One regularly hears much talk in Washington about accountability, but also regularly sees examples of how the concept of accountability gets applied in this town in an inconsistent and warped way. There are the inevitable calls for heads to roll after any salient untoward event, and huzzahs to senior managers who do roll heads in response. I have addressed previously what tends to be wrong about how such episodes play out. Too often there is no consideration of whether the untoward event is or is not part of some larger pattern of malfeasance or incompetence, whether those at any one level in a chain of command could reasonably be expected to prevent all such events when the action is at some other level, and whether there is any reason to expect the changes in personnel to result in any change in institutional performance. Nor is there consideration of why those who roll heads and collect the huzzahs but who also are part of the same chain of command should be allowed to determine—in a very un-Truman-like, the-buck-didn't-get-to-me way—that accountability stops just below their own level.
In the Wall Street Journal today, four wise men of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, have an op-ed about nuclear-weapons issues. This group, sometimes known as the "four horsemen" or the "quartet" since their landmark January 2007 Journal piece setting "the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons," now warns that "the pace of nonproliferation work today doesn't match the urgency of the threat."
This time, they focus on four specific areas where immediate actions might be especially useful. These are: 1) securing nuclear materials to prevent nuclear terrorism, through an aggressive recommitment to the Nuclear Security Summit process, 2) working with Russia to "take a percentage of" both nations' "nuclear weapons off prompt-launch status," 3) further reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles beyond those mandated by the New START agreement, both in strategic and tactical weapons, and 4) further work on verification and transparency.
Senator Rand Paul is taking the kind of gutsy move that is almost never seen in today's GOP, which has routinely elevated militarism above common sense. His decision to filibuster John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA is right-on. Brennan is a slippery character who has oiled his way up both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. His answers about his knowledge of CIA torture during the Bush administration were evasive and unconvincing and his nomination should never be approved. Now Paul is calling him out on the administration's secret drone war policy in particular and its contempt for civil liberties in general.
To his credit, Paul is doing it the right way. The Senate has gotten lazy about filibusters, which is to say that Senators aren't required to talk continuously to maintain one. This is a reform that Sen. Harry Reid should have insisted on in his negotiations with the GOP. He didn't. Paul, however, says "I will speak until I can no longer speak." That Americans, he said, could be assassinated by a drone sitting in a cafe in San Francisco is an "abomination." Strong words. But they are also merited. Paul's defense of the constitutional rights of Americans is stirring and admirable.
A story from northwest Pakistan involves a discrepancy between reality and perception with regard to U.S. drone strikes. Last month two attacks in the tribal belt generated the kind of spreading news that has come to be routinely associated with the drones. A couple of al-Qaeda types are killed, but so are several villagers. The Pakistani foreign ministry lodges a protest with the U.S. embassy. According to American officials, however, the United States and U.S. drones were not involved at all in the attacks. “They were not ours,” said one official.
American speculation is that the Pakistani military conducted the attacks and attributed them to the United States to escape blame for the collateral damage. If so, this represents a reversal of a previous Pakistani practice of claiming responsibility for what really were U.S. drone strikes, to escape the embarrassment of allowing the Americans to conduct, or not preventing them from conducting, attacks on Pakistani territory. So a variable in this case is whatever public relations problem the Pakistani military and government most want to avoid in any given week.
Vali Nasr has caused a stir—the kind that sells books—with a broadside against the Obama White House's handling of policy on Afghanistan. His book and the broadside in it, excerpted in the current Foreign Policy, have already been the focus of a Michael Gordon article in the New York Times. Nasr's tale would appear to complement a pattern that David Ignatius identified and on which I commented last week, of decision-making being highly centralized in the White House.
Nasr's story does indeed do that to a degree, but the story itself is of a flavor that hardly qualifies it as a confirmatory source. It is a highly parochial viewpoint, with a tone that approaches vindictiveness. The strong subtext is the writer's intense personal loyalty to his boss at the time, Richard Holbrooke. Anything in which Holbrooke was prevented from getting his way is treated as ipso facto bad for the cause of sound policy toward South Asia. It is the sort of account that gets one thinking that there must be another side of this story, with neither side having exclusive rights to credibility. We may have to wait for post-Obama-administation memoirs to get the other side.
