The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
At the Diplomat, Robert Kelly wonders whether the U.S. decision to back down from attacking Syria may represent the beginning of a process of putting limits on presidential uses of military force. He contends that doing so would be a good thing both from a democratic point of view and for the content of American foreign policy (in that it would reduce the number of ill-considered wars that the country fights). In his words:
These moments are the return of democratic checks-and-balances in a competency where they have been dormant too long and have given us catastrophes like Vietnam, Iraq and a drone war that murders overseas Americans without due-process. These votes may be bad for this or that passing occupant of the West’s high offices, but there are healthy for our democracies and public control of government.
Kelly is no doubt right that as a general rule, when there is not a “clear and present national danger” that precludes legislative deliberation, Congress should vote before the country employs military force abroad. The question is whether the Syria episode actually presages a future in which this is more likely to happen consistently.
One thing that is for sure is that the choice to go to Congress on Syria was not motivated by a newfound appreciation within the executive branch for any legal limitations on its war-making powers. Indeed, in 2011 the administration undertook a larger military intervention in Libya than the one it advocated for Syria without any form of congressional approval. And in his Rose Garden speech announcing his decision to seek such approval on Syria, President Obama said, “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” It’s only because the proposed Syria intervention was so overwhelmingly unpopular among the American public, along with the “no” vote in the House of Commons in Britain, that the administration felt the need to try and get congressional buy-in.
Meanwhile, and conversely, the drone war that Kelly also decries rolls on, with substantial public support. In an April New York Times/CBS poll, fully 70 percent of respondents said that they favored “using unmanned aircraft or ‘drones’ to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.” Though the pace of drone strikes has decreased since its high a couple years ago, in 2013 the United States has still conducted forty-four strikes in Yemen and Pakistan—roughly one per week.
The campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates is legally justified by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). This law was passed by Congress, but that was long enough ago and the AUMF has been stretched far enough that it’s fair to question whether the war that’s being conducted now is genuinely the same one that Congress authorized. Moreover, as Bobby Chesney argues at the New Republic, it may be that even if the AUMF were to expire, the targeted-killing campaign against terrorist organizations could continue with relatively few adjustments simply based on the president’s Article II powers as commander in chief. This isn’t likely to happen—the White House would certainly rather have some sort of congressional sanction underpinning its military actions—but if it did, as long as the conflict maintained high levels of public support, it’s hard to imagine that there would be a significant public outcry.
What this suggests is that the dynamic that restrained Obama from using force in Syria has much more to do with public attitudes about particular wars than it does their views about executive power. Looking at the record of the past half century, there’s not an obvious pattern regarding when presidents feel the need to go to Congress to authorize military action and when they don’t. It varies along with factors such as the extent of the proposed intervention, whether there’s sanction from some international body, whether there is a need for immediate action and the level of public support. In Syria, the proposed intervention was not as extensive as some that have occurred without congressional approval, such as Libya and Kosovo. But it was the apparent unpopularity of the cause (according to Gallup, it would have been more unpopular than any other conflict in recent memory) that offset this fact and convinced Obama to seek approval from Congress.
The legal position that Obama has articulated will certainly not restrain any future president—indeed, a future president could even use it to do exactly the opposite of what Obama did. As Jack Balkin wrote at the Atlantic, “The most important limit on presidential adventurism is political, not legal.” The Syria decision was made in a context in which the United States had already been at war for over a decade, in two major conflicts that had become increasingly unpopular. Moreover, many in both the public in Congress found the administration’s case for war in Syria to be weak. Neither of those things is guaranteed to be true the next time a president wants to use military force abroad. If a future president wants to go around Congress, the Syria episode will give his critics an additional data point to cite, but it will do little more than that. The bigger question will be how American public and elite opinion toward the use of force more generally evolves in the meantime.
