Members of Congress, as we all know, are fond of making political gestures to play to whatever audience they are trying to play to. In private conversation members can be quite candid about this and will exhibit a bifurcated approach to their jobs in which the world of gesture-making is divorced from the world of sound policy-making. Seeing their political careers dependent on playing to audiences, members tend to be quick to brush aside any costs or hazards entailed in the gestures. This is particularly true of sense-of-the-Congress resolutions, which, as proponents of any such resolution can always point out, do not entail any changes carrying the force of law.
The trouble with this casual attitude toward gesture-making statements is that there often is someone else with an agenda who knows how to exploit the statements to advance the agenda. Even something as legally soft as a sense-of-the-Congress resolution will subsequently be cited as policy and precedent. Anyone who supported or even acquiesced in the gesture will forever be counted as backing the policy it implies, thereby making it seem that the policy is not the project of a determined minority even if it really is. Any qualifications or caveats that are incorporated in the statement get forgotten or are left unmentioned in later agitation by the determined minority to implement their favored policy.
All of these hazards are inherent in a draft joint resolution that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved this week. The resolution, one of the endless series of Congressional love letters to Israel, “urges” in its final operative paragraph
that, if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with United States law and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.
Forces of reason worked hard to modify this paragraph to make it slightly less bad than it was in the original version—which was co-authored by Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ)—and those forces deserve commendation for their efforts. Changes included insertion of the word “legitimate,” limiting of the subject to a nuclear weapons program, and referring to Congress's constitutional responsibilities. But proponents of a war will take “legitimate” to be a declarative statement rather than a condition, reference to an Iranian nuclear weapons program perpetuates a falsehood that this is the kind of program Iran has now, and mention of Congress's responsibility will be taken as an invitation for Congress to pass a later war resolution. The fact that the modifications hardly eviscerated the message of the paragraph is reflected in the fact that the resolution's main outside proponent, AIPAC, crowed about the committee's approval.
The resolution is an open invitation to Israel to start a war with Iran and to drag the United States into that war. The resolution may accurately be referred to as either the “Backdoor-to-War Resolution” or the “Green Light Resolution.”
Once passed by both houses of Congress—which, if Congress stays true to form, it surely will be—the resolution will repeatedly be cited by proponents of a war as policy and as a commitment. It will be exploited the way such statements have been exploited in the past. Neocon defenders of the Iraq War repeatedly cite the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998—which Bill Clinton had no use for but signed when he was mired in the Lewinsky scandal and on the eve of getting impeached—as indicating that overthrowing the Iraqi regime had broad bipartisan support and was not just a neocon project.
The resolution will be described as a “commitment” alongside Barack Obama's boxing-himself-in declarations that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable. In a somewhat heated debate I got involved in at a private dinner earlier this week, a prominent neoconservative commentator argued that the United States must never back down from Obama's “commitment” because to do so would severely damage U.S. credibility. I pointed out, without getting a response, that exactly the same argument about protecting U.S. credibility was the main reason for the U.S. decision to go in big in Vietnam in the 1960s (when the argument wasn't any more valid than it is now).
I will not take this space to review all the reasons a war with Iran, either initiated by the United States or getting dragged into it by Israel, would be folly from the standpoint of U.S. interests. Those reasons range from the counterproductivity of an action that would lead Iran to take the very decision (i.e., to make a nuclear weapon), that it has not taken thus far, to the poisoning of relations with generations of Iranians to come, regardless of what kind of regime is in power in Tehran in the future. Since we are dealing with a Congressional gesture, let us stay in gesture-land for the moment and just make a few observations about issues of right and wrong and thus what the United States should or should not declare itself to be in favor of.
The postulated Israeli taking of military action would be an act of aggression. It would be aggression committed against a state that does not have any nuclear weapon, has not decided to build a nuclear weapon, and has foresworn any intention to build such a weapon. It is a state that is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and subjects all of its nuclear activities to regular international inspection. Even if Iran were to junk all of those commitments and build a weapon, it would be joining a club that already has nine other members.
The would-be aggressor, Israel, is one of those nine. Unlike Iran, it has never subjected any of its nuclear activities to any international law, control regime, or inspection. It has a large arsenal of nuclear weapons but has never admitted to having any.
If Israel initiates a war, it would be acting on a long series of threats that it has been making to do just that. Iran, in contrast, has never threatened to attack Israel, notwithstanding the rhetorical bombast and anti-Israeli invective that many in Israel and the United States have tried to confuse with declarations of operational policy.
Actions are more important than words, of course. Israel has a long (and recent) history of repeatedly throwing its weight around by using military force and attacking neighboring states and populations. That history has included the war of conquest in 1967, the long-term military occupation of part of Lebanon, and highly destructive attacks against Palestinians in Gaza followed by a suffocating blockade. The Islamic Republic of Iran, by contrast, has never launched a war against anyone (although the Iranians fought like tigers when Saddam Hussein committed aggression against them by initiating the Iran-Iraq War).
