Stop Leaking and Start Nominating

The Buzz

In the aftermath of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, then defense secretary Robert Gates was agitated about the number of leaks that emerged from the White House about the details of the operation. As David Sanger relates in Confront and Conceal, the leaks were problematic because “the reaction in Pakistan grew uglier and uglier with every revelation of how long the operation had been planned and how the country’s leadership was deliberately left in the dark.” So Gates approached White House national-security adviser Tom Donilon and told him, “I have a new strategic communications approach to recommend.” Donilon asked what it was. Gates then memorably replied, “Shut the f*ck up.”

As the ongoing saga over who President Obama will nominate to serve as his next secretary of defense continues, Gates’s advice is particularly relevant. Last week, Bloomberg reported that former senator Chuck Hagel had emerged as the “leading candidate” for the position, according to “two people familiar with the matter.” This set off a furious campaign against Hagel led by neoconservatives and the “pro-Israel” Right. He was called an “anti-Semite,” accused of being “out on the fringes,” described as an “isolationist” and much more.

Others have convincingly countered the substance of these baseless attacks. See, in particular, Robert Merry here at TNI and Robert Wright at the Atlantic, who also has a useful roundup of Hagel’s other defenders. But it’s also worth noting that this leaking practice has created a number of significant problems for the White House. As with Susan Rice a month ago, Obama has given the impression that Hagel is clearly his preferred pick for the position. Now, if he backs down, he will once again be seen as having abandoned a potential nominee under political pressure. It doesn’t matter that there are perfectly good reasons to prefer other candidates—for example, John Hamre or Michele Flournoy. As Peter Beinart writes at the Daily Beast, “Throw one high-profile foreign policy nominee to the wolves and you look ruthlessly pragmatic. Throw two in the space of a few weeks and you look like an administration that can be rolled.”

More importantly, floating Hagel’s name and then backing down on it will only serve to further circumscribe the range of “acceptable” dialogue in Washington on a number of critical foreign-policy issues. The best case for Hagel’s nomination is precisely that he holds some of the opinions that he is being assailed for by people like William Kristol. Namely, he questions the utility of a military strike on Iran. He doesn’t believe that “supporting” Israel requires following every position of the current Israeli government, even when they conflict with America’s own national interests. And he thinks the defense budget can be reduced responsibly. Americans should welcome the idea of these views being represented by their secretary of defense. But if Hagel is not nominated now, it will create the perception and the precedent that these views are unacceptable for any future cabinet-level position relating to national security.

Once again, Beinart sums it up well:

By leaking Hagel’s name but not defending him, the White House has, in other words, encouraged major “pro-Israel” groups to pick a fight they might otherwise have ducked. And if Obama backs down, it will leave the perception that those groups have more power over top foreign policy appointments than they actually do. That perception will create a new reality since any future administration considering a high-level foreign policy appointee who strays from the AIPAC line will remember the Hagel fiasco. And even more importantly, anyone who fancies themselves a future high-level foreign policy appointee will take even greater care to avoid independent thinking about the Middle East.

In short, if Obama does not intend to nominate Hagel, these leaks will have done some level of serious harm. Conversely, if he does intend to nominate Hagel, he should do it now so that the former senator can begin to defend himself and the administration can begin to make the case for him. In either case, the leaks have not served him well.

TopicsBureaucracyDomestic PoliticsThe PresidencyPolitics RegionsUnited States

Friedman, Chekhov and Other Illusions

The Buzz

The pullquote for Tom Friedman’s column yesterday perhaps said it best, “Returning to the same-old, same-old.”

Friedman’s repetitive writing has hit an a new low with his column “Pussy Riot, Tupac and Putin.” What does the piece have to do with any of these three figures? Very little, it turns out. In fact, the column’s intent is difficult to glean.

With the organization of a seventh grade essay whose author is chatting online and popping Red Bull, the column spends the lede recounting an obscure Chekhov play titled Three Sisters. This is significant because apparently Putin brings out the “Three Sisters in [Friedman].” No word on what that might mean. Being deeply interested in Friedman’s inner workings though, we are intrigued. He continues, “Every time I come [to Moscow], I expect to find that, this time, Russia is really pivoting from being a petro-state, with a heavy authoritarian gloss…to a country that has decided to invest in education, innovation and its human capital.” I can definitively say this figures nowhere into the desires or dreams of anyone in Three Sisters. This author would recount Freidman’s whole sentence for effect, but it’s nearly seventy words long.

With this bungled comparison in mind, Friedman then decides it’s time to talk about why NATO expansion was a mistake. No contest, but this has what to do with Chekhov and Tupac Shakur? We’re halfway through the column now, and these threads show no sign of intertwining. An odd paragraph that feels like Friedman wants to sit down with everyone who cares about Russia and stage an intervention ensues: “Russia would be so much more influential as America’s partner than it would be as Iran or Syria’s patron,” he pleads. After all, Russia couldn’t possibly view this situation differently than we do.