A Guardian readers’ poll released Monday suggested that new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani should be given this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. (A poll of Guardian readers, I should note, is not the most mainstream endorsement—Edward Snowden, the leaker formerly known as Bradley Manning and Greenpeace were other top contenders, and the most popular article on the Guardian’s website today is an essay about an artist who photographs his mother having sex.) The bookies don’t agree—teenage womens’ rights activist Malala Yousafzai and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege are their favorites. Giving Rouhani a Nobel this year would be premature. His accomplishments so far are tentative—he’s freed a few political prisoners, he’s made some vaguely liberal gestures, he’s made a phone call. And, as the Guardian Iran correspondent who nominated Rouhani to the readers notes, he’s “put an end to the embarrassment of the Ahmadinejad years.” A Rouhani Nobel on such grounds would put him in the same controversial category as Barack Obama, who won the prize after only a few months in office, ostensibly for his opposition to nuclear weapons but with reference to how “his diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population”—a tacit slap to George W. Bush’s perceived unilateralism. And as was the case with Obama’s Nobel, the selection committee would likely have buyer’s remorse in the following years. Politics tends to cut idealistic figures down to size, and expectations for Rouhani in some Western circles surpass anything he could deliver, let alone what he would deliver.
So it would be silly to give Rouhani the Nobel this year, even if the prize has been cheapened by its recent shift away from the bloody men who actually make peace and toward more cuddly humanitarian figures. Yet a Rouhani Nobel could significantly increase the odds of good outcomes in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Rouhani’s approach has caused a political earthquake in Iran, and hardline government figures have, remarkably, offered him public support. But it’s not clear how long that will continue if negotiations get serious. Iranian hardliners continue to believe that the West and especially America cannot be satisfied by any Iranian concession, that we will always hunger for more, that we will not stop until the Islamic Republic falls. The last moderate administration seemed to confirm this narrative—Iran made a number of gestures on the nuclear issue and had some cooperation with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in return was branded a member of the “Axis of Evil.” The moderates were humiliated.
A Rouhani Nobel, however undeserved, could create a mirror image of the Axis of Evil effect. Rouhani’s allies in Iran would brand the prize a triumph. “After so many years of rejection by the West,” they might say, “our approach has earned Iran one of the West’s highest honors! Iran has been accepted by the world without changing its fundamental nature and without humiliating itself.” Hardliners could only reply that the prize is a sign that Rouhani is too close to the West, or that the West is trying to seduce Iran into weakness, or that the Norwegian parliament has become a nest of Zionist intrigue. Most Iranians would favor the moderates’ reasoning. Rouhani winning the Nobel Peace Prize would be a moment of tremendous national pride. This would further establish Rouhani as a powerful figure in his own right. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would have to expend more political capital if he ever feels the need to bring Rouhani to heel. That all adds up to more leverage for Rouhani on the nuclear issue. That’s the best plausible outcome for the United States. And if nothing else, a preemptive Nobel would give Obama and Rouhani something in common for their next phone call.
Why aren’t hundreds of asylum seekers drowning trying to get to Japan? It’s a question that needs to be asked as the horrific tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa focuses world attention. Lampedusa is an acute symptom of a chronic problem—that hundreds of thousands are willing to risk their lives in rickety boats to migrate to other lands. The human toll of this is horrific—between ten and twenty thousand people are estimated to have died off Lampedusa since 1999. And it’s not just Europe. On the other end of the globe, in Australia, the problem has become a white-hot issue. Dozens died en route to Australia just last week; more than six hundred have perished in the last four years.
Why not Japan, too? Like Western Europe, like Australia, Japan is a stable and prosperous liberal democracy—an attractive destination. It’s a long journey, yes, but distance can’t be what’s keeping the boats away—after all, many of those going to Europe come from below the Sahara; many going to Australia come from as far away as Lebanon. Japan is also party to the two major United Nations conventions on refugees, which guarantee certain rights to asylum seekers.
The difference is that Japan is much stricter on immigration, strict enough that it’s likely in violation of its international obligations. Japanese officials use a variety of informal and extralegal means to keep asylum seekers out—and to get those who make it through to leave. European human-rights courts would blanch at such a system.
But off the coasts of Japan, people are not dying in the tens of thousands. Boats are not catching on fire, forcing people who don’t know how to swim into the waves. They aren’t capsizing, trapping people inside them as they sink. And smugglers aren’t profiting amid the horror.
Unlike Japan, Europe retains lax policies. People are granted asylum relatively easily, gaining admittance from countries where conflict simmers or is absent, and not just from all-out Syria-style slugfests. For at bottom, Europe has allowed “asylum-seeker” to become a code-word for “illegal immigrant.” That is the real problem. People know that asylum status can be readily abused—and readily seek to abuse it. German deputy interior minister Ole Schröder noted in 2012 that his country has “two times as many asylum applicants from Serbia as from Afghanistan”—in other words, far many more are trying to claim refuge from a peaceful country than one experiencing a war. Anas al-Libi, captured last week by American commandos in Libya, had spent time living as an asylee in Britain, even after he had been an active al-Qaeda operative for years. A Lebanese-Australian man in Syria recently became his adopted country's first suicide bomber, and violence between pro- and anti-Assad factions has occurred in Australia itself. Europe and Australia do not have an asylum problem—they have an illegal immigration problem. But by swaddling large numbers of illegal immigrants in the protective blanket of asylee status, by treating illegal immigrants as victims, by granting access to economic dynamism (and the welfare state), Europe and Australia encourage the smugglers—and the drownings.