Israeli initiation of a war with Iran would be, even under the most charitable interpretation of Israeli motives, for the purpose of maintaining Israel's regional nuclear weapons monopoly. It also would serve the Israeli government's purpose of spoiling any chance for the foreseeable future of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, thereby helping to sustain Israel's claim that it warrants special treatment as the only reliable American partner in the Middle East. And, of course, such a war would serve the further Israeli government purpose of killing for the time being any movement toward doing something about the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
In short, the postulated Israeli attack would be thoroughly unjustified and even unconscionable. It would be nothing that the United States should condone, let alone invite or support.
Image: Flickr/Tristan Ferne. CC BY 2.0.
Reactions to the bombs at the Boston Marathon have quickly fallen into a familiar pattern. It is as if there were a manual that politicians, journalists and others involved in the reacting pull off the shelf after any terrorist attack to help them script their comments and their questions. There are, first of all, ritual denunciations that use a well-worn vocabulary. Every terrorist attack is labeled as “cowardly,” as President Obama labeled this one, even though that is one of the less appropriate of a plethora of negative adjectives that could be applied to terrorist attacks. Different terrorist operations require different degrees of moxie or courage, but with most of them cowardice on the part of the perpetrators is not a dominant characteristic, or even a characteristic at all.
Also in the early hours after a terrorist incident there are aggressive efforts in the media to offer explanations that ought to await a thorough investigation, even though the real investigation is barely getting under way. Of course, journalists gotta do what they gotta do on any story with high public salience. And there is some informative analysis that is offered despite the paucity of early hard information, especially comments about how, in general, investigations of terrorist incidents tend to proceed. Much of the quickly generated commentary in the media, however, consists of speculation that outruns the available facts. It is over-analysis, which is not helpful to public understanding.
Some of the over-analysis concerns the presumed significance of the particular target. Some perplexity has been expressed about Monday's attack by those who cannot figure out why the Boston Marathon in particular would be a target of terrorists. Such musing overlooks how many terrorist targets are targets of opportunity, with little if any symbolic significance attached to the chosen target. For terrorists whose objective is to harm as many people as possible of a particular nationality (which may or may not be true of the perpetrators of the Boston bombing), any well-populated gathering will do.
Similar over-emphasis is placed on the date of an attack and on what it might be the anniversary of. This also overlooks the opportunism involved in most terrorist operations, in terms of when, as well as where, it might be most feasible to mount an attack. In general, western analysts and commentators on terrorism devote more attention to anniversary dates than terrorists do.
The particular method of operation used, including the design of a bomb, is often seized upon in the early hours for much public speculation about who the perpetrators might be. A frequent comment is that such-and-such method of attack or bomb design is a “hallmark” of a particular group. Such observations fail to take account of how one group may copy the methods of another, or of how variation in methods can have advantages for a terrorist group.
There is a strong appetite for inferring patterns. One incident does not make a pattern, but with at least two incidents in close succession the urge to draw patterns is irresistible. The revelation on Tuesday of a letter tainted with ricin poison that was sent to Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi is sure to stimulate the pattern-drawers, even though senators were told there is no apparent connection between the letter and the bombs in Boston.
Also early in the process there is usually a focus on the domestic political implications of an incident. We have had a bit of that already in connection with this week's incident, with people taking special note of how the White House pinned the “terrorism” label on the event. The subtext for such observations was the folderol last year over the incident in Benghazi, Libya, in which some people tried to place great importance on whether and when the White House called something “terrorism.”
Expect also that there will be the usual recriminations about how government agencies failed to prevent the attack. We haven't heard much of that yet, but we will. We can expect that, also as usual, the recriminations will be based on hindsight and will pay little heed to what is or is not realistically preventable.
After a perpetrator is identified, the over-analysis takes a new turn. Major implications are extracted from that identity, even though it may say little about the shape and severity of any underlying threat. Terrorist attacks are rare public events, interrupting extended times without attacks, that are not necessarily representative of any continuing hidden reality.
Imagine that the perpetrator of the bombing on Monday turns out to be a lone individual with personal, nonpolitical and even trivial motivations—such as a runner disgruntled about not getting into the race. The public reaction likely would be one of relief, with the incident then being seen as a one-off involving a bizarrely motivated individual and not indicative of a larger threat. But this development actually would not say anything one way or another about any larger threats that do exist.
The converse of this is represented by the habitual emphasis on whether or not there are “links,” especially to the now-vaguely-defined radical Sunni phenomenon to which we append the label “al-Qaeda.” The tendency is to get alarmed if there is such a “link,” and to be more relaxed if there is not. But actually the presence or absence of such links tells us little about the chance of another bomb going off in an American city next week, next month or next year.
