Pundits and policymakers are missing the big worry about the Obama administration's Iranian nuclear deal: its greatest impact is not ensuring that Iran doesn't get the bomb, but that the Saudis will.
Indeed, the risk of arms race in the Middle East -- on a nuclear hair trigger -- just went up rather dramatically. And it increasingly looks like the coming Sunni-Shiite war will be nuclearized.
Two aspects of the agreement, in particular, will consolidate Saudi fears that an Iranian bomb is now almost certainly coming to a theater near them. First, the pre-emptive concession that the comprehensive solution still to be negotiated will leave Iran with a permanent capability to enrich uranium -- the key component of any program to develop nuclear weapons. In the blink of an eye, and without adequate notice or explanation to key allies who believe their national existence hangs in the balance, the United States appears to have fatally compromised the long-standing, legally-binding requirements of at least five United Nations Security Council resolutions. If the Saudis needed any confirmation that last month's rejection of a Security Council seat was merited -- on grounds that U.S. retrenchment has rendered the organization not just irrelevant, but increasingly dangerous to the kingdom's core interests -- they just got it, in spades.
Second, the agreement suggests that even the comprehensive solution will be time-limited. In other words, whatever restrictions are eventually imposed on Iran's nuclear program won't be permanent. The implication is quite clear: At a point in time still to be negotiated (three years, five, ten?) and long after the international sanctions regime has been dismantled, the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear program will be left unshackled, free to enjoy the same rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty as any other member in good standing. That looks an awful lot like a license to one day build an industrial-size nuclear program, if Iran so chooses, with largely unlimited ability to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium, a la Japan.
But of course Iran is not Japan -- a peaceful, stable democracy aligned with the West. It is a bloody-minded, terror-sponsoring, hegemony-seeking revisionist power that has serially violated its non-proliferation commitments and which aims to destroy Israel, drive America out of the Middle East, and bring down the House of Saud.
Whether or not President Obama fully appreciates that distinction, the Saudis most definitely do.
Of course, Saudi concerns extend well beyond the four corners of last week's agreement. For Riyadh, Iran's march toward the bomb is only the most dangerous element -- the coup de grace in its expanding arsenal, if you will -- of an ongoing, region-wide campaign to overturn the Middle East's existing order in favor of one dominated by Tehran. The destabilization and weakening of Saudi Arabia is absolutely central to that project, and in Saudi eyes has been manifested in a systematic effort by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to extend its influence and tentacles near and far, by sowing violence, sabotage, terror, and insurrection -- in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and most destructively of all, in the IRGC's massive intervention to abet the slaughter in Syria and salvage the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Read the full article here.
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Before ink had been put to paper -- let alone dried -- on an interim nuclear bargain with Iran Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced it as "the deal of the century" for Tehran , noting that Iran would not have to dismantle even one centrifuge. If a deal is culminated, others will no doubt defend it, arguing that Iran's enrichment program is a fait accompli; that we can hope only to contain it, not to end it, or even to roll it back.
So over the next few weeks the argument will play out over whether or not Iran has been pushed farther from a nuclear weapons capability, and whether sanctions relief would then be justified. This highly transactional approach would offer scant evidence of a strategic decision by Tehran to forego a nuclear weapons program in favor of a better relationship with the international community. It would, however, be consistent with a pattern of deals Tehran has sought to buy breathing space, while continuing to expand its nuclear program.
A better test of the worth of an Iranian nuclear commitment has already been specified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- how Tehran answers specific evidence of nuclear weapons development. Two years ago, the agency reported on what it called "possible military dimensions" of the Iranian nuclear program, stating:
"Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information." [pdf]
Despite the IAEA's rather anodyne label, the November 2011 report raised allegations of work that can only be explained as part of a nuclear weapons development program, including efforts "pertinent to the development of an HEU [highly enriched uranium] implosion device," such as:
These are detailed allegations, directly related to nuclear weapons development, reported by multiple sources, and in many cases cross-checked against information developed independently by the agency. They give lie to Tehran's plea that its nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.
For years, the IAEA has sought Iranian cooperation in resolving the issues associated with these activities, but Tehran has stonewalled. Even Monday's deal between the IAEA and Iran failed to address these matters. How Tehran deals with the IAEA's allegation of "a possible military dimension" to the Iranian program is critically important.
Openness would allow the IAEA to follow the leads -- inspect facilities, analyze documents, talk with scientists, check procurement records. This would enable the agency to determine what the facts on the ground are, and to root out any Iranian nuclear weapons program, if one continues to exist.
It would also signal that Tehran has decided that the costs of developing nuclear weapons are too high and the benefits of an alternative path are worth pursuing.
Alternatively, if Tehran continues to stonewall the IAEA, refusing to clarify what it has done and not done despite credible and damning evidence, we will know that the deal is tactical, not strategic, that cooperation by Tehran is incomplete and grudging, and that given half a chance, they will cheat on it.
Could such a deal still be worthwhile? Perhaps, but only if Iran is materially and verifiably farther from a nuclear weapons capability than it is today, and that would set the bar very, very high.
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Since last month's large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria injected a new sense of urgency in Barack Obama's administration regarding America's declining fortunes in the Middle East, I have repeatedly urged the administration to articulate a coherent strategy for the region (see here, here, here, and here). The administration had a Middle East strategy -- what I called a "no more Iraqs" strategy -- but it was played out. It was prone to errors of omission that were leaving U.S. interests in the region in far worse shape than they had been even five years ago.
Today, in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama offered something of a sneak peek at the administration's latest thinking about Middle East strategy. Alas, too much of the new thinking looks like the old thinking. One is left wondering how candid the administration's internal strategy sessions really have been.
The president still talks naively about "ending" wars, when all he has really accomplished is ending U.S. involvement in the wars. Iraq is arguably in worse shape today than it was when Obama took office. The trajectory for Afghanistan is very uncertain, but if Afghanistan declines as Iraq has declined since Obama withdrew U.S. combat troops, the forecast is bleak. Despite that, in his speech Obama actually declared mission accomplished in Afghanistan: "Next year, an international coalition will end its war in Afghanistan, having achieved its mission of dismantling the core of al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11." [Emphasis added.]
Some of Obama's claims are suspect, but in the usual "White House spin" way that everyone recognizes and automatically discounts, e.g., his claim that he is "working diligently to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay." Other claims seem almost like a pathological dare to the fact-checkers, e.g. his odd boast that "we have limited the use of drones" when the world knows that Obama substantially expanded the use of drones.
