The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
David Brooks caused a firestorm last week when he questioned whether Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has “the mental equipment to govern.” Yet lately we might ask the same question about Egypt’s liberals.
Brooks was drawing on an essay by the American Interest’s Adam Garfinkle, which asserts that
A typical Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood rank-and-file type now saddled up on the gyrating entrails of the Egyptian state bureaucracy...does not accept the existence of an objective fact separate from how he feels about it, and if he should feel negatively disposed toward the fact, whatever it is, the fact can be made simply to disappear.
Garfinkle’s broader argument about the Brotherhood outlook has some odd inflations and conflations. Yet this particular claim has a ring of truth. Mohamed Morsi and his followers lived, at times, in a world of their own creation. They were intuiting conspiracies everywhere long before one brought them down. And the trend continues after the coup—for example, the Brotherhood’s Arabic-language website briefly featured an article asserting that interim president Adly Mansour is a Seventh-Day Adventist, and therefore is Jewish. (Needless to say, Holocaust deniers can find friendly ears among the Brothers.)
But Egypt’s secular-liberal revolutionaries seem to be living in an alternative reality of their own. The most fundamental fact in their world is that Egypt’s coup was not a coup—that the Egyptian army can inform the Egyptian president that he is no longer the president, use its commandoes to remove him from his office and then have its head appear on national television to announce the suspension of the constitution without committing a coup. (Helpfully, the Obama administration is weighing the incorporation of this fact into its reality, as well.) And the chief argument for this fact is the enthusiasm of the coup’s civilian enthusiasts—in other words, there is no “objective fact separate from how [they] feel about it.”
Needless to say, it was very disconcerting when major media networks like CNN declined to report from the alternative reality and called the events a coup. The protesters promptly accused CNN of supporting the Brotherhood—pardon, of supporting terrorism. Sympathizers in New York City demonstrated outside CNN’s offices. Foreign reporters alleged harassment at demonstrations, and CNN international correspondent Ben Wedeman stated that “to go into Tahrir would be to risk our lives right now.”
U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson has also come under attack from the secular-liberal rank-and-file. Consistent with her duties as America’s representative to the Egyptian government, she met with Morsi and his associates; consistent with the American government’s views, she noted publicly that Morsi had been lawfully elected and expressed a preference for elections over “street actions.” In the alternative reality, she, and Obama, were therefore supporters of the Brotherhood. (Helpfully, some on the American right swiftly added this fact to their reality, too.) The Brotherhood became “a compliant tool at the hands of the US to serve its interests in the region.” Banners proclaimed that “Obama & Paterson [sic] Support Terrorism In Egypt.” Patterson, said a demonstrator, “manipulates people and secretly governs the country,” and “is part of a conspiracy against Egypt and its people.” She has been widely labelled “hayzaboon”—“ogre” or “crone”—and depicted with her face distorted to look the part. Others have called her “lady of doom” and “bitch.” (And we’re told that this is the faction America needs to back to advance the interests of women.)
The Egyptian liberal’s alternative reality is a very illiberal place, for it cannot bear contact with anything outside itself. Dissent threatens its very existence. And so pro-Morsi journalists are shouted out of press conferences by their colleagues. Opposition parties must be banned, their leaders rounded up, their media outlets shut down. Blotting out offensive views becomes a form of political speech. The liberals are not calling for a liberal state—what they want is a fury-state, where the government derives legitimacy from serving as a funnel for the public’s revolutionary anger. It’s New Left, not liberal democracy. It’s the vision of Maximilien de Robespierre and Hugo Chavez, not James Madison and John Stuart Mill.
Morsi was an inept ruler, and deserves much of the blame for the coup against him. He did little to guard his most precious asset, his legitimacy, until he was crowing about in his final days. He was not liberal. But neither are many of Egypt’s liberals.
The Senate may have passed a comprehensive immigration-reform bill after months of labor, but the legislative battle is just beginning. House Speaker John Boehner has announced that he’ll only bring a bill to the floor if it enjoys the support of a majority of House Republicans (a standard practice). The Republicans of the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight have so failed to impress their colleagues in the House that the lower chamber won’t even use their bill as a starting point. They’ve got a lot of writing to do.
