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Mitt Romney's Nonsensical Israel Policy

Jacob Heilbrunn

How much is Sheldon Adelson worth to the Romney campaign? Mitt Romney seems determined to let no chance go by to curry favor with the Las Vegas financier. Romney's remarks in Florida that were captured on a hidden video camera about the improbability of a Middle East peace between Israelis and Palestinians caused only a brief stir. But all along Romney's stance toward Israel—and his bashing of President Obama for allegedly stiffing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—has savored of the worst kind of self-abasement.

Now Romney is attacking Obama for failing to meet privately with Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly meeting. On CBS's 60 Minutes, Romney said that it "sends a message throughout the Middle East that somehow we distance ourselves from our friends and I think the exact opposite approach is what's necessary." Distance, shmistance. Are the Saudis quaking that America is going to abandon them because Obama occasionally rebuffs Netanyahu? Are the Iranians going to draw the conclusion that America will desert Israel?

Hardly. They may have more respect for Obama's backbone, which is to say that he's not intimidated by Netanyahu's rodomontade. Anyway, what conceivable incentive does Obama have to meet with Netanyahu, who has, as far as possible, injected himself into the presidential race to try and tilt Jewish voters to support Romney even as Defense Minister Ehud Barak follows a more pragmatic line? Obama knows that if he is reelected, he can adopt an even sterner line toward Netanyahu, who has been counting on his ouster.

Netanyahu is blustering about attacking Iran and suggesting that Obama lacks the cojones to take out the mad mullahs in Tehran. But the truth is that he has not closed the sale with either his own cabinet or with Israeli voters. The idea that he could demand a red line from an American president has not diminished Obama or the Iranian threat. Instead, Netanyahu is only diminishing himself. As David Ignatius has observed in the Washington Post, no American president is going to outsource the decision of whether or not to go to war to another country's leader: "it’s precisely because Obama means what he says about going to war that he wants maximum flexibility in how and when he takes action."

Romney isn't just committing a strategic blunder in blindly backing the most retrograde forces in Israel and in decrying what he sees as a flaccid Syria policy; he's also committing a tactical one. Obama responded, "So if Gov. Romney is suggesting we should start another war, he should say so." What Obama is evoking is the specter of a return to George W. Bush, not just in the economic but also the foreign-policy sphere. Right now, Americans don't want war no more. Obama knows that. Does Romney?

It would be far shrewder for Romney to distance himself from the Bush era instead of hailing the genius of former vice president Dick Cheney (a "person of wisdom and judgment"), as he did at a recent fundraiser in Wyoming. He's catering to the worst instincts in the Republican Party. A cleverer candidate would mouth what has become the politically correct line in the GOP about restoring American prestige, while asking whether Obama's approach to China, Russia and the Middle East is actually a productive one. Is Obama really trying to contain China, or he is he creating the specter of containment—thereby creating the worst of all worlds? What is his plan for dealing with Egypt? Can America continue to allow Israel what amounts to carte blanche in avoiding peace talks and expansion of settlements in the West Bank—or is this approach, in fact, inflaming tensions in the Middle East? How would Romney restructure the American military?

Nevertheless, with only a few weeks left until the election, it's probably a mistake for Romney to talk about foreign affairs at all, an area in which Obama has, by and large, cleaned up the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan that were left behind by the George W. Bush administration. On Israel, it is Netanyahu, not Obama, who is poisoning the relationship. As Ari Shavit, a columnist for Haaretz, has observed

Netanyahu not only argued with Obama, but turned himself into the declared enemy of many of Israel's friends in the United States. He pushed himself into America's extremist right corner - he pushed all of us into it.

In pandering to Israel, Romney is not strengthening his credentials to become commander-in-chief. He's undermining them.

