Kerry Can't Make Peace Alone

The Buzz

As he settles into his new office at the State Department, John Kerry has already begun to move on what he has said will be an early priority: reinvigorating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Reuters reports that Obama is not underwriting a strong push, that he will “proceed cautiously and let Kerry . . . take soundings for any fresh effort. That could allow Obama to avoid investing too much personal capital in a fresh effort until there was a prospect of real progress.”

This soft approach will not succeed. It might not even get far enough to be a failure. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are in a position to seek peace. The critics of Netanyahu’s 2009 speech offering a two-state solution are in the ascendancy in Israel, and the ongoing instability in the neighborhood gives few a desire to allow the Palestinian Authority more sovereignty. Meanwhile, Palestine continues live under two governments, leaving nobody with the authority and deep legitimacy needed to make, on behalf of the Palestinian people, the wrenching concessions on issues like the right of return that will be a component of any major deal. The Israelis don’t want to talk; the Palestinians can’t talk.

Any peace bid in this context would be troubled. The United States is an outside power in the Levant; it is easy for us to want peace when we aren’t accruing most of the costs of a deal. It is a bit naive to believe that such a state, however strong, could settle a foreign conflict rooted in incompatible interests on its own. Still, Washington has the ability to shape the discussion and cajole the two sides back to the table, provided both know that they will face the wrath of the president if they impede talks. Obama is not making such a threat, and Kerry, for all his gravitas, lacks the power to do so. Worse still, progress in the peace process would create new domestic pressures which Kerry would struggle to manage without his boss’s support. There is a danger that Kerry’s first big initiative will thus fail, weakening him and diluting America’s diplomatic power. A few bridges with Israel might burn, which could have knock-on effects on the dispute with Iran; a failed negotiation could spark an intifada.

We can only hope, then, that this is merely a pro forma peace push, and that Kerry has the judgment to discreetly fold a bad hand rather than betting big on a bluff. The secretary of state is one of America’s most powerful officials, and accordingly can resolve many matters without involving the president. The peace process, however, is not such a matter. The president must take leadership, indicating that he considers it a central priority and empowering his lieutenants to act boldly on his behalf. Otherwise peace will remain stuck in neutral.

TopicsSecurity RegionsLevantIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesMiddle East

Suez and the Lessons of History

Paul Pillar

Any suggestion that the United States should exercise tough love with Israel (as distinct from the soft, unconditional, even if unrequited, variety of love that instead prevails in American politics and policy) is bound to elicit immediate and vigorous responses. It is thus no surprise that such responses were triggered by a recent column by David Ignatius that discussed how secretary of defense-designate Chuck Hagel admires Dwight Eisenhower and especially Eisenhower's firm response (as described in a well-received book by historian David Nichols) to the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 that we know as the Suez crisis. Ignatius writes:

It’s impossible to read Nichols’s book without thinking of recent tensions between the United States and Israel over the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. . . . What’s interesting about Eisenhower is that, while sympathetic to Israel’s defense needs, he was also determined to maintain an independent U.S. policy and avoid a war that might involve the Soviet Union.

Given the well-deserved respect and admiration for Eisenhower, the suggestion that his strong rejection of the tripartite invasion at Suez 57 years ago holds policy lessons for today is dangerous stuff in the eyes of those who favor the unconditional, obeisant type of love. Alexander Joffe and Michael Doran are two of those quick to respond by telling us: no, no—Nichols, Ignatius, Hagel and the rest of us are drawing the wrong lesson from the Suez crisis. Actually, Joffe's and Doran's responses demonstrate some other lessons about the uses, and misuses, of history.

