Learning From The Wire

The Buzz

Francis Fukuyama, writing in American Interest, recently touted The Wire, the HBO miniseries that ran from 2002 to 2008 to rave notices by critics and viewers. His praise is not misplaced. Created and produced by David Simon, it is true literature in a Dickensian mold. Behind its brutal realism and intermittent abject cynicism was an appreciation of the fact that all people everywhere feel a powerful need to define and protect their dignity.

A problem with such productions arises, however, when people insist on superimposing upon the story certain superficial political thoughts. Simon’s work probed deep into the human condition, into areas not easily addressed by the simple political formulations of our time.

Fukuyama fell into this trap when he concluded that what Simon portrayed—the gritty existence of people on the edge of civilized society—could be easily ameliorated with finely honed governmental policies, including “some degree of strong government actions—and, yes, wealth redistribution” to “undermine the nexus of drugs, poverty and crime.” He cites specifically Mexico and Brazil, which he says have generated economic growth and have “intelligently crafted conditional cash transfer programs.”

True, the United States isn’t generating much economic growth these days, but certainly growth has been a hallmark of its recent history since the end of World War II. And to suggest this country lacks transfer-payment programs is akin to saying, circa 1989, that Western democratic capitalism would sweep the world following America’s Cold War victory. That was Fukuyama’s famous prediction, and we all know how that turned out. Further, with the country’s top 1 percent of income earners paying nearly 38 percent of all income taxes, and nearly 50 percent of tax filers paying nothing, it’s difficult to see what Fukuyama really wants, short of a European-style system of democratic socialism.

Besides, whatever Mexico’s economic growth and transfer programs, they certainly haven’t spawned any societal nirvana down there.

The Wire is great literature. It reveals a lot about life and human nature—some of it appropriately disturbing, given the essence of human nature. But it doesn’t tell us much about politics.


Secrecy and the Iran Talks

The Buzz

The big news over the weekend is the New York Timesreport that the United States and Iran have reached agreement in principle for their first-ever direct bilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The details surrounding the nature of these talks remain unclear, and indeed it is not even clear whether any such agreement even exists, as both countries’ governments issued denials the following day.

As Paul Pillar has already noted at TNI, if true, there could be significant advantages to pursuing bilateral talks as opposed to the existing forum of the P5+1. As he writes, the bilateral format

would be useful because the United States is the most important player in the process, because achieving the flexibility necessary to reach an agreement would be aided by not having to reach a multilateral consensus on each concession and because secrecy could be better preserved with a smaller forum.

This secrecy is particularly valuable because there are powerful forces within each country that are opposed to any sort of concessions toward the other nation. Avoiding any leaks that might blow up a prospective deal before it has been completed is thus a strong imperative, and a good reason to favor a bilateral format over a multilateral one. It’s also, as Pillar observes, a good reason to favor talks that would be held in total secrecy, with both governments denying that they are even talking place. There is little basis for thinking that such negotiations are currently under way, but “we can hope,” as Pillar says.

Nevertheless, even without such secret talks, this announcement holds out at least the potential to be a limited, positive step. Of course, there are a number of potential pitfalls. Most important, Washington must take care to ensure that the bilateral discussions, if they do take place, do not become simply another vehicle for Iran to drag out the process without any prospect of resolution. But it would be folly to not even try. As Nicholas Burns, George W. Bush’s under secretary of state, told the Times, “It would be unconscionable to go to war if we haven’t had such discussions.” He goes on: “What are we going to do instead? Drive straight into a brick wall called war in 2013, and not try to talk to them?”

Burns is absolutely right. War—and a bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be an act of war—is and should always be a choice of last resort. Direct bilateral negotiations with Iran, while providing no guarantee of success, are certainly worth exploring before the United States makes such a consequential choice.

TopicsNuclear ProliferationWMDSecurity RegionsIranUnited States

Secret, Deniable and Useful

Paul Pillar

Helene Cooper and Mark Landler of the New York Times caused a stir over the weekend with a report that the United States and Iran had agreed “in principle” to bilateral negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear program. Negotiations with Iran on that issue have hitherto involved a larger format, with one side, known usually as the P5+1, including the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. Doubts were cast on the Times report by official denials from both the U.S. and Iranian governments, and what is publicly known about just what the two sides may have agreed to is at this time still unclear. Possibly adding to the confusion is an Iranian disinclination to negotiate further even with the P5+1 before the U.S. election identifies who will be leading U.S. policy beginning in January. Further questions have been raised as to why, if there is indeed a factual basis to the Times report, word of such an Iranian-U.S. understanding would leak out now. Speculation has ranged from the leak being an effort to torpedo bilateral negotiations to the news story instead being part of an effort by the U.S. administration to start preparing public opinion for an agreement reached through such talks.

I have absolutely no inside track on what exactly is the true version of this particular story, but I offer this observation: among the most useful negotiations to take place right now would be U.S.-Iranian talks that are held in strict secrecy and that both governments would deny taking place.

The bilateral format—as a supplement to, not a replacement for, the negotiations involving the P5+1—would be useful because the United States is the most important player in the process, because achieving the flexibility necessary to reach an agreement would be aided by not having to reach a multilateral consensus on each concession and because secrecy could be better preserved with a smaller forum.

