A Decade of War, Forgotten

The Buzz

Ross Douthat's latest column is about Speaker John Boehner, and it argues that Boehner deserves more credit than he has gotten for the way he has handled the many governmental crises of the past two years. One sentence in it that has nothing to do with Boehner or Congress, however, is the most revealing thing about the piece. In listing the factors that have led to Washington's recent recurring chaos, Douthat says:

First, there’s the grim economic and budgetary situation — a mix of slow growth and huge peacetime deficits that constrains policy makers in unprecedented ways.

The fact that Douthat uses the word "peacetime" here is simply amazing. Consider the following facts: The United States is at war in Afghanistan, with roughly sixty-eight thousand troops present there. It has been at war in Afghanistan for over eleven years. During that time, Washington also launched a costly and deeply misguided eight-year war in Iraq, which led to roughly 4,500 U.S. and over a hundred thousand Iraqi deaths. Further, the United States used armed force to help remove Muammar el-Qaddafi's regime from power in Libya in 2011 (an act of war by any reasonable standard, even if the White House would not call it one). Not to mention the broader "long war" and its attendant drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Douthat is not the first person to make this mistake. For example, Mitt Romney did the same in April 2011, when he blasted President Obama in an op-ed for engaging in "one of the biggest peacetime spending binges in American history." Romney later walked back his statement as a function of poor word choice, and it seems likely that something similar was behind Douthat's error. Nevertheless, this is worth highlighting for two reasons. First, calling them "peacetime deficits" obscures the fact that defense spending (taking into account both "core" Pentagon spending and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) has indeed grown significantly over the past decade. It's not the only or even principal cause of the country's debt, but it's certainly a contributing factor.

Second, and more important, these episodes only serve to further highlight the extent to which America's governing class has become divorced from the military and the costs of the country's wars. As Chris Hayes put it well in his recent book Twilight of the Elites, and as others have observed, the "social distance" between those who are making crucial decisions about war and peace and those who bear the consequences of those decisions is enormous. There's no easy and immediate answer for how to shrink this distance. But those who are in positions of power or have large platforms could at least start by demonstrating a basic awareness concerning the facts of when their country is or is not at war.

TopicsDefenseState of the MilitarySecurity RegionsAfghanistanIraqUnited States

Declaring Victory on Iran

Paul Pillar

Another round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 is in the offing, as one can tell by an increase in commentary on the subject. This includes the helpful kind of comments and the nay-saying, unhelpful kind. The outlines of an eminently reachable agreement have been clear for some time. They would include terms along the lines of what Reza Marashi has outlined and I have earlier addressed. An encouraging sign is that some opinion-makers who still can sound pretty bombastic about the Iranian nuclear program, such as the Washington Post editorial board, nonetheless recognize the need for sanctions relief to be part of any deal.

It would be nice if this entire matter could be handled in a low-key, straightforward way: just make the necessary trades and complete an agreement. Unfortunately that does not look as if it is possible. The sanctions have played a role in the United States that goes far beyond the manipulation of Iranian incentives in a way that involves American politics and American psychology. In particular, sanctions have been a means for members of Congress to demonstrate their anti-Iranian bona fides by voting again and again in favor of new ways to harm Iran. And as Trita Parsi argues, sanctions have been part of a hoped-for story of Americans being able to claim a triumph over a foreign adversary.

What is very easy to forget in antagonistic bilateral relationships like this is that the other side has similar political and emotional needs. The Iranians certainly have such needs, although they are less triumphalist and more a matter of simple respect than the corresponding American needs. One of the most insightful commentators on the entire saga of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, the former Iranian official who is now at Princeton, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, addresses this aspect in a new op ed. Mousavian explains why it is essential, if any agreement is to be reached, for Iran to be able to preserve what he and his co-author refer to as aberu, or saving of face. Citing past history, he also explains how this will not be the case if Iran is once again called on to make significant concessions in return for the mere promise or hope of getting what it wants in return.

So one side feels a need to crow about a victory, while the other side needs to feel that it has not been kicked in the face. To square that emotional circle, American politicians will have to get most of their triumphalist fix from what has happened already—from getting a negotiation with Iran about curtailing its nuclear program under way at all. Members of Congress can proclaim today (and when they next run for re-election) that all those votes they cast in favor of all of those sanctions were an important part of getting Iran to the negotiating table. After saying that, they should pipe down, get out of the way, and let the negotiators strike a deal.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPsychologySanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

It's the Policy, Not the Salesmanship

Paul Pillar

An Israeli think tank, the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, has just issued a report that examines Israel's efforts at public diplomacy. Selection of this topic as one of the first to be studied by the center, which was established only a year ago, reflects hand-wringing in Israel over why the country seems to be, to put it bluntly but mildly, so darned unpopular around the world. Is there something fundamentally wrong, Israelis have asked, with how the country conducts public diplomacy and presents its case to audiences around the globe?