A rather fundamental lesson concerns the importance of getting not only the facts but the sequence of facts right. I have commented before on how failure to do so is an all-too-common characteristic of policy discourse. Joffe fails to do so when he makes a statement such as: “Egypt’s economic warfare against Israel, including closure of the Suez Canal and Straits of Tiran, went unchallenged by the United States, which was courting Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.” There certainly was U.S. courting of Nasser in the years and months preceding the summer of 1956. The biggest part of the courtship was an offer to finance the Aswan high dam. But the courtship was essentially over before Nasser's actions that triggered the Suez crisis. The United States withdrew its offer of financing the dam one week before Nasser made the speech in which he spoke the codeword that was the signal to the Egyptian military to seize the canal. It was on the day of that speech—not before—that Nasser also closed the Straits of Tiran.

A misuse of history that both Joffe and Doran exhibit is to treat large swaths of policy as an undifferentiated lump and to evaluate the entire lump as either good or—as they both treat Eisenhower's policy in the Middle East—bad. Joffe generally dumps on that policy, and Doran's main point in his piece is that Eisenhower “came to regret those policies.” Certainly there is plenty to criticize in the U.S. handling of Middle Eastern matters during that period and in the early Cold War thinking that underlay the policy. But neither Joffe or Doran zero in on Eisenhower's stern rejection of the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion or why there was a problem with that particular aspect of U.S. policies in the region.

Much of what is regrettable, and has been regretted, from that swath of U.S. policy has to do with things other than Israel and Arab politics. The state of relations with the British and French were probably a more significant problem for the United States back then than relations with Israel. Relations with the Europeans were already dicey. It was just two years earlier that John Foster Dulles had spoken of an “agonizing reappraisal” of U.S. policy toward the European powers after the plan for a European Defense Community fell apart—after a French rejection, which in turn had been heavily influenced by a British decision to stay out of the proposed community.

Other motivations and miscalculations of Dulles and Eisenhower had to do with matters other than the inter-Arab dynamics that Doran in particular emphasizes. The immediate peeve with Nasser that led to withdrawing the offer about the Aswan dam was not about Arab politics or the canal but instead about Egypt's recognition of the People's Republic of China. And the main U.S. miscalculation regarding the dam project was the mistaken belief that without U.S. sponsorship the project was too big for Egypt to pull off even with Soviet aid.

Both Joffe and Doran exhibit the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy by implying that what they describe as the failed state of U.S. policy in the Middle East by the end of the 1950s, with expanded Soviet influence and the 1958 coup in Iraq, somehow flowed from Eisenhower's firm line on Suez. That is not credible. It is hard to believe that a leader of Nasser's charisma and rabble-rousing skill would have been any less able to stoke anti-Western Arab nationalism if the tripartite invasion had been allowed to stand. More likely, letting it stand would have made it even easier for him to do the stoking by providing an additional emotional cause about Western imperialism and subjugation of Arabs.

If there is any suggestion that smacking down Nasser during the Suez crisis would have nipped his nationalist cause in the bud, consider what happened eleven years later when he suffered a defeat that was even more humiliating, because it happened at the hand of Israelis unaided by any Europeans. When Nasser offered his resignation after the 1967 war, the popular response was tens of thousands of Egyptians swarming in the streets, expressing their love for Gamal and beseeching him (successfully) to remain in power.

As for the canal, does anyone think that if London and Paris had gotten their way in 1956 then ownership and control would have ceased to be a prominent issue (one readily exploitable by rabid Arab nationalists)? By way of comparison, the United States agreed in the 1970s to transfer ownership of the U.S.-built Panama Canal, a transfer completed in 1999.

Joffe and Doran both evidently view history through a lens in which rosters of friends and enemies are predetermined and fixed, without regard to how interests and behavior evolve over time or to how one's own interests are affected by specific actions of the predetermined friends and enemies. When Joffe writes that a historical lesson one might draw is “how incommensurable promises to unreliable partners interested solely in extracting money and weapons from superpowers inevitably end in failure” I first thought he could be talking about Israel—but then, realizing that what Israel extracts from the United States is much more than money and weapons, he was probably talking about Egypt.

