Zoning Out in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

This was supposed to be the month for an international conference to discuss a possible weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. The concept of such a zone has been addressed in past review conferences of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT), sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, and meetings at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The official convenors of the conference would be the United States, United Kingdom and Russia, the depository states for the NPT. The gathering was to have been hosted by Finland, with preparatory work having already been done by Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava. But a couple of weeks ago the State Department announced that “the conference cannot be convened because of present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.” The principal objector was Israel, which—notwithstanding its vociferous agitation about what it contends is a drive by Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon—has always said that weapons-free zones in its region need to await a regional peace.

Postponing the conference was a missed opportunity. And this matter was not like, say, trying to get the Israelis to stop building settlements in occupied territory, which requires a positive Israeli action to accomplish anything. As one of the convening powers, the United States, along with its British and Russian partners, could have simply gone ahead and convened the conference as scheduled. Israel could decide whether or not it would attend. The conference would be better with Israeli attendance, but could still do some good even without it.

No one believes creation of a nuclear- or WMD-free zone in the region is feasible any time soon. No signs suggest Israel is about to part with its arsenal of nuclear weapons. But the postponed conference was only going to discuss such a zone, not create one. Such discussion can be part of a long-term process beneficial to security in the region.

Nuclear weapons-free zones are a proven and well-established concept. They exist, among other places, in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. The State Department announcement and the usual Israeli objections suggest that other types of conflict resolution must precede international agreements restricting categories of weapons. But beneficial spillover effects can work in the other direction as well—just as during the Cold War strategic arms limitation agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union not only achieved reductions in nuclear arsenals but also became a tool of, and an impetus for, a larger process of detente. Among the existing nuclear weapons-free zones, the one in Latin America is especially instructive in this regard. The treaty establishing it was negotiated before Argentina and Brazil had fully given up their nuclear weapons ambitions. The treaty established a framework for hastening that process and achieving broader reconciliation in South America.

Discussion of such a zone in the Middle East would help to move away from double standards and the hypocrisy that goes with it. The Iranians have a legitimate gripe in being subject to enormous pressures over the mere suspicion that they might someday use their current nuclear program to make a nuclear weapon, while their principal accuser and antagonist in the region has had a sizable nuclear weapons arsenal for decades. Any Israelis legitimately concerned about the direction Iran might take on nuclear matters ought to realize that ending the double standard would be the best possible way to take away whatever wind is in Iranian sails. In any event, it is in the interests of the United States not to be involved in such hypocrisy.

Discussion of such a zone would be a step toward a long-term security regime that would be in every regional state's interests, including Israel's. With its overwhelming conventional superiority over its neighbors, Israel would be no less secure in a region in which no one, including itself, has nuclear or other unconventional weapons. A thoughtful case can be made that Israel's nuclear arsenal has not bought it any additional security in the past either.

A related matter concerns Israel's refusal to acknowledge that arsenal, a refusal that precludes useful examination of Israel's security needs even in private conversations with its benefactor, the United States. Israel maintains the public position that it will “not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East”—an outright lie, unless “introduce” refers to some strange and meaningless formality. (“Region, I'd like you to meet my nuclear weapons.”) At least the Syrians, in responding to the recent outside concern about possible use of their chemical weapons, avoid a direct lie by using conditional phrasing and saying “if such weapons exist in Syria, we will not...” The leading historian of Israel's nuclear weapons program, Avner Cohen, argues it would be in Israel's interest to stop the silly opacity and acknowledge the existence of its arsenal.

Meanwhile, refusal to talk about any of these matters does not make the issue go away. A reminder of this came earlier this week when the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling on Israel to join the NPT without delay and to open its nuclear facilities to inspection by the IAEA. The vote—174 to 6, with 6 abstentions—was even more overwhelming than the vote on Palestinian statehood. This time the only "no" votes that Israel got besides itself and the United States were Canada and those Pacific powerhouses, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

TopicsArms ControlUNSanctionsNuclear ProliferationWMD RegionsArgentinaIsraelRussiaIranFinlandBrazilUnited StatesSyriaUnited KingdomMiddle East

The Meaning of Sovereignty

Paul Pillar

Former Senator Bob Dole, 89 years old, returned this week to the floor of the chamber where he was for many years one of the leading Republicans. He also, of course, had twice represented his party on a national ticket as the nominee for vice president and then for president. Infirm of late and just recently checked out of Walter Reed hospital, Dole was in a wheelchair pushed by his wife Elizabeth, also a former senator. He came back to the Senate to show his support for ratification of a multilateral treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities. Dole demonstrated in his own career what a talented person with a disability can do. He lacked one of the common tools of a politician: a handshake with the right arm—an arm that in Dole's case had been rendered useless by a severe injury sustained in combat in World War II.