The report concludes that no, there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, Israel has one of the most sophisticated, well-funded and well-managed public diplomacy programs in the world. The report contrasts the Israeli program with organized efforts to criticize Israel and observes that the latter do not hold a candle to the former. Presentation of the Israeli government's message to the world is far superior in resources, access, organization and most everything else. The unpopularity, the report concludes, has nothing to do with salesmanship in support of Israeli policies and everything to do with the policies themselves.

There are strong parallels here with the United States, where there also has been much hand-wringing over the years about public diplomacy. The United States has its own unpopularity problem, especially in parts of the world where the negative sentiments about Israel are also strongest. Various schools of thought have been advanced from time to time about how the United States could do public diplomacy better. Draw in audiences with a soft approach, say some. Hit them harder with a more value-laden ideological approach, say others. Or do a better job of applying the skills of Madison Avenue. Or devote more resources to the task.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attack there was a surge of interest in the subject, of the “why do they hate us” and “how can we get them to stop hating us” variety. One result was a study prepared by an ad hoc advisory group authorized by Congress and chaired by former ambassador Edward Djerejian that looked at U.S. advocacy efforts in the Arab and Muslim world. The group's report mainly recommended additional resources for public diplomacy. Interest in the subject has waned since then. A year ago a standing body that dated back to the 1940s, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, quietly went out of existence when as a budget-cutting gesture Congress did not renew its funding. It was a rather silly gesture; the commission had one paid staff member, who says the commission's annual budget was $135,000. But maybe there wasn't a lot of advice left to give anyway.

In one sense there wasn't. With the United States just as with Israel, the sources of negative feelings abroad are policies, not the quality of efforts to sell the policies. People feel most strongly not about a government's advertisements and messages but about its actions—specifically, actions that affect directly their lives or the lives of people with whom they identify, or that link the government to other governments that take actions that affect those lives. The actions range from drone strikes to military occupations to the abetting of Israeli policies in occupied territories. If there is no change in such things, don't blame the salesmanship.

TopicsCongressPublic Opinion RegionsIsraelUnited States

Go Away, Tea Party

Paul Pillar

It is irresponsible to help create a mess and then to walk away and expect someone else to clean it up. That's true whether the mess is a spill in the kitchen or something comparably sticky, smelly or hazardous in deliberations in Congress. Multiple press reports observe that this is what the political tantrum known as the Tea Party has been doing. We haven't heard much from the Tea Partiers recently because they opted out of participation in the fiscal cliff drama as the rest of the country counted down the time remaining until the New Year's, and budgetary, ball drops.

In this latest phase in the tantrum, Tea Partiers unhappy that the political game has not gone entirely their way (with the outcome of the presidential election being, of course, their principal setback) have decided to take their own ball and bat and go home. As a South Carolina Tea Party activist put it, “Why in the world would I want to get involved in the games they [i.e., members of Congress] are playing? I have other things to spend my energy on besides lost causes.” Some of the causes which Tea Partiers evidently do not think are lost and to which they now are devoting energy include “nullification” by states of the Affordable Care Act, exposing corruption in Florida election boards that they believe illicitly handed the state to Obama, and opposition to a United Nations resolution on sustainable development that they contend is a threat to property rights.

Tea Partiers are providing some of their own drama with disarray and dissension within their own movement. The Washington-based Tea Party group FreedomWorks experienced an attempt by its chairman Richard Armey, accompanied by a gun-slinging aide, to purge his opponents within the organization, a few days before Armey himself was ousted in a counter-coup. Meanwhile, polls show public support for the Tea Party has dropped significantly from its heyday around the 2010 election.

This certainly does not mean—unfortunately—that we have heard the last of the Tea Party. But the more that this tantrum subsides or fades out of view, the better off the republic will be. Republicans, and more broadly those who believe in a healthy two-party system, ought to be especially hopeful that it will fade out of view. Tea Party activism during the primary season probably cost Republicans a couple of Senate seats. It also has cost the Republican Party the services in public office of some of its most distinguished thinkers, including Richard Lugar, a victim of one of those primary fights, and Jon Huntsman, who was the most sensible person on the stage in those primary debates but never seemed to have a chance to win his party's nomination.

