Shaul Mofaz Tells It Like It Is

Paul Pillar

An admirable characteristic of Israeli democracy has been the vigor and frankness with which those who are permitted to participate in it conduct political debate. There is a refreshing directness and openness that, on some of the very same topics, is usually missing from political discourse in the United States. The Israeli style of debate over policy is in full view every day in the opinion pages of Israeli publications, and there was an especially up-tempo version of it in a blast on Thursday from Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mofaz may have been in an irritated mood partly because the occasion was a special session of the Knesset called to approve the selection of former internal-security-service chief Avi Dichter as minister for defense of the home front. In taking this job, Dichter left the Kadima Party, which he had represented in the Knesset. And this all not long after Mofaz himself had left a short-lived coalition with Netanyahu and returned to be leader of the opposition.

Mofaz had harsh things to say about the government's policies on homeland security, the subject of Dichter's new portfolio, but he linked this to the latest burst of saber rattling against Iran by Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak. In referring to Netanyahu's “incessant prattle about a nuclear Iran,” Mofaz said:

You are headed for a rash confrontation at an unnecessary cost while abandoning the home front. Over the past few months, Israel has waged an extensive and relentless PR campaign with the sole objective of preparing the ground for a premature military adventure. This PR campaign has deeply penetrated the “zone of immunity” of our national security, threatens to weaken our deterrence, and our relations with our best friends. . . . [You are] making threats and sowing the seeds of fear and terror. Mr. prime minister, you are playing a dangerous and irresponsible game with the future of an entire nation...You're creating panic. You are trying to frighten us and terrify us. And in truth we are scared: scared by your lack of judgment, scared that you both lead and don’t lead, scared that you are executing a dangerous and irresponsible policy.

It would enormously improve U.S. debate on this same subject if American politicians could be this direct. But instead they operate in fear of being seen to stray at all from the established dogma that Iran with its nuclear program is The Greatest Threat in the World. The severe constraints on American debate on the subject contribute to ineffective policy, such as endlessly piling on sanctions without a diplomatic posture that would give the sanctions any chance to yield a favorable result. And the whole issue never gets put in proper perspective because no American politician is brave and honest enough to observe that if we have a crisis it is mostly because of Netanyahu's “incessant prattle about a nuclear Iran.”

As for the political game that prevents American debate on this subject from getting any better, Mofaz had some blunt and honest things to say about that too:

Mr. prime minister, you want a crude, rude, unprecedented, reckless, and risky intervention in the US elections. Tell us who you serve and for what? Why are you putting your hand deep into the ballot boxes of the American electorate?

Of course, this subject is even more strictly off limits for American politicians. Among the many ill effects of the topic's untouchable status is one we are seeing in the current presidential election campaign: one candidate appeals for votes (and maybe even more so, for dollars) by posing as the more unabashed lover of Israel even though on things that really contribute to Israel's security every recent U.S. presidential administration has continued unrelenting support no matter what Israel does. Isn't it ironic that Israeli politicians seem to be able to talk more freely and critically about subjects pertaining to Israel than American politicians are?

For the record, it should be noted that the Israeli ambassador to the United States stated earlier this year, in what has to be one of the most risible ambassadorial assertions we have heard lately, that “Israel does not interfere in internal political affairs of the United States.”

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

The Golden Rule of Foreign Policy

The Skeptics

The crescendo for action in Syria continues to grow. From Left to Right, from pundit to politician, the cry is “Do something!”

No surprise, the U.S. Senate’s so-called “Three Amigos,” Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), long have been calling for war. But then, there are few countries in which they do not want to go to war.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently penned a column entitled “Obama AWOL in Syria.” He didn’t urge an invasion—not yet, anyway—but wanted to aid the rebels. And he cited a variety of people pushing more active military involvement, such as a no-fly, no-drive zone.

Naturally, Kristof didn’t spend much time on the risk of things turning out badly. He might have asked Madeleine Albright, whom he quoted in favor of intervention, about the havoc wreaked by the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo after the administration she served lent them America’s air force. But she probably didn’t notice.