Republican criticism of the Senate bill has focused on several problems. The most fundamental flaw is that its structure will swiftly break the political coalition needed to pass and enforce it. Those who primarily support the bill because they want to legalize the illegal population get what they want quickly, as the bill grants a form of legal status when some minimalist security targets are met; those who primarily support the bill because of its enforcement and border-security provisions will have to wait longer to get what they want, and in the event of any hiccups they’ll be unable to appeal to their old coalition partners for support. Obviously, this elementary flaw will have to be addressed.
The second line of attack has focused on some rather nebulous metrics for border security, so the House bill surely will include a stronger position here. Yet tougher border enforcement won’t solve the illegal-immigration problem any more than tougher drug enforcement has solved the drug problem. Illegal immigration, like the drug trade, is driven by demand. As long as large numbers of employers are willing to hire illegal immigrants, there will be large numbers of illegal immigrants. Breaking that relationship must be the centerpiece of any serious reform.
And the Senate bill makes a serious attempt at that by requiring employers to vet the legal status of their new hires with a system known as E-Verify. Contrary to popular imagination, most illegal-immigrant employment in the United States isn’t completely off the books—about three-quarters of illegal immigrants simply use a fake Social Security number. E-Verify allows employers to check whether the Social Security numbers their employees provide are genuine. In theory, then, it would be very difficult for illegal immigrants to support themselves in the United States, prompting them to leave. In practice, the bill leaves a bit to be desired. It makes E-Verify mandatory over a period of years, years that special interests might use to weaken it. It also doesn’t require current employees to be run through the system—only new ones. And some Republicans have expressed concerns that stronger forms of E-Verify, such as one that includes photographs, could form the backbone of a national ID system—a tool the government could easily abuse. So the House bill will likely adjust the upper chamber’s E-Verify language.
One way to assuage concerns about E-Verify’s effectiveness without laying the foundations of a national ID would be to backstop it by verifying legal status with other techniques. And the government already has the infrastructure in place to do this, as William W. Chip explained in last month’s American Conservative:
Employers are already obligated to submit a Form W-4 to the IRS that gives the name and social security number of every new employee. The IRS shares that information with the Social Security Administration (SSA), which knows which numbers are invalid—or are suspicious because there are being used in multiple locations or belong to children or the very elderly—and generally does nothing about it. The SSA refuses to share evidence of fraudulent use of Social Security numbers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When Bush administration officials approached the chairmen of the Social Security committees in Congress about a fix, they were rebuffed.
In other words, but for a handful of senators and congressmen jealous of their bureaucratic prerogatives, the federal government would not need to mandate E-Verify. If employers knew that ICE would be notified of false or suspicious Social Security numbers—“G-Verify”—unscrupulous employers would be deterred from hiring workers they knew to be illegal, and most honest employers would voluntarily enroll in E-Verify to avoid the hassle.
Using “G-Verify” (i.e., government verification) to support E-Verify has crucial advantages over using either independently. G-Verify alone would create lots of work for the government, so using it in tandem with E-Verify is a must. A second point of enforcement would reduce the need to add risky extras like photos to E-Verify. G-Verify would drive employers toward E-Verify, as Chip says. E-Verify allows employers to determine a new hire’s status faster and with less government involvement than G-Verify, while G-Verify would still work if the Senate bill’s protection of current employees from E-Verify stands. A two-pronged system would be harder to avoid and harder for opponents to dismantle. And by making it harder for illegal immigrants to find work, it would remove a key incentive for illegal immigration—increasing the chance that America's second immigration reform to end all immigration reforms will be the last.
As former South African president Nelson Mandela ails in his home country today, we are reminded of an important lesson the anti-apartheid revolutionary demonstrated: one sometimes has to suffer for a cause in which he truly believes.
Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years in response to his push for South African democracy. For eighteen of those, he was forced into hard labor at a Robben Island lime quarry, where the blinding glare permanently damaged his vision. Mandela's resolve and strength under such harsh conditions are a critical part of his legacy because he repeatedly put his country's best interests before his own. During his eighteen-year Robben Island sentence, Mandela composed an early version of his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom in which he recounted his trial for alleged sabotage and other crimes against the state:
In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy.
Suffice it to say that Edward Snowden could learn a lesson or two from Nelson Mandela.
As Snowden continues to fester in a dingy airport terminal in Moscow, he undermines the very causes he purports to stand for by fleeing prosecution. In his now-famous interview, Snowden even went as far as to say that the United States "is worth dying for," but apparently feels he is not the one to do it, not that any fate so severe would befall him were he to face the music.
Jelani Cobb over at the Daily Beast expands on this very idea in the context of American history. He writes:
The cornerstone achievements in American rights were attainable precisely because their proponents refused to avoid consequences for their dissent. In 1920, Eugene Debs ran for president from behind bars to highlight his opposition to World War I and labor exploitation in the United States. During the civil-rights movement, the young activists of SNCC adopted a “Jail, No Bail” strategy not only because of the financial burdens of raising money but also because their willingness to remain in prison, to suffer for their cause, eroded the moral standing of the men responsible for their arrests.
If Snowden wants appear more whistleblower and less treasonist—or frankly more importantly, if he truly wishes to advance discussion of American privacy in any historically meaningful way—he needs to return to the United States and be his best Mandela. It might not be pretty, but he's going to have serious problems either way. Might as well attempt to take the moral high ground and let the administration bake under the appropriate heat.
In his first press appearance on June 9, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden gave every appearance of being a man of principle, arguing that the public deserved a chance to learn how broad the agency’s domestic surveillance was, and that he had revealed himself because “the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government that's a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy.” This was the crux of his decision to go public—that people deserved to know who was revealing the information, as he was bypassing legitimate channels. He added that the government officials who leak secrets anonymously were also violating this principle, but that by leaking selectively and anonymously, they had isolated the surveillance programs from public discussion. Snowden, in his account, had given up his future and his pleasant station in life in defense of the principles those officials ignored. He argued his motivations were patriotic, telling other prospective leakers that “this country is worth dying for.” While his actions were lawless and set an extremely dangerous precedent—as James Joyner aptly pointed out, they would “make every disgruntled Army private or low-level contractor a de facto national classification authority”—Snowden appeared at least to have honest intentions.
Then something shifted. Snowden began leaking information about unquestionably legitimate NSA and joint operations, revealing information-gathering and hacking in China and against foreign heads of state. Snowden implied that the NSA should only gather information against “legitimate military targets,” saying that other operations abroad were “nakedly, aggressively criminal.” He complained that the United States “hasn't declared war on the countries [it is collecting information on]—the majority of them are our allies...And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we're not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police?” These were shockingly naive statements for someone with years of intelligence experience—journalist Jeffrey Goldberg quipped that Snowden was reminiscent of a “guy who joined Goldman Sachs and then was shocked to learn that it was in the business of making money.” Why on earth would Snowden make his living facilitating actions he regarded as evil if he is, indeed, the man of principle he purports to be?
And now it has gotten worse. Snowden is holed up in the VIP lounge of Moscow’s airport. Rumored destinations have included beacons of democracy like Cuba and Venezuela. He’s dashed off an asylum application to Ecuador. Why Ecuador? It’s the same country that hosts WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in its London embassy. They granted him this protection on the grounds that his human rights were in danger of violation if he were handed over to the notoriously abusive government of Sweden—the noxious Scandinavian pariah-state whose prisons have been compared to “five-star hotels.” Snowden argued that his own rights would face similar danger if he were returned to America, and that accordingly he deserved Ecuadorian protection.
The latest episode immediately brought to mind a pair of photos from the early 1970s. Angela Davis, an American communist, academic and prison-reform activist, had been briefly imprisoned in California after a deadly courthouse shooting in which one of her bodyguards used a gun she had purchased two days prior. While detained, Davis became a cause célèbre in the Communist world, which alleged she was a political prisoner. After a jury found her not guilty, she was freed and began travelling to various Communist countries, where she was photographed shaking hands and making appearances with the crusty Soviet puppets running East Germany. Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would point out that her commitment to prison reform apparently did not extend to prisoners in these Communist states—not even to prisoners whose sawed-off shotguns had never been taped to a judge’s throat.