The irony is that this is all done with the best of intentions. In the name of protecting people from government abuses, Europe’s governments are making circumstances in which people place themselves in the hands of abusive smugglers. No longer at the mercy of warlords, they are put at the mercy of the waves.
So it should be no surprise that a continent which has placed intentions over outcomes is reacting to Lampedusa as it is—namely, by painting the tragedy as a result of tough border security. “There is a divide between those who prioritise the saving of lives and those who insist on border enforcement,” blares the Guardian. A Human Rights Watch researcher notes “that security crackdowns on land crossings such as the Greece-Turkey border only displaced migrant flows and often forced more boats into the sea.” (That Europe's people rightly demand their governments maintain reasonably secure borders is left undiscussed in such circles.) Yet tough security isn’t the problem—it’s the solution. If people didn’t think they could get into Europe, didn’t think Europe would give asylum status so freely, and didn’t think they could work in Europe illegally, they’d have little reason to take such risks to get there—unless, unlike the present hordes, they really were fleeing severe persecution, and Europe really were the only place they could go. In turn, if Europe’s leaders canned their loose definition of asylum, they wouldn’t be so afraid to let troubled boats reach Europe’s shores. They wouldn’t be tempted to ignore or turn back boats in distress—sometimes with deadly results—because they could bring people to safety ashore without effectively admitting them to Europe.
There is a further irony here. If Europe’s leaders listened to Europe’s people, they’d have done all that already. Around the world, including in Europe, people tend to dislike mass immigration—legal or illegal. Yet in many places, especially in Europe, policy is set by narrow social and political elites, elites with very different attitudes on such matters. These elites find the nationalism of their inferiors—and of places like Japan—provincial, inhumane and ill-intentioned. But how many ships capsize off inhumane Japan? Perhaps these elites should heed the request that Lampedusa’s mayor made to Italy’s prime minister—to “come down to the island and help me count the bodies.” For in politics, outcomes sometimes count for far more than good intentions.
So far, Israel’s strategy for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons has not failed. But Bret Stephens’ piece in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, “Israel’s Failing Strategy,” provided a fine recipe for ensuring that it will. In it, the neocon columnist surpasses himself.
President Obama, asserts Stephens, has clearly demonstrated his unwillingness to strike Iran and, moreover, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also gone wobbly. Now the United States and Iran are making diplomatic overtures, putting Netanyahu in a political predicament for which “he largely has himself to blame for not acting in time.” To “get out of this trap”, Stephens advocates that Israel should downgrade its relations with Washington and unilaterally strike Iran, irrespective of whether progress is made in US-Iran talks. Any conclusion this outlandish can only be founded on faulty premises, and Stephens’ assessment is no exception.
Stephens wishes “Ehud Olmert were Israel’s prime minister” because, while Olmert “had a demonstrated capacity to act”, evinced by his deciding to strike the suspected nuclear site in Syria in 2007, [i]t isn’t clear that Mr. Netanyahu does.” Something else that’s less than clear is why Stephens thinks Olmert—who has opposed Israel acting alone against Iran—would be any more likely to strike unilaterally than Israel’s current prime minister. Last November, Olmert said that, in order to relieve Israel of the “sole responsibility of the decision to take out Iran” if its nuclear progress came to warrant a military response, “Israel has to be part of an international effort that will be backed by the United States.” In August 2012, Olmert also accused Netanyahu’s government of fomenting “hysteria” over Iran, and argued against the necessity of striking then.
Stephens states that “Israel apparently refrained from attacking Iran a year ago, largely out of deference to Mr. Obama’s electoral calendar”, and asserts that “Israeli policy since” Obama’s reelection “has amounted to one big kowtow to Mr. Obama’s needs, political and diplomatic.” Hardly. Most obviously, over seven months passed between Obama’s reelection and Rouhani’s taking office. In what sense was Netanyahu kowtowing by not acting on a threat that, as he told the UN General Assembly yesterday, “wouldn’t be another North Korea”, but would instead “be another 50 North Koreas?” Whose political or diplomatic needs was he deferring to then?