Teleport to Vladislav Y. Surkov’s office. Are we in Three Sisters? Crime and Punishment? Unclear. It emerges that Surkov is Russia’s deputy prime minister for modernization. He has pictures of Google co-founder Sergery Brin, TV pioneer Vladimir Zworykin, and Tupac Shakur up on his wall. You can almost hear the music now: One of these things is not like the others… Friedman presses Surkov on the similarities between Tupac and Pussy Riot to which, Surkov, the only sane person in this column says, “Pussy Riot is no Tupac Shakur.”

Indeed, sir. Indeed. But Friedman can’t leave it alone, “Pussy Riot is probably no Tupac.” (Did Friedman listen to either before writing this column in his sleep at 3 a.m.? Even he is unsure.) “But the band members were iconoclasts who broke the mold, albeit in an offensive and obnoxious manner. Isn’t that what critics said about Steve Jobs?”

End Scene.

I’m imagining that NYT editors have taken a “let Friedman be Friedman” approach to these situations. I’ll have to add my befuddlement with this column to the list of questions other women have for Tom. After all, I’m sure he can tell me what I should think about it.

TopicsHistorySociety RegionsRussiaUnited States

Stand Up to the Intimidators

Paul Pillar

The effort to slander Chuck Hagel and to torpedo his potential nomination to be secretary of defense has reached such intensity that there is now much more at stake in this nomination than just who will be running the Pentagon over the next four years. Robert Merry in these spaces has portrayed well the sordidness of the calumny-flingers who make little effort to hide their main reason for going after Hagel, which is that he does not believe in subordinating U.S. interests to the wishes of the right-wing Israeli government and its American backers. Those in the anti-Hagel campaign who try to make it look as if there are non-Israeli reasons to shoot him down make arguments that move from the sordid to the ridiculous. The Washington Post's editorial on the subject is a good example. It tries to portray the former Republican senator from Nebraska as some kind of leftist peacenik, because he suggests there is some trimming that could usefully be done to U.S. defense spending (which is greater than the next 14 biggest military spenders—friends and foes—put together, and is the highest in inflation-adjusted dollars that it has been since World War II) and expresses skepticism about going to war against Iran (which the Post's editorialists acknowledge they have also expressed skepticism about, but that doesn't stop them from portraying the skepticism as somehow a point against Hagel). For a more thorough dismantling of this absurd editorial, see Andrew Sullivan's exegesis of it.

To the extent the placing of Hagel's name in the kind of unofficial nomination it is in right now was the result of deliberate balloon-floating by the White House, it is hard to see exactly what the White House thought it was doing. Making the nomination official and letting Hagel speak for himself would do a lot to puncture the falsehoods and smears about him. Maybe letting his name get out as the leading potential nominee was less a calculated act than plain old sloppy leaking. If one wants to give the White House more credit than that, one might postulate that it floated the name so the opponents would have a chance to discredit themselves so much through the sheer outrageousness of their arguments that they would not only lose this political battle but also be weaker in later ones. That way the president might get not only the secretary of defense he wants but also some more running room on issues such as the Iranian nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There is some valid logic to that. But such bold political jiu-jitsu does not seem to be this president's usual style. He is more likely to be thinking in the customary way, as discussed by Peter Baker in the New York Times, about conserving political capital, picking one's fights carefully, and keeping in mind all the other issues he may have to fight about (and he just got another one: gun control).

If the president applies to the nomination of a defense secretary a cautious approach grounded in such thinking, he would be making a mistake. He would be acting without sufficient appreciation for how intimidation works. Intimidation feeds on itself, with successful intimidation encouraging more of the same and failures discouraging further attempts. Neither Chuck Hagel nor anyone else has a right to any cabinet post, but given how this matter has already evolved, if the president now does not nominate him for the defense job it will be universally seen as a caving in to the neocons and Netanyahuites. Mr. Obama will be politically weaker as a result. He will have lost political capital rather than having conserved it. And he will have encouraged more such intimidation in the future.

Conversely, standing up to the intimidators and pushing a Hagel nomination through to confirmation would improve his ability to battle against the same forces on other issues. Even if the White House did not plan it that way, it would be a political plus for the president. More importantly, it would be a blow for decency and reason and a setback for one of the more damaging and tawdry features of American politics.

It is hard to imagine any future issues offering a conspicuously better place to draw a line in the sand and to start pushing back than this one. Based on what has already been said, there is reason to hope that the tawdriness—as James Fallows puts it in an insightful piece on this subject—“has finally gone so far that it will impeach itself.” It impeaches itself with arguments such as that a United States senator or cabinet member putting U.S. interests ahead of the interests of a foreign country or the wishes of a foreign government is somehow a bad thing.