The heart of the problem is Obama's boast: "The world is more stable than it was five years ago." One could argue that the global economic crisis is a bit more stable, though there are good reasons to fear that this is but a lull in a storm that has by no means exhausted itself. However, it is not really possible to argue that the Middle East, the subject of the president's speech, is more stable. On the contrary, virtually every state is in a more perilous condition than it was when Obama took office. How can he hope to fashion a coherent strategy when he struggles with the very first stage of strategy formulation: ascertaining the global environment?
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This is a move borne out of weakness.
Going to Congress could have been a sign of strength if it had been done last week, before all of the signaling from the White House of an imminent attack. But aides are not even trying to spin this as a sign of presidential resolve. Instead, their own backgrounders describe it as borne partly out of political weakness, as the president stumbled on his march to war over the past week, and partly out of political pique at congressional critics. As an aide put it, "We don't want them [Members of Congress] to have their cake and eat it, too."
Given the predicament the administration's own rhetoric put Obama in, the congressional authorization gambit may be the most tactically shrewd move left to the president. But it could still backfire in ways that hurt both Obama and the country.
It might be tactically shrewd if Obama wins a decisive vote of confidence, say, something that eclipses the strong bipartisan majority that endorsed President George W. Bush's confrontation with Iraq (77-23 votes in the Senate, 296-133 votes in the House). That vote did provide political momentum for the Iraq war and did implicate Democrats in the Iraq policy. Let us not forget that that vote is why we have a President Obama and did not have a President Kerry, nor a President Biden, nor a President Hillary Clinton.
But I doubt that Obama will get such a strong political victory. His team has a very poor track record of building bipartisan coalitions on foreign policy and the last two weeks of policy incoherence have not given them any momentum. Moreover, Obama will likely struggle to hold his left wing base, while isolationist sentiments will dampen Republican support. Does Obama have the votes to override, say, a Senator Paul filibuster? Can Obama whip enough of the far left Democrats to compensate for lost votes on the right? And look for all those nay-voters to use talking points drafted from President Obama's and his advisor's own statements over the past two years defending their hitherto policy of staying out of Syria.
On the other hand, it might be tactically shrewd if, having crashed into the Syrian iceberg, the president wants simply to take down some Republicans with him as his policy Titanic sinks below the waves. If the Republicans vote down the Syrian bill Obama can forgo the strikes (the preference he signals, wittingly or not, almost every time he speaks on the issue) and blame Republicans for it. Judging from what the leaky White House was saying about the president's abrupt reversal, this might be the core objective right now.
Yet none of these tactical gains will overcome the president's biggest problem: he has no viable strategy for Syria or for the larger region.
And therein lies the biggest risk in going belatedly to Congress: the debate will necessarily expose this inconvenient truth. Punishing or not punishing Syria for crossing the chemical weapons red line is not a strategy. At best, it is only part of a strategy, and in this case President Obama has not articulated a viable larger strategy.
It will be impossible to conduct this congressional debate without addressing what the president intends to do about the turmoil in the region, and how these strikes serve that larger strategy. Right now, the administration cannot answer those questions. Over the next couple weeks, they will scramble to supply one.
The only optimistic outcome I can think of is that the debate manages to not only expose the strategic deficit, but also prods the administration finally to confront it and overcome it with a new, coherent and sufficiently resourced approach to the region. In this rosiest of scenarios, the necessity to work across the aisle in pursuit of congressional authorization might even be the wake-up call the administration has hitherto resisted.
But I am not optimistic this rosy scenario will arise. It seems more likely that the congressional chapter of the Syrian saga will result in any of several bad outcomes:
* a razor thin vote of approval that hardens political divisions in the country and exposes but does not fix Obama's strategy deficit, obligating the administration to go forward with minimal political support.
* a negative vote that Obama "honors" thus yielding all of the negative consequences the president himself said inaction in the face of chemical use would engender.
* a negative vote that Obama defies -- a defiance that is almost without precedent (and the only precedents I can think of are bad, very bad: Iran-Contra).
And yet, even after all of those bad outcomes, the president will still have to struggle through many more chapters of the saga, confronting all of the regional problems that will remain without a strategy commensurate with the task and even weaker politically than he was just a few short weeks ago.
This last prospect is one that should please no one who cares about the national interest. Obama is in perilous waters, but he has taken us in the ship of state with him there. We all should hope that he gets us out of this more deftly than he got us in.
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One of the intriguing uncertainties surrounding the Syrian chemical weapons crisis is the question of motive: Why would Bashar al-Assad's regime do something that would risk U.S. military reprisals? Framed in this "who benefits?" way, the question seems to answer itself: Surely Assad does not want a U.S. military reprisal, so he would not have done something that would catalyze a reprisal. The rebels, however, did want to draw the United States in. Since, according to this line of reasoning, the rebels are the ones most likely to benefit, isn't it possible that they manufactured the chemical use? This is the official Syrian position, backed at least by the Russians. And there is some historical precedent for this, as Alan Kuperman has argued with respect to the Balkans.
Barack Obama's administration is confident that this is not what happened in this case. Indeed, without using the unfortunate phrasing, it has boasted that it has a slam-dunk case of Syrian guilt. There is always a chance that the Obama administration and the über-confident intelligence assessment are wrong. And it may be years before we have all the evidence we need to reach a conclusion provable in a court of law.
However, we already know enough to reason our way to a plausible explanation that answers the "how could the Syrian regime miscalculate this badly and do something that triggers a U.S. response" question in a manner that supports the Obama administration's side of the story. All that is needed is two crucial steps to be true:
Step 1: The Assad regime must have believed that it could get away with small chemical attacks -- attacks big enough to terrorize the rebels and divert rebel resources, but small enough to avoid triggering U.S. action. According to Obama administration sources, Assad's regime may already have done this in the spring. The Syria-related signaling from the Obama administration has been confusing over the past two years, but one unmistakable message has gotten through: President Obama is reluctant to intervene in the Syrian crisis and has tolerated a humanitarian disaster far in excess of what any single chemical weapons attack could produce. This is not to claim that Obama has been insensitive, uncaring, or even necessarily wrong in his judgment about U.S. national interests and the utility of U.S. military options. But let us be clear: The Assad regime had lots of reason to doubt Obama's resolve and to believe that it could escalate a bit without triggering a U.S. response.
