The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
While many remember Chinua Achebe's masterpiece Things Fall Apart for its appearance on their summer reading lists, the passing of the African literary giant yesterday compels us to remember his biting social critiques and beloved Ibo nation of Nigeria.
His obituary in the New York Times, which is worth reading in its entirety, touches on the Nigerian civil war as well as the brief but tortured history of the land. The war devastated Achebe, and the trauma notoriously gave him writers block for more than twenty years.
For a country with few chroniclers as fierce or powerful as Chinua Achebe, one wonders who will bring us Nigeria's stories in the future. The author and poet was cautiously optimistic about the future of his homeland, but the country remains deeply unstable due to terrorist group Boko Haram and other threats.
As Achebe wrote in his later work Home and Exile, “People have sometimes asked me if I have thought of writing a novel about America, since I have now been living here some years. My answer has always been that America has enough novelists writing about here, and Nigeria too few." Sadly, now, even one fewer.
John Yoo, best known for his role in the White House’s Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush administration, has this to say about the Iraq War’s ten-year anniversary and whether the war was a mistake:
In law, we often come upon a situation after an event -- a crime, an accident, etc. -- and we must decide what to do based on the knowledge we have now. Courts award damages based on the harm to the victim and the harm to society. Suppose you thought that the Iraq war was a mistake. If so, isn't the proper remedy to restore Saddam Hussein's family and the Baath Party to power in Iraq? If you are unwilling to consider that remedy, aren't you conceding that on balance, the benefits of the war outweigh the costs?
In a word: no. As the first commenter on Yoo’s piece says, “To say that the Iraq War was a mistake does not imply that Saddam Hussein and his family were the wronged party.” Nobody who thinks the war was a mistake now does so because they feel badly about what happened to Saddam or his coterie. Rather, their assessment is that the many victims were other players: the over a hundred thousand Iraqis who were killed and millions more who were displaced; the roughly 4,800 coalition soldiers who were killed and more who were wounded; and the U.S. taxpayers who collectively paid a financial price in the trillions of dollars, just to name a few.
For the most part, these are not costs that we have the power to “remedy.” But notably, where it is possible to do so (if in a partial way)—as in providing health care to returning veterans, for example—we already do this, and it’s totally uncontroversial. The problem is that Yoo’s calculus presents overthrowing Saddam as the principal cost of the war, whereas in reality most war opponents likely view it as a benefit in isolation, but one that is outweighed by the drawbacks listed above and elsewhere. Yoo wants war opponents to endorse a situation where they renounce the war’s principal benefit while keeping all of its costs. This argument simply doesn’t pass the laugh test.
Washington is marking the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in an unusual way: with talk of a new war, this time in Syria. Following unconfirmed rumors of a chemical attack, Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a joint statement calling for “the provision of arms to vetted Syrian opposition groups, targeted strikes against Assad’s aircraft and SCUD missile batteries on the ground, and the establishment of safe zones inside Syria to protect civilians and opposition groups.”
Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, then told Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin that he believes “there should be the next ratcheting up of military effort and that would include going after some of Syria's air defenses.” He suggested, in agreement with earlier testimony by NATO head Admiral James Stavridis, that antiaircraft missiles could be placed on the Turkish border to create a no-fly zone in northern Syria without actually entering Syrian territory: “It is a way without putting boots on the ground and in a way that would be fairly cautious, that would put additional pressure on Assad.”
There are two problems with the no-fly zone idea. The first is that it is not “fairly cautious”—it still would be an act of war, regardless of whether troops ever enter Syrian territory. It would make the United States and Turkey parties to the conflict, and Syria could retaliate against them, likely resulting in a broader war. America will also perceive an element of responsibility for the fate of Syrians who flee to the no-fly zone. An atrocity by Syrian ground forces in the no-fly zone would cause an international outcry, potentially leading to a counterattack into Syria and the expansion of the war’s scope and goals. A no-fly zone increases the likelihood of deeper U.S. involvement, yet it does not address any of America's primary interests in the Syrian conflict—it does not secure Assad's chemical weapons, reduce the risk of the conflict spreading through the region, or cut the influence of Iran and Hezbollah (on Assad's side) and Al Qaeda sympathizers (on the rebel side).