Instead of trying to extract more lessons and implications than are genuinely extractable from a single incident, such an event would be better used as an occasion for thinking about broader issues involving terrorism. To the extent threats from abroad are involved, the thinking should be about how developments overseas and especially U.S. policies abroad may affect the number of those disposed to resort to terrorism. The thinking also should fit anti-U.S. terrorism into a context in which it can be compared and contrasted with other forms of material harm to U.S. interests and with the physical harm that America's own actions may cause or exacerbate elsewhere.
Salam Fayyad has been just about everything that U.S. administrations could have hoped for in a Palestinian prime minister. The American-educated economist is competent, honest and moderate. In his six years as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority he made admirable progress in instilling order in the bureaucracy that he led. It is no surprise that the Obama administration and Secretary of State Kerry tried hard, ultimately unsuccessfully, to keep him in the job. For similar reasons the Israelis were happy to have him around.
The Palestinian Authority or PA is a strange entity that nonetheless—at the time it was created by the Oslo accords that Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed 20 years ago—made sense. It was to be a transitional mechanism that would facilitate a change of the Palestinian leadership and political structure from a resistance movement (it was as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization that Arafat signed the accords) to a government. But Rabin, whom an Israeli extremist assassinated in response to his making peace with the PLO, is long gone. For many years now the strange entity has functioned as a stooge of a different sort of Israeli leadership, a leadership whose objective is to delay indefinitely the creation of a Palestinian state and to cling permanently to land conquered through a military invasion 46 years ago. It is misleading to consider the Palestinian Authority still to be a transitional mechanism as it was originally conceived, given that many years have gone by since, according to the timetable in the Oslo accords, a Palestinian state should already have been established. The PA, regardless of what may have been the skills and good intentions of some of those who have led it, is a Potemkin village—a prop that supports a deceptive Israeli story about peace, land, political power and especially the Israeli government's intentions.
No matter how much one might understandably consider the Oslo accords to be dead, having the PA still around serves several purposes for Benjamin Netanyahu's government. Most fundamentally, it preserves the fiction that the Israeli government actually supports a two-state solution. It also appears to relieve Israel from accountability for failing to live up to its responsibilities under international law as the occupying power in territory conquered in war. Of course, Israel really is the true power over all of the West Bank, but by being able to point to another entity that supposedly has administrative responsibilities it can say that problems and deficiencies are someone else's fault.
The PA, especially with leaders as respectable as Fayyad, has functioned for Israel as the “good” Palestinians in contrast to the “bad” Palestinians of Hamas, enabling the Israelis to continue to pretend to want to make peace with Palestinians even though it has refused to deal with fairly elected Palestinian leaders when those leaders happen to be from Hamas. Meanwhile, the purpose of indefinite postponement of a Palestinian state is served by pointing to a Palestinian movement that does not appear to have its act together while Israel simultaneously does everything possible to prevent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant party in the PA, and thus to keep the movement divided.
The Palestinian Authority embodies the concept, articulated by American advocates for the Israeli government such as Elliott Abrams, that Palestinians must “build” a state rather than merely being “granted” one. But the “building” phase continues indefinitely, with an actual state always remaining out of reach. If the PA seems to be getting too close to statehood, the Israelis can, and do, easily kick it back. After the PA's move to upgrade its status at the United Nations, Israel punished it by withholding tax revenue that belongs to the Palestinians. This exacerbated a financial crisis that has been one of the biggest challenges for Fayyad's administration. The Israelis also, of course, can use their first-choice policy tool—military force—as they did in 2002 when they demolished many of the PA's offices as well as other administrative infrastructure such as police stations. This action made it all the more difficult for the Palestinians to function in a way that demonstrates they are “building” a state. Even without Israeli use of something as blatant as the 2002 action, the many everyday restrictions Israel places on transportation and other aspects of Palestinian life make it impossible for the PA to work in a way that would ever force Israel to acknowledge that a state had been “built.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has sometimes spoken of abolishing the Palestinian Authority if Netanyahu's government doesn't take real steps toward a peace settlement. Abolition would end a charade, but it would also come with a cost to the Palestinians, mostly in the form of handing the Israelis an argument, to be used in perpetuity, that it was the Palestinians who destroyed the Oslo accords and gave up on peace. The charade is also a trap.
One can only imagine Fayyad's deepest thoughts at the moment. His resignation reportedly involved disagreements with Abbas, as well as significant opposition to Fayyad within Fatah. But he surely must be feeling some personal relief. He is too smart and too honest not to perceive the stooge-like quality of the enterprise he has been involved in. No one should complain if he were to retire from public life and move into a comfortable academic position somewhere.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/World Economic Forum. CC BY-SA 2.0.
A recent study by Jim Golby, Kyle Dropp and Peter Feaver published by the Center for New American Security examines the effects that public statements by senior military officers have on public opinion about the use of force. The study is based on survey research in which respondents were presented with real and hypothetical questions about whether the United States should apply military force to certain situations overseas. Some respondents were told that U.S. military leaders favored the contemplated action, others were told that the same military leaders opposed the action, and still others were given no cues about what the military thinks. The main finding of the research is that publicly expressed military views do make a difference on public opinion, especially when such views oppose a military action. Military opposition reduced public support for the use of military force abroad by an average of seven percentage points, while military support increased public support by three percentage points. The surveyed sample was large enough that these were significant differences.