Doran writes that after the Suez crisis the United States “was paying a heavy price for having broken the only immutable rule of a realist foreign policy: Support your friends and punish your enemies.” I know no self-respecting realist thinkers who would phrase their outlook in terms anything like that. They would instead echo the words of one of Britain's most astute—and realist—statesmen, Lord Palmerston, when he spoke of having no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

Doran states that part of that “heavy price” was that “when the United States became mired in Vietnam, Britain and France refused to help.” It is strange to hear the Vietnam War invoked in what purports to be a defense of realism. The most prominent academic realist of the day, Hans Morgenthau, was also one of the most prominent opponents of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam—and was well before the United States got “mired” there. It also is strange to hear talk about getting help from France—which not many years before had finally extracted itself from a long, losing expedition in Indochina and was entitled to say “been there, done that”—and Britain, which in the late 1960s was trying to shed defense and military obligations “east of Suez” rather than taking new ones on.

Both Joffe and Doran fail to observe an important principle in applying lessons from history, which is to take account of things that have since changed as well as things that remain the same. In 1956 both the State of Israel (established in 1948) and Nasser's regime (begun with a military coup in 1952) were young. Most of the problems that each would cause for the United States were still in the future. Neither Joffe nor Doran makes any mention of the biggest change that would shape that future in the Middle East, which was the war in 1967 that led to Israeli occupations that continue to this day, with all of the highly charged issues about Israeli colonization and lack of a Palestinian state flowing from them. Doran dwells in a long-gone past when he talks about a Middle East in which amid a conflict between “status-quo Arab powers” and “revisionists” Israel was “more an asset than a liability.” Perhaps in some alternate history—in which the 1967 war and the later occupation and everything associated with it never happened—that might be a sensible way to look at the Middle East. But in the real Middle East of today it is a fantasy. It is a fantasy in, for example, the current struggle between revisionists and a status-quo power in Syria, where, in words I quoted the other day from the Lebanese Daily Star, the Syrian people “are decidedly unenthusiastic about seeing Israel enter into the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad in any way, shape or form.”

The Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 was a foolish scheme, based on deceit and rooted partly in pique and archaic colonial thinking in London and Paris. President Eisenhower was entirely correct in firmly opposing it. And yes, as long as we heed lessons about the proper way to apply the lessons of history, that episode in the history of U.S. foreign policy does provide a useful input to thinking about how to handle some current Middle Eastern problems, especially ones that involve Israel.

TopicsDefenseHistoryGreat Powers RegionsIsraelEgyptIranFranceUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesUnited Kingdom

Budgetary Misnomers and the Cost of Defense

Paul Pillar

As budgetary battles proceed with competing rhetorical salvos about what parts of government spending are unreasonably large, or are most out of control, or are the “real” reason for burgeoning deficits (actually, every part of the budgetary equation, on both the expenditure and the revenue sides, is just as real as every other part), one welcomes the occasional breath of fresh semantic air on the subject. Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, using data compiled by Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight, observes that the figures usually adduced to present spending on “defense” or “national security” understate by a long shot actual federal spending that is appropriately put under such labels. The figure most often cited is the “base” budget of the Department of Defense, which was $535 billion for FY2012. But military and defense expenditures go well beyond that, including such things as the development of nuclear weapons, which is done in the Department of Energy, or training of foreign military forces, which come under the international affairs section of the federal budget. Add in all those other things and the total is more like $930 billion rather than $535 billion. And that's just current expenditures, not taking into account follow-on effects such as additional interest to be paid on the national debt.

Probably the most egregious bit of military-related budgetary legerdemain has been the practice of keeping the operational costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan separate from the main Pentagon budget, as if those costs should not count as much because they are, well, sort of temporary. And so the base budget figure continues to get cited as “defense spending” even though it excludes the main, and costliest, activities in recent years of the U.S. military. This practice makes as much sense as if I were to calculate my health care costs and to exclude stays in the hospital, instead only including recurring expenditures such as dental check-ups.