TopicsThe Presidency

More Posturing on Iran

Paul Pillar

Two actions at the end of last week, involving two different branches of the U.S. government, continued a pattern of unthinking support for anything that gets perceived as opposition to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

One such action was passage by the U.S. Senate in the middle of the night of a resolution declaring that the United States and other countries have a “vital interest” in working “to prevent the Government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.” The resolution “rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran.” Never mind that this resolution buys into Benjamin Netanyahu's “red line” game of talking about “nuclear weapons capability,” which by some measures Iran already has now, rather than possession of a nuclear weapon, which Tehran consistently disavows. The most disturbing thing about the resolution is its categorical rejection—in the wee hours of the morning, no less, as Congress was rushing into its pre-election recess—of an entire category of policy options with no consideration whatsoever of the alternatives or any weighing of advantages and disadvantages in comparison with the alternatives. All we get to accompany the rejection is a string of “whereas” clauses that repeat a familiar litany of things people don't like about Iran.

Evidently some members who might otherwise have had reservations about this resolution were reassured by a clause stating that “nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war.” The resolution passed 90-1, with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) casting the only vote against. But if the P5+1 (the countries of the UN Security Council plus Germany) continue refusing to offer any significant sanctions relief in return for major restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities and as a result the negotiations with Tehran go nowhere, we will inevitably hear voices loudly proclaiming that military force is the only way to abide by the policy objectives that this resolution declares.

Congressional statements such as this midnight resolution have a parallel from prior to the Iraq War: the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. Although most of the members who voted for that legislation and the president (Bill Clinton) who signed it may have had no intention of facilitating a war, it became a benchmark that promoters of the war repeatedly referred to as a bipartisan statement that regime change in Iraq was the policy of the United States.

The other piece of anti-Iran posturing last week was the decision by the Obama administration to remove the Iranian cult-cum-terrorist group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK, from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. Adding groups to that list or removing groups from it is supposed to be a dull process of administrative and legal review, and usually it is. But the MEK's case became the subject of an lavishly funded public-relations campaign, unlike anything seen with any other group in the fifteen-year history of the list. Prominent figures, including well-known Democrats as well as Republicans, reportedly received five-figure fees to speak on behalf of delisting the group. Many members of Congress and others, even if they did not prostitute themselves through such arrangements, naively believed that anything or anyone opposed to the Iranian regime must be worth supporting.

No good will come out of this subversion of the terrorist-group list with regard to conditions in Iran, the behavior or standing of the Iranian regime, the values with which the United States is associated or anything else. The regime in Tehran will tacitly welcome this move (while publicly denouncing it) because it helps to discredit the political opposition in Iran—a fact not lost on members of the Green Movement, who want nothing to do with the MEK. The MEK certainly is not a credible vehicle for regime change in Iran because it has almost no public support there. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime will read the move as another indication that the United States intends only to use subversion and violence against it rather than reaching any deals with it.

Although the list of foreign terrorist organizations unfortunately has come to be regarded as a kind of general-purpose way of bestowing condemnation or acceptance on a group, we should remember that delisting changes nothing about the character of the MEK. It is still a cult. It still has near-zero popular support in Iran. It still has a despicably violent history. As for more recent chapters of that history, given how public the delisting issue became with the MEK, it probably would have been appropriate for the Department of State to address publicly the press reports, sourced to U.S. officials, that the MEK has collaborated with Israel on terrorist assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. But that, of course, would have required the politically inconvenient act of publicly addressing Israeli terrorism.

Attention to the issue of moving MEK members from one camp in Iraq to another camp in Iraq, and about threats to the group from within Iraq, appears to have become in the end an excuse for caving in to the public-relations campaign. Whether the group resides at Camp Ashraf or Camp Liberty doesn't determine whether it meets the definition under U.S. law of a foreign terrorist organization. Whatever problem there may have been at Camp Ashraf, it was the MEK itself that was balking at a move, not any Iraqis that threatened the group. If there is an issue of human rights and refugees, it is mainly one of permitting rank-and-file members to escape the control of the cult's leaders.

The MEK story also has a parallel with the Iraq War. A role that the MEK has to some extent assumed for anti-Iran agitators in this country—and that the delisting will only encourage—recalls the prewar role played by Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Each case involved a group of exiles with a slick talent for manipulating public opinion in the United States but a paucity of support in their own countries. A possible difference is that the MEK's support in Iran is even less than that of the INC in Iraq, given the former's treasonous behavior (in Iranian eyes) during the Iran-Iraq War.