Step 2: The Assad regime did not expect the chemical attack last week to be quite as vivid an escalation as it turned out to be. A crucial part of this explanation is that the regime must have wanted a smaller escalation than the one that happened. According to FP's Noah Shachtman, that is exactly what happened. In an exclusive based on intelligence sources, Shachtman claims, "Last Wednesday [Aug. 21], in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people." In other words, the allegedly overheard conversations convinced the intelligence community that the Syrian regime knew that it had done the chemical attack but was shocked at the scale of the results. Thus, whether due to human error, the friction of military operations, or other miscalculations, the Syrian regime overshot its purported target of escalation and may have inadvertently triggered a U.S. response.
This is not the only plausible interpretation of the available evidence. The intelligence Shachtman cites could also indicate unauthorized use by lower-level commanders that surprised the regime not merely in the scale but also in the very existence of the attack. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps Assad actually wants to draw the United States in because he calculates that Obama's manifest desire not to intervene in the civil war will yield a tepid U.S. strike that Assad can easily withstand. Defying the United States and living to boast about it might be the game-changer Assad needs to demoralize the rebels into making major concessions. Or perhaps key parts of the evidence are flawed and something else entirely has happened. It would not be the first time that the intelligence community missed a slam dunk.
However, we know enough to say one thing: The possibility that Assad might not have wanted to suffer the U.S. military reprisal that seems imminent is not strong evidence that the regime did not authorize the chemical attack. In fact, the preponderance of the evidence available at this time makes it highly plausible that Assad thought Obama was bluffing and thought he, Assad, could get away with calling it, provided he did so on the margins.
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The rising tide of war in the Middle East is giving way to a rising tide of chaos. It is also making me think that my balanced appraisal of the Obama administration's Middle East strategy may have been too optimistic. I credited Barack Obama's "lead from behind" strategy with avoiding what Obama supporters like to call "another Iraq." What they usually mean by that is, as I put it: avoiding "a controversial decision for war that yields a bloody conflict that crowds out other national security priorities by committing the lion's share of our defense, diplomacy, and development tools to a venture with uncertain prospects."
However, Obama's strategy has yielded "other Iraqs," as defined thus: bloody sectarian conflicts that, unless resolved successfully, put in jeopardy American national interests, threaten wider regional conflicts, and hasten a global perception of American decline. Syria has long since passed that threshold. Egypt seems teetering on the edge. Iraq is inching back in that direction too. If Egypt and/or Iraq follow Syria over the abyss, can Jordan or Lebanon be far behind?
Is it fair to credit/blame these developments as the fruits of Obama's regional strategy? In political terms, perhaps not (yet) to the degree that George W. Bush's administration bears responsibility for Iraq. It is easier to trace a direct line of responsibility from acts of commission (invading Iraq) than it is from acts of omission (failing to intervene decisively as Syria, Egypt, or Iraq devolves).
The extent of Obama's culpability depends on whether alternative policy choices could have yielded better results. In that regard, I was intrigued by Thomas Pierret's detailed account (over on FP's Middle East Channel) of the effects of differential levels of external support on the Syrian insurgency. Pierret's bottom line is more bullish on Syria than I would be. Here is his rosy assessment:
In any case, recent military developments show that Syrian insurgents have become increasingly dependent on state supporters for their logistics. Gone are the days when rebels could storm lightly defended regime positions with assault rifles and a few RPGs. The retreat of loyalist forces on heavily fortified bases last winter has required a major quantitative and qualitative increase in the opposition's armament. This is something only foreign governments, not jihadi utopians, can offer. Given Saudi Arabia's apparent determination to lead the way in that respect, this situation will probably continue to favor mainstream insurgents over their radical brothers in arms in the foreseeable future.
But his analysis of the past contains a powerful, if implicit, critique of Obama's hands-off approach to Syria:
The radicalization of the Syrian insurgency has often been interpreted as a quasi-natural phenomenon, the inevitable outcome of a brutal sectarian conflict that has made Salafi-jihadi ideology increasingly appealing to Syrian Sunnis. This view is debatable, however, since the rise of radical Salafi groups throughout 2012 was in fact paralleled with the watering down of their rhetoric....The one main reason for the success of hard-line Salafists throughout 2012 was a matter of superior material resources. As illustrated in numerous press reports at that time, such resources made them inherently more appealing but also more disciplined compared with groups that sometimes had to finance themselves through looting and other criminal activities.
In other words, at the crucial early stage of the crisis, when Obama was resisting pressure to provide material support to moderate factions, the jihadi terrorist groups used this window of opportunity to skew the rebel movement in their direction. Of course, Pierret goes on to argue that moderate factions can regain the initiative -- and perhaps are already in the process of doing so -- because the underlying ideological distribution within Syria favors them.
If Pierret's prospective judgment is correct, Obama may yet dodge the Syrian bullet. But if only his retrospective judgment is correct, it is Obama's critics, not his defenders, who are right.
The historical debate matters in many ways, but one that has been comparatively less remarked upon is that if Pierret's retrospective analysis is right, it provides the outlines for Hillary Clinton's brief on foreign policy in 2016.
Clinton will have many things going for her in a 2016 presidential run, but it looks increasingly like the Obama foreign-policy legacy could be a net negative. Of course, many things could change between now and then, but if current trajectories hold, it may be hard to argue that the United States is in a better global position in 2016 than it was in 2008. Yes, the easing of the global recession will be a major positive factor, and the world is a better place without Osama bin Laden. But on most other foreign-policy lines, a fair-minded assessment could well be negative for Obama's legacy.
Clinton is tightly linked to that Obama foreign-policy legacy, so she'll look for ways to take credit for any good while blaming all of the bad on others within the Obama administration. In this regard, look for candidate Clinton to remind voters that she famously argued for a more muscular approach to Syria earlier in the crisis. Such an approach might have better positioned the moderates to resist the influence of the terrorist fringe. It might also have meant the toppling of Bashar al-Assad's regime before the sectarian civil war reached the horrific levels it now has reached. Of course, the case of Iraq shows that even a rapid regime change with substantial U.S. military force and influence on the ground is no guarantee of success. But Clinton will benefit politically if she can argue with some credibility that Obama's most dramatic foreign-policy failures are associated with times when Obama overruled his secretary of state.