The notion that Israel has provided the Obama administration “the widest possible latitude to pursue diplomatic initiatives until they prove their futility” is unpersuasive. Is Stephens really suggesting the Netanyahu’s full-court press to oppose U.S.-Iranian rapprochement constitutes giving the initiative “the widest possible latitude” to succeed? Netanyahu’s remark on Tuesday at the General Assembly, that “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone”, was clearly intended to publicly pressure the United States.
The real heart of Stephens’ argument, though, is that he, like Netanyahu, opposes a diplomatic deal because it “would leave Iran first-and-five at the nuclear goal line”; that is, both oppose recognizing Iran’s right to domestically enrich uranium, an ability that Israel sees as synonymous with the ability to produce nuclear weapons. A “meaningful” diplomatic solution, Netanyahu told the General Assembly, would require Iran to “cease all uranium enrichment”, “remove from Iran’s territories the stockpiles of enriched uranium”, and “dismantle the infrastructure for [Iran’s] nuclear breakout capability.” This stance seems to run counter, not coincidentally, to the position of much of the international community, including the United States. Netanyahu alluded to this at the UN, when he disparagingly noted that “There are those who would readily agree to leave Iran with a residual capability to enrich uranium.”
Here are the facts: In February, P5+1 negotiators signaled that they were willing to offer Iran a “clear pathway to a civilian nuclear program” which could eventually encompass a possible recognition of Iran’s right to enrich. The administration hasn’t taken a firm position on whether Iran could be permitted to still domestically produce nuclear fuel, but it has acknowledged Iran’s right to have a civilian nuclear program.
Netanyahu’s contention that “the only diplomatic solution that would work is one that fully dismantles Iran's nuclear weapons program and prevents it from having one in the future” essentially demonstrates his wholesale rejection of diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Is he suggesting that Iran, after enduring years of punishing sanctions, should fully abandon its nuclear ambitions, and have only sanctions relief to show for it? What better way is there to elicit fierce opposition from Iranian hardliners and moderates alike than returning to the status quo ante after gaining nothing?
Stephens asserts that “Israelis need to adapt to a global reality in which the Americans are willing to do less, and consequently count for less.” Since when has America’s worth in the world been a function of its willingness to enter into potentially calamitous adventures abroad, even while diplomatic efforts are underway to prevent a resort to force?
This raises the question of when Stephens believes Israel should “act on its own.” If Israel elects to act, he says, it “must proceed without regard to Mr. Obama’s diplomatic timetable.” Does Stephens seriously think that a unilateral Israeli strike while the US are Iran are exploring a potential diplomatic opening would do anything besides cause Israel to become further isolated internationally and estrange it from its most important ally, just to set Iran’s nuclear ambitions back a couple years?
Yet a military strike, whether by the US or Israel, would jeopardize efforts to heed Netanyahu’s advice on Iran to “distrust, dismantle, and verify.” While it would certainly increase distrust, striking militarily might not fully dismantle Iran’s program, and would almost certainly complicate prospective verification efforts. As Colin Kahl has noted, “if Iran did attempt to restart its nuclear program after an attack, it would be much more difficult for the United States to stop it. An assault would lead Iran to distance itself from the IAEA and perhaps to pull out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty altogether. Without inspectors on the ground, the international community would struggle to track or slow Tehran's efforts to rebuild its program.”
What does this portend for the future of the “special relationship” between the US and Israel? Analysts generally agree that an Israeli strike would set Iran’s nuclear program back by at most two years. So pretend that Israel strikes today. Given that Netanyahu has been pushing for military action on Iran—preferably, in his view, by the United States—throughout his time in office, will the next two years likely be much different than the last four-and-a-half? If Iran attempts to restart its program—which military strikes would almost compel it to do—the result would be an endless cycle, with Iran more and more capable of protecting its nuclear assets and U.S.-Israeli tensions rising with each iteration.
Messrs. Stephens and Netanyahu would have the US follow their arguments down a path toward a future that nobody should welcome.
Although the August 21 chemical attacks near Damascus refocused the world’s attention on events in Syria, the potential thawing of U.S.-Iranian relations has since claimed center stage. Addressing the UN General Assembly earlier this week, both President Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani conveyed their respective government’s willingness to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, potentially as part of a larger process of rapprochement between the two countries. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, wants none of it.
