Dean Acheson, National Interest and the Special Relationship

The Buzz

The idea of a special relationship between the United States and Britain may have been supported by the sentiments of America's former WASP establishment. But according to Geoffrey Wheatcroft, it was one of the central figures of the WASP elite who most prominently stated that the idea of a special relationship was a fantasy, particularly to the partner looking across the sea from the east.

In the Spectator, Wheatcroft recounts how in 1962 Dean Acheson, then a former Secretary of State with an impressive resumé ("Lend-Lease, Bretton Woods, the coming of the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of Nato, the Korean war"), dropped a transatlantic political bomb in a speech at West Point. According to Wheatcroft, most of the speech was a conventional analysis of Cold War strategy. What was "almost an aside" got the most attention:

Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out. Great Britain, attempting to be a broker between the United States and Russia, has seemed to conduct policy as weak as its military power.

This unsurprisingly was deeply offensive to a country in the midst of dismantling an empire, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his successor Harold Wilson both publicly complained. Wheatcroft sides with Acheson, pointing out the proof had already come in 1947, when Truman ignored the Brits and supported a UN partition that would lead to the creation of Israel; and later in 1956, when Eisenhower ended the Franco-British operation in the Suez.

The episode illustrates the triumph of unsentimental interests over more nebulous notions of common cultural heritage, Wheatcroft concludes:

Acheson was right about Great Britain, and Macmillan’s clutching at American friendship seems in hindsight a poignant or even pitiful fantasy, though not one that ended with him. ... Like other prime ministers before and since, he persuaded himself that there was some mystical bond between the two countries, quite failing to see that ‘the United States, like all great powers, would in the end follow — without necessarily much regard for others — what it perceived from time to time to be its own interests’. Or as Palmerston said, in words of which Mikhail Gorbachev once reminded Margaret Thatcher, not that she needed reminding any more than de Gaulle did, nations have no eternal friends and no eternal foe, only eternal interests. That truth will never be ‘about played out’.

TopicsHistoryGreat Powers RegionsUnited StatesUnited Kingdom

Prisoner Swap in Syria

The Buzz

Over 2,100 prisoners held by Syrian authorities were freed this morning in exchange for forty-eight Iranian prisoners released by rebel forces, according to the New York Times. This prisoner exchange appears to be the largest yet in the two-year-long uprising against autocrat Bashar al-Assad.

Above all, this exchange seems most telling about the relationship between Assad and Iran. Louquay Moqdad, a Free Syrian Army spokesman, told the Washington Post, “Assad proved he is an Iranian puppet because he agreed to release over 2,000 in return for 48 Iranians. He did not care about Syrian officers which are also detained with us.” Assad on the other hand, vowed to continue fighting "as long as there is one terrorist left in Syria."

The Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief is said to have helped broker the swap.

TopicsAutocracySociety RegionsIranSyria

Lasting Effects of the Hagel Nomination Saga

Paul Pillar

Chuck Hagel's chances to become secretary of defense seem to be on the rise, with the biggest reason being the White House finally changing his status from prospective nominee to nominee, and as such getting fully behind him rather than holding him up as a balloon to be shot at. Just as the implications of the entire saga surrounding this nomination include far more than who will head the Department of Defense, so too will the broader enduring effects be shaped by more than the outcome of the vote on the nomination in the Senate. They will be shaped by what come to be the common-knowledge perceptions of what has happened in this saga, which in turn will depend a lot on what is said and written about it over the next few weeks.

The broader effects to which I am referring are not just specific foreign policy directions during the second Obama term, although we can hope for, as Jacob Heilbrunn suggests, more engagement of the diplomatic type and less of the military variety. Hagel will be a voice for reason and realism in policy discussions in the White House Situation Room, but as many others have pointed out, the secretary of defense is not the primary person responsible for making foreign policy.

Perhaps we should be encouraged at least as much about what the nomination says in general about Barack Obama as about having Chuck Hagel as one of his senior advisers. One might even say the nomination is one of the gutsier things Obama has done. Maybe he chose Hagel mainly for the straightforward reasons that the president feels comfortable with him and their overall policy views seem compatible, with the nomination having nothing to do with an in-your-face approach to Congressional Republicans or payback to Bibi Netanyahu. But still.

The effects I have in mind extend to favorable changes in political discourse and methods of operation in Washington that can last far beyond Obama's second term. At least three aspects of what is said in the coming weeks will determine whether such effects prevail.