Senator John Kerry, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was the principal advocate of the treaty in the Senate debate. In his speech he appealed to his colleagues, “Don't let Senator Bob Dole down.” It wasn't enough. One of those who lobbied against ratification was another former senator, one whose career has been far less accomplished and distinguished than Dole's. Rick Santorum argued that somehow the treaty would not let American parents home-school their kids. The vote on ratification was 61 in favor and 38 against, falling short of the two-thirds needed for ratification.

The opposition to this treaty reflected a generic opposition on the right that extends as well to other broadly-adopted international conventions, to anything having to do with the United Nations, often to treaties in general, and even to most international cooperation in general. Those with this mindset often speak about not wanting to compromise U.S. “sovereignty.” Suspicions were voiced that the disabilities treaty would mean U.N. bureaucrats making decisions about the needs of American children. One could almost hear the black helicopters hovering overhead.

Some of the treaty's opponents also argued that because countries we don't like—and which we like to assume are insincere and hypocritical regarding their international obligations—such as Iran and Syria have signed the treaty, for the United States to adhere to the treaty might imply that we approve of how those countries treat their disabled citizens. That's a strange approach—one that would appear to give the disliked countries a veto over which international agreements the United States does and does not sign on to itself. Moreover, if we regard the United States as sincere in what it says and it what it signs up to internationally, then the message being sent by rejecting a treaty is that the United States rejects the principles embodied in the document.

Sovereignty does not mean handcuffing one's own diplomacy or eschewing international commitments. It instead means a nation acting freely and not being told by another country what to do. Signing and ratifying a treaty are themselves acts of sovereignty. And as John Ikenberry has argued, undertaking commitments through international institutions is one of the best ways through which even a superpower can extend and perpetuate its global influence.

Advocates of ratification patiently explained that the convention on disabilities merely applies to other nations what are already legal obligations in the United States under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Rejection therefore has little practical effect on the United States—unlike with, say, the Law of the Sea Convention, which 163 other states have already signed and ratified but the United States has not. The Senate, however, has missed a chance—which neoconservatives in particular ought to have welcomed—to say something positive about the rest of the world accepting values that Americans have already expressed in their own laws.

TopicsCongressUNHuman RightsInternational Law RegionsUnited States

The Value of Being There

The Buzz

Following a New York Times Magazine article about the challenges of conducting diplomacy while under security threat, the Times’ Bill Keller has expanded the conversation to similar tensions faced by journalists.

The death toll for journalists in dangerous situations is high—the Committee to Protect Journalists counts 956 since 1992. Keller notes that the Times is “running out of [meeting] rooms” to name after its fallen correspondents. Just like in diplomacy, a risk-averse culture has developed at some media outlets, leading to lower-quality coverage by reporters unable to move about freely and independently. Combined with newspapers’ shrinking revenues and “a wrongheaded belief that Americans don’t care that much about foreign news,” Keller sees a major shift in the media’s presence abroad—as of 2010,

Eighteen American newspapers and two entire newspaper chains had closed every one of their overseas bureaus. Other news outlets, including most TV networks, have downsized or abandoned full-time bureaus in favor of reporters or anchors who parachute in when there’s a crisis. They give us spurts of coverage when an Arab Spring breaks out or Hamas fires rockets into Israel, but much less of the ongoing attention that would equip us to see crises coming and understand them when they erupt.

This, says Keller, leads to mistakes as stories are written by reporters who aren’t even in the same country. Journalists for major publications writing from Cairo, Washington, and New York reported (as the U.S. government would) that the Benghazi consulate attack was carried out by a mob angered by the Muhammad video, only to be corrected later by journalists who were actually there.