Netanyahu, who characterized Rouhani’s UN remarks as “a cynical speech full of hypocrisy,” opposes even attempting to pursue this potential opening with Iran. His stance is understandable, but his decision to so publicly express his objections to the diplomatic approach embraced by the administration is not, at least not at first glance. Moreover, this is not the first time that he or his government have recently attempted to publicly pressure the Obama administration to pursue—or not pursue—particular policies abroad; some might even call this meddling. Instead of fostering the impression that Israel and America are working in lockstep to resolve foreign-policy issues of mutual concern, Netanyahu has strained bilateral relations and contributed to the perception that Israel is uninterested in attempting to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.
In short, Bibi needs to back off.
While there is ample cause for skepticism regarded Rouhani’s sincerity, the Obama administration has wisely decided to at least give peace a chance. If talks with Iran fail, Obama can more plausibly claim that he seriously pursued the diplomatic route, strengthening his hand should he subsequently decide to resort to force. And resolving the nuclear crisis non-violently—however unlikely this may be—is manifestly preferable to attempting to do so militarily.
America severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980, shortly after the Iranian Revolution and subsequent takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Since then, Iranian-American relations have been characterized, with limited exception, by intense hostility and mutual distrust. Of course, the policy inertia of more than three decades of tensions cannot be undone overnight. Netanyahu’s unabashed desire to obstruct the incipient process as best he can only further complicates matters.
Israel and America, despite sharing a number of common foreign-policy goals and facing many of the same threats, are bound to disagree on some issues sometimes; after all, no two states have identical national interests, and the same threat can be viewed entirely differently by even the closest of allies. The closeness of the Israeli-American relationship is a source of strength, yet Netanyahu’s actions undermine both the relationship’s closeness and, by extension, this strength. Rather than adopting the current public-pressure approach, Netanyahu could have instead simply made his views known directly to the administration and adopted a less combative stance in public.
Beyond the Iranian issue, Israeli officials have also used public fora to influence the Obama administration’s response to the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. At a conference at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies in April, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, head of military intelligence research for the IDF, declared that Israel believed the Assad regime had used chemical weapons on multiple occasions, including on March 19 at Khan al-Asal. Previously, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence, international relations, and strategic affairs, said on Israeli Army Radio a day after the March 19 attack that chemical munitions had been used, although he did not attempt to assign culpability to either the Syrian regime or rebels. At the time of Steinitz’s remarks, the Obama administration maintained that there was no evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria.
Proof that Assad had indeed gassed Syrian rebels would have put pressure on Obama to follow through on his imprudent “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which Brun’s allegation certainly did.
It seemed evident at the time of Brun’s remarks, and has since become increasingly so, that Obama has little appetite for actually striking the Assad regime. Thus, the administration had until then been dithering over acknowledging whether the regime was actually responsible. Brun’s announcement, however, put Obama even more on the defensive. At first, the administration contested Israel’s findings, although it soon had to acknowledge that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons, albeit on a “small scale.”
While it is unlikely that Brun made his accusation without first receiving permission—tacitly or overtly—from higher-ups to do so, it is inconceivable that the Israeli government failed to appreciate the sensitivity of his charge vis-à-vis Obama’s red line. To prevent similar public disagreements with its American ally, Israel has since forbidden the IDF’s intelligence officers from speaking at public conferences. Yet Netanyahu obviously remains free to publicly contest U.S. policy, which he will reportedly do when he speaks to the General Assembly on October 1, the day after President Obama hosts him at the White House.
Netanyahu will reportedly focus on Iran’s nuclear program in his UN address. He will rebuke America and Iran’s inchoate process of reconciliation, which he views as a trap devised by Iran to obtain relief from sanctions. His speech is one part of an aggressive campaign by his government to discredit the potential of diplomatically resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis; other recent elements include Netanyahu’s characterization of Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and his representatives’ admonition to “not to be fooled by the Iranian president’s fraudulent statements”, as well as the Israeli embassy in Washington’s release of a mock LinkedIn profile of Rouhani that called him a “longtime advocate of nuclear proliferation”, among other things, hours before Rouhani addressed the UN.
Netanyahu has openly clashed with the administration for a number of reasons. His behavior is intended to appeal to multiple audiences, both in Israel and abroad. (Keep in mind that when Netanyahu addresses “the international community”, his intended audience—besides Israelis—is essentially just the United States.)