It is harder to see what will be her line on Egypt. The Obama administration's Egypt policy has utterly collapsed, and perhaps Clinton has an explanation of her role in the crafting of that policy that puts her in a better light, but if so, it has yet to get much traction.
Of course, responsibility for repairing U.S. policy rests with the sitting administration, but the one who would like to shoulder that responsibility next -- especially one so closely tied to Obama's foreign-policy legacy -- has got some explaining to do.
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The revolutionary (and now counterrevolutionary) cauldron in the Middle East is so vexing because multiple conflicts are occurring on multiple levels all at once. The region is being consumed not just by one contest, but four. Each of these four contests has its own unique dynamic, but each also touches on the others and often multiple conflicts reinforce one another. While daily headlines focus on internal tumult in places like Egypt and Syria, the deeper fault lines crisscross the entire region in a byzantine web, sometimes along national borders and sometimes across them, sometimes along confessional lines and sometimes through the heart of Islamic theology.
The four contests are:
The Great Power Contest. This contest is primarily between Russia and the United States, with Britain, France, and China also playing active albeit secondary roles. For the United States the question is whether it will remain the predominant outside power within the region; for Russia the question is how much Moscow can erode America's standing. The war in Syria is the most visible proxy conflict in this contest, but Russian and Chinese efforts to shield Iran's nuclear program are also expressions of their efforts to play spoiler roles and undermine American interests.
The Regional Power Contest. This is the conflict over which Middle Eastern nation(s) will be the dominant power in the region. For some time the standoff has primarily been between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but now others such as Turkey and Qatar are jockeying for position and seeking to extend their influence. The alliances are ever shifting; a year ago it appeared that the Saudis and Qataris were aligned in their support for the Syrian rebels, but recent weeks have seen a much-commented split between the two over which Syrian factions to support and in Egypt over whether to back the Muslim Brotherhood (Qatar's choice) or the military (Saudi Arabia's preference). Not to be overlooked is the more profound shift represented by Egypt's implosion and diminished regional influence, and thus the apparent end (or at least suspension) of the decades-long rivalry between Cairo and Riyadh for regional leadership.
The Religious Contest. This is the Sunni-Shiite conflict, articulated most expansively by Vali Nasr in his 2006 book The Shia Revival. The fault lines in this contest are not along nation-states per se but rather among the Sunni and Shiite leadership and communities across the region. While sometimes coextensive with nation-states and represented by particular governments (primarily Iran for the Shiites and Saudi Arabia for the Sunnis), the contest is ultimately transnational and cuts across confessional lines in countries like Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. This contest helps explain the irritating acquiescence of Nouri al-Maliki's Iraqi government in Iranian-Hezbollah support for Bashar al-Assad's regime. In turn this contest has its own multiple sublevels and internal rivalries, such as Shiism's struggle between Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's more quietist school and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's militancy, or the multiple competing claimants to the theological mantle of Sunni leadership.
The Ideological Contest. This conflict is between Islamism and pluralism. While this contest also has an irreducibly religious dimension, ultimately the debate is over what will be the dominant mode of political organization in the region: Islamist ideology or pluralism. The former seeks to impose a narrow, politicized version of sharia law and brooks no dissent; the latter protects political space for a diverse array of participation, religious and secular. Pluralism is obviously inherent in liberal democracy, but pluralism is also quite possible under benign autocracies and monarchies. It has a moderating effect in its own right and can also play an important role in economic and political liberalization. Like the Sunni-Shiite contest, this ideological conflict is also primarily taking place within Islam. But non-Muslims, especially Egypt's Coptic Christians and other religious minorities across the region, are also active participants in the debate and have an existential stake in its outcome.
These four contests are not discrete and exclusive, but are taking place simultaneously and often feeding on each other. In some cases the primary actor is the nation-state; in others it is a transnational religious community or political movement. In some cases the main instrument in the contest is force; in other cases it is diplomatic, economic, ideational, even spiritual. In some cases the stakes are a classical realpolitik question of which nation-state will emerge stronger; in other cases the stakes are an existential question of whether a particular nation-state can even survive -- and whether the nation-state model itself will continue to be the basic political unit in the region. In a few cases the outcomes will merely be local concerns; in most cases the outcomes will substantially implicate American interests.
The challenges in crafting a coherent strategy in this milieu are manifest. Setting priorities among the various contests is hard, as is finding levers of influence among a limited set of options. Sometimes advancing a strategic equity in one contest can diminish a strategic equity in another contest. Such is the case with Syria, where all four contests are in acute tension, most visibly in the mantra that intervening to curtail Russian and Iranian influence could also strengthen the hands of violent Islamists.
In the face of these challenges, the White House's approach to the region seems to have been a combination of "hands up and hands off" -- that is, throwing its hands up in exasperation at the multiple conflicts and limited options, and consequently adopting a hands-off posture. Barack Obama's administration has relentlessly told itself about all the negatives of engagement in the region and in the process has created a set of self-fulfilling prophecies.
When considered in the aggregate, however, the United States has substantial interests in the outcomes of these four contests, including preserving its influence as a stabilizing force in the region, encouraging pluralism as an antidote to radicalization, and preventing regional dominance by other malevolent actors, especially a nuclear Iran. Just as the several contests are linked to each other in their negative consequences, so could positive developments on one front lead to progress on other fronts.
Where to start? Addressing the four contests can begin with a focus on two countries, Egypt and Iran, and one issue, religious freedom. In Egypt, the erstwhile Muslim Brotherhood government's overreach and ineptitude significantly damaged the brand equity of Islamism. As Michael Singh and Robert Satloff have pointed out, the new Egyptian government provides an opportune moment for a needed reset to the U.S. relationship with Egypt and thus the region. In Iran, as John Hannah highlighted, the election of Hasan Rouhani presents an opportunity for an invigorated dual-track approach that would reassert American leadership: increased support for the freedom aspirations of the Iranian people and increased pressure on the nuclear program in the form of a credible threat that arrests Tehran's dissemble-and-delay tactics. Such renewed initiative with Egypt and Iran, two historical leaders in the region, would also restore U.S. credibility with Saudi Arabia, a third regional leader. Meanwhile, promoting religious freedom across the region would help encourage authentic pluralism, ameliorate extremism, and allow space for Islamic political participation while guarding against intolerant Islamism.
Two and a half years after Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation set an entire region ablaze, the contours of the multiple contests are now clear. And past rationales for American passivity now pale in comparison with the compelling American interests at stake in the outcomes of each contest.