Image: Flickr/State Farm.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsDefenseIdeologyThe Presidency RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

A Neocon Looks Back

The Buzz

In this month’s issue of Commentary, John Agresto, a self-described neoconservative who served as an adviser to the Iraqi government just after the 2003 invasion, thoughtfully questions the idea that the United States should actively and forcefully spread democracy. He identifies the assumptions that lie beneath the idea:

We seemed convinced of two things: First, that democracy is the form of government under which all men are meant to live, and that democracy, unlike autocracy of any kind, is just in itself. Being just, it includes the very essence of ideas of freedom, equality, protection of rights, and toleration. Democracy is natural, democracy is how men achieve just political life and, most surely, democracy means freedom. Second, we constantly gave the impression that democratic government, being natural, is easy. Throw off the tyrant, overturn the ruling class, write a constitution, hold elections, and voila—Democracy.

Phrased this way, the tension at the heart of the word “neoconservative” is quite clear—neoconservative foreign policy is rooted in radical, not conservative, conceptions of social order, social change and human nature. Institutions emerge ex nihilo. Old traditions and old elites are destroyed without consequences. Societies achieve stability without much effort. These are the thoughts of a Robespierre or a Marx, not of a Burke. Agresto seems to realize this, charging that he and his comrades

betrayed an understanding that was alien to our own country’s democratic beginnings as well as removed from any reading of history, ancient or modern. To be seduced by the rising tide of democracy worldwide, one had to block from view the democratic election in Gaza, where a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of its sovereign neighbor won the day. . . . One might want to look at the democratic mobs in Libya executing all the blacks they capture, both men and women; or the mobs in Egypt burning Coptic churches.

The real question for democratization, says Agresto, is not “Don’t all men want to be free?” After all, “some people, perhaps most people, prefer other goods” over freedom, like order, safety or religious purity. “The right question,” he states, is “Do you want your neighbors to be free?” When the citizens cannot answer this with something close to “yes,” democracy cannot flourish.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety—it also includes a thoughtful discussion of the influence of culture and religion on democratic values. Abe Greenwald’s response to all this merits examination on its own. Greenwald takes Agresto to task for an inadequate examination of the possibility of cultural changes that can foster democracy—as he points out,

If you had asked 18th-century Americans . . . "Do you want your neighbors to be free?"—most would certainly have failed to produce the right answer, at least as regarded their black, Indian, and female neighbors. . . . To have been true to liberal values upon the Founding would have been to preside over its dissolution.

This is certainly accurate, but it also presentist—it uses modern attitudes to judge the past. It is right to condemn the gross illiberalism of a society that denied the vote to women and freedom to slaves. But we cannot fully understand the past unless we examine it by its own values. That lets us see the tension in a state that declared its independence with a claim that all men are created equal, yet which treated some men unequally. This tension was immediately seized upon by various critics, and they would eventually widen our definition of "neighbors" to include many more Americans. The Nineteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act didn't create freedom in America—they expanded it. 

Greenwald attributes the failure of the democracy drive in places like Iraq—whose elections “can only be interpreted as evidence of at least a capacity for liberalism”—to American irresolution, arguing that “where the United States keeps its commitments to liberalism, transformative miracles occur.” This language of the supernatural is appropriate for discussing Iraqi democratization, for only a true believer could look at such a deeply divided society and expect democracy to emerge. The 2010 election Greenwald trumpets came after years of sectarian bloodletting and the departure of fully half of Iraq’s Christians and four in five Mandaeans; many experts see an Iraq primed for another round of violence. Could ancient animosities and prejudices really have been buried by American commitment? If so, Israel and the Arab states should be at peace, for our government has been against their conflict long before it was against a divided Iraq.

Agresto is quite right. America can help countries become democracies, but only when the social, economic and ideological forces driving democratization are strong and internal. Our might can break militaries and hang dictators; it cannot create toleration or forge common bonds.

TopicsDemocracySociety RegionsIraq

Opposing Apartheid, Then and Now

Paul Pillar

Several factors contributed to the demise of apartheid in the land where that term originated, South Africa. Inspired and timely leadership within South Africa was an important ingredient. But international agitation and pressure, based on a widespread sense of moral outrage, undoubtedly were also critical. The international response included unofficial boycotts and official sanctions, with great and lesser powers alike contributing.

International opposition to the most conspicuous current example of apartheid—Israeli subjugation of Palestinian Arabs—is not nearly as ubiquitous as opposition to the South African variety had become near its end in the early 1990s. But there are signs that it is growing. Organized efforts are aimed at boycotting products from settlements Israel has built in occupied territory in the West Bank. A recent noteworthy departure in the policy of a major power was Germany's refusal to toe the Israeli line in a vote in the United Nations General Assembly.