A similar phenomenon occurred during the 2009 Iranian presidential-election protests. Thanks to better Internet and English skills, America heard more from the opposition than from others. This was a product of Iran’s postfeudal society, where class and political views are often entwined—the urbane upper and middle classes that had always loathed Ahmadinejad were also the ones learning English and tweeting. The result was an incredible torrent of anti-government coverage; the media at the time were concerned with sorting through it all, checking facts, and making sure everybody knew what a whole lot of tweets were tweeted. They did not seem aware—as anyone familiar with Iranian society should be—that the tweets were never going to be a cross-section of Iranian opinion. The result was an impression that the regime was being fought by the overwhelming majority of its people. The truth was far more complex.

More journalists on the ground—especially journalists with a deep familiarity with Iranian society—could have led to a fuller picture. However, the regime was heavily restricting Western journalists' access, and those with Iranian citizenship (even if they were dual citizens of Western countries) faced arrest and torture. The media didn't turn to Twitter because it was lazy (well, not entirely because it was lazy) but because many other options had been eliminated.

Keller is quite right that journalism needs to be wary of choosing safety over access, and his call for journalists on the scene—not staffers half a world away—to make final decisions about risk is sensible. But a fundamental question still remains: how can governments too repressive or badlands too unstable for safe access be covered accurately and comprehensively?


Does the GOP Need A New William F. Buckley, Jr.?

Jacob Heilbrunn

William F. Buckley became despondent about the conservative movement in general, and the actions of the George W. Bush White House in particular, towards the end of his life. It was the influence of the neocons that he seemed to rue most as the Iraq war ground on and conservatism came into ill-repute. It's hard to avoid the feeling that Buckley, who played a pivotal role in creating modern conservatism, felt that it had morphed into something of a Frankenstein. His own son, Christopher Buckley, was effectively purged from National Review over his publicly voiced disaffection with the policies of the Bush administration and the direction of conservatism in the form of an endorsement of Barack Obama for president in 2008.

So would the conservative movement benefit from a return of a Buckley-like figure to rescue it from its current torpor? That's the argument of David Welch, a former researcher for the Republican National Committee, in the New York Times. As Welch depicts it, the lunatics have taken over the asylum in the GOP. Just as Buckley ran the John Birch Society out of the GOP in the early 1960s, so establishment conservatives must exorcise the spell of Tea Party members over the GOP. Here is Welch:

The modern-day Birchers are the Tea Party. By loudly espousing extreme rhetoric, yet holding untenable beliefs, they have run virtually unchallenged by the Republican leadership, aided by irresponsible radio talk-show hosts and right-wing pundits. While the Tea Party grew, respected moderate voices in the party were further pushed toward extinction. Republicans need a Buckley to bring us back.

Buckley often took issue with liberal-minded members of his party, like Nelson A. Rockefeller, and he gave some quarter to opponents of civil rights legislation. But he placed great faith in the Republican establishment and its brand of mainstream conservatism, which he called the “politics of reality.”

Does Welch's argument hold up?

One problem is that he is demonizing the Tea Party. It is true that the Tea Party contains members who are bonkers. But it's something of a stretch to liken it to the Birchers, who believed that Dwight Eisenhower was a dupe of the Kremlin and that there was an establishment cabal, headed by Jewish bankers and members of the Council on Foreign Relations, often one and the same, who were secretly running America, and not for the better. The Tea Party, by contrast, harkens back to older libertarian strains in American history—it's opposed to taxes and big government. If anything, it is a movement that has distinct Jeffersonian strains. The Birchers were fascists; to apply that label to the Tea Party adherents is unpersuasive.

Welch goes on to argue,

Replacing Buckley — an erudite and prolific force of nature — with one individual is next to impossible. But we don’t need to. We can face the extremists with credible, respected leaders who have offered conservative policies that led to Republican victories.

Dare I say it, or should I just whisper the word? We need “the Establishment.” We need officials like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, operatives like Karl Rove and Republican Party institutions.

Yes, Christie and Bush could help pull the GOP back to more sensible positions. But invoking the example of Buckley is not the way to do it. The truth is that Buckley launched his own crusade against the Republican establishment, against the middle-of-the-road moderation espoused by Eisenhower. Buckley himself was a pal of Senator Joseph McCarthy's and on the right of the party. He set out to destroy the traditional Republican party with his own insurgency. He succeeded. That is the story of modern conservatism. But like many revolutionaries, Buckley saw his own movement lurch out of control. The Leninists took over in the form of the neocons—endless wars in the Middle East, blind support for Israel, bloated military budgets, extravagant budget deficits, the very policies driving America toward fiscal ruin. Now the right resembles, as Sam Tanenhaus has put it in The Death of Conservatism, "the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology."