The authors discuss some concerns suggested by these findings, especially the hazard of what they call “a problematic politicization of the military.” Their concerns are legitimate, but the study fails to make an important distinction between the sort of military opinions that ought to worry us (worry us, that is, because they are being expressed publicly) and the sort that ought not.
The public (and policymakers in the executive branch and Congress) ought to pay careful attention to what senior military officers say on questions that are contained within the military's area of expertise. That is where military officers can offer opinions that are more firmly grounded than what anyone else can offer. Such questions would include the costs and time required to accomplish a military mission, risks incurred in accomplishing it such as collateral damage to civilians, and the likelihood of being able to accomplish it at all.
A military officer's opinion ought not to be considered worth more than anyone else's when it goes beyond the area of specifically military expertise. Outside that area would be questions such as political and diplomatic costs of an action, national priorities in the allocation of limited resources, and how important attainment of the military objective would be to the national interest. Because these sorts of questions are just as important in any decision to apply armed force overseas as are the ones on which military officers are specially qualified to speak, an overall judgment on whether any given application of force ought to be undertaken also goes beyond the area of military expertise. Thoughtful and intelligent military officers are going to have opinions about these things and are entitled to have them, but that is not the same as having a special claim on the public's attention.
If there is a norm to be cultivated here, it is that active-duty military officers ought to insist on being heard on military questions (which is not the same as the question of whether a particular military action ought to be undertaken), while being mindful of the politicization hazard that Golby, Dropp and Feaver mention and thereby not taking advantage of their prestige, their uniform and their credibility to offer publicly their opinions on other things.
Unfortunately, too often military opinion gets handled in exactly the opposite way. On one hand, armchair generals sometimes do not defer to the military on military questions. A well known and egregious example is the public disparagement by civilian Pentagon leaders of the army chief of staff's judgment about the U.S. troop presence that would be required in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, military officers' opinions on questions that go beyond strictly military judgments sometimes are given excessive prominence, usually because politicians either want to shirk the responsibility for making a decision by pretending that a military opinion can be treated as a surrogate for a policy judgment, or want to use military officers as supporting props for promoting their own point of view.
While realizing that criticism of someone's approach to a negotiation needs to be done with some diffidence if the critic does not have direct access to either the negotiating room or either side's planning sessions, the United States and its P5+1 partners do seem to be persisting in some major errors in how they are approaching the nuclear negotiations with Iran. That's a shame, given that a deal –a good deal, from the standpoint of nuclear nonproliferation objectives—is very much attainable through well-handled negotiations.
One mistake is an apparent expectation that agreement will be reached not through hard bargaining in which the negotiators on both sides tenaciously try to extract the best possible terms for their own side, but instead through a highly asymmetric process in which there will only be some modest dickering over implementation of whatever proposal the P5+1 has put on the table. Western diplomats at the most recent round of talks expressed “puzzlement” over Iranian unwillingness to engage in the latter type of process. A pertinent question to ask about where the talks stand now is: if Tehran is serious—really serious—about reaching a deal, how should we expect their negotiators to behave? Well, Iranians are inveterate hard bargainers. If they are serious, they would behave pretty much the way they've been behaving. Maybe the expressions of puzzlement on the P5+1 side are just part of that side's own hard bargaining. Let's hope so.
One of the biggest problems in the P5+1 approach is an unwillingness to make full use of the sanctions against Iran as leverage in negotiating a nuclear agreement. In their latest proposal the P5+1 did include slightly more sanctions relief than in their previous proposal, but this still constitutes little more than tidbits in comparison with the large panoply of sanctions that have been piled onto Iran over the years. In contrast, what the P5+1 were demanding from Iran in return involved most of the curtailment of the Iranian nuclear program they are seeking, including a halt to operations at the Fordo enrichment facility. It is no surprise that the Iranians quickly declared the proposal to be unbalanced.
Using the sanctions as leverage does not mean lifting any sanctions gratis. (Although such a goodwill gesture would be helpful, it is politically infeasible in Washington.) It does mean coupling sanctions relief with curbs on the Iranian nuclear program in proposals that are not so unbalanced as to have little hope of advancing the negotiations. Intelligent use of the sanctions also does not require incorporating a lifting of all sanctions as part of one grand bargain. Partial deals—some sanctions relief for some restraint in the nuclear program—are probably more feasible for now, and would build momentum and trust for more extensive deals later on. Exactly how partial is something that would need to be determined at the negotiating table. Because neither side's concessions are infinitely divisible, deciding how big or how small to make a deal is part of the process of finding terms that each side would consider fairly balanced.