Pressuring America to adopt less flexible, more militaristic policy positions is a common theme underlying Israel’s actions, both in the Iranian and Syrian cases. In each instance, Netanyahu faced a win-win situation. An American attack on Assad, like a refusal by Obama to reconcile with Iran, could persuade the Islamic Republic that the threat of U.S. military action remains viable, thereby influencing Iran to show greater flexibility regarding its nuclear ambitions. Conversely, a less hawkish U.S. posture in each case could aid Netanyahu in his ongoing efforts to convince Israel’s top defense personnel, as well as the Israeli public, to support a potential unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities by showing that America cannot be depended upon to confront Iran.
Being assertive (read: confrontational) in his dealings with Obama also scores him domestic political points, particularly from the Israeli right, as does taking a hard line on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Nonetheless, his decision to so openly clash with Washington can be excused by reference to his domestic political exigencies only to a point.
Regardless of whether or not allies see eye-to-eye and work cooperatively on matters of mutual concern, it is critical that they at least be perceived to be doing so. Pressuring the U.S. publicly is bad for Israel and America. It weakens the American-Israeli “special relationship,” the actual and perceived strength of which confers important benefits. Being so uncompromising on Iran while Israel’s greatest ally is exploring a different course isolates Israel internationally. And what if, however improbable, Obama’s approach is vindicated and a diplomatic solution is reached? Netanyahu will be largely discredited and Israel will be further isolated.
Rouhani’s professed desire to reduce Iran’s international isolation was a major factor contributing to his winning office in mid-June. His electoral campaign slogan, quite fittingly, was “hope and prudence.” If only Bibi would at least display some hope.
After scandals, disgraces, and public embarrassments, Washington is generous with second chances, but usually only after a decent interval.
Not so with Elizabeth O’Bagy, the disgraced analyst who was fired by the neoconservative Institute for the Study of War (ISW) for masquerading as a Georgetown PhD student, who has reportedly been hired by Senator John McCain as a legislative assistant. O’Bagy claimed to have defended her dissertation to friends and colleagues, but there was one problem: no one at Georgetown had heard of a doctoral student by that name. She was never in the program.
O’Bagy rose to prominence as an employee of ISW where she conducted research on the Syrian civil war. Due to her contacts with Syrian rebel organizations (she also worked for a rebel advocacy organization in Washington) and purported field research on the ground, her work became widely cited by high-profile figures, including Senator John McCain. In a lengthy Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing with Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and General Martin Dempsey, McCain cited “Dr. O’Bagy” extensively, quoting her Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which she argued, “the war in Syria is not being waged entirely or even predominately by dangerous Islamists and al-Qaida die-hards.” Indeed, the moderate nature of the Syrian rebels is a trope of O’Bagy’s reports for ISW just as it has been in McCain’s calls on the White House to arm the Syrian rebels. It is said that O’Bagy even orchestrated McCain’s trip to Syria to visit rebel commanders.
But pride comes before the fall.
It soon came to light that she had fabricated her qualifications. She had never been admitted to the joint M.A.-PhD program at Georgetown she claimed to be in. Her supposed supervisor had never heard of her. Kimberly Kagan, the head of ISW, maintains that O’Bagy’s misleading assertions about her background in no way compromised the work she did for ISW on Syria. We are told we should still trust her findings.
It turns out those findings—namely that the Syrian rebellion is broadly moderate—are also bogus. Just the other day, thirteen rebel groups led al Qaeda’s Nusra Front rejected the authority of the Syrian National Coalition, the moderate rebel command authority backed by the United States, calling on those opposing Assad to establish a “clear Islamic framework.”
Still, we have to give Senator McCain some credit for his consistency. For a few years now, his view of the world has been largely fictional. At least he now employs an effective specialist in foreign-policy fictions.
The responsibility to protect is a bad idea. But it could be worse. President Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday hinted how. At the conclusion of remarks that focused heavily on the Middle East, the president offered a strong endorsement of the doctrine, saying:
There will be times when the breakdown of societies is so great, the violence against civilians so substantial that the international community will be called upon to act.... While the United Nations was designed to prevent wars between states, increasingly we face the challenge of preventing slaughter within states. And these challenges will grow more pronounced as we are confronted with states that are fragile or failing -- places where horrendous violence can put innocent men, women and children at risk, with no hope of protection from their national institutions.