Secrecy would be useful because both sides are boxed in by their own hard-line statements and by pressure from those wanting to make the lines even harder. For the Iranian leadership, doing any direct business with the Great Satan is a matter of considerable delicacy and risk. For the U.S. leadership, doing anything that anyone could describe as being nice and reasonable toward Iran is also fraught with political risk. Former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy perceptively noted that the Iranians “would like to get out of their conundrum” given how much sanctions are hurting, but that “both Israel and the US governments have tied our own hands. In the end, you create an inherent disadvantage for yourself.”

The current government of Israel, which is the prime mover in agitating on the Iranian nuclear issue and which disdains the whole idea of negotiating with Iran, is the principal force creating political risk for any U.S. administration that talks with Iran. The Israeli ambassador to the United States said on Saturday, “We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” thereby invoking the old fallacy that negotiations are some sort of reward for one side rather than what they really are, which is a tool for both sides. The Israeli government, as a principal potential saboteur of progress toward an agreement, ought to be excluded through secrecy from any opportunity to commit such sabotage.

The other—not unrelated—source of political risk and possible sabotage for the U.S. side is the domestic political opposition to the current administration. An anonymous “GOP strategist” said Saturday that for the United States to accept any Iranian offer of direct talks “would be a dream come true for the Iranian leadership to hold power, and maybe even get concessions on their nuclear program,” thereby invoking the old fallacy (which Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the subsequent history of the USSR should have put to rest) that negotiating and reaching agreements with an adversary somehow contributes to the adversary's domestic strength and longevity. Note also the use of “concessions” as a dirty word, a usage that implicitly rules out any agreement because concessions by both sides will be necessary to reach one.

There is ample historical demonstration of how secret bilateral negotiations—because they are more conducive to achieving the necessary negotiating flexibility and because they cut out the naysayers and saboteurs—can achieve positive results when other mechanisms cannot. Some of that history has been in the not-very-distant past of the United States. The secret negotiations between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts) that finally got the United States out of the Vietnam quagmire are a prime example. Nixon's and Kissinger's secret diplomacy with China also comes to mind.

We should hope that right now there are talks going on between Iran and the United States that are so secret they do not even generate leaks to the skillful journalists of the New York Times. There may not be, but we can hope.


TopicsDomestic PoliticsUNSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

European Hubris and Civilizational Decline

The Buzz

The best public intellectuals are often difficult to force into ideological straitjackets. John Gray, someone who moved across the Left-Right spectrum—and eventually rejected the old categories entirely—fits that description. And in an oped in the Guardian this week, he demonstrates that a skeptical disposition has enabled him to see issues of the day through lenses unavailable to others.

Gray suggests that for much of the twentieth century, Europe has been in an identity crisis, trying to find its place in the world. He quotes poet Paul Valery, writing in 1919: 

Will Europe become what it is in reality—that is, a little promontory on the continent of Asia? Or will it remain what it seems—that is, the elect portion of the terrestrial global, the pearl of the sphere, the brain of a vast body?

Gray argues that this imperative to show the world that Europe could again be a great light to all nations led to overreach and failure to acknowledge some of the limits of democratic politics. He cites economists who suggest that a monetary union such as the euro can only work with a common government balance sheet. But that in turn "requires a single government, and that is politically impossible. However one views the nation state—and I am no great fan—it has proved to be the upper limit of democratic accountability." The founders of what become the European Union, scarred by the unprecedented carnage of two world wars, couldn't see these realities: 

[I]n the aftermath of the second world war, the visionaries who launched the European project were bent on restoring the continent to what they imagined was its rightful position—equal or superior to the US and a model for the world. It was a vain and backward-looking vision; but if the project had been less hubristic and the euro confined to a few closely similar countries, the productive and prosperous society that was achieved in half of Europe during the postwar period might have continued and expanded.

Thus Gray begins to tell a story familiar throughout history: men have a tendency to overestimate their own capabilities, a quality often on display as they labor to maintain great civilizations. The tragedy is the premature destruction of all that has already been built—what Burke called the "bank and capital of nations and ages"—when prudence might have preserved it for generations to come.

TopicsEuropean UnionCurrencyMonetary Policy RegionsEurope

Horror in Lebanon

The Buzz

The car-bomb explosion that left at least eight dead in the heart of Beirut on Friday is the most recent testament to the destabilizing influence of the crisis in neighboring Syria.

No group has claimed responsibility for the blast, which killed a senior Lebanese security official who had been receiving threats for his role in the arrest of a former Lebanese information minister who had close ties to the Syrian leadership. Accordingly, many have laid blame on Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its allies; a member of the Lebanese parliament said: “It is clear that the Syrian regime is responsible for such an explosion. . . . It is such a big explosion that only the Syrian regime could have planned it.” The New York Times goes on to quote another Lebanese MP:

“We are all Lebanese,” said Mouen al-Mourabi, a member of Parliament who has accused Hezbollah of sending fighters into Syria to help Mr. Assad’s forces crush the 19-month-old uprising against him. Mr. Mourabi stopped short of accusing Hezbollah of complicity in the bombing, but said many Lebanese have long feared the Syrian conflict would spread to Lebanon. “There’s always a danger,” he said. “They’re trying to drag Lebanon toward this.”

On the heels of this news come reports that several Lebanese were killed when the Syrian army attacked a bus crossing the border into Syria. It seems recent warnings by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi about the danger posed to Lebanon by the escalating Syrian civil war were especially prescient. If news of these attacks in Lebanon and another devastating airstrike campaign in Syria is any indication, there's no relief in site for the troubled Levant.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDefenseRogue StatesTerrorism RegionsLebanonSyria