There’s a parallel to the Snowden case. Human Rights Watch has accused Ecuador of several of the offenses Snowden seems to oppose. Ecuador’s media watchdogs face a tightening noose of libel laws that serve to keep the political elite’s darker secrets under wraps, the executive branch has meddled in the judiciary, and Ecuadorian demonstrators have faced persecution under overly broad terror laws. And while Assange (and possibly soon Snowden) enjoys Ecuadorian asylum, Ecuador allegedly violates several international agreements on asylum-seeker’s rights.
Snowden might not have adopted Davis’ rank hypocrisy. Yet he shares her naivete, the naivete that many self-proclaimed freedom fighters and defenders of principle have had towards the geopolitical machinations of the nation-states around them. The Communist lands clearly did not give one whit about prison reform. They exploited Davis’ case to make America look bad—and, tacitly, to convince their own citizens that the tyranny they experienced at home was universal. Ecuador does not protect Assange because it has a deep and principled commitment to free speech. Russia and China aren’t eager to ensure that private citizens can live free from surveillance. They all merely want to give Washington a black eye. Edward Snowden contacted the press because he felt his job had turned him into a pawn of people who hold Americans’ liberties in low regard. Yet his flight has turned him into a pawn of self-interested foreign governments. And sometimes pawns are sacrificed—and captured.
On Wednesday, President Obama gave a speech in Berlin that covered a wide range of foreign-policy issues but focused principally on nuclear weapons. His central proposal consisted of a call for reductions in the number of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons by “up to one-third” from the limit of 1,550 set by the New START agreement, which would leave both nations with just over a thousand. (He also called once again for the U.S. Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, said he would push forward with the Nuclear Security Summit process, and pledged to work with NATO allies to seek reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.)
Almost immediately afterward, the nuclear hawks came out in response. The “Senate Missile States Coalition” put out a statement the same day strongly criticizing Obama’s nuclear-reduction proposal. It consists of a catalogue of poorly reasoned and highly dubious assertions. For example:
● Mike Johanns: “The Cold War may be over but we still face dangerous threats as rogue nations like Iran and North Korea work to develop nuclear arsenals. Simply put, now is not the time to draw down our defenses.” North Korea has an estimated ten nuclear weapons. Iran has none. Even if these numbers increased somewhat in the near future, the idea that America’s nuclear posture or the size of its arsenal ought to depend significantly on those two nations makes little sense.
● Max Baucus: “Maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent keeps America safe and supports good-paying American jobs.” The military should not be viewed as a jobs program, and creating or maintaining jobs is a terrible reason for military spending. Under this logic, you could never cancel a single weapons program, no matter how ineffective or wasteful, for fear of the jobs it would cost.
● Mike Enzi: “The president wants to appease Russia with this agreement.” This old, tired line from last year’s presidential race makes even less sense than normal in this context. As current reporting on Obama’s proposal has indicated, it’s not clear that Russia even wants to negotiate any further limitations on its nuclear arsenal right now.
● The main point that the senators stress, repeated several times throughout their statement, is the need for the United States to maintain a “strong nuclear deterrent.” Yet they never explain exactly how an arsenal of over a thousand deployed strategic nuclear weapons—not to mention several thousand more in reserve—would fall short of being that, or what military missions or purposes it would be insufficient for.
In short, the overriding problem here is the senators’ casual assumption that more nuclear weapons are by definition better, without regard to the strategic functions they are meant to serve.
In recent months, President Obama has repeatedly sought to make it clear that he is adamant in his desire to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. In late April, when asked at a press conference about the growing hunger strike taking place among prisoners there, he said that the prison “needs to be closed” and that he was going to renew the effort to shut it down.