Obama held up Libya as a successful example of such multilateral use of force, arguing that the state would likely still be engulfed in conflict if the world had not acted. Yet what’s more remarkable is that there was no mention of Syria in this part of the speech. Isn’t it the case that the “breakdown of society” there is “great”? Isn’t the “violence against civilians” “substantial”? And aren’t the “innocent men, women and children at risk” in Syria, “with no hope of protection from their national institutions?” The latter point is key, as this is the center of the R2P idea—states must protect their civilians, and when they fail to, the international community must step in. The Assad government is clearly not living up to this standard—it has been using the institutions of the Syrian state against the Syrian people, with brutal effectiveness, for more than two years. Obama has to realize this—R2P’s most celebrated voice, Samantha Power, sits on his cabinet and probably helped write this part of the speech.
Indeed, Obama’s rhetoric on Syria closely parallels the rhetoric on R2P minutes later. Syria: “Assad’s traditional allies have propped him up, citing principles of sovereignty to shield his regime.” The responsibility to protect: “Sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder.” Syria: “Without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all.” R2P: “Different nations will not agree on the need for action in every instance...but [sovereignty can’t be] an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye to slaughter.” Syria: “How do we address the choice of standing callously by while children are subjected to nerve gas, but we’re embroiling ourselves in someone else’s civil war?” R2P: “We live in a world of imperfect choices.... While we need to be modest in our belief that we can remedy every evil, and we need to be mindful that the world is full of unintended consequences, should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda or Srebrenica?” Syria: “The crisis in Syria and the destabilization of the region goes to the heart of broader challenges that the international community must now confront.... Conflicts between countries, but also conflicts within them.” R2P: “While the United Nations was designed to prevent wars between states, increasingly we face the challenge of preventing slaughter within states.”
The similarities are glaring. And Obama’s argument for going into Syria unilaterally—that the international community and particularly the Security Council were frozen not by disagreement but by a stubborn refusal to carry out their duties—aligns neatly with the move around the Security Council for the R2P action in Kosovo in 1999, and with the argument that would have been made had Russia and China resisted the R2P intervention in Libya in 2011. Yet even as it employed R2P talk and concepts in its aborted Syria intervention pitch, the administration meticulously avoided invoking the protection of innocent civilians—R2P’s goal—as a justification. Instead, officials leaned on the norm against the use of chemical weapons and the horror of using them against civilians—the justification was not that Syrian civilians were deliberately killed, but the means that had been used to deliberately kill them. The distinction wasn’t lost on Syrians, many of whom found it infuriating. Was America willing to defend their lungs, but not their lives?
Of course, the administration had many good reasons for making the distinction—after all, if its justification for war were saving lives, it would have acted sooner. And, as officials repeatedly emphasized, no number of cruise missiles could put Syria back together again. Yet at the bottom of it all, this was a decision rooted in the necessities of domestic politics (few Americans wanted to go into Syria) and of selfish national interests (Syria’s war hurts America, but not in a direct, urgent and vital way). Officials certainly would have preferred to defend both the norm against killing innocent civilians and the norm against using chemical weapons. But they recognized that the means available to them could only defend the latter.
So what? Politicians must compromise their principles all the time. Nowhere is this more obvious than in international affairs, where Communists cut deals with capitalists and the enemy of your enemy is sometimes your friend. Yet the responsibility to protect doctrine thinks it’s above the fray, that states have a moral obligation apart from their own interests to protect civilians in other states—by aid and diplomacy if possible, by force if necessary. It calls for selflessness. Yet states act from selfishness. The administration’s tacit distinction between killing civilians with gas and killing civilians with bullets, bombs or prolonged torture is but one example. And the political situation confronting the administration showed that this selfishness is often not from choice, but practical necessity.
The mediation of principle by necessity provides an opening for the critics who charge, as Obama noted in New York, that “America continues to seek control over the Middle East for our own purposes.” These critics argue that we invoke R2P for purely selfish motives—that we say we’re defending human rights, yet are really using them as an excuse to further our own dominance. They’re wrong. Our power is not at stake in Syria and was not in Libya. But invoking R2P only some of the time doesn’t help. By appropriating R2P rhetoric for a unilateral intervention that doesn’t aim to protect, the Obama administration managed to both cheapen our claim to stand for principles and further widen the set of possible causes of wars. And when there are more justifications for war, less national sovereignty, less trust in the purity of our motives, and less consultation with other major powers, the world is less safe for America—and for everyone else.