Another problem on the P5+1 side is an apparent failure to realize that an impediment to negotiating progress is a lack of confidence among the Iranians that the West wants an agreement, or at least an agreement that would leave the Iranians with anything that could be called a nuclear program. More broadly, the Iranians suspect that the West doesn't really want to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran at all.
The West and especially the United States have given the Iranians ample basis to have these suspicions. There is the inflexibility regarding sanctions relief. There is the talk about damage that sanctions inflict on Iran and in which some Westerners take pleasure, for reasons that have nothing to do with negotiating an agreement. And there is all the talk about regime change (an outcome that some in the West openly hope sanctions will hasten).
In short, the West has given the Iranians plenty of reasons to believe that they are being strung along, with negotiations continuing as the sanctions work their effects, both economic and, as some would hope, political. The Iranians fear that this is not only a losing game for them but that the game has no end. As Scott Peterson reports in the Christian Science Monitor, the Iranians are “concerned that P5+1 demands could mount – including a requirement to stop all enrichment – with only marginal sanctions relief.”
It is thus understandable that at Almaty the Iranian deputy negotiator told journalists that if Iran was to make any concessions or take any steps as confidence-building measures this had to be “part of a larger, more comprehensive plan” with a clear “final outcome.” Part of that outcome has to be acceptance by the P5+1 of a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, including enrichment of uranium.
The deputy's comments point to a harmless way to help quell the well-founded Iranian suspicions that are impeding negotiating progress. The Iranians consider it important to get some positive statement in principle from the other side that Iran, like any other party to the Nonproliferation Treaty, has a right to a peaceful nuclear program. The P5+1 seem to consider any such statement as a concession to Iran that ought not to be made, if it is made at all, until some real curbs to the Iranian program are implemented. But the P5 +1 need to ask themselves—and to provide a clear answer to this question—whether they really want to reach agreement with Tehran (and as a subsidiary question, whether the real purpose of all those sanctions is the same as their ostensible purpose, which is to provide inducement to reach such an agreement). If the answer is no, then the negotiations are a charade, the Iranians really are just being strung along, and there would be no reason to expect the Iranians to take more risks and make more concessions.
If the answer is yes, then the kind of statement the Iranians are looking for would not be a concession at all. It instead would just be a joint declaration of what these negotiations are all about. Far from being a P5+1 concession, it would be an opportunity to get Iranian agreement to a general but clear statement of the need—if the P5+1 are to have the confidence needed to conclude a deal—for significant restrictions on, and exceptional monitoring of, the Iranian program.
So without precluding more extensive agreements with Iran in the future (including, but going beyond, issues about the nuclear program), the P5 +1 should reformulate their stance to make two sorts of interim agreements possible. One would be a partial and balanced trade of some sanctions relief for some restrictions on the Iranian program. The other would be a statement of principles that describes in general terms, with the details to be negotiated later, what a final agreement about the program should look like. Arriving at mutually acceptable language for such a declaration, even without details, would still require some hard bargaining, but the effort would be worth it.
In an essay in these spaces titled "The Crisis of Realism," Jonathan Levine makes an appeal for more, and new, realist theorizing. He won't get an argument on that from me—as someone who first developed his academic chops as an international relations theorist and still places himself in the realist camp. But Levine presents his piece as an indictment of realists as somehow being behind the times. The thread of his argument, which includes a discursion about nuclear weapons, is a bit hard to follow, but his main point seems to be that realists are stuck in a rigidly state-centric way of looking at the world that takes insufficient account of nonstate actors. His principal foil is Kenneth Waltz, who, Levine says in an overstatement, “dismissed nonstate actors as irrelevant.”
One knows something is amiss in what Levine is saying when he weaves into an indictment of realism a negative reference to the Iraq War as “what we got” from the supposed theoretical deficiency he is indicting. And Levine is not just knocking realists for not trying hard enough to stop that war; he is saying that the war flowed directly from the “Westphalian state-to-state conflict model” that he associates with realists. But the disastrous neoconservative project that was the Iraq War was one of the most unrealist foreign policy endeavors the United States has undertaken. Some of the leading realist scholars in the nation—including Waltz—were among those who explicitly opposed the war in an open letter. The Bush administration's contrived association of a state with a terrorist group was a tactic in a sales campaign that had nothing whatever to do with any realist emphasis on states as units of analysis for understanding international relations.
Realism is far more than just a habit of looking at states and not at other things. And it is not a matter of “dismissing nonstate actors as irrelevant.” The open letter against the Iraq War stated that “Al Qaeda poses a greater threat to the U.S. than does Iraq” and added—correctly—that “War with Iraq will jeopardize the campaign against al Qaeda by diverting resources and attention from that campaign and by increasing anti-Americanism around the globe.”