Since then, there has been some momentum toward this end. In his May 23 speech at National Defense University, Obama announced that he would lift the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, thus clearing the way for Yemeni detainees—who make up roughly a third of the Guantánamo population—to have their cases reviewed on a case-by-case basis. He further announced that he would appoint new senior envoys at both the State and Defense Departments “whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries.” The first of these envoys, lawyer Clifford Sloan, was appointed yesterday to the State Department position.
The administration’s plan has long involved freeing some detainees, prosecuting some and transferring some to jails in other countries. But there is still a group of detainees that represents the thorniest problem—those who the administration believes are too dangerous to release yet also cannot be prosecuted due to insufficient or compromised evidence. In his speech, Obama mentioned this problem but essentially waved it off, saying that “once we commit to a process of closing GTMO, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.”
Yesterday, we learned the exact number of detainees that fall in this category. The Miami Herald published a 2010 document that outlined a government task force’s plan for dealing with each of the individual detainees in Guantánamo. It revealed that forty-six of the 166 prisoners fell under the rubric of “indefinite detainees.”
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans remain staunchly opposed to Obama’s efforts to close the prison, with leading members in both chambers denouncing that aspect of his NDU speech. And last week, in its version of the 2014 defense authorization bill, the House of Representatives voted along party lines to adopt an amendment that prohibits the Defense Department from using funds to transfer detainees to Yemen. Like previous authorization bills, the bill also “included restrictions on moving detainees to U.S. soil or to build facilities in the U.S. for detainees.”
So, here we are: four years after Obama’s initial attempt to shutter the facility that Paul Pillar rightly calls America’s “national disgrace,” the political path to closing it remains as unclear as ever. Moreover, even if the administration manages to overcome congressional opposition, the practice of indefinite detention that is Guantánamo’s hallmark will continue. It will simply be for forty-six people instead of over a hundred, to be held at a different facility. In his NDU speech, the president outlined why this issue matters:
Imagine a future—10 years from now or 20 years from now—when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country. . . . Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.
These are noble words. But what they leave out is that under his administration’s own stated plans, we would still be doing almost exactly that—holding people indefinitely without ever charging them with a crime. The only difference would be the location.
Iran watchers have been right to throw some cold water on Friday’s surprising first-round outright victory by Hassan Rowhani. Rowhani has a very long history in the inner circles of the Islamic Republic’s power structure. He’s known Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for more than four decades, and has managed to avoid the post-2009 purges of reformists and moderates. That says something about his standing in Khamenei’s eyes, as does the fact that the Guardian Council approved him as the most prominent moderate in the eight-man field. They knew there was a significant chance he’d be the next president if they did so, and he is not powerful enough that they would have taken such a step out of fear. Khamenei can’t be thrilled by the election, but he can’t be panicked, either.
So Rowhani’s election isn’t the next step in some Iranian march to liberal democracy. But it is still a major moment in Iran’s history. Several of the other candidates were closer ideologically to Khamenei. Khamenei’s alleged favorite among these was his nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, whose platform seemed to center on bowing and scraping before the Leader. Yet Jalili finished a distant third. Khamenei had wanted the election to flip a middle finger to the West; Rowhani’s big result was a bit of a middle finger to Khamenei.
Yet Khamenei is hardly a loser in this election. In fact, it has strengthened the government’s relationship with the people by installing a figure with a popular mandate, a breath of air for a regime struggling with high inflation and high unemployment. It is also a vital realignment of the relationship between the various social classes and the state. For eight years, the government has been in the hands of a man of the masses. Many in the lower classes have appreciated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s money-slinging demagoguery. Yet Ahmadinejad’s tenure was far less friendly to the middle class, who have seen the economy distorted and public wealth routed away from them. Rowhani is likely to push for a more stable, predictable economy, the sort that middle classes around the world love. This should weaken the Ahmadinejad political economy, which is also a positive development for the government. The solidification of the Ahmadinejad social model’s dangerous rifts between the favored and unfavored classes would have eventually forced the regime to become much more openly dictatorial; the classes that would be on the losing end are telegenic and tech-savvy enough that the West would be deeply outraged by their repression. Rowhani’s rise should reduce domestic tensions, especially if a more stable economy can grow in ways that still help the lower classes.