Starting this month, TNI’s Managing Editor, Harry Kazianis, will select the day’s top foreign policy, national security, and defense articles for your reading pleasure. From the latest crisis in Syria or the Middle East, to China’s rise, to important matters of U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics, TNI has you covered.
What you need to know for Thursday 9/26:
Christian Science Monitor- Iran's Rouhani: Why I Didn't Shake Obama's Hand
From the article: “There are “no problems in terms of shaking Mr. Obama’s hand and negotiating with him,” Rouhani said. “It was two days ago that the U.S. proposed a meeting and we were not opposed. This is a very sensitive subject. We have not talked at that level for 35 years. We must take these steps carefully.”
Senior administration officials said the possible handshake on the sidelines of the UN assembly – which was built up by both sides yesterday as a distinct possibility – proved “too complicated” for Iran at this time, “given their own dynamic back home.”
“We are ready to negotiate, but we didn’t have enough time to make that happen,” said Rouhani. “The handshake is a symbolic issue.”
Washington Post - House GOP offers plan to avert shutdown “The party’s strategy would delay the fight over Obamacare till October by attaching it to the bill to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.”
Foreign Policy - What's New Is Nuance “Why Iran may just be playing smiling for dollars.”
American Conservative - Three Realist Lessons From Obama’s Syria Missteps
Foreign Affairs - The Rise of the Rest of India: How States Have Become the Engines of Growth
The Hill - Congress Down To One-Week CR
The Diplomat - The Real North Korea Nuke Threat:
From the article: “In the next decade, one of two things will happen. Either the North Korean state will collapse, and the North Korean nuclear arsenal will be absorbed into/disarmed by South Korea, or the international community (specifically the Six Party contact group and the various international nuclear monitoring organizations) will need to accept the reality of Pyongyang’s nuclear program and move forward based on that status quo. An accidental nuclear release is a low-likelihood event, with the potential for a very high impact. Developing sufficient trust to help the DPRK safely manage its small arsenal is a smart move even for states that abhor the Kim regime.”
Image: Office of the President - Iran
Starting this month, TNI’s Managing Editor, Harry Kazianis, will select the day’s top foreign policy, national security, and defense articles for your reading pleasure. From the latest crisis in Syria or the Middle East, to China’s rise, to important matters of U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics, TNI has you covered.
What you need to know for Monday 9/23:
New York Times: Mall Carnage Shows Shabab Resilience - “The Somali militant group could be signaling a wider offensive, despite suffering losses in recent years.”
Foreign Policy: Samantha Power's Problem from Hell - “Can a humanitarian firebrand help forge a deal with Syria's dictator?”
Foreign Affairs: Jihad Comes to Kenya - “Until recently, experts assumed that al-Shabaab’s recruitment in Kenya was limited to the country’s Somali minority, which numbers roughly a million people. But recent attacks have forced a reassessment; as ex-members testify, now Kenyans are joining up as well.”
American Conservative: A Tale of Two Movements - “What do Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz’s divergent paths say about the future of the Republican Party?”
CNN: Bashar al-Assad Says Syrian Rebels may Attack Chemical Weapons Inspectors: From the article:
“Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has suggested that some outside governments may urge rebels to attack international inspectors sent into war-fractured country to secure its arsenal of chemical weapons.
"There might be countries that might ask the terrorists to attack the inspectors to prevent them from doing their job, and blame the Syrian government," he said in an interview aired Sunday by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.”
Starting this week, TNI’s Managing Editor, Harry Kazianis, will select the day’s top foreign policy, national security, and defense articles for your reading pleasure. From the latest crisis in Syria or the Middle East, to China’s rise, to important matters of U.S. foreign policy, TNI has you covered.
What you need to know for Saturday 9/21:
New York Times: Saudi Arabia's Proxy War
Washington Post: Debt fight poses risks for Obama and Republicans “Showdowns over spending and Obamacare are likely to shape the political climate for 2014 as the House sets up a confrontation with the White House and congressional Democrats that could lead to a partial shutdown.”
Foreign Policy: Sliding Toward Damascus - "How Syria's civil war crept into the heart of Baghdad -- then went boom."
World Politics Review: U.S. Paying the Price for Taking Brazil for Granted
Foreign Affairs: Bo Behind Bars? “Former Chinese politician Bo Xilai is expected to be sentenced for corruption this weekend."