Both of last week's actions, which involve both political parties and both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, are discouraging not only for what they imply about discourse and policy on Iran but also for what they say more generally about U.S. policy making. The competitive politics of an election campaign have not helped and probably have hurt.

Competitive politics did not have to hurt, especially at a time the Romney campaign is groping for any stick it can use to beat the Obama administration. On the MEK matter, the administration could be legitimately criticized for pusillanimously giving in to a terrorist group's public-relations campaign. It could be charged with appearing to convey approval to a group whose behavior is repugnant to American values. It could be further charged with hurting the cause of democracy in Iran and providing propaganda points to the Iranian regime. But the campaign evidently is sticking with the usual simplistic approach that anyone who bashes that regime must be a friend of ours—and besides, some prominent Romney advisers are among those who have spoken publicly on the MEK's behalf.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsNuclear ProliferationTerrorism RegionsIranUnited States

Choose When to Lead

The Buzz

The phrase “leading from behind” garnered national attention when it was used to describe President Obama’s approach to the NATO intervention in Libya that toppled Muammar el-Qaddafi. This week, Richard Cohen took to his Washington Post column with his take on the phrase and how it has defined Obama’s foreign policy.

Cohen’s piece is a thinly veiled screed against “the sorry concoction of an Obama administration that mistakes dulcet passivity for a foreign policy.” Citing “recent events” in Libya—presumably the tragic killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens—he blames Obama’s faulty strategy for Libya’s precarious state. “Had the United States taken the lead” in the NATO operation, he contends, “someone might have been paying more attention to events there and trying to forge a government out of heavily armed militias.”

But was no one was paying attention in Iraq or Afghanistan? “Heavily armed militias” (not to mention terrorists) have wreaked havoc in Iraq, and a stable, lasting government has yet to be forged in Afghanistan after over a decade of U.S. presence, yet it seems preposterous to contend that Washington was leading from behind in either of these campaigns. So why does Cohen conclude that a more active American role in Libya would have prohibited this latest violence?

Perhaps it is not so much the quality of American leadership but the dearth of other options feuling Cohen’s bellicosity. “Without U.S. leadership, nothing happens,” he says, adding: “Our allies are incapable of leading because (1) they do not have the military wherewithal, and (2) they have forgotten how.” Leaving aside the inflammatory hubris of this claim (and its dubious veracity), it leads down a slippery slope. If it’s true that America’s allies are incapable of leading, it seems all the more important that Washington be selective as to which conflicts it takes on. Cohen advocates a foreign policy based on “hard reasoning,” yet his howler would have the United States mired in an endless sequence of Iraqs and Afghanistans. 

TopicsGrand StrategyGreat PowersHumanitarian InterventionMilitary Strategy RegionsLibya

The Public Psychology of Disturbing Images

Paul Pillar

The angry outbursts in response to a video defaming the prophet Muhammad are a reminder of the power of images that are in some way disturbing or unsettling. Such power, however, is not limited only to what influences hotheads in Benghazi or Lahore. It can frequently be seen in our own society. It influences the course of debate on many public issues. By “images” I do not mean just videos, cartoons, or other graphic or electronic representations. I mean at least as much the ability to picture in a person's own mind some specific, vividly colored and unpleasant happening.

NPR broadcast on Thursday a segment that conveyed some of the relevant research by psychologists. The story focused on why we might in some situations apply a rational cost-benefit approach but in other circumstances that are only slightly different we make a more emotional, unthinking determination that a certain course of action is simply right or wrong. The difference, the psychologists tell us, is whether the words that describe a particular circumstance conjure up a vivid image in our minds. Our brains are wired to respond to pictures. With such a picture—especially an ugly and disturbing picture—we are more likely to respond simply and emotionally rather than thinking through costs and benefits.

An example given in the piece is a hypothetical opportunity to affect an accident involving a runaway trolley. Without intervention the trolley will run over five people on the track. You can prevent this from happening by throwing a switch that will divert the trolley onto a side track, where it will kill one other person instead. In a different scenario you can instead intervene by pushing off a footbridge and onto the main track a person who is sufficiently large and carrying a big enough backpack that when he gets hit the trolley will stop. The moral issue should be the same; in each scenario the choice involves taking an action that will knowingly kill one identifiable person to save five others. But the responses of people who are given these hypothetical choices are different; most people in the first situation would throw the switch, but most people in the second situation would not throw the man off the bridge. The second action induces a more vivid and disturbing mental picture than the first.