Good realists do make clear distinctions between states, and state interests, and nonstate actors and phenomena. Levine fails to make this distinction when he discusses the nuclear strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction in the same paragraph with suicide terrorists and says that the former was an “early casualty” of the latter. Strategic doctrine of a state involves an entirely different set of questions from motivations of individuals, be they terrorists or anyone else. Even within nonstate groups, those who send suicide terrorists are rarely suicidal themselves.
Another of Levine's errors is a widely shared one: the tendency to overstate how much in the world of the current era is new and different from previous eras. The sense of newness is a function more of our own policy analytical vocabulary and appetite for novelty than of how the world has changed. 9/11 unquestionably opened many political and public eyes about terrorism but did not mark a sea change in terrorism itself (or in the understanding of it among those who had been studying it). The end of the Cold War changed the polarity of the global system but did not involve nearly as many other changes as are implied by our collective habit of dividing time into Cold War and post-Cold War eras. During the Cold War there was much useful writing and thinking about challenges arising from the nonstate side of things, such as in a book written in the 1970s by Graham Allison and Peter Szanton, to point to only one example.
Theory and policy analysis written in the realist tradition during the Cold War had a complexity far different from the simplistic caricature that Levine presents. Realist thinkers went in different directions, for example, regarding Waltz's view about the effects of nuclear proliferation. Although Levine describes MAD as a “sacral totem” of the Cold War, very complex bodies of doctrine were developed about nuclear strategy, too, with highly refined theory involving flexible response, escalation, counterforce strategies and the like. And during the Cold War there even was a counterpart of sorts to those realist scholars opposing the Iraq War, in the form of realist opposition to the Vietnam War (with one of the leading realist scholars of the day, Hans Morgenthau, being one of the most prominent and outspoken opponents of the war from the very beginning).
Levine longs for some new realist breakthrough equivalent to the democratic peace theory of liberal scholarship. In an oft-quoted comment, the political scientist Jack Levy described the democratic peace concept as “the closet thing we have to an empirical law in the study of international relations.” Note that he said “closet thing” to a law—not a law itself. Levine himself correctly describes why our expectations should be limited when he comments that because of the “vagaries of human behavior” international relations “is not physics” and “there are no laws.” So why should we expect some big new theoretical breakthrough?
There is a lot of rich realist theory on, and in, the books that is still very applicable to problems of the present even if it was originally constructed during the Cold War. One just has to get the books off the shelf and read them.
The United States has an inveterate domestic opposition, concentrated primarily on one side of its political spectrum, to any participation in international institutions, broadly defined. Institutions for this purpose include not only general-purpose international organizations but also the legal structures provided by multilateral treaties. Often there are specific, legitimate objections involved, but most of the opposition is of a more general and visceral nature. It is opposition rooted primarily in the mistaken belief that participation in such institutions somehow compromises one's sovereignty, even though voluntary participation is itself an act of sovereignty.
The Law of the Sea convention is one of the most familiar subjects of such opposition. The convention has now been in force for nineteen years. The United States is one of only a handful of non-landlocked countries that is not a party, even though U.S. adherence to the convention has been recommended by Republican and Democratic presidents alike as well as by the Defense Department, environmentalists, the oil and gas industries, and, in the words of former Republican Senator Richard Lugar, almost everyone who deals “with oceans on a daily basis.”
Opposition cannot disguise or negate the respects in which some of these institutions can serve useful purposes and meet practical needs. They can do so for the United States just as they can for many other countries, which is why many other countries subscribe to them. To pay international institutions this compliment is not, by the way, to weigh in on the sort of the debate that political scientists have among themselves about the role of international organizations. One school of thought holds that international organizations have a life of their own, with their own independent effects on world politics. An opposing school, populated by realists, contends that international organizations are fundamentally creatures of nation-states and especially of great powers, and they continue in existence only as long as they serve a purpose for those states. That realist observation underscores how such institutions can be useful to the United States. It also shows that one does not have to be an international-organization-hugger to perceive that usefulness.
The International Criminal Court is an example of an international organization that the United States, despite having some continued well-founded reservations about the scope of its authority, has found useful. So the United States has been quietly cooperating with the court. The most recent defendant to come into the court's custody—one of those rapacious warlords operating in eastern Congo—gave himself up by walking into the U.S. embassy in Rwanda. Without the ICC to turn him over to, it would have been hard to imagine a good way for the United States to handle the situation.
The most recent multilateral convention to be opened for signature is a treaty to regulate the international arms trade. The United Nations General Assembly approved the treaty this week with 154 votes in favor and only three against. The U.S. administration had the good sense to vote yes and avoid being in a small minority consisting of odious company. But the prospects of the United States eventually subscribing to the treaty are dim, because the National Rifle Association—lining up on the same side of this issue as the regimes in Iran, North Korea and Syria—has made it clear it will oppose ratification.
In staying out of many of these institutions the United States is paying a price, whether the opposition to participation is purely an ideological statement or, as with the NRA's opposition to the arms trade treaty, an absolutist resistance to any of the sort of controls the opponent doesn't happen to like. The price comes not just in the form of being isolated or part of a mostly loathsome minority. It comes as a forgoing of tools the United States otherwise could use to help it solve real problems.