Second, it is not clear what difference a no-fly zone would make. Aircraft and helicopters are not superweapons—they offer advantages to those that have them, but they aren’t a dramatic boost in the gritty, close-quarters urban fighting and ambush warfare seen so far in Syria. They also aren’t as effective as artillery in targeting civilians, as Assad’s father Hafez already demonstrated. The only major benefit aircraft offer Assad is that they are a symbol of an effective and powerful military. To the extent that wars are fought with symbols, it is true that Assad will face more pressure under a no-fly zone.
The most serious problem with a no-fly zone is thus strategic. War is, after all, the art of using violence to make the enemy do our will. What do we will in Syria, and will a no-fly zone compel Syria to do it? Admiral Stavridis echoed ambitious yet common opinion when he suggested the no-fly zone would “be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime.” Whatever the merits of these two goals, the pressure a no-fly zone creates only advances them indirectly. Nobody is arguing that the loss of a few miles of airspace would make a dictator that has jailed, tortured or killed tens of thousands of his own countrymen see the error of his ways and resign. The theory is rather that the elites around Assad will fear rising international pressure—or a foreign invasion—and depose him. Yet many of these elites get their power from their ties to Assad, and would be hesitant to abandon him. The threat of invasion, meanwhile, is not very credible since few believe a general war serves U.S. interests—even the ultra-hawkish senator Graham only favors a rather limited ground intervention.The elites won’t be terrified, and Assad isn’t likely to be forced out. A no-fly zone merely allows us to continue failing to achieve our goals, but to work harder as we fail.
Earlier this year, there was a minor kerfuffle when the New Republic, which had commissioned a lengthy piece by journalist Steven Brill on health-care costs for its first cover story after its relaunch, bumped Brill in favor of running an interview with President Obama. As a result, Brill took his roughly twenty-five-thousand-word opus to Time instead. Today, the New York Times reports that Brill is taking somewhat of a victory lap, as his piece proved a big hit both in terms of sales and online presence:
The 25,000-word article that Steven Brill wrote for the magazine’s March 4 issue appears to be on course to become its best-selling cover in nearly two years. Ali Zelenko, a Time spokeswoman, said the issue sold more than double the typical number of copies. . . . The article was shared 100 times more often on social media than the average Time article in 2013, and the #BitterPill hashtag was mentioned nearly 6,000 times on Twitter.
At Politico, Dylan Byers argues that this means TNR made a mistake. As he says, “Brill's piece was far more substantive, far more impactful and far more daring,” and running it in their first issue “would have made a bold statement.” In contrast, he writes, the Obama interview “made no lasting impact on any national debate, save for a few days discussion of Obama's skeet-shooting habits.”
This is a fair critique, and Brill’s piece is a must-read. But it’s also easy to see the other side of the argument. We only have one president, and he doesn’t give that many print interviews. And from a business point of view, the choice seems to have paid off; as new TNR owner and editor-in-chief Chris Hughes told New York magazine, the relaunch issue “sold at record rates on the newsstand — over five times larger than any issue in the past decade.”
Indeed, the bigger problem seems to be not that the magazine bumped Brill for Obama but that, once they got Obama to sit down for an interview, they proceeded to ask him a series of mostly anodyne questions. Consider the first two questions, asked by Hughes:
Can you tell us a little bit about how you've gone about intellectually preparing for your second term as president?
Have you looked back in history, particularly at the second terms of other presidents, for inspiration?
Is it any surprise that these questions elicited boring, predictable responses?
Conversely, consider what might have happened if TNR had used the interview to really probe into the substance of Obama’s foreign and domestic policies. Imagine if they had asked in-depth questions about the future direction of the drone war, or the pace of the drawdown in Afghanistan. Would the responses have been any more newsworthy? Maybe not. But at any rate, to use Byers’s words, it would have made a statement.
The New York Times reports that the entry of Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and similar figures into the Republican foreign-policy debate has provoked worry in the party:
Now, a new generation of Republicans like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is turning inward, questioning the approach that reached its fullest expression after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and signaling a willingness to pare back the military budgets that made it all possible.