The NPR report mentions a type of comparison that brings us closer to real security issues. Think about a terrorist using an ax to slaughter people on a bus, and then think about a missile fired from an airborne drone. “If you learn about these events from television or from pictures in a newspaper,” asks one of the psychologists, “which one would you judge as more horrible? The person with the ax that killed maybe two people but the scene looks horrible and extremely violent, or the picture of the drone that killed 100 people but looks relatively clean and nice?” The good news is that the absence of an obviously disturbing image involving the action of the drone means we are likely to apply real thinking and a calculation of costs and benefits, rather than just emotion, in assessing it. The bad news is that we are inconsistent in the standards we apply to different actions, with those standards being determined more by the blatant bloodiness of any images that come to us or that our own minds draw than by the actual damage that each action inflicts.

These examples involve making moral assessments of different actions, but other research has produced a parallel finding regarding how people assess the likelihood of different events. A scenario that evokes vivid, specific and disturbing images is apt to be judged as more likely than an otherwise comparable scenario that does not call up colorful images. This is probably a major reason for the enormous attention that has been given to terrorism using chemical, biological, nuclear or other unconventional means. That attention has far outstripped what actual terrorists have done in this area. Years of imaginative scenario-spinning about unconventional terrorism have made the public's mental images of such threats all the more vivid. By association, the perceived likelihood of states giving unconventional weapons or material to terrorists, or doing other imaginable and vibrantly scary things with such stuff, tends to be vastly inflated, with that perception divorced from any careful calculation of real motivations and well-grounded assessments of probability.

These psychological tendencies help to explain a lot of the misdirection and faulty allocation of resources involving public policy on security matters. The tendencies are part of the reason we sometimes take on costs and risks that are well out of proportion to whatever threat we supposedly are countering.

To the extent these tendencies reflect hardwiring in human brains, there is not much we can do about this directly. Leaders can be made aware of the psychological tendencies, however, even if the public cannot. A further lesson is that winning some policy debates may require mustering not just more compelling arguments but also more vivid images.

TopicsPublic OpinionPsychologyTerrorismWMD RegionsUnited States

The Military's Rape Problem

The Buzz

Imagine that you are the victim of a horrific crime. If reporting it would do nothing but endanger your career, retirement and reputation, would you think twice?

So is the choice facing rape victims in the military. There are 20,000 assaults each year, and 86 percent of these crimes go unreported. Why? James Kitfield unveils the disturbing details in a powerful and well-reported piece, “The Enemy Within,” in this week’s National Journal.

The problems behind this silent epidemic in the U.S. military are twofold: one, the very values instilled by these esteemed institutions including “obedience, self-sacrifice, [and] stoicism in the face of deprivation” are the very ones that sexual predators are apt to exploit, making the military a hotbed of opportunity for abusers. The other is that corroborated accounts repeatedly describe “a command climate that tends to cast suspicion and blame on victims.” Reporting assault is often seen as an “unwanted distraction from ‘good order and discipline.’” 

In practice, this often means that, however shocking, the accused, instead of being investigated, are simply transferred or demoted for “sexual harassment.” The violated? Most distraught victims are referred to “uniformed mental-health experts who diagnose them with ‘personality disorders’ and help wash them out of the military.” An astounding 31,000 service members—a disproportionate number of them women given the overwhelmingly male forces—were discharged with “personality disorders” between 2001 and 2010. The Defense Department does not keep track of how many of these discharges involved sexual-assault victims.

This worthy topic has been getting some attention lately, including the documentary The Invisible War, which interviewed five female marines who reported being raped. The Corps disciplined four of the women after they reported the rapes but punished none of the accused.

This cover story sheds much-needed light on the flawed nature of military command for reporting violent crimes. Kitfield’s comprehensive reporting takes on the full extent of this shameful secret and makes a compelling case for a civilian agency (much like those in Australia, Great Britain and Canada) within the DoD to handle sexual-assault cases. 

TopicsState of the Military

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