To the extent that international opposition to Israel's conduct toward the Palestinians may indeed be growing, there are good reasons. One is a realization that the Israeli version of apartheid is very similar in important respects to the South African version, and that moral equivalence ought to follow from empirical equivalence. Both versions have included grand apartheid, meaning the denial of basic political rights, and petty apartheid, which is the maintaining of separate and very unequal facilities and opportunities in countless aspects of daily life. Some respects in which Israelis may contend their situation is different, such as facing a terrorist threat, do not really involve a difference. The African National Congress, which has been the ruling party in South Africa since the end of apartheid there, had significant involvement in terrorism when it was confronting the white National Party government. That government also saw the ANC as posing a communist threat.

A fitting accompaniment to the similarities between the two apartheid systems is the historical fact that when the South African system still existed, Israel was one of South Africa's very few international friends or partners. Israel was the only state besides South Africa itself that ever dealt with the South African bantustans as accepted entities. Israel cooperated with South Africa on military matters, possibly even to the extent of jointly conducting a secret test of a nuclear weapon in a remote part of the Indian Ocean in 1979.

The sheer passage of time probably has reduced the reluctance of some to confront Israel about its system of apartheid. As each year goes by, it seems less justifiable for horrors that were inflicted on the Jewish people in the past to be a reason to give a pass to whatever are the policies of the present day's Jewish state no matter how oppressive those policies may be to another people. Less than five years from now will be the 50th anniversary of the war that Israel launched and used to seize the West Bank and other Arab territory; maybe the half-century mark will be an occasion for even more people to observe that what exists in the occupied territories is a well-entrenched system of subjugation. Meanwhile, the lock that Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition have on Israeli politics provides frequent opportunities to see through obfuscatory rhetoric and perceive the intention to make that subjugation permanent.

Nonetheless, other factors will make it difficult to mobilize against Israeli apartheid anything like the international consensus that arose to confront the South African version. The European history linked with Zionism and the establishment of Israel still weighs heavily on this issue. Since the Balfour Declaration the concept of an exclusive national home for the Jewish people has been widely accepted, quite unlike anything ever bestowed on the Afrikaaners or white South Africans generally. Related to that is the charge of anti-Semitism that is quickly injected into any significant discussion that questions Israeli policies. And related to that is the very large role that toeing the Israeli government line plays as political orthodoxy in the most important global power, the United States. Some observers hopefully see signs that this orthodoxy may be weakening, pointing to indications such as resistance at the Democratic convention this summer to a resolution about Jerusalem. Perhaps if President Obama appoints—and gets confirmed—Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense in the face of the opposition that the Israel lobby is already cranking up, that will become another data point suggesting the harmful political orthodoxy may be weakening.

Another impediment to mobilizing against Israeli apartheid concerns the desired end-state of the Palestinian situation. Officially, even according to the Israelis, that goal is the two-state solution: separate states for Jews and Arabs. This makes the situation different from South Africa, in which the objective in dismantling apartheid there was always going to involve a one-state solution. Israeli governments such as Netanyahu's thus can continue to pretend to seek a two-state solution, treating the situation in the West Bank not as one of permanent subjugation but as only a temporary problem involving “disputed territory.” And if the ostensible goal is a Palestinian state, this inevitably muddies the issue of Palestinian rights and Palestinian life under Israeli rule. Why get agitated about the details of the Palestinians' lives today, the Israelis can say, when if the Palestinians just stop terrorizing and start negotiating they can have a state of their own? Indefinitely maintaining the illusion of wanting a two-state solution is a reason Netanyahu—despite the willingness of some in his party and coalition to let the cat out of the bag regarding their true intentions—has stopped short of steps that would clearly kill off the two-state solution. That is why his recent “punishment” of the Palestinians involving expansion of settlements into the critical E1 zone involved the initiation of planning and zoning but may never lead to actual building.

Meanwhile, Israelis can keep muddling through, relying on their armed might and believing genuinely that they can maintain their superior position indefinitely. By cordoning off—and periodically clobbering—the patch of blockaded misery known as the Gaza Strip, Jewish Israelis can remain a majority in the rest of the land they control. That is not something that white South Africans could ever hope for.

The overall conclusion of this comparison between the two versions of apartheid is disconcerting. In any meaningful moral (or legal) sense, the Israeli system of apartheid warrants just as much active international opposition as the South African system did. But for a combination of historical and political reasons, it is substantially more difficult to mount such opposition.

There is also the problem of leadership. The current leadership situation on the Israeli side gives little reason for hope for responsiveness even if substantially greater international opposition could be mobilized. But then again, it would have been hard to predict that F. W. de Klerk would have taken the historic steps he did. A Nelson Mandela on the other side would help, too. It's hard to see one, but maybe Marwan Barghouti could play that role if the Israelis would let him.

Image: Flickr/Peter Mulligan.

TopicsHuman RightsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelPalestinian territoriesSouth Africa