That holds the potential to threaten two wings of a Republican national security establishment that have been warring for decades: the internationalists who held sway under the elder President George Bush and the neoconservatives who led the country to long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan under President George W. Bush.
Members of both camps said this week that they fear returning to a minimalist foreign policy . . .
Is it really true, as the article implies, that both the neoconservatives and the internationalists (i.e. the realists) feel threatened by those who question “the approach that reached its fullest expression after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001” and who are willing to “pare back the military budgets that made it all possible”? The post-9/11 Republican foreign policy, and those big military budgets, are really the sole property of the neocons. It’s the neoconservative consensus—not the non-isolationist consensus—that the isolationists threaten. The chief impact of 9/11 on the Republican Party, after all, was a rapid rise to dominance of the neoconservatives at the expense of the realist wing. Realist figures within the Bush administration, like Richard Haass (quoted in the article) and Colin Powell, became isolated. Others of a quasi-realist bent, like Condoleezza Rice, underwent miraculous conversions to the neocon faith. And until very recently, the range of acceptable foreign-policy views within the GOP mainstream has remained narrow and neoconservative.
That’s why realists shouldn’t see the rise of the isolationists as a threat. They are creating intellectual breathing room within the Republican Party, breathing room that realists can exploit. Even better, the isolationists are adopting realist rhetoric and symbols. Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy address was essentially a paean to George Kennan and the Cold War containment doctrine. He expressly disavowed the isolationist label and called himself a realist.
It’s entirely possible that Paul is using realism as a mask, but this is an immaterial matter for realists. As long as the neoconservatives dominate the GOP, the isolationists and the realists have a common enemy. Both can agree that the neoconservatives have overextended America. Both can agree that the neoconservatives have perverted the Republican foreign-policy discourse. Both can agree that the neoconservatives are a bit paranoid. Both would favor relatively more diplomacy and trade and relatively fewer wars. As long as these things are true, the realists and the isolationists can work together.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Elgaard. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Some may say print is dead, but one thing is sure: they haven't been to Burma. In just two short weeks the Burmese press will be free to print daily news for the first time in over fifty years, and local journalists (or largely, the young people who want to become them) are electrified with excitement. While their internet connections are shoddy, the would-be journos have been practicing for months, running off private daily editions of the Myanmar Herald and Rangoon Times in anticipation of the April 1 start date. Shanghai-based Jake Spring's piece for the Atlantic is a great window into this special and changing time in the Southeast Asian country. That said, not all will be smooth sailing. According to Spring:
The crush of new daily newspapers - most in the industry expect up to 25 to launch - must first clear regulatory hurdles. According to local reports, media regulators announced on Saturday that of 17 media companies that have already applied for daily licenses, eight have been approved for publication starting next month, six were denied and three remain under consideration. Despite the rejections, the government has yet to signal that licenses will be used as a gatekeeping mechanism to shut out critical newspapers. Among the rejected was Eleven Media Group, which publishes one of the highest-circulation weeklies. The group reported on its website that the rejection was based on a technicality, the lack of an official revenue stamp and failure to specify what the language of the publication would be. The ministry advised the group to reapply. Media leaders in Rangoon like Ko Ko said in mid-February they were certain the government would approve all completed applications.
TNI's Doug Bandow also rightly pointed that the licenses necessary to proceed with daily printing are controlled by state authorities who could revoke permission "as a tool for censorship." Certainly, the system is not flawless or even close, but it is a large and exciting step forward for Burma. As Chairman Ko Ko of Rangoon Media Group wisely said to Spring, "Today, our big issue is not thinking about making money." Probably a smart choice; that's pretty tough to pull off these days.
Over the past few months, there has been a flurry of commentary claiming that 2013 will be a “year of decision” on Iran. (See, for example, Fareed Zakaria, Anne-Marie Slaughter and James Jeffrey.) In Zakaria’s words, this means that unless a diplomatic deal can be reached between the P5+1 and Iran regarding the country’s nuclear program, “2013 will be the year that we accepted a nuclear Iran or went to war.”