Just when it seemed we could move beyond the anniversary-related armchair refighting of the Iraq War, we get from Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post editorial staff another mis-aimed salvo from a proponent of that war. Diehl's more immediate subject is the current Syrian civil war, into which a U.S. armed intervention has been a favorite cause of the Post's editorial page for many months. Diehl's declared objectives in his signed column are to absolve himself and other Iraq War proponents from any credibility gap when they advocate U.S. immersion in yet another Middle Eastern war, and to warn of how any Iraq War syndrome might unwisely dissuade the United States from conducting worthwhile military interventions—such as in Syria. If the Iraq War is to be used to make such a case on an issue of current importance, then we had better wallow a little longer in issues involving the old war.
Diehl begins his comparison to Iraq with the thundering understatement that the situation there “hasn't turned out, so far, as we war supporters hoped.” (“So far”? That has to be one of the choicest examples of hope springing eternal.) He then addresses his topic from a humanitarian angle, giving us some figures to try to make a case that “the larger humanitarian price of Syria has been far greater” than that of war in Iraq. His methodology of comparing current rates of casualties in Syria with averages for the entire period of the U.S. presence in Iraq is deeply flawed by the fact that the period of intense, high-casualty civil warfare in Iraq, which was comparable to what we have seen in Syria over the past couple of years, was only one portion of the longer period of U.S. occupation. A more fundamental flaw is that he gives us no reason to believe that adding more flames to an existing fire through military intervention would lead the humanitarian problem in Syria to lessen rather than worsen. Nor does he make any moral, as well as policy, distinction made between a war that one starts oneself and one that is already under way.
The next topic in the column is al-Qaeda, with Diehl repeating the flypaper theory of counterterrorism by saying that “in Iraq, the United States faced down al-Qaeda and eventually dealt it a decisive defeat.” The fallacy with this theory is that it assumes there is a fixed number of terrorists, with the task simply being one of attracting them to where we can kill them. In fact, by its invasion and occupation of Iraq, the United States generated far more terrorists, including those of the al-Qaeda ilk, than it killed. There was no al-Qaeda in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion and the ensuing civil war created it. Moreover, the entire war was a propaganda bonanza for Osama bin Laden, lending credibility in many eyes to his accusations about the United States being out to kill Muslims, occupy their lands, and plunder their resources. The war unquestionably gave a major boost to jihadist terrorism.
Diehl asserts that “the Iraq war prompted low-level meddling by Iran, Syria and other neighbors but otherwise left the surrounding region unscathed, thanks to the U.S. presence.” Actually, the “low-level meddling” by Iran amid the U.S.-triggered disorder brought Iran the payoff of now being the dominant foreign influence in Iraq. And far from leaving the surrounding region unscathed, the U.S.-unleashed turmoil in Iraq stimulated a wider regional sectarian conflict, with the civil war in Syria being itself the bloodiest current manifestation of that conflict.
Of course, advocates of entering the Syrian war have to deal with public resistance to anything like the long and costly Iraqi expedition. So Diehl assures us that he is only talking about “limited use of U.S. airpower and collaboration with forces on the ground,” which, he says, “could have quickly put an end to the Assad regime 18 months ago, preventing 60,000 deaths and rise of al-Qaeda.” He offers no explanation of how, given all the ingredients (especially the sectarian hatred) of the current civil war, dispatching the Assad regime would have had anything like the salutary effects he postulates, or would have those effects if the regime collapsed this week. What, for example, happens to the Alawites if the regime goes, and what happens to all the desire for vengeance on the Sunni side when that happens?
Note especially the remarkable parallel (which Diehl himself does not highlight) between what is being promised (or hoped for) here and what was promised and hoped for with the invasion of Iraq: that toppling the incumbent regime would be quick and cheap and could be done without any messy, resource-devouring turmoil to follow. The column has other remarkable echoes of the selling of the Iraq War. There is even a line about how if we don't intervene in Syria, al-Qaeda will gain control over chemical and biological weapons.
Diehl says, “The problem here is not that advocates of the Iraq invasion have failed to learn its lessons.” If his column is any indication, that is very much a problem.
A well-recognized attribute of opinion polling is that the wording of questions heavily influences the results of a poll. Even experienced and reputable organizations without any apparent ax to grind nonetheless sometimes fall into sloppy wording that heavily and misleadingly skews the responses. This is especially apt to happen with topics encumbered by conventional wisdom that is widely accepted even if it may be erroneous. The Iranian nuclear program is one such topic.