Kristof does have an idea on how to limit any ill consequences. He cited Anne-Marie Slaughter’s proposal for military intervention on behalf of rebels who behave nicely. “Some Free Syrian Army commanders have signed such a code of conduct,” he enthused.

At least Kristof opposed the Iraq invasion. Most members of the perpetual-war party exhibit no shame. They just glide past the wreckage of their earlier military crusades and beat the war drums again. For some, war is the ultimate panacea. For instance, Sen. McCain has proposed attacking North Korea and Iran. He wanted to confront Russia when it battled Georgia. He advocated war forever in Iraq and Afghanistan, if necessary. And, of course, he wants action in Syria.

Perhaps even more striking is Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who criticized the president for his “risky, do-nothing doctrine.” The Afghans are afraid the United States is leaving (of course, only after eleven years of costly nation building). The administration isn’t prepared for confrontation with Iran (even though U.S. intelligence agencies find no evidence of an active weapons program, which would seem to be necessary to conceivably justify war). And President Obama is doing nothing in Syria, where the “civil war is approaching genocide” (it’s a nasty conflict, but genocide it most certainly isn’t, and a lot of conflicts have been far worse).

This argument seems particularly disconnected coming from someone who worked for George W. Bush, whose presidency was defined by the Iraq war. We were promised cakewalks, freedom on the march and pro-American democracy. Instead, the result was a ravaged society, a tidal wave of crime and violence, and bitter guerrilla conflict and even more brutal sectarian war. Casualty estimates vary wildly, but a couple hundred thousand Iraqi civilians likely died. The historic Christian community was destroyed. Millions of people were forced from their homes. Add to all that the slow authoritarian and pro-Iranian drift.

People who helped generate such horror should take a deep breath before demanding that Washington again let loose the dogs of war.

Doctors long ago taught us that the first duty of those who would help is to do no harm. That should be the first plank of any foreign policy as well.

TopicsGrand StrategyHumanitarian InterventionSecurity RegionsSyria

Paul Ryan: Realist or Neocon?

Jacob Heilbrunn

The issue of Paul Ryan's foreign-policy views is starting to attract some attention among the pundit class. Andrew Sullivan asked yesterday, "Is Paul Ryan A Neocon?" It's a fair question. Whether it is a difficult one to answer is another matter.

To be sure, Ryan does not have any real foreign-policy record. But reasonable inferences can be made from several of his statements. Brett Stephens, for example, devoted his Wall Street Journal column yesterday to suggesting that Ryan issued nothing less than a "neocon manifesto" in a speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society. He noted that Ryan declared that a belief in "universal rights" leads inevitably to the rejection of what he termed "moral relativism." Ryan added, "It causes you to recoil at the idea of persistent moral indifference toward any nation that stifles and denies liberty, no matter how friendly and accommodating its rulers are to American interests." It would be interesting to know exactly which society Ryan is alluding to—what right-wing or left-wing authoritarian country is "accommodating" itself to American interests? Does Ryan mean Pakistan—a grudging ally at best? Egypt? Or Saudi Arabia?

Sullivan also reprinted a tweet from Stephen Hayes that suggests "over past few months, Ryan has quietly been receiving foreign policy/national sec briefings from Elliott Abrams, Kim & Fred Kagan & others." Who might those "others" be? Someone like Danielle Pletka, who, Sullivan further indicates, apparently told the Daily Beast's Eli Lake that Ryan "understands the primary role of the federal government is the national defense and not the handing out of food stamps"?

How much of this justifies deeming Ryan a "neocon" may be questioned. But there is another, more compelling reason—apart from these Kremlinological tidbits—to surmise that Ryan is sympathetic to neocon views. It is this: the surprising thing would be if Ryan rejected neocon theology. The doctrine is dominant in the GOP. It offers a useful cudgel with which to bash Democrats as pussyfooting when it comes to national security. There is no conceivable incentive, in other words, for Ryan to embrace realist views on foreign affairs. It would cause him no end of grief and make Ryan an object of suspicion on the Right, which currently reveres him. So it is almost axiomatic that Ryan, who likely has no more than a passing familiarity with foreign-affairs issues, is inclined towards neoconservatism.