What Welch is really calling for is an anti-Buckley to reanimate the GOP. In my view the most intriguing thinking on the right, as David Brooks has noted, is taking place among the renegades at the plucky American Conservative, where libertarian propositions are freely aired, where American foreign policy is invigilated, and where, above all, few shibboleths are left unchallenged. It has the feel of what Buckley's magazine once represented, an insurgent movement with little to lose and much to gain. But whether that can translate into actual political influence is an open question. Welch urges a different tack: the emergence of an establishment figure from the ranks of the moderate establishment that Buckley originally set out to destroy. But as Geoffrey Kabaservice has chronicled in his new book Rule and Ruin, it would be a herculean task to reconstitute it. Will anyone rise to the challenge? And will anyone be listening?

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Going Over the Politicians' Heads

Paul Pillar

President Obama is currently taking starkly different approaches in dealing with two of his chief nemeses: Congressional Republicans and the Israeli government. The former, of course, are his principal antagonists in the tussle over the budget. With the fiscal cliff nearing, and despite some signs of cracks in the no-tax-increase orthodoxy, Republicans entered the post-election budget game with their hard-line game face still very much on. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in the latest chapter in a long history of Israel slapping its superpower patron in the face, has announced planning for still more colonizing of West Bank territory. This recent move, in the immediate wake of the United States having joined Israel in a lonely small minority opposing United Nations endorsement of the Palestinian statehood that everyone claims to seek, involves land whose colonization through the construction of Israeli settlements would be one of the most blatant blows yet against a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given that it would appear to render physically impossible a contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank.

In the battle over the budget, Mr. Obama evidently has concluded that he must appeal directly to citizens in addition to dealing directly with the Republicans in Congress. He has been taking his message campaign-style to the country. But he is taking no such approach toward the frustrations originating with Netanyahu's government. Instead the administration is maintaining the familiar old minimal-daylight, “we have your back” posture toward Israel. The United States, in contrast to sharp protests from several European governments, responded to the latest Israeli announcement on settlements with its usual timid “this is not helpful” slap on the wrist.

Why the difference? The president has had during his first term sufficient bitter and frustrating experience with the opposition party in Congress, whose declared top priority was to try to prevent his re-election, to know that a different approach was necessary if he was to get any result other than more goalpost-moving additional demands. His appeal over the heads of members of Congress is a recognition that the opposition party understands only the language of political force. But Mr. Obama also has had enough bitter and frustrating experience with Netanyahu to warrant reaching similar conclusions regarding dealing with Israel. So first-term experience does not justify the difference in strategies.

There is the obvious distinction that in one case an appeal is being made to an electorate in the United States while in the other case a foreign public is involved. But Israeli interference in U.S. politics has already made that distinction very blurred. The politics of policy on Israel have to do with the feared or expected reactions of some parts of the American electorate (or American financial donors). Israel is in effect just as much a domestic issue as the budget.

In short, there is no good reason the administration should not take an approach toward the Israeli government that is similar to the one it is taking toward Congressional Republicans. A just-released poll of Israeli public opinion conducted by Shibley Telhami provides additional basis for going over the heads of Israeli political leaders. Despite all we have heard about how suspect Barack Obama is in Israel, his current poll numbers there are pretty good. Among all Israelis it is 60 percent favorable to 32 percent unfavorable. Excluding Arabs and counting just Jewish Israelis, the numbers are 62 percent favorable and 30 percent unfavorable.

On the core issue of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much Israeli public sentiment is very much at odds with the posture of the current Israeli government. A slight majority of Israelis even say they would accept, at least as the basis for negotiation, the Arab League peace proposal of 2002 based on 1967 borders. On the other big issue on which Netanyahu has been causing so much trouble—Iran—there also is some good public sense in Israel to which to appeal. Only one-fifth of those polled would favor a military attack on Iran without U.S. support.

Going over the heads of Israeli political leaders can look more positive than confrontational. Natan Sachs argues that Obama should take a page from the book of Bill Clinton, who helped gain some influence with Israel by charming the Israeli public. A charm offensive would be harder for Obama to do than it was for Clinton, but he should try. In some respects he will have a willing audience.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsForeign AidPublic OpinionNuclear ProliferationPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited States