms in which it is impossible for any secretary of defense or president to make guarantees. Recidivism happens. With the anger and resentment building up among the men who are getting tubes shoved up their noses twice a day, there is a significant chance it will happen even with someone who was not really a threat when he was first brought to Guantanamo. Not even the most careful screening and review process is foolproof. And so the first time any alumnus of Guantanamo gets involved in what can be described as a terrorist incident, there is a ready-made issue to introduce in the next election campaign back in the United States. The administration endangered the American public, will be the charge from some members of Congress, who will disavow any responsibility themselves.
Count Guantanamo among the many issues of public policy on which the national interest has suffered at the hands of politicians who place that interest behind considerations of partisan advantage. Count it also among the issues on which the American public's unrealistic zero-tolerance attitude toward terrorism facilitates such political shenanigans.
Once again people are getting spun up over elusive details about what a Middle Eastern regime is or is not doing regarding unconventional weapons. Participants in public debates over policy get seized with questions such as the significance of a soil sample or whether certain victims of Syria's civil war had dilated pupils. People wait with bated breath on whatever else intelligence can tell us about such things. It is as if the wisdom, or lack of it, of intervening in that civil war hinges on whether a particular regime has made use, however small, of a particular category of weapon. It doesn't.
Much has been said about avoiding mistakes that were made over a decade ago in leading up to the Iraq War. Certainly we should try to avoid repeating mistakes. But the biggest mistake that is being made now—and repeats a fundamental mistake in the public discourse prior to the Iraq War—is not an interpretation of evidence regarding somebody's unconventional weapons but instead is the false equating of an empirical question about weapons with the policy question of whether launching, or intervening in, a particular war makes sense.
Whether Saddam Hussein did or did not have WMD turned out to be one of the less important realities about the Iraq War. Even if everything that was said on this subject to sell the war turned out to be true, the human and material cost of the war would have been just as great (maybe even greater, if Saddam's forces had possessed and used such weapons), the post-Saddam political and security situation in Iraq would have been just as much of a mess, and launching the war still would have been a blunder.
In Syria today, whether any chemical weapons have been used does not inform us that the Assad regime has a brutal streak; we already knew that. Nor does it tell us that many Syrians are suffering in this civil war; we already knew that, too, and the suffering does not depend on any use of unconventional weapons. Most important for the policy question facing the United States, facts about chemical weapons use would tell us essentially nothing about the net effect of various forms of external intervention in the civil war, the likely course of the war with or without intervention, and possible political futures of Syria.
There is another parallel between today's debate about Syria and the counterpart discourse before the Iraq War. In each case the issue of unconventional weapons has been used as a convenient selling point by those favoring involvement in a war for other reasons. With Iraq, the WMD question was only, as later acknowledged by Paul Wolfowitz, a convenient topic that could be agreed upon by those who might disagree about other matters. With Syria, most of the current agitation is coming not from longstanding chemical-weapons-control enthusiasts but instead from those who had already been agitating for intervention on other grounds.
The agitators on Syria have been aided by President Obama's unwise earlier declaration about how use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be a “game-changer.” Perhaps the president said this to help fend off the pro-intervention pressure he already was feeling at the time. If so, the remark was a short-sighted tactic. It opened the way for pro-interventionists to argue that U.S. credibility will be harmed if it does not now intervene in Syria.
That argument is also a familiar one associated with mistakes of the past. It also is invalid, as a matter of how people and governments actually assess the credibility of other governments. The argument was at the center—not just as a public selling point, but as a matter of genuine belief by policy-makers—of the decision to intervene in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. That war also was a blunder.
One might think, based on the current chemically-fueled commentary about Syria, that the ranks of the policy elite in Washington are filled with arms control aficionados whose fondest cause is to eliminate the scourge of unconventional weapons from the Middle East. Anyone who thinks that can be jolted back to reality by Egypt, which this week announced that it was pulling out of an ongoing review conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to protest the continued inaction on a resolution dating back to 1995 that calls for establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. That proposal was later expanded to envision a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, to include chemical and other unconventional weapons as well as nuclear ones. A conference, arranged under the leadership of a senior Finnish diplomat, was set to convene last December to discuss the proposal. But Israel refused to attend, and so the United States said it wouldn't go either, and the conference was called off. One barely heard a peep about that in the United States.
The country that balked, Israel, is of course the only Middle Eastern owner of nuclear weapons. That's nuclear weapons, which really are weapons of mass destruction, unlike chemical weapons, which aren't. In fact, the Israeli arsenal is so potent it is the only one that poses an existential threat to any other country in the region (and specifically to Iran).
U.S. policy, and American discussion of policy, about unconventional weapons in the Middle East have long been ridden with inconsistency. Nuclear weapons are perceived where they don't exist, and ignored where they do. The hyperventilation about possible use of chemical weapons in Syria is in the same tradition of inconsistency.
Former senators Joseph Lieberman and Jon Kyl, identified as co-chairs of the American Internationalism Project at the American Enterprise Institute, offered the other day a statement of what they mean by American internationalism. Their piece exhorts us to resist “calls from Democrats and Republicans alike for neo-isolationist policies” and instead to “accept both the burdens and the benefits of a robust internationalism.” The image of bipartisanship is clearly important to the Republican Kyl and the Democrat-cum-independent Lieberman, the latter of whom when still in the Senate was one of the Three Amigos along with John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
The rhetoric of Lieberman and Kyl about not withdrawing from the world sounds fine as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. Their one-dimensional treatment of their subject, in which everything gets reduced to a simple but grand choice of the United States playing or not playing a major role in world affairs, is divorced from the real policy choices the nation confronts and from any distinction among the varied policy tools available to it. A ghost from the past about which they warn—the isolationism that constituted a significant and influential current of opinion in the United States between the two world wars of the twentieth century—is today less of a ghost than a straw man. It would mean favoring severe cutbacks in military capability such as those that occurred after World War I and a withdrawal from global diplomacy reminiscent of staying out of the League of Nations and autarkic economic policies reminiscent of the Smoot-Hawley tariff. Whoever may represent this combination of views today is, for better or worse, on the fringe.
Maybe the compression required to fit thoughts into an op ed is a factor, but to argue in a single breath, as Lieberman and Kyl do, against both “diplomatic retrenchment” and “military budget cuts” is to seem oblivious to the main lines of contention in policy debates on hot topics of the day such as Syria, Iran and much else. Some of the most prominent divisions of opinion pit those who would emphasize the diplomatic tool against those who would rely on the military one. Neither side is isolationist; the issue is one of what is the best way to be an internationalist.
Lieberman and Kyl do not get into such current policy choices. One is left to wonder whether when they argue against diplomatic retrenchment and in favor of “a robust international economic and political presence” they would favor, say, the sort of U.S. diplomatic and political effort required to achieve a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and creation of a Palestinian state. One would have reason to doubt that they do. Or how about vigorous U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at a political resolution of the Syrian civil war? There is also reason to doubt they would favor that.
Their simplified version of internationalism that conflates multiple dimensions and foreign policy instruments into one leads to what can only be described as bad analysis. To talk reproachfully about the “slashing” of defense spending after the Soviet Union collapsed before the September 11th attacks “reminded us of the risks of assuming that peace will always prevail” suggests that a Cold War superpower and a terrorist group should be met by the same level and type of military capabilities. They make a similar mistake in criticizing “proposed cuts in aid and military strength” and having a “small footprint” in the world as negatively affecting “our ability to deter the threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Syria, a more assertive China, al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and individuals.” With some of those adversaries a large footprint has been more of a provocation than a deterrent and, in the case of al-Qaeda, has even been a goal of the adversary.
This sort of talk from Lieberman and Kyl is, at a minimum, unhelpful to public understanding of real choices and real foreign policy problems. But they may have a further agenda, in which their talk is not just sloppy and oversimplified analysis but serves a more specific purpose for them. The purpose might be gleaned from some of the positions earlier taken by the former senators and by the Three Amigos, who seem never to have met a war they didn't like. If their principal purpose is to push for more rather than less military spending and more rather than less use of the U.S. military, it is useful to argue that opponents of their positions are “isolationists” bent on repeating mistakes of the past. The argument obscures the fact that many of those opponents have at least as robust an internationalist perspective as Lieberman and Kyl do, even though they have different ideas about where and how to use different foreign policy tools.
We need to be wary not so much of a new isolationism as we do of arguments that use the label isolationism to confuse and obscure.
The most prominent civil wars in recent years have not started with a clear, firing-on-Fort-Sumter beginning. Instead they have been slid into as protests grow, confrontations between the regime and an opposition become more physical, and the government's use of lethal force is increasingly matched by oppositionists firing back. This was the pattern in the civil war in Iraq unleashed by the U.S. invasion and later in Libya and Syria.
Now the same process may be occurring again in Iraq. A spurt of lethal violence this week between the Shia-dominated regime and a Sunni resistance has featured such war-like encounters as helicopter-borne government troops firing on a Shia village. This is another stage in an escalating confrontation between the opposing sectarian forces in Iraq. Again, there is no one point in the escalation at which anyone can declare that a civil war has now begun. But that does not mean one is not beginning.
Any new civil war in Iraq at this time would not really be altogether new but instead a resumption of the unresolved conflict that earlier reached a peak about six years ago. Resumption would be a reminder both of the overall results of the U.S. invasion and of the later surge of U.S. troops. We have known all along that the surge never led to the political reconciliation within Iraq that it was supposed to facilitate. Now we can say also that whatever improvement in security it fostered was temporary.
There are still two grounds for optimism that Iraq will not fall over the brink into a round of fighting anything like the earlier round. One is that unlike during Iraq's earlier political history that the U.S. invasion and subsequent fighting disrupted, and also unlike present-day Syria, the majority religious sect in the country is also the dominant sect in the regime. This is not a situation of a subjugated majority trying to get its day of dominance. A minority that sees itself as repressed can still cause quite a ruckus, but maybe there is less potential for full-blown civil war than when there is a clear disjunction between demographic patterns and patterns of political power.
The other possible reason for optimism concerns the extensive ethnic and sectarian cleansing that occurred in the earlier round of fighting. With the confessional communities now being more thoroughly sorted out and separated than before, there is less of the street-by-street hostile interface that feeds civil war at the retail level.
Even if Iraq does not go over the brink, its teetering on the brink needs to be included in any comprehensive balance sheet on the Iraq War. Rather like the heavy cost of caring for wounded American veterans, the sectarian violence and instability in Iraq is an open-ended cost that keeps adding up as the years go by.
The purpose of noting this should not be just to refight old policy wars over the Iraq War. It should be to try to learn a lesson applicable to other situations. Syria is the most obvious relevant current situation, but there are sure to be others in the future. The basic lesson, briefly stated, is that where there is strong communal antagonism but a weak political culture for managing such antagonism, even a big effort by outsiders is unlikely to have a lasting beneficial effect on political stability.