This distinguishes him from another young Republican vice-presidential candidate who was a realist and believed in engagement abroad. As a blog post at the Richard M. Nixon Foundation observes, Richard Nixon was only thirty-nine years old when Dwight Eisenhower tapped him as his running mate in 1952, and on paper Ryan might appear to have some things in common with Nixon. Ryan, too, is youthful and a hero to the Right. But Nixon had served in World War II, supported the Marshall Plan for Europe and helped unmask Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent. Ryan, by contrast, has denounced Nixon in the form of stating, as the American Conservative's Daniel Larison reports, that the Obama administration's foreign policy and failure to emphasize human rights is, in Ryan's words, "Nixonian." He has also, Larison notes, decried better relations with Russia as tantamount to "appeasement"—the very charge hurled at Nixon when he pursued detente and arms-control with the Kremlin.

No doubt he will issue the sorts of thundering pronouncements that Romney has been issuing when he debates Vice President Joe Biden on October 11. Russia, China and Iran will all be bashed by Ryan as he exhorts Americans to export freedom abroad and ramp up military spending even as the country crumbles from within. Anyone looking for fresh ideas or something unorthodox on foreign affairs from the Romney-Ryan ticket should think again.

Image: monkeyz_uncle

TopicsCongress RegionsUnited States

A Misleading Comparison of Ryan

The Buzz

Written by three people who somehow all found the idea worthy, a recent New York Times post, “Paul Ryan, Black Panther?”, hits a new low in campaign reporting.

The authors claim that Paul Ryan quoted a famous 1960s Black Panther Party slogan in the speech announcing his vice presidential candidacy for the GOP on Saturday. Regarding his father, Congressman Ryan said at the rally: “I still remember a couple of things he would say that have really stuck with me. ‘Son, you’re either a part of the problem or part of the solution.’”

The piece expounds on one particular Panther with a “long criminal record” who’d “done time for a series of rapes” and was fond of employing the same slogan. What the authors leave until the very end (presumably because it would ruin their false parallel) is that the first usage of this common slogan was in 1967 ads promoting LBJ’s VISTA anti-poverty program as part of his Great Society initiatives and had nothing to do with the Black Panthers at all. It’s probably safe to assume that Ryan wouldn’t knowingly borrow language from a federal aid project.

The characterization of both Ryan and the Black Panthers—who employed militant rhetoric but were not all rapists—is misleading and poorly reported. At the least, one can easily argue that once a political catchphrase has worked its way down the chain of societal lingo to suburban dads doling out life advice to their young sons, it has clearly lost its original context.

Ryan isn’t quoting the Black Panthers. He’s telling the public what he believes. The objective of this flawed piece is conniving at worst and muddled at best.


Culture and Constitutionalism in Egypt

Paul Pillar

Much we still do not know about the background to the ouster of senior figures in the Egyptian military. Specifically, it is unclear to what extent President Mohamed Morsi enjoyed the approval or even the active cooperation of elements within the military. We know there has been discontent within the military ranks about the performance of the top brass, entirely apart from any larger political issues about the distribution of power. The recent incident at a border post in the Sinai, in which Egyptian soldiers were killed and military leaders were widely criticized for letting security deteriorate in that corner of the country, was a ready-made occasion for shaking up the top ranks. Whatever cards Morsi had been dealt, he evidently played them skillfully in making the changes in the military leadership positions as well as reclaiming for his office some powers that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had earlier claimed for itself. Beyond that, we are largely in the dark.

Even if we had a more complete picture of these events, it would be impossible to predict where this political drama leads or what the next chapter in Egypt's still-turbulent story will look like. The perceptions and emotions of the Egyptian public, not just the bilateral interchange between the president and the generals, will have a lot to do with this. In trying to interpret the drama and its larger significance, it does not help simply to mark a scorecard in which political Islamists including Morsi are regarded as the bad guys and to observe that in this instance the bad guys unfortunately seem to have scored some points. Nor is it helpful, starting with the same automatic aversion to anything Islamist, to try to analyze the political interplay in terms of formal but temporary constitutional powers by noting that Morsi had no constitutional authority to snatch certain powers back from the SCAF. Of course he didn't—and neither did the SCAF have any such authority to snatch them in the first place.