There is, admittedly, a sense in which the Iraq War should not be counted as “defense” spending. The war was not an act of defense; it was offense. But that, of course, is not the reason for the practice (begun by the administration that launched the Iraq War) of separating costs of the war from the main defense budget. The reason had much more to do with wanting to understate the actual amount the United States spends on its military.

Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have shown how the true total cost of an endeavor such as the Iraq War goes far beyond what shows up in the federal budget and includes various secondary economic effects. Even just sticking to the federal budget, there are very large costs that do not show up in any one year's current budget. A big part of the follow-on cost of recent wars is the long-term care of military veterans, especially grievously wounded ones. Such costs are proportionately greater than for previous wars. Thanks to body armor and a splendid military medical system, many who would have died in earlier conflicts instead survive—but they are still maimed.

Misleading budgetary labeling is by no means confined to military spending. Grouping some government programs under the label “entitlements”—which are programs or obligations where expenditures do not reflect specific Congressional appropriations but instead are determined automatically by such things as how many people happen to qualify for a statutorily defined benefit—can be justly criticized on several grounds. One is that there is wide variation among such obligations or programs, and no reason that a single standard with a single label should apply to all of them. Another is that “entitlement” is a loaded term that implies an agreed moral obligation even when there might not be one. The term also implies—especially when contrasted with other parts of federal spending, which bear the label “discretionary”—that Congress's hands are tied in changing this even if they really aren't. George Will has said that all federal spending is discretionary other than interest on the national debt. In one legalistic sense he may be right, although if one accepts that position then the extortion-facilitating device known as the debt ceiling—which treats as an option non-payment of interest on debt already incurred—looks all the more foolish and unwarranted.

Applying a common moral sense of “entitlement” to federal expenditures does not produce a classification that corresponds to the budgetary categories of entitlements and discretionary spending. Wouldn't we all agree, for example, that wounded veterans are entitled to government-paid long-term care? And yet medical programs of the Veterans Administration come under the “discretionary” label. (And that care constitutes a big chunk of the military-related expenditure that usually does not get included as “defense spending.”)

There also is wide variation in the amount of discretion entailed in different government activities that are on the “discretionary” side of the ledger, even without getting into the questions of political feasibility that inhibit changes to many of the “entitlement” programs. Much that is labeled “discretionary” is necessary for what has come to be widely expected as a function of government. Elimination of some of these activities would immediately be seen as a crisis—e.g., the air traffic control system operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (which gets much of its funding from a trust fund based on taxing tickets for air travel but also draws money from the general treasury). And turning back to military matters, some of these civilian activities are far less discretionary than was that very expensive war of choice in Iraq.

Also back on military matters, we should note that “entitlement” is not the only loaded term when discussing budgetary categories. “Defense” and “national security” are loaded as well. They are labels that presume a priority and importance that things not bearing those labels are presumed not to have. But the labels are affixed to some activities, including some very expensive activities, that are more offensive than defensive and whose contribution to the security of the nation is at best a matter of conjecture or debate.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsDefensePolitical Economy RegionsIraqUnited States

Adding Flame to the Syrian Fire

Paul Pillar

Israeli warplanes inflicted some kind of damage on the outskirts of Damascus on Wednesday, but there were different versions as to exactly what. The Syrian government says it was a scientific research facility that was attacked. American sources say the target was a convoy carrying antiaircraft weapons into Lebanon for use by the militia of Hezbollah. Israel isn't saying anything.

Speculation about the actual target and about Israeli purposes doesn't have to end there. This is the Middle East, after all, where no analysis about someone's motives is complete without going further than this in the way of conspiratorial and convoluted explanations. As an editorial in Lebanon's Daily Star points out, shipments of something like the antiaircraft weapons into Lebanon are hardly new. Thus the “immediate question” is, “Why now?”