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Barack Obama's administration is on "the side of the Egyptian people," according to the State Department. "We're not taking sides." The administration is kidding itself if it believes this pose will be seen as neutral while Egypt burns. First of all, taking the side of "the Egyptian people" means supporting a military coup that overthrew an elected president. Otherwise you'd take the side of democratic institutions.
The U.S. president clearly has not, as his statement declined to describe the military overthrow as a coup, and he is looking for ways not to comply with the law requiring suspension of assistance to governments that come to power by military force. The Obama administration seems to believe that a speedy return to civilian governance that the military condones will make Egypt once more democratic. The justifying principle being put forward by the administration is that the coup is popular. White House spokesman Jay Carney, explaining why the administration is disinclined to cut aid to the Egyptian military, said, "It is a highly charged issue for millions of Egyptians who have differing views about what happened."
Nearly 16 million Egyptian people participated in demonstrations, and most cheered when the military reasserted its role as superior to civilian power in Egypt. But a roughly equivalent number of Egyptians continued -- and continue -- to support Islamist parties. The Obama administration is aligning its rhetoric with demagogues the world over, who always claim to act in support of the will of the people and who are governments of men, not laws.
Now the administration is evidently focused on convincing the Muslim Brotherhood to "return to the political process," by which it means "forget the coup that just happened, ignore the fact that your leadership is once again under arrest, and accept the new rules of the game the military has imposed." The administration is once again a few beats behind the music -- the al-Nour Party, the only Islamists who supported the coup, withdrew its support of the interim government Monday. And then there is the fact of 40 dead and 500 wounded among the Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
There is zero probability the Brotherhood will fall into line supporting "democracy" when that equates to "the military intervening to overthrow elected Islamists." The likelier outcome is a descent into protracted violence. Expect the cars of government officials to be blown up, the Brotherhood to be driven underground, and the gaining of ground of the al Qaeda narrative that "Western ways" of elections and civil society can't produce the change societies in the Middle East desperately need. Jihad is a likelier result in Egypt than Islamists validating a machination that deprived them of elected office.
And what will happen if the administration's policy succeeds, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nour Party do participate in elections, and they are returned to power? Egypt's liberals have so far proved unable to cooperate and organize. (U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson was not wrong in suggesting they direct their energy toward elections rather than protests.) Will the military allow them to return to the presidency or a leading role in the parliament? Egypt's military is now the rule-setter.
Another discordant note is the insistence -- including by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff -- that the United States has enormous influence over the Egyptian military. Making that claim just after the Egyptian military has overthrown an elected government will surely convey U.S. support for the usurpation of civilian power. Worse yet, it's clearly untrue. Reports that the national security advisor, secretary of state, secretary of defense, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had tried unsuccessfully to restrain Egypt's military led to the opposite conclusion: that the United States has very little influence over a military determined to once again entrench itself above elected civilians.
Administration supporters are suggesting the United States ought not suspend the $1.2 billion in military assistance it provides Egypt because doing so would reduce U.S. influence. With such little influence as has been demonstrated in the past week, what would the United States be losing? Would an Egypt consumed with domestic discord actually move against Israel in violation of the Camp David Accords? It's a pretty far-fetched argument.
The Obama administration has twice in the last two years waived congressional concerns about aid to Egypt and is reportedly averse to cutting off aid now, even though the law's restrictions have been breached. This year's aid has already been dispersed, which means the administration has eight months during which to take a principled stand before any actual decisions have to be made, but instead of building U.S. influence by showing the Egyptian military there are negative consequences, the administration is looking for ways to skirt the law's provisions.
According to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, the Obama administration believes the will of the people needs to be taken into account here too. "We're also looking at what happened here on the ground," Psaki said. "There are millions of people [in Egypt] who do not think it was a coup." So the provisions of the law will be weighed against the near-term popularity of the act with protesters.
If reports are true that then-President Mohamed Morsy had agreed during the 48-hour ultimatum imposed by the military to accept a compromise prime minister and early parliamentary elections, and that the military proceeded to overthrow him anyway, the United States will be even more complicit. This is a Mossadegh moment in American foreign policy.
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In the aftermath of the Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsy, much of the debate in Washington has focused on the question of U.S. aid. Should the United States call the military's action a coup and suspend aid as demanded by the law, or not? The answer has been hotly debated, with prominent analysts and former officials coming down on either side.
But the question itself is the wrong one, and the narrow focus on U.S. aid is misplaced. As is the case with the long debate on arming the opposition and setting up a no-fly zone in Syria, it is generally misguided in foreign policy to zero in on and debate a specific tactic in the absence of any clear sense of one's objective or strategy for achieving it.
In the case of Egypt, the United States has a number of interests at play, but the one most relevant to current events is regional stability. For Egypt to play a positive role in maintaining the stability of the region, it must not only pursue stabilizing foreign policies -- such as maintaining its peace treaty with Israel and working to counter terrorism and nuclear proliferation -- but it must also be stable domestically.
Morsy seemed willing, at least initially, to pursue stabilizing foreign policies; however, his majoritarian -- and increasingly authoritarian -- approach to governing further destabilized Egypt rather than stabilizing it. At a moment when Egyptians needed their best and brightest to coalesce around principles and plans to lead their country out of political and economic crisis, Morsy sought to institutionalize Islamist ideology and amass as much power as possible for his own movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, to the exclusion of others.
The Egyptian military's solution to Morsy's misrule, however, offers little consolation to U.S. policymakers. Not only does it appear to portend increased violence, since the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists will not simply acquiesce or fade away, but the disparate groups that came together to oust Morsy do not appear to have any clearer plan than he did for pulling post-Mubarak Egypt out of its state of persistent and deepening crisis.
Washington would have preferred that Morsy be removed -- or his power diluted -- through a political power-sharing deal, which would have avoided the first problem by keeping the Brotherhood in politics and off the streets, and which would have potentially helped address the second. The challenge for U.S. policymakers now is to achieve the result that Barack Obama's administration seemed to prefer before June 30 -- a coalition government focused on alleviating Egypt's crisis -- against the backdrop of a military intervention and escalating violence.
In practical terms, this requires a quick transition from military rule to a civilian government, though not necessarily an elected one at first. To avoid a repeat of the mistakes and turbulence of Morsy's tenure, the United States should emphasize pluralism and respect for human rights; the building of democratic institutions, especially a constitution conforming to broad principles to which most Egyptians can agree, and the development of political parties; and the development of a plan for resolving the economic crisis -- rather than calling for immediate elections. Elections are necessary but, as Morsy so clearly demonstrated, not sufficient to make a democracy.