The Washington Post reports that President Obama is shifting his strategy for dealing with Congressional Republicans, aiming to “articulate for the American electorate his own feelings—an exasperation with an opposition party that backs even the most politically popular elements of his agenda.” The goal, reports the Post, is to win the seventeen House seats needed to restore Democratic control of Congress in 2014, and then to “push forward with a progressive agenda on gun control, immigration, climate change and the economy during his final two years in office.” The night of his reelection, Obama called House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Steve Israel to talk about “how focused he would be on winning a House majority for the Democrats.” Obama’s permanent-campaign organization, Organizing for Action, is already seeking donations to back Democrats running in the House in 2014.
This weekend an op-ed by Dennis Ross in the New York Times encouraged Israelis and Palestinians to "suspend [their] disbelief" in the two-state solution in order to achieve peace in the Middle East. For Ross, the fact that neither side actually believes in the attainability of the two-state solution anymore is the root of the problem.
In his view while some factors, "make Israelis and Palestinians reluctant to take risks for peace, they do not represent the biggest hurdle for ending the conflict. The most fundamental problem between Israelis and Palestinians is the problem of disbelief. Most Israelis and Palestinians today simply don’t believe that peace is possible."
He then provides an infographic worthy of a quarterly presentation that outlines fourteen points of action to ensure all live happily ever after.
It is worth taking a moment to recall what a suspension of belief actually entails. The term was coined by Romantic poet Samuel T. Coleridge (of "Kubla Khan" fame) to suggest that if a poet could meld "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a tale then perhaps a reader might conveniently forget the implausibility of the narrative. In modern times, it's essentially come to mean that one can push aside the real limitations or complications of a situation to work/believe the impossible. One might enjoy a TV show where the hero leaps tall buildings in a single bound without having to worry about the fact that such things can't be done.
The problem here rears its ugly head when Ross applies the literary device to a policy prescription. He seems to present the Mideast peace equivalent of: the only reason we can't leap tall buildings in a single bound is because we believe we can't.
Gallup has a new poll out about U.S. public opinion on military issues. It reports that only half of Americans believe that the United States “is number one in the world militarily,” while a remarkable 47 percent think “it is only one of several leading military powers.” Needless to say, these 47 percent are mistaken, as the U.S. armed forces far exceed those of any other nation in terms of both spending and strength.
But while some commentators who have remarked on this poll have tied it to the ongoing debate over sequestration and the coming cuts in defense spending, the results seem to say something broader. After all, as Gallup has asked that question over the past twenty years, at least 34 percent in every survey have denied that America has the world’s strongest military. The number may have increased over the past three years, but the misperception it represents is not a new one.
After World War II Austria portrayed itself as the leading victim of Nazism. It had been conscripted into the Third Reich in 1938, so the story went. Forgotten were the jubilant crowds at the Heldenplatz in Vienna where the Fuhrer addressed his adoring countrymen after the Anschluss. After 1945 Austrians hastily said goodbye to all that even as Nazis were reincorporated wholesale into postwar society. Membership in the SS was no barrier to high political office, as the socialist chancellor Bruno Kreisky demonstrated when in 1975 he contemplated a coalition with Friedrich Peter, a former member of the Waffen-SS and leader of the postwar Freedom Party. Then came the Waldheim affair in 1986, when the former Secretary-General of the United Nations decided to run for the Austrian presidency. He won, but his past as a Wehrmacht officer in Nazi war crimes focused a spotlight on Austrian complicity with Nazism that Austrians deeply resented.
The biggest set of obstacles to achieving an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program involves each side's inclination to believe the worst regarding the other side's intentions. A major body of opinion in the United States holds that Tehran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and that any indications to the contrary—including the Iranian denials of an intention to build a nuclear weapons, the fatwas by the supreme leader saying that such weapons are un-Islamic, the continued adherence to the nonproliferation treaty, the acceptance of international inspectors, and the Iranians' restraint in accumulating any stockpile of medium enriched uranium—constitute posturing, lying or stalling. A corresponding body of opinion in Iran, which may include the supreme leader, believes that the United States is determined to achieve regime change and intends to squeeze and punish Iran until such change is indeed achieved. The Iranians have been given plenty of reason to believe that, and so when they see or hear something about the United States instead wanting to reach agreements with the Islamic Republic, the Iranians suspect that this is just posturing, lying or stalling.