What does all this mean for U.S. policy? Rowhani does not enjoy much power over the areas of Iranian policy that concern Washington the most—he could not stop Iran’s nuclear program, support for terrorists or proxy involvement in Syria if he wanted to. Yet he can set the tone of Iranian foreign policy, and he can moderate Khamenei’s hard-line instincts. He also won’t take the mystical, apocalyptic public tone that made Ahmadinejad such a bête noire in the West. If he becomes popular and successful, the Supreme Leader will have to take greater political risks to resist. As long as Khamenei trusts Rowhani, it is in U.S. interests to strengthen the latter.
The first step toward doing this, one which can be taken on day one of the Rowhani administration, is to establish a relationship. Iran’s next foreign minister, whomever he may be, should find a note from John Kerry on his desk when he walks in to his new office. This note should invite him to a one-on-one meeting with Kerry in a neutral country. Most importantly, there should be no agenda for the meeting and no joint press conference afterward—the focus must entirely be on getting a sense of each other’s concerns and making connections. This step will not go over well at home. But as Paul Pillar has pointed out in these spaces, it is “misguided” to think “that sitting down to talk constitutes some sort of reward for the party on the other side of the table—a reward to be bestowed only in return for good behavior.” At best, not talking increases the risk of miscalculation; at worst, it gives the spurned party incentive to misbehave. With the risk of war with Iran in the next few years very real, and with Iran playing a key role in a Syria conflict in which the United States has begun to dabble, miscalculation and misbehavior are both undesirable. Talking is the least bad option. Hassan Rowhani probably isn’t Iran’s savior, and he won’t restore good relations with Washington. But he’s a much better acquaintance to make than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In the aftermath of last week’s major revelations about the National Security Agency, Hayes Brown has a great piece in which he catalogues the many times in American history when the country has (rightly or wrongly) put national security before individual liberties. In response to the now-famous leaker Edward Snowden’s assertion that “we managed to survive greater threats in our history . . . than a few disorganized terrorist groups and rogue states without resorting to these sorts of programs,” Brown takes us on a comprehensive tour from the 1798 Sedition Act to the fight against Al Qaeda. He notes that “history is replete with instance after instance of the U.S. government suppressing or outright violating the rights of its people in the name of furthering national security.”
This isn't at all to say that the NSA or the Obama administration should get a free pass on allowing these surveillance programs to grow and flourish under their watch. . . . Not nearly enough debate has gone on in the harsh light of day over just what freedoms we are willing to exchange in the name of security. But in conducting that debate, we would do well not to delude ourselves into falsely remembering a time when the United States was innocent of breaking the trust of its people in the name of protecting them. That time never existed.
This takeaway is dead-on. Obviously, the history doesn’t excuse any of the post-9/11 actions of the Bush and Obama administrations, but it does help to put them in perspective, and it effectively dismantles the myth that underpins Snowden’s comment.
Yet there’s at least one way in which what is going on now deserves special attention. Namely, programs such as the NSA surveillance ones are in place in the service of fighting a conflict that is indefinite by design or by nature. In contrast, many of the infringements on liberties that Brown highlights—for example, Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus in the Civil War, as well as postal censorship and the creation of internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II—were linked to traditional wars with fixed beginning and end dates. When the wars ended, so too did those practices. Some of the other abuses—Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s comes to mind—ended when those responsible for them were perceived to have overstepped their bounds. The basic, if unstated, bargain between the public and Washington would appear to be something like this: that in times of war or great national emergency the government might aggrandize its powers and impinge on individual liberties, with the promise that things would return to normal after the crisis ended.
Today, the United States is still engaged in one “hot” war in Afghanistan, but the broader “long war” will endure well past the anticipated Afghan drawdown. Last month, in congressional testimony, Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said that he believed the war against Al Qaeda and its associated forces would go on “for at least 10 to 20 years” from now. There is little conception of how and when this war ends—or if it ever does at all. And even if it does, and Al Qaeda is someday effectively eradicated, there will doubtless be other future threats that some lawmakers will argue make programs like the NSA’s necessary in order to counter them.