This brings one back to the question of U.S. military assistance to Egypt. While significant at $1.3 billion, this assistance does not provide the United States with much leverage over the Egyptian military. This was vividly illustrated over the past week, during which Egypt's generals disregarded the Obama administration's explicit and public warning not to oust Morsy.
While both Egypt and the United States reap benefits from their military relationship, the logic of providing Cairo with a steady stream of tanks and jets has eroded as the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli wars have faded into history. It may make sense to reconfigure and renegotiate that relationship, but the United States should be under no illusions that threatening to do so will compel Egypt's generals to do what it asks.
What does appear to concern Egypt's military and its allies, however, is the stigma that accompanies the "coup" designation, with its strong connotation of illegitimacy. If the United States makes such a designation, it is reasonable to expect that others will follow, compromising whatever government succeeds Morsy's. This provides Washington with leverage, but it will largely disappear once a determination is made. Thus, the best course of action is to defer the decision temporarily, giving the military and its allies time and incentive to act responsibly.
The other major source of leverage that the United States should seek to employ is international assistance. The economic disaster that loomed prior to Morsy's ouster continues to hang over Egypt, threatening the success of any government, however it is constituted. To emerge successfully from this crisis, Egypt will require external financing in the form of both official assistance and private investment. While U.S. aid is too small to make much of a difference to Egypt's fortunes, the sum total of assistance that can be offered by America's allies is far more significant.
To credibly put these two incentives -- international legitimacy and international aid -- on the table, Washington will need to make a major push to line up the support of allies within the region and outside it. The most skeptical may be America's Persian Gulf allies, most of which welcome Morsy's fall, and all of which have been displeased with U.S. policy, not only toward Egypt but toward other regional issues. Getting these allies on board will require overcoming a perception of U.S. passivity and inconstancy and demonstrating a willingness to act decisively not just on this issue, but also on others of vital importance to them, such as Syria and Iran.
In Egypt, the United States has been given a second chance it hoped not to require. To make the most of it, American policymakers should view it not just as a chance to revisit U.S. policy toward Egypt, but to reassert American leadership in the Middle East.
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There are worse things than a coup. For example, there is Egypt under the sway of a Muslim Brotherhood government bent on implementing an Iranian-style regime and animated by a president's inexperience, incompetence, and emotional insecurity. I realize I'm practicing psychology without a license on that last one, but it does appear Mohamed Morsy's stubbornness over the last year stems from a desperate need to assert himself and put himself beyond the criticism of his Salafi partners. It is hard to tell whether that is more of a personal need or a political one, but suffice it to say, he is no Nelson Mandela.
What has happened in Egypt over the last two and a half years through today (and it will continue for a good while) is what it looks like when a Muslim-majority nation-state with no history of self-government actually tries to democratize. There likely will be only two effective and organized players on the field: the military and the predominant religio-political (or is that the politico-religious) organization. If there will be order -- democratic or otherwise -- it will be because these two battle it out and one wins and the other loses; the West will hope that the winner promotes democracy. It is not pretty, it takes a long time, and there are the inevitable fits and starts. And if there is not a military that can stand apart from the political scrambling, you have Gaza. Some would argue that Egypt today, with all its problems, is in far better shape than Gaza, which is now in its seventh year of Hamas misrule.[[LATEST]]
Let's be clear: No matter what blame we assign to the military or the "fecklessness" of the Egyptian people, Morsy's choices made everything worse and made himself part of the problem. He was such a terrible president that he lost apparently not only some of his own Islamist voters but also the support of some leaders in his own party. The Muslim Brotherhood began to lose credibility and the reserve of trust that comes with that credibility the moment it ran a candidate for president. It didn't help that the man the Muslim Brotherhood ran was known as the movement's "spare tire." Once they achieved the presidency with only the barest of majorities, they did nothing to solve the problems Egyptians care about most: the economy and crime. To make matters worse, they offended the huge and ever-growing number of better-educated, better-connected, and younger Egyptians who having tasted their political power are not willing to give it up. By claiming autocratic powers for himself, ramming a radical sharia-based constitution through a parliament whose election lacked public support, removing members of the judiciary, and appointing provincial governors without consultations, he sowed the seeds of an uprising. At this point, he'd have no one to turn to in order to keep his government in power but the military -- which he had humiliated as one of his first acts in power.
So, Egypt is ugly right now (it was never going to be a pretty transition to democracy), but it didn't have to be this ugly: That's Morsy's fault. The military, along with various members of the opposition, has a chance to do what Morsy and the Brotherhood refused to do: govern Egypt in the interests of all Egyptians. It was telling to see the different religious and secular elements present at Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's announcement of the military's "path forward."
Many pundits have been questioning the efficacy and desirability of the Arab Spring and democracy support generally, and they accuse democracy supporters of hypocrisy if they accept the inevitability of a coup during these transitions. But this criticism sounds like the typical criticism leveled by those who are still attacking George W. Bush (from the left as well as the right) and from those who think democracy is unachievable for some peoples. I'll ignore the politics-based criticism for now and simply note as a refutation to all those who say that Arabs can't have a democracy: For the first time in history, and for over two years, it is the Egyptian people who have been deciding the fate of their country, and that's a good start. They are doing so the only way they can in their circumstances that for now includes a risky role for the military. Give them a break: It isn't Sweden, and there are no Mandelas or Washingtons.
MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images
Once again, international events are intruding upon the administration's determination to focus on domestic policy. To no one's surprise, except perhaps, that of the White House, Iran once again has signaled that it is not interested in serious negotiations unless all sanctions, presumably to include those imposed for its support of terrorism and violations of basic human rights, are lifted forthwith. In the meantime, North Korea's secular monarch, Kim Jong Un, has sparked a new crisis on the peninsula by ratcheting up his nation's bellicosity to fever pitch. And lastly, the Syrian government appears to have at last resorted to the employment of chemical weapons against the forces of the opposition, thus crossing the "red line" that President Obama drew some time ago.
The administration's response to Iran's predictable behavior has also been predictable: regret and not much more. Its response to North Korea has been more forceful: carrier, missile defense ships and stealth bomber deployments, as well as a boosting of the missile defense budget and joint exercises with the Republic of Korea forces. But it remains unclear, to the American public, the international community, and North Korea itself, how Washington might respond if Pyongyang begins to match its words with deeds.