In the Financial Times, Nader Mousavizadeh provides some much-needed pushback against this now-conventional wisdom:
Far more likely, however, is a 2013 defined by another period of sustained stalemate, one driven by an unspoken preference on the part of all the key participants for a pragmatic equilibrium that excludes both war and peace. The see-saw of threats and talks, escalation and negotiation continues, inevitably leading to warnings of showdowns.
This is mostly all theatre. The reality is that for each of the principal parties, the status quo – Iran isolated diplomatically, crippled economically, boxed in militarily – is preferable to the available alternatives.
Mousavizadeh’s piece is a useful reminder that, as his title says, Iran’s “crisis is more stable than it seems.” Each of the relevant actors prefers the status quo to a potentially devastating war. But, he writes, a “genuine peace” also runs the risk of being seen on both sides as a capitulation. This is especially true of Iran, whose regime has for decades defined itself in opposition to America and the West. Thus, Iran’s incentive is to continue on its current path—building up its stockpiles of enriched uranium and drawing out the negotiations, while not taking any steps that are likely to provoke an American or Israeli attack, such as withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reiterated today in his “Worldwide Threat Assessment” statement, the best assessment of the U.S. intelligence community continues to be that Iran has not made a concrete decision to pursue nuclear weapons, and “we do not know” if it eventually will. Washington obviously doesn’t like the ongoing standoff, but as long as Iran stays away from an overt decision to develop nuclear weapons—a step Clapper asserts we would be able to detect—there’s no reason that this dynamic necessarily has to shift in the coming year.
A look back at the relevant history reinforces this point. As others have chronicled, analysts and government officials have repeatedly been wrong when projecting the point at which Iran might acquire a nuclear weapon (the supposed “red line” that a war would be fought to prevent). In 1984, Jane’s Defence Weekly warned that Iran might have a nuclear weapon within two years. Throughout the next several decades, there have been repeated predictions from inside and outside the government about how Iran could get the bomb in two or five or eight years. To this point, they have all been wrong.
To be sure, 2013 could be a “year of decision.” Yet it’s just as likely, if not more, that this prediction will join so many other failed ones made about the Islamic Republic. Zakaria and the others are correct that eventually, something will have to change to break the deadlock. The problem is that eventually can be a long time.
The Spectator’s Alex Massie offers a sharp critique of David Cameron’s Conservative Party on the occasion of its pathetic third-place finish in a critical by-election, asking “What’s the point of the modern Conservative party?” It’s the sort of question that has to be asked when a ruling party is bested by both its junior coalition partner and a minor insurgent party. Yet many of the problems Massie identifies sound eerily familiar to those who watch the GOP.
Consider the leaflet . . . distributed to voters in the dying days of the Eastleigh by-election campaign [which noted the Conservative candidate had been endorsed by a UK Independence Party MEP]. . . . Perhaps this was just a last, desperate, ploy in the final days of a disastrous by-election campaign. But it also shows how the Tories have allowed themselves to be spooked by the UKIP phantom. They have become so obsessed with protecting their right flank they’ve forgotten that overloading their defences on the right leaves them exposed elsewhere.
Substitute “Tea Party” for “UKIP” and you’ve got a worry stone that’s surely been turned over and over in the minds of GOP leaders. The Tea Party injected the Republicans with a new energy, catapulting them to victory in 2010. Yet it’s a strident, populist movement, a little too grubby for many moderates and independents. It’s thus a blessing and a curse to the Republican establishment. While the Tories have to fear UKIP stealing their votes outright, the Tea Party works within the GOP, flooding primaries and conventions with activists eager to put unelectable and unpolished loyalists on the ballot. The Tea Party has lost momentum since its 2010 heyday, and the party elite have grown somewhat better at channelling the fury vote to more viable figures. Yet the bruising 2012 presidential primaries showed that candidates are still “overloading their defences on the right” and being left “exposed elsewhere.”