Surely, one might think, the Israelis must have considered the effects their strike would have on the course of the current civil war in Syria. By moving closer to realizing the oft-expressed fears about this war spreading across international borders, maybe Israel was hoping to spur Western governments into a more active intervention in Syria on behalf of the rebels. Or perhaps the motive was the opposite; Israel may have more to fear from a new Syrian regime dominated by some of those same rebel elements than it does from the devil-they-know Bashar Assad. An Israeli airstrike in Syrian territory may have been just the sort of thing to give at least a temporary boost to Assad—as suggested by how the Syrian regime played up the attack, whether or not its version of the target was accurate.

The less convoluted explanations are more plausible. The strike is part of a well-established pattern of Israel using its military might to beat down anything and anybody that could possibly challenge it, and of paying little regard in the process to larger consequences—to its neighbors, its friends, and even its own long-term interests. It is part of the pattern of seeking absolute security for Israel even if it means absolute insecurity for others. Beating down others in ways that facilitate more Israeli beating down in the future is part of the pattern. That lends credibility to the version of this week's airstrike that has as the target advanced antiaircraft weapons bound for Lebanon. The more such weapons are kept out of Lebanon, the more easily Israel can continue to violate Lebanese airspace with impunity.

Even though Israelis may not consider larger consequences, such consequences nonetheless happen. The Daily Star points to a couple of them:

One of these losers is the Syrian people, who are decidedly unenthusiastic about seeing Israel enter into the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad in any way, shape or form. The other losers would be neighboring states such as Lebanon, if it is swept up into the violence because of the possible—and not yet proven—role of Hezbollah in the affair.

And for the United States, there also is the consequence—given the nature of the U.S.-Israeli relationship—it incurs from any Israeli action, of being closely associated with that action. Or as the Lebanese editorialists ask, “If the Israelis are actually responsible for Wednesday’s incident, is it likely that they took the step with the knowledge of their chief ally, the United States?”

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Alexey Goral. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsMilitary Strategy RegionsIsraelLebanonSyria

The Dumbest Argument against Hagel

The Buzz

Over at National Review, Michael Walsh makes a very weird argument against Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense:

His appointment would be “historic,” like everything else about the Obama presidency. Of course, in Hagel’s case that very “historic” element — that the former grunt would be the first enlisted man to head up DOD — is the same thing that ought to have disqualified him in the first place.

Daniel Larison rightly fires back, making the obvious rebuttal:

There is a perfectly good argument that military service in itself doesn’t prepare someone to run a large government department. Walsh doesn’t make that argument. He doesn’t even try. It is preposterous to say that military service—at any level—disqualifies someone from being Secretary of Defense.

There have been a lot of arguments made against Hagel since his name was first seriously floated for the position. Some are perfectly sensible—for example, that there were arguably better candidates out there, such as Michele Flournoy, John Hamre or Ashton Carter. Others—that Hagel supposedly is an “anti-Semite” or an “isolationist”—are frivolous. But the idea that previously being an enlisted man in the army “ought to have disqualified” Hagel from being nominated is perhaps the dumbest one yet. It’s akin to saying that former congressional staffers should be constitutionally banned from ever running for Congress, or that no one who has been a junior analyst at Goldman Sachs should ever be allowed to be Goldman’s CEO.

To be sure, as Larison points out, there is a case to be made that previous military service does not in and of itself prepare one to run the Department of Defense. But that is a far cry from saying that this service ought to be disqualifying. That is the point that Walsh makes, but he doesn’t even really try to make a substantive case for it. The closest he comes is when he says in a throwaway line that Hagel’s “view of the military was through the wrong end of the telescope.” The implication, one assumes, is that having witnessed combat firsthand might make Hagel more hesitant to recommend using armed force. In which case, that may well be a reason for hawks and those who cheer continued American interventions abroad to oppose Hagel. But it shouldn’t be for the rest of us.

TopicsDefenseState of the MilitarySecurity RegionsUnited States