The first is largely up to the nominee, especially in what he says at his confirmation hearing. He needs to stay out of an apologetic or defensive mode. He should establish that most of the points of criticism against him are not mischaracterizations of what he said or did but instead are mistaken evaluations because what he said or did was right. For everything he says about how he really is tough on Iran, he needs to say something about how stupid is mindless and endless pressure on Iran without a genuine effort to engage it and put the pressure to some use. For everything he says about how he really is a friend of Israel, he needs not only to say something about how being a friend of Israel is much different from what the most self-avowed friends of Israel do and say, but also point out that U.S. and Israeli interests sometimes differ and the U.S. should always put U.S. interests first. And so forth.

A second aspect is up to the commentariat and involves what becomes the accepted story of the political struggle that has been taking place over this nomination. Chapter One of the story was the initial floating of Hagel's name. Chapter Two consisted of the Israel lobby, and especially the part of it that overlaps with hardcore neoconservatism, coming out hatchets in hand, trying to get Hagel's scalp. Chapter Three was unusually strong push-back from elements who were disgusted by what the protagonists in Chapter Two were doing and also admired Hagel. Chapter Four has been a retreat by central parts of the Israel lobby and especially AIPAC, who evidently realized that they might actually lose a fight against Hagel. Faced with this prospect, it was to their advantage to say they “don't take positions on nominations” or some such and thus to try to avoid looking like losers. They should not be allowed to write the story that way. If Hagel is confirmed, then let it be shouted from all the high places from Capitol Hill to K Street rooftops and beyond: the lobby lost. The purpose would not be crowing but instead a lessening of the prospects for future intimidation, given how demonstrated success empowers intimidators and failure weakens them. A recognized failure might at least marginally reduce the lobby's destructive power the next time it tries to kill a nomination or enforce omerta or something else.

A third aspect I have addressed earlier: the need to shame, repeatedly and consistently, those who have used smear tactics—another prominent example of which arose just this week.

It remains to be seen how good a secretary of defense Chuck Hagel will be, although he has the makings of a very good one. But other enduring aspects of the struggle over his nomination may prove to be at least as important as his performance in office.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsDefenseK StreetIdeologyThe Presidency RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

Chuck Hagel and Richard Nixon's 100th Birthday

Jacob Heilbrunn

Even Chuck Hagel, who, like most senators, probably does not have a modest assessment of his talents and abilities, must be taken aback by the furor surrounding his nomination to head the Defense department. Before President Obama nominated him, most Americans had probably forgotten, if they ever knew, who Hagel was or what he represented. His legislative record is fairly unremarkable. Nor, unless it has somehow escaped my notice, has he said anything memorable during his recent years laboring in obscurity as a professor at Georgetown University.

Yet his nomination has sent Washington into paroxysms. Feminists are lamenting that he is not a woman. Minorities are unhappy that he is not a minority. And conservatives are bemoaning that he is not a real conservative.

How has the Hagel nomination acquired such significance?

Hagel has become a kind of screen onto which the various members of the political class are projecting their own visions and animuses. For various Republican Senators his nomination has become an opportunity to vent their exasperation with his criticisms of the Iraq War which were, by and large, cogent and sensible. The fact that Hagel broke ranks, so to speak, and endeared himself to liberals is giving them a chance to wage war by other means, to refight the political battles of the Iraq War one more time, to suggest that the Vietnam War veteran is unworthy of the top defense post. This is absurd. There is no point in relitigating the Iraq War. It was a patent failure. Do conservatives believe that they can somehow convince the public that the war was, in the end, fine and dandy? If questioned about the war, Hagel himself will no doubt argue, with conviction and authority, that it is precisely his experiences in Vietnam which made it incumbent for him to stick up for the soldiers who were shipped into the field by Donald Rumsfeld and Co. with no real plan for the occupation of Iraq, apart from the conviction that the Iraqis, somehow or other, would welcome Americans and reorganize themselves along the lines of the American model. 