As for Syria, the Pentagon has deployed about 200 troops from the 1st Armored Division to Jordan, a putative "vanguard" for a larger force that would enter Syria to secure that country's chemical weapons. But if, as Britain and France assert, Bashar al-Assad is already employing these weapons, it is not at all clear how an attempt to "secure" them might actually succeed. Would it be enough to send the 1st Armored Division, with its more than 300 tanks, into Syria? Would they not themselves face the likelihood of a chemical attack by Assad's forces? How would the Syrian population react to the appearance of American tanks inside their borders? Will they be welcomed as "liberators," as they were, all too briefly, in Iraq? And then what?
Moreover, it is highly unlikely that American land forces would enter Syria without the U.S. Navy and/or Air Force launching strikes to destroy Syrian air defenses and ground facilities, and to weaken its land forces. In other words, America would go to war in Syria.
Perhaps Britain and France would join the American operation, though it is unlikely they would lead it as they did in Libya. They simply do not have the resources, and perhaps the willpower to do so. So at the end of the day, the United States would have launched its third major war against a Muslim state since the beginning of the century. And, as with Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed, the lesser Libya operation, for which Washington provided more support than was originally acknowledged, the consequences of such an attack cannot be foretold, and could well be negative.
In any event, it is not at all clear that Washington will in fact invade Syria. The last thing this administration wants is to invade another Arab state. Moreover, any additional forces deployed to Jordan could well be needed not only to assist with humanitarian activities, but also to ensure the stability of that American ally. About a half million refugees have already poured across the Syrian-Jordanian border, and some, perhaps many, of them could well be affiliated with Islamist extremists who are sworn enemies of the moderate, pro-Western King Abdullah. In the meantime, however, Assad would continue to employ chemical weapons as and when he deems it is useful to do so.
How then should Washington respond to the latest developments in Syria? Some suggest imposing an aerial no-fly zone near the Turkish border, and perhaps another near the Jordanian border. Others suggest a no-fly zone under the umbrella of Turkish-based Patriot missiles (assuming the Turks agree, of course). Yet no-fly zones will have little impact on the struggle that is taking place inside Syria apart from that between the regime and the opposition. In the conflict, between, on the one hand, Islamic extremists supported by the Qataris and to a lesser extent the Saudis, and, on the other, the moderate opposition, it is the extremists that are gaining the upper hand. Should the regime fall, and the extremists come to power, they will pose a new, and more immediate threat to both Israel and Jordan. Indeed, such a regime might well choose to align itself with Iran as well; after all, Hamas has received Iranian support ever since it came to power in Gaza. Washington's first priority, therefore, should be to ensure that the extremists do not control a post-Assad government. To do so, it must arm the moderate opposition. And it must do so now; time is not on the side of the moderates; indeed, as the revolutions and civil wars of the past, from the French to the Russian revolutions have demonstrated over and over again, time is rarely, if ever, on the side of the moderates.
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Watching the nightmare in Syria unfold, you have to ask yourself: Could the Obama administration have made a worse hash out of the situation if it had tried?
Short of an outright Iranian victory that saw the Assad regime's power fully restored, it's hard to imagine a more dire set of circumstances for U.S. interests. The Syrian state is well on its way to imploding. A multiplicity of increasingly well-armed militias are rushing to fill the vacuum. At the forefront of the fight are a growing number of radical Islamist groups, including some affiliated with al Qaeda. The prospect that Assad' s demise will be accompanied by the use (and/or proliferation) of chemical weapons and massive communal bloodletting gets higher by the day. Libya on steroids is what we're looking at, only this time not on the distant periphery of the Middle East but in its heartland, a gaping strategic wound that is likely to threaten the stability and wellbeing of Syria's five neighbors -- critical American partners all -- for years to come.
Does it require saying that it need not have been this way? That with sustained American leadership over the past 21 months the most threatening aspects of this crisis could not only have been seriously mitigated, but U.S. interests significantly advanced?
This isn't simply a case of Monday-morning quarterbacking. The number of articles written since March 2011 urging the administration to action to hasten Assad's end -- short of ground troops, but including a wide menu of coordinated diplomatic, economic, security, and intelligence steps -- would fill volumes. Ditto the number of analysts who repeatedly warned that left to its own internal logic, the Syrian crisis would veer increasingly toward disaster. Abandoned to face Assad's slaughterhouse alone, it was entirely predictable that those masses of average Syrians who week after week, month after month, literally begged for Western intervention to help topple the tyrant and shape a post-Assad future would eventually be eclipsed by jihadism's black flag.
The administration dismissed it all with so much disdain. Reckless. Simplistic. Pouring fuel on the fire, they charged. Down that way, they insisted, was only a parade of horribles: sectarian conflict, civil war, al Qaeda's empowerment, a failed state, loose WMD, and international spillover. Sound familiar? Indeed. Virtually every risk the administration warned might be triggered by U.S. intervention has been made all-too-real in the absence of U.S. intervention.
This was abdication masquerading as serious foreign policy; a flight from leadership gussied up to appear as thoughtful restraint, prudence, realism.
How else to characterize a strategy that repeatedly put its faith in Vladimir Putin of all people -- the arsenal of Syria's dictatorship -- to deliver an acceptable political solution just as Assad's savagery was getting into gear, and after the U.S. had sworn up and down that it had no intention of providing meaningful assistance to the regime's foes? Likewise the subsequent indulgence for months on end of Kofi Annan's well-meaning, but quintessentially toothless diplomacy on behalf of the UN.
Again, there was no shortage of observers at the time highlighting the fact that absent American leadership to help Syria's opposition alter the correlation of forces on the ground, these maneuvers were doomed to fail, and even worse to provide international cover for Assad to massacre thousands more. It would be an insult to their intelligence to say U.S. officials were not cognizant of this reality. This was something more cynical, something more calculated. Not diplomacy as solution, but diplomacy as excuse, a rationale for avoiding the kind of muscular action that the administration was loathe to take -- especially in an election year, especially in a benighted Middle East that in the eyes of most Americans long ago exceeded its allotment of U.S. attention, treasure and sacrifice.
All of which has left us here, confronting an oncoming train wreck of well-armed Islamists, battle-hardened and thirsty for power and revenge on the one hand, and a crumbling, desperate dictatorship on the other, its hands drenched in the blood of its own people and sitting on top of the Middle East's largest arsenal of chemical weapons.