A little further along:
The Tories have been very good at telling the country what they don’t like but rather less good at telling us what they do like. There is a negativity about the government these days that is rotting its ability to tell a good story. We know what the Tories are against but not what they are for. . . . They’re seen as being against (or at least uncomfortable with) much of modern British life. Some of this is the result of unfair (and often hostile) media exaggeration but not all of it. Individually, [their] positions may have some merit; collectively they risk making the Tories seem a party for sour and angry people who rather resent the country they live in.
This is a far less urgent issue for the Republicans than for the Conservatives, as the Republicans are in opposition and the Conservatives are in government. The Republicans have no real obligation to propose budgets or otherwise attempt to form a positive agenda, as they have little power to implement it. Yet the chief problem confronting the GOP in the next election (and probably for many elections after that) will be the ongoing normalization of a larger government than is traditional in the United States. Opposing the emergence of new clienteles, new regulations, and higher baselines for revenue and spending will require an essentially negative agenda. Austerity is never popular.
On social and cultural matters there is a similar risk of appearing “against (or at least uncomfortable with) much of modern life.” Those who seek to keep the party’s tent from expanding one inch—for example, by fighting to remove a state party chair for supporting gay marriage in a state where just 29 percent of the population opposes it—could turn it into a reactionary, not conservative, force. These groups are weakening, but the challenge of appearing “sour and angry” will remain. With the building blocks of American society rapidly being altered and destroyed, the task of developing a conservative social position that can win broad support grows more difficult—and more urgent.
On Tuesday, General Jim Mattis, outgoing head of U.S. Central Command, went to deliver testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The occasion was ripe for controversy—the committee is home to some of Obama’s most hawkish critics, while rumors have been swirling that the famously laconic Mattis had been pushed out over disagreements with the White House. The hearing did see some of these disputes aired—Mattis said that he’d hoped to leave more troops in Afghanistan after 2014 than the administration.
But a moment of agreement was far more noteworthy. Mattis had the following exchanges with South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, regarding the sanctions on Iran. Mattis had said that the sanctions were not working, but could:
MATTIS: I believe this regime, knowing it can’t win the affections of its own people, I think they are very concerned that the economic sanctions could turn the people against them, in which case I think on a cost-benefit basis they could be willing to give up even the nuclear effort to stay in power.
. . .
GRAHAM: We’ve got two choices: bring ‘em to their senses so they stop developing a nuclear-weapon capability, or bring them to their knees so they can’t develop a nuclear-weapon capability. Aren’t those our two options?
MATTIS: Yes sir.
GRAHAM: As to the second option, do we have the capability to bring them to their knees?
MATTIS: Absolutely, senator. I would still say on “bring to their senses,” between economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and encouragement of behavior that does not cost them such a degree of political support that they end up losing power, there may yet be a way to bring them to their senses on a purely cost-benefit ratio.
GRAHAM: And if that doesn’t work, the only option is to bring them to their knees, do you agree?
MATTIS: Yes, sir.
There are two issues here. The first is the question of whether it is possible to “bring [Iran] to their knees so they can’t develop a nuclear weapon capability,” even if they try to develop that capability. Nuclear weapons, we must remember, have existed for nearly seventy years. They are still difficult to make, but they are not some ultramodern technology that only the most highly developed nations can produce. It’s reasonable to say that any state with a well-rounded domestic industrial capacity, a source of nuclear raw materials and sovereignty over at least some of its territory is capable of developing nuclear weapons.
Outside powers can delay the consummation of the capability or impose steep costs on its development, but there are really only two ways to prevent nuclear weaponization with certainty. One is to provoke a political decision not to weaponize. The other is to destroy the ingredients of capability—to destroy the country’s industry, to deny it access to raw materials, or to deny it its own territory. The raw materials already exist in Iran—it has significant stockpiles of uranium, and mines where it can get more. Deindustrializing Iran would require a major campaign against nonmilitary targets, which would make most modern decision makers squeamish and which would likely destabilize the broader international system. Occupying Iran would be extraordinarily costly, and other means of reducing its sovereignty over its own territory (such as support for insurgencies) risk blowback.
So the only practical option is to get Iran to choose not to make nuclear weapons. The sanctions are one way of trying to provoke that choice. And that’s where the second issue comes up. Mattis appears to believe (as many in Washington do) that the logic of the sanctions regime is to make the Islamic Republic fear for its political survival—to make the Iranian public hate the government for bringing on economic ruin.