In Egypt today there is a bizarre coexistence between, on one hand, legal structures which sound familiar to us such as constitutions and courts, along with much discussion about legality or illegality within that framework, and on the other hand a dynamic of power and legitimacy that does not stay within that framework and plays out in large part outside it. We have seen something similar for years in Pakistan, where dark-suited lawyers have been prominent demonstrators in the streets and where the rulings of a constitutional court get lots of attention amid glaring extraconstitutional actions such as military coups. Marc Lynch has appropriately likened the political story that has been unfolding in Egypt over the past two years to Calvinball, a game played by a comic strip character who made up the rules as he went along.

Even constitutional structures that we are accustomed to thinking of as firmly standing on bedrock may ultimately depend on people having made up some rules as they went along. Consider, for example, the U.S. Constitution. We regard it as the foundation on which our political order rests, but what is the ultimate chain of authority on which the constitution itself rests? Following backwards the nearest thing we have to such a chain takes us to a concern in the first couple of years after the Revolutionary War among some Virginians, including most notably George Washington and James Madison, about the inability of existing political structures to foster commerce that affects more than one state. The Virginians reached some agreements with counterparts in Maryland regarding commerce in their part of the new nation, but they realized the geographic scope would need to be wider. So the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution in 1786 proposing a meeting of commissioners from all of the states “to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interest and their permanent harmony.”

That led to the Annapolis Convention in September of the same year. Only five states—not even a majority—were represented at Annapolis. Despite (and in another sense, because of) that meager representation, the Annapolis commissioners did not make any substantive constitutional recommendations but called for another convention to meet the following May in Philadelphia and to consider not just the regulation of commerce but any “further provisions” needed “to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” In trying to justify this expansion from their original mandate, the Annapolis conferees pointedly noted that New Jersey had instructed its representatives to consider not just commercial regulations but also “other important matters.” Even with that effort at a justification, the men at Annapolis knew they were stretching things in making their recommendation, as far as their formal authority was concerned. In their concluding report they wrote:

If in expressing this wish, or in intimating any other sentiment, your Commissioners should seem to exceed the strict bounds of their appointment, they entertain a full confidence that a conduct dictated by an anxiety for the welfare of the United States will not fail to receive an indulgent construction.

The tenuousness of the chain of authority leading to the U.S. Constitution did not end there. The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was supposed to propose revisions to the Articles of Confederation, which by their own terms could be amended only with the unanimous agreement of the states. The Virginia resolution and the report of the Annapolis Convention both explicitly mentioned unanimous approval as needed for any new arrangements. The writers of the new constitution nonetheless decided on their own that approval of only nine states would be necessary for their work to take effect.

The American constitutional experiment took root not because the new distribution of powers grew out of some previously established authorizing framework. It took root partly because of sheer necessity. It succeeded also because of a political culture bequeathed by the British whose rule had so recently been shaken off. The founding fathers were making up rules as they went along, but those rules and their implementation were based on something even more fundamental: habits of tolerance, accommodation and representation that were part of an Anglo-American culture that already was well established.

The makers of the new Egypt will necessarily be making up rules on the fly as well. What legitimacy the rule making will have will be based on whatever ad hoc legitimizing mechanisms become available, such as the presidential election that Morsi won. Whether Egypt achieves in the years ahead reasonable stability and something approaching democracy will not depend primarily on whether the president or the SCAF or anyone else has acted according to the letter of an interim constitution, which is Egypt's equivalent of the Articles of Confederation. Nor will it depend on whether a member of the Muslim Brotherhood holds high office. It will depend largely on whether Egyptians can forge from foreign examples, colonial residue and their own accelerated political development the sort of habits and attitudes that make stability and democracy possible.

TopicsDemocracyElectionsHistory RegionsEgyptUnited States