The Pew Research Center produces some of the most informative and useful opinion research on foreign affairs—addressing both American attitudes toward overseas problems and attitudes of foreign populations on issues pertinent to U.S. foreign policy. But a question that it asked of a sample of 1,501 Americans a couple of weeks ago about Iran and nuclear weapons was not one of its more carefully constructed efforts. Respondents were asked whether it is “more important” to “prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action” or to “avoid military conflict even if Iran may develop nuclear weapons.” Worded this way, it is hardly surprising that a solid majority of 64 percent picked the first choice and 25 percent chose the second, with the rest categorized as “other/don't know.”
Set aside the fact that the question implicitly accepts the conventional wisdom that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be a very bad outcome. Also never mind that the question does nothing to suggest to the respondent any of the respects—including ones highlighted in the recently published study of the subject conducted by the Center for the National Interest—in which war with Iran would be a very bad outcome. Then note that the question conflates what are really two different questions: the apple of war vs. no war with Iran, and the orange of how much to worry about the Iranian nuclear program.
Worst of all, the question as worded wrongly posits a military attack and an Iranian nuclear weapon as alternatives to each other, when in fact they would be more likely to occur in tandem. As the U.S. intelligence community has concluded, Iran has not to date decided to build a nuclear weapon. One of the likely consequences of a military attack on Iran, by either the United States or Israel, would be to precipitate just such a decision.
A more factually based question that would retain as much of the original version's structure and wording as possible would be:
Is it more important to...
Take military action against Iran, even though this may lead Iran to decide to build nuclear weapons, or
Avoid military conflict and rely on diplomacy to try to ensure that Iran's nuclear program is used only for peaceful purposes.
The result of asking this question is apt to be at least as one-sided as the one that Pew asked—and this time it would not be the first alternative that gets the majority.
The problem is not to be laid only at the feet of Pew or of pollsters in general. The problem is a cloud of presumption that has made debate in the United States over Iran's nuclear activities one of the least informed debates among any that have gotten as much attention as this one has.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Kevin Zollman. CC BY-SA 2.5.
A common current piece of advice to U.S. intelligence agencies, coming from many places including reportedly from official advisory panels, is that those agencies ought to de-emphasize whacking terrorists and redirect some of that effort to traditional functions of collecting and analyzing intelligence, lest the United States be blind-sided by something in China or the Middle East or elsewhere. Just about everyone who comments on what U.S. intelligence agencies ought to be doing seems to be saying something along that line; we don't need to turn to any official panels with privileged access to hear that. The message has an appealing, back-to-basics ring to it, as well as having the appeal of sounding forward-looking. And the message is substantively sound; intelligence agencies ought indeed to focus on the core missions of collecting and analyzing information about the world outside the United States.
Sound though this particular message is, it is another illustration of publicly expressed conventional wisdom about intelligence that exists as a sort of parallel universe, separate from what the intelligence agencies are actually doing—of which, given the classified nature of that activity, the public commentators know little. Without access to the real thing, purveyors of conventional wisdom feed on each other's output until the conventional wisdom gets treated as if it were hard fact. When the conventional wisdom says something about how the intelligence community has been devoting too much attention to one topic and ought to shift attention to something else, this is really much more a reflection of where the public commentary itself has been devoting attention. The same is true of what counts as a “surprise”; this often has less to do with what intelligence agencies were or were not telling their official customers behind closed doors than with what the public had or had not been conditioned to expect, based on public statements and discussion.
Amid pronouncements coming from the parallel universe, several realities about the actual world of intelligence ought to be noted.
One is that disproportionate public attention to certain subjects or activities does not reflect the actual allocation within the agencies of resources and priorities. What is controversial or receives much public attention does necessarily seize the attention of senior managers who have to deal with Congress. But that is not true of the large majority of the work force, most of which has always been focused on the core missions of collecting and analyzing intelligence, or directly supporting those who do.
Another reality is that the swing of the pendulum of attention from one topic to another in the actual world of intelligence is not nearly as exaggerated as swings in the parallel universe. This gives rise to myths, such as that during the Cold War the intelligence community devoted nearly all of its attention to matters involving the Soviet Union.
Yet another reality is that the intelligence community devotes much effort on its own to keeping its priorities well-grounded and up-to-date, applying the dual criteria of what is of long-term importance to the country and what the policy-makers of the day most want to hear about. Here the mistaken myth is that it takes kicks in the pants from outsiders such as advisory panels to make priorities up to date.
It is true—and here is where the two otherwise parallel universes intersect—that some of what the intelligence agencies do in reallocating resources is in response to shifting public demands. The agencies certainly expanded work on terrorism greatly after 9/11. This was not because the nature of the terrorist threat had suddenly changed (it didn't) or because before 9/11 the intelligence community did not understand that threat (it did). It was because with the sudden and enormous change in the public mood and public concerns, intelligence managers had to show Congress and others on the outside that they were beefing up work in this area.
What does not get nearly as much public attention in such circumstances is what trade-offs are involved in any such reallocation. With resources always limited, responding to public demands on one thing may increase the chance of genuine surprise in the future on something else—something that inhabitants of the parallel universe probably are paying scant attention to today.