The biggest damage the Tea Party has inflicted has been the less measurable but still major boost it has given to intolerance and inflexibility, with everything that implies regarding dysfunction in the American political system. It has been poison to any spirit of compromise and to the normal give-and-take of politics in a democracy. In this regard it is remarkable how, among all the attention to the details of the fiscal cliff negotiations such as where to set tax brackets and how to define inflation adjustments, so little has been said about how we got confronted with the cliff in the first place. To refresh our memories: sequestration and the other fiscal changes that define the cliff were devised as a threat to concentrate minds on the Congressional super-committee that was charged with reaching, but failed to achieve, a fiscal and budgetary grand bargain. The super-committee was in turn a device for getting out of the impasse created when one side of the aisle resorted to extortion by threatening to force a default on the national debt if that side did not get its way. The extortion was a marked departure from the normal way of conducting the people's political business, which is to try to enact one's preferred policies by winning support and winning votes for one's point of view, rather than by threatening to inflict harm on the country. Since then, the inflexibility and resistance to compromise have been, as Ezra Klein reminds us in reviewing the bidding of the last couple of years, far more on the side that did the initial extortion than on the other side.

The Tea Party cannot be blamed for all of this, of course. Roots of inflexibility such as no-tax-increase obsessions and related starve-the-beast notions have been around before there even was a Tea Party movement. Nor is it only Tea Partiers who today kvetch endlessly about the deficit but not long ago did not say a peep about it when the unprecedented combination of a very expensive war of choice and simultaneous tax cuts turned—surprise, surprise—what had been a budgetary surplus into a ballooning deficit. But the influence of the Tea Party has unquestionably made this whole sorry story substantially worse than it otherwise would have been. The very irresponsibility that the movement is exhibiting today, in walking away from the mess it did so much to help create, testifies to its character.

However much reasonable men and women may disagree about tax codes or the size of government, what is even more important to the health of a society such as America's are the give-and-take habits and attitudes that are necessary for a liberal representative democracy to function. Those habits and attitudes are ultimately what keep the United States from being an Iraq or a Syria. The Tea Partiers never seem to have understood that. We should all hope that they will consign themselves permanently to a safe-to-ignore lunatic fringe that burns its energy pursuing wacky conspiracy theories about Florida election boards and the like.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsIdeologyPublic Opinion RegionsUnited States

Refighting the Falklands War

Jacob Heilbrunn

A good case could be made that Margaret Thatcher was the greatest Western leader of the 1980s and 1990s. Her star has been steadily rising in recent years, partly as a result of her prescient opposition to British participation in the Euro. She got it right as well when she pushed George H.W. Bush not to go "wobbly" in facing down Saddam Hussein. Now newly released documents from the British National Archives are further burnishing her reputation and reigniting an old controversy about the Reagan administration's stance before the war over the Falkland Islands.

In 1982, confronted with the invasion of the Falkland Islands by the Argentine junta, led by Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, Thatcher dispatched the British Navy to rescue the islanders from the malign embrace of the Argentines. She wrote a cable to the old thug Galtieri that said,

“In a few days the British flag will be flying over Port Stanley. In a few days also your eyes and mine will be reading the casualty lists,” she wrote in a previously unseen telegram that was ultimately left unsent to the Argentine leader General Galtieri. “On my side, grief will be tempered by the knowledge that these men died for freedom, justice and the rule of law. And on your side? Only you can answer that question."

The biggest obstacle to freeing the islanders seems to have come from the United States. The British were and remain apoplectic about the conduct of the Reagan administration, particularly its ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who made no secret of her sympathies for the Argentine regimeit was a "right-wing," not a "left-wing" dictatorship, and so fell under the rubric of her famous distinction between the two, with the latter supposedly being impervious to reform or collapse, which meant that the capital of the free world couldn't be too choosy about the reactionary, anti-communist dictatorships it chose to back. Kirkpatrick's behavior comes under particular censure from the British ambassador to Washington. Sir Nicholas Henderson concluded that she and State Department official Thomas Enders played an untoward role in helping to persuade the Argentine generals that that they could get away with occupying the Falklands. According to Sir Nicholas,

"Comparing Kirkpatrick with Enders, it is difficult to improve on the apophthegm going the rounds of the State Department that whereas the latter is more fascist then fool, Kirkpatick is more fool than fascist," he wrote.

"She appears to be one of America's most reliable own-goal scorers: tactless, wrong-headed, ineffective and a dubious tribute to the academic profession to which she expresses her allegiance."

Strong words. But Henderson was vindicated. The Reagan administration came around and the British triumphed, a triumph that was greeted rapturously in Great Britain where it signaled that aggression wouldn't go unchallenged, that the empire could and would strike back decisively. Now the British newspapers are engaging in a new round of schadenfreude, chortling over Kirkpatrick's missteps back in 1982, when she was outmanuevered by more pragmatic Reagan administration officials who saw that American loyalty to a vital ally trumped any concerns over backing the Argentine government. In short order the military men were ousted and Argentine became democratic within a year. The Falklands war proved the undoing of the regime. Thatcher won a smashing victory over both the Argentine junta and her doubters in the Reagan administration. It was not Kirkpatrick's finest hour, and it is one that the British are only too glad to relive decades later.

TopicsHistory RegionsUnited States