So, while the NSA’s collection of telephony metadata and information through major Internet services providers is far from the greatest infringement on Americans’ liberties in our country’s history, it may prove to be one of the most enduring. Barring a concerted effort to roll it back, there’s good reason to think it will not follow the pattern of naturally fading away after a conflict, but rather simply become part of a new status quo that Americans just come to accept and take for granted.
The Washington Post reports today that American intelligence operatives covertly sabotaged prominent Al Qaeda magazine Inspire successfully in the wake of the Boston bombing. By using enhanced cyberhacking techniques to monitor the publication cycle, agents were able to mangle the May 14th edition of the English-language AQAP propaganda publication. When the issue appeared online, the text on page two was compromised and the following twenty pages completely blank. Within a half hour of the flawed issue's publication, it had been taken down in response to the hack.
Apparently this is not the first time the United States has interrupted normal publication of Inspire. While this particular hack affected the entire issue, the Post reports that in the past operatives have made much smaller, more nuanced changes that perhaps might go unnoticed for longer periods of time. One intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive internal debates shared with the Post, “You can make it hard for them to distribute it, or you can mess with the content. And you can mess with the content in a way that is obvious or in ways that are not obvious.” Content changes in the past have included switching up one line in bomb-making directions in order to render a bomb ineffective and similar tweaks to neuter the magazine's step-by-step guides.
While this type of interference in Inspire's publication is certainly not bad, it seems to this author that our energy is being misspent. Inspire is an important magazine for aspiring jihadis, but even if America were to somehow terminate its publication forever, it comes nowhere close to fully encompassing Al Qaeda's propaganda machine. Successfully sabotaging homemade-bomb directions is great, but the internet is literally full of such information. If someone wants to make a bomb, he will make a bomb. People don't become jihadis because they read Inspire; they come to the magazine with an interest in jihad and will find outlets for their crooked aspirations regardless of whether the magazine exists.
Inspire's existence is a symptom of the terrorist problem rather than its root cause. While interrupting it is unobjectionable, what does each of these interruptions truly garner for the United States and at what cost? On May 30, a new issue of the magazine appeared like clockwork and portrayed the Boston bombing as vindication of the message that “a single lone jihad operation can force America to stand on one foot and live in a terrified state, full of fear.” If this were just the mission of a magazine and nothing more, the war on terrorism would have been won and done. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that disrupting this publication does little to eradicate the value system it is predicated on.
In the days after the joint Syrian Army–Lebanese Hezbollah victory over the rebels in the strategic town of Qusayr, the Assad regime has been positively giddy, announcing plans for a major offensive to retake the northern city of Aleppo. Assad’s key backer, Iran, has also been gloating. A victory speech of sorts, reported by hardline outlet Fars News and translated by the American Enterprise Institute’s Iran Tracker, offers a broad insight into how one of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s closest advisers sees the Islamic Republic’s standing in the region, and how the Syrian conflict figures in Iranian strategy. It’s a vision that sharply conflicts with how we’d expect Tehran to see itself—and accordingly, one that should be closely examined as the United States attempts to compel Iran to make concessions on its nuclear program.
The speaker, general Yahya Rahim-Safavi, is Khamenei’s top military aide, a role that he took up after a decade heading the politically powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He’s an influential player—notably, he backed the infamous head of the IRGC’s covert Quds Force, general Qassim Suleimani, whom the New York Times branded “Iran’s Master of Chaos.” And if his position and background didn’t already give it away, Rahim-Safavi is known as a resolute hardliner.
In Rahim-Safavi’s eyes, Iran’s strategic position is strong and getting stronger, and two men are responsible—Ali Khamenei and George W. Bush.
In 2003, the Americans pursued a war in Iraq to bring to power a secular government hostile to Iran. With the alert [Iraqi] clergy, like Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the jihadi Iraqi people, and the Iraqi intellectuals and revolutionaries they were unable to [do this]. [Instead] a good constitution and parliament, and a good, popular, Muslim government was established in Iraq that has good relations with Iran.... By God’s grace now two great enemies of Iran, the Taliban and Saddam, have been removed, and the effects of victory in Syria are apparent.
Of course, this is a tendentious reading of the Iraq conflict. Sistani, for example, has never been a figure of antigovernment or anti-American resistance, and is more a rival to Iranian influence and Iranian ideology than a friend of it. The “jihadi Iraqi people,” meanwhile, were more concerned with thwarting rival sects than with setting Iraq’s foreign policy. Yet the general is spot-on in his assessment that the United States inadvertently knocked down the barricades on Iran’s eastern and western frontiers. Tehran has influence in places it didn’t before, and its neighbors are less of a threat, allowing it to dream bigger.
Syria, for Rahim-Safavi, is the next phase of Iran’s advance. The conflict he sees is layered,
a confrontation between the strategic policies of the world’s great powers and regional powers. For the world powers, the US is on one side and Russia and China are on the other. Iran is a regional power placed against the money and mercenaries of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
He also lumps in Turkey and Israel—pardon, the “Zionist regime”—with the Saudi-Qatari-American side. The goal, he suggests, is to create a “substitute Islamic Awakening in Syria”—in other words, to create a rival model to the Arab Spring, presumably in order to prevent its spread to U.S. allies. In Iranian eyes, the Arab Spring/”Islamic Awakening” represents a popular rejection of secular, nondemocratic, not-virulently-anti-American governments in favor of a model more like the Islamic Republic’s; accordingly, America, Israel, and its allies are determined to resist by any means necessary. In Syria, says Rahim-Safavi, this has even included “40,000 mercenary forces” and “violence by Al Qaeda terrorists.” Yet, he says, such an extraordinary and well-resourced conspiracy hasn’t been able to stand up to Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, and is producing blowback:
America’s and the Zionist regime’s policies and the billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and Qatar have failed in Syria, and now the Turkish government is facing protests in almost all of the country’s provinces. This shows that Turkey's policies toward its neighbor have been a mistake.
Again, a prejudicial reading—Turkey’s protests are only tangentially related to the Syrian conflict, the United States has confined itself to cheering the rebels on from the sidelines, and Israel isn’t even sure who it wants to win. But Syria is most definitely a proxy war over Iran’s role in the region, and Rahim-Safavi smells victory in the pyres of Qusayr.
The general is clear on who he thinks can claim credit:
The Supreme Leader’s strategic policies related to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are the reason that Iran has become a regional power in Western Asia.
And he takes the geopolitical rhetoric one alarming step further:
Heretofore Iran has pursued power and influence out to the Mediterranean three times; one time during the era of Cyrus along with the liberation of Jerusalem, another time was during the era of Xerxes and the crossing of the Bosporus Strait and the Greek campaign. The third time is in the present period, during which the power of Lebanese Hezbollah, the long arm of Iranian defensive power, is placed at the head of the Zionist regime and has been formed as the strategic defensive power of Iran.
Rahim-Safavi thus puts ersatz ayatollah Ali Khamenei among the greatest conquerors in five millennia of Persian civilization. It’s a shocking claim, one that demands balancing. Under Khamenei, Iran has been utterly alienated from the major powers of the West and kept at arms length, at their behest, by the major powers of the East. It is loathed by many of its neighbors and gains influence only when they are weakened. Its allies are odious—Bashar al-Assad may even be using the chemical weapons Iran purports to detest. Its economy has been seriously damaged, and a regime founded on claims of revolutionary justice and fairness has fallen into the hands of smugglers and back-room power brokers.
Yet Rahim-Safavi’s narrative still has power. For all its failings, Iran has made itself a regional force, and has done so against heavy resistance. Its proxies in Lebanon and Syria mean that no major shifts can occur in either without Khamenei’s acquiescence. It can play spoiler in Palestine and Iraq, and maybe Bahrain, too. Its nuclear advances eventually could render it much less vulnerable to external regime-change efforts. The world has tried to ignore Iran. Iran is trying to force the world to pay attention.