But even this would not be enough to sink Hagel's nomination. It constitutes an irritant but not a positive disqualification. No, what is really transpiring are, I think, three things. The first is that neocons initially thought that they might have another Charles Freeman on their hands, the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia whose nomination to head the National Intelligence Council was scuttled by a concerted campaign to depict him as a perfervid anti-Semite. Taking down Hagel would set an even bigger marker. But the attempt to transform Hagel into anti-Semite has, to some extent boomeranged, which is why AIPAC has prudently decided not to oppose him. The second thing is what David Brooks points to in his New York Times column today, which is that the Defense department is going to be on the receiving end of some rather sharp budget cuts. Who better to oversee the surgery than a longtime Republican whose patriotic bona fides are, at bottom, indisputable? The third reason is an extension of the second, which is, as David Rothkopf shrewdly observes in Foreign Policy, that Hagel and John F. Kerry are, more or less, what he calls "disengagers." They have a different view of the world than either liberal hawks or neoconservatives, which is to say that they believe in restraint and diplomacy before engaging in the use of force. In this regard, they may end up following the approach of Richard Nixon; as Rothkopf observes, he "was a man who offset military disengagement with active diplomatic engagement. It would be an interesting irony if Obama, Kerry, and Hagel ultimately ended up emulating this underappreciated aspect of the late, not-so-lamented president's legacy."

Perhaps there is even more to it than that. Does all this represent a belated return to the Nixon doctrine enunicated by Richard Nixon in Guam in 1969, when he announced that American allies would have to fend for themselves first? Tomorrow, the centennial of Nixon, who entered office at a moment of great tumult and exited it even more tumultuously, will mark another occasion for America to come to terms with its changing geopolitical position. It would be a pity if the Hagel hearing degenerates into a prolonged and tedious forensic examination of his past statements rather than examining how the country can avoid accelerating its own sunset as a great power.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

More Fences

Paul Pillar

If it is possible to invest in companies that supply fencing material to the Israel government, they should be rated a “buy”. Likewise with any companies that make the components of the barriers that Israel sometimes calls fences but are actually more like walls. We're familiar with the fence/wall that Israel has constructed in the Palestinian-inhabited West Bank and that the Israelis have periodically extended and enhanced. Recently Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu inspected a new fence his government has constructed along the border with Egypt. Now he has announced his intention to construct an enhanced barrier in the Syrian Golan Heights.

The more recent construction is understandable in terms of security incidents that have originated in Egypt or Syria during the past couple of years and have touched Israel. A nation has to protect its borders. And the line between Israel and the Egyptian Sinai actually is an international border. But the fenced line in Syria is not. It is only a cease-fire line left over from previous Israeli-Syrian warfare. Notwithstanding any immediate, tactical security needs that Israel speaks about, the barrier there threatens to become, like the barrier in the West Bank, a steel and concrete monument to indefinite occupation of territory conquered by force of arms.

In 2000, well after the cease-fire line was established, Israel and Syria came tantalizingly close to a peace agreement that would have included return of the Golan Heights to Syria. The negotiations came down to the disposition of a few meters of dirt going back from the water's edge along the northeastern shore of Lake Tiberias. But then Ehud Barak added back a few hundred meters worth of demands that would have negated the principle of respecting the lines that existed before the 1967 war, and the talks collapsed. After that, Israelis settled back into the comfort of the status quo, while the Assads kept the cease-fire line remarkably quiet and the growing dominance of the Right in Israeli politics reduced official Israeli thinking about any return of territory. Reportedly there was another tentative stab at negotiations a couple of years ago before the Arab Spring got under way, but it is questionable whether Netanyahu was ever seriously thinking about returning the Golan.

The Arab Spring has reduced the Israeli comfort level. The turmoil in Syria has been the most intense and bloody manifestation of the region-wide political fervor and change that have given the Israelis several reasons to worry. Whatever new regime emerges from the current civil war will be less predictable than the devils-we-know that the Assads have been, and the new Syrian political order almost certainly will be, like new political orders in other Arab countries, less restrained than the old orders in voicing and acting upon the grievances that all Arabs have with Israel. Then there is the specifically Syrian grievance, which is the continued occupation of the Golan Heights. No Syrian regime can ignore it, and no new Syrian regime is likely to fall into the Assad regime's groove of what amounted to de facto acceptance of the status quo.

So the walking back from those last few meters along the lake, along with later unwillingness to part with the Golan, appears to preclude Israel being able to achieve peace with the last of its immediate neighbors. (There are peace treaties already, of course, with Egypt and Jordan, and relations with Lebanon are likely to follow the lead of relations with Syria.) Fences may be able to keep out infiltrators, but they do not bring peace.

TopicsDemocracyDefensePost-Conflict RegionsIsraelEgyptPalestinian territoriesSyria