It’s not clear that the sanctions actually create this risk. Iran’s economy is clearly struggling, which has forced the government to make efforts—some good, some evil—to alleviate international pressure. But polls suggest the sanctions haven’t created widespread public anger. Worse, they might actually be increasing the power of the regime’s more dangerous elements. The Revolutionary Guards have expanded their role in the economy, swallowing up sanction-afflicted businesses, taking advantage of efforts to stabilize the rial and engaging in widespread smuggling.
The true problem of thinking of the sanctions as an instrument of instability is that this makes Iran less likely to see a non-nuclear future as in its own interests. The hardline camp tends to view accommodation with the United States as largely impossible, as the United States simply cannot accept an Islamic Republic in the heart of the Middle East. They believe the Iran-Iraq War, the sanctions and some of Iran’s domestic problems were fueled by an American desire to undermine and overthrow the regime. They further believe that Iranian concessions have been met with redoubled Western pressure. Accordingly, they feel, Iran must make itself strong and pesky enough to force Washington to accept it as it is.
Remarks like Mattis’s provide rhetorical ammunition to these hardliners. Deliberately destabilizing Iran’s government is not likely to put any Iranian leader—moderate or hardline—in a peacemaking mood. The goal of the sanctions must be far narrower: to keep Tehran at the table. This will only work if it thinks negotiations can lead to relief and that Washington is willing to tolerate, not overthrow, an Islamic Republic.
The current issue of Foreign Policy has a Mad Libs–style section where it asks analysts on military issues to fill in the blanks on various questions. In response to the prompt “Obama’s drone policy is…” Peter Singer replies:
Due for a speech outlining America's vision on where the technology and the policy should evolve to next. Who better than a commander in chief/law professor/Nobel Prize winner to give that speech?
This was a good idea to begin with, and it’s an even better one in the aftermath of Rand Paul’s nearly thirteen-hour filibuster against John Brennan’s nomination to run the CIA earlier this week. Paul’s filibuster dominated the media cycle and served to bring some needed attention to an issue that has often been ignored beyond a small circle. But, as others have pointed out, the circumstance he primarily focused on—the possibility of a U.S. citizen being killed by a drone strike on American soil—is a very narrow and extremely unlikely one. At the same time, according to an averaged set of estimates, over the past decade the United States has actually killed roughly 3,400 people with 411 drone strikes overseas, with about four hundred of them being civilians. (To his credit, Paul did mention the practice of “signature” strikes overseas several times as well, which is maybe the most troubling aspect of current drone policy.)
In the end, Paul got the categorical answer he wanted from Eric Holder. As Conor Friedersdorf writes, this is no small thing—any explicit admission by the executive branch of what it is not allowed to do, with no exceptions or weasel words, is valuable. But we are still left with more questions than answers about the overall direction of the targeted-killing program. We are still left with an apparently endless war against a wide range of groups spanning several countries, legally justified by a very brief resolution passed over a decade ago.
Meanwhile, just earlier this week the Washington Post reported that the administration is now “weighing whether the law can be stretched to cover what one former official called ‘associates of associates.’” These are militant groups such as Ansar al-Sharia in Libya that “may embrace aspects of al-Qaeda’s agenda but have no meaningful ties to its crumbling leadership base.”
This is where a presidential speech could make a difference, as Singer says. The fact that Paul’s filibuster happened at all was a direct indictment of the administration’s own unwillingness to be forthcoming about many of the issues surrounding its counterterror policies. A direct response would allow the administration to move the conversation away from hypotheticals and explain what it is actually doing and where it sees the drone program and the broader “long war” going over the next several years.
Moreover, it would also play to Obama’s strengths as a speaker. He has often been at his best when critically examining specific issues in depth, as he did in his 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia and his 2009 Nobel Prize speech. After the Philadelphia speech, Jon Stewart noted in a rare moment of sincerity that the reason it was significant was that Obama “spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults.” It is time for a president to speak to us about drones, targeted killings and counterterrorism as though we were adults as well.