Belatedly, it seems to have dawned on the administration that simply sitting on the sidelines, allowing events to play out while hoping for the best might not accrue to U.S. interests, and could well prove catastrophic. But having waited so long to act, the window of opportunity that was once available for shaping an outcome consistent with U.S. concerns has narrowed considerably, if not closed. A popular movement whose core once clamored for Western leadership and intervention has grown increasingly embittered and resentful at what they perceive to be their near total abandonment by Washington. With more than 40,000 corpses underfoot, frantic 11th-hour moves by the U.S. to mobilize a coherent political opposition, establish influence with armed groups, and marginalize extremist militias like Jabhat al-Nusra that have carried a major brunt of the fighting are widely viewed with a mixture of suspicion and contempt -- not just too little too late, but part of some larger conspiracy to abort the revolution's victory over Assad just as it comes into view.
What to do when no good options remain? If rebel advances have finally convinced the Russians that Assad's days are indeed numbered, a very slim chance may still exist for some form of last-ditch diplomacy that salvages the core structures of a functioning state and averts the black hole of uncontrolled collapse and chaos. The starting point would have to be the rapid exit from power of Assad and his immediate clique, either via voluntary exile abroad or some version of a palace coup. A UN-brokered negotiation on a political transition would then ensue between a remnant of the Alawite regime and the internationally-backed opposition, leading hopefully to a ceasefire, some form of national unity government, and eventually a new constitution with credible guarantees for Syria's minority communities, followed by free and fair elections.
No doubt this is a very tall order. What the Russians could actually deliver with respect to Assad, even if they wanted to, is a major question mark. More importantly, why the armed opposition, especially its most radical elements, would ever agree at this point to stop short of an outright military victory that ended with the storming of Assad's palace is not at all apparent. Convincing them and the Syrian people otherwise would require a unified, full-court diplomatic press by all Syria's major outside stakeholders, equipped with a powerful panoply of both pressures and inducements.
Short of that kind of diplomatic miracle, the outlook is extremely bleak. Battening down the hatches and riding out the storm as Syria fractures may be the best we can do. Working as closely as we can with our key partners in the region and internationally, we should identify those armed groups that are prepared to work with us and have no truck with the most extreme Islamists. Strengthen political and military alliances between them. Provide the humanitarian aid and resources they need to consolidate and expand their popular support, as well as defensive weaponry and training to provide local security and fend off both the jihadists and Iran in the post-Assad era. Critically, we need a viable plan for securing and/or neutralizing Syria's chemical weapons, either in conjunction with these local forces or on our own.
Also vital will be a concerted strategy to buttress our key regional allies and contain the dangerous spillover effects of Syria's implosion. Jordan in particular is under enormous internal strain and requires urgent international support that the U.S. should immediately help mobilize, especially financially from the Persian Gulf states.
It was less than two years ago that the uprising in Syria presented the United States with a historic opportunity to weaken Iran and advance our own regional interests. Today, Syria looms as a potential strategic disaster, where America's options for positively shaping outcomes have all but vanished, and frantic efforts at damage limitation are all that remain. In the arc of that transformation from hope to despair lies the tale of a colossal policy blunder, perhaps the Obama administration's most serious to date, one whose consequences will almost surely haunt us long after the president leaves office.
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If you were Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, how worried would you be about President Obama's threats regarding a U.S. response to any use of Syrian's chemical weapons? A series of recent news pieces (here, here, and here) seem to suggest a depressing answer: not very much.
Ever since the civil war started, the nightmare scenario has been the prospect that the conflict would escalate to a point where Syria's vast chemical arsenal was in play -- either through a deliberate use or through a loss of custody. That nightmare seems ever more plausible as the civil war grinds on, particularly as the tide seems to be favoring the rebels. It is not impossible to imagine a rapid collapse of the Assad regime and, for that very reason, it is not impossible to imagine circumstances under which Assad would be tempted to gamble with a game-changer like chemical weapons.
President Obama has consistently warned that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer for American involvement, as well. The Administration has hitherto resisted calls to intervene more directly in the conflict, but it has also indicated that the United States would act militarily if chemical weapons were used.
How might Assad interpret that vague threat?
One can divide up the continuum of military response into five main categories, listed below in order of escalating involvement:
1. Symbolic punitive strike: a military response designed to indicate sharp disapproval, but otherwise not tilting the balance in the civil-war and not securing the WMD.
2. Game-changing military operation that topples Assad regime: some combination of sustained strikes and other action (e.g., no fly zones) that tilts the military balance decisively in the rebels favor, hastening the fall of the Assad regime.
3. Destroying the chemical arsenal: conducting enough airstrikes to render the arsenal unusable by Assad or by terrorists and militia groups.
4. Invading to secure the WMD arsenal: deploying enough ground troops to secure the many chemical depots and to hunt down any weapons that may have slipped away.
5. Invading to guarantee a favorable political transition: deploying enough ground troops to guarantee the toppling of the Assad regime and assure a transition to a new political order more favorable to U.S. interests.
None of these is an attractive option.
Option 1 is trivially easy to do but will not accomplish much beyond its symbolism -- even its symbolic message may be undone, since a response like this signals weakness as loudly as it signals disapproval.
Option 2 is a bit more challenging -- but compared to the other options quite doable. However, it will not address our biggest concern about the chemical weapons. It will implicate the United States in the civil war without giving us much leverage over the political outcome or the disposition of the chemical weapons.
Option 3 may not be doable and would involve tremendous collateral damage. The arsenal is vast, and widely dispersed, and destroying all of it from air would require a very lengthy sustained bombardment. In the process, the air strikes would result in extensive contamination and casualties in communities near the depots. Even then we could not be certain that all of the weapons were destroyed before terrorists got their hands on some.
Option 4 would be a daunting military operation, and depending on the state of Syrian forces could approximate another Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF, the invasion of Iraq in 2003). Once in Syria, the pressure for mission-creep to expand to policing a political resolution to the civil war would be nearly irresistible. Also, this would take a long time to assemble (think how long it took to build up to OIF) and some chemical weapons could go missing in the delay.
Option 5 would be tantamount to another OIF -- all of the downsides of Option 4 plus an indefinite commitment to a hostile occupation.
The Obama Administration has assiduously avoided spelling out with any clarity what the President might be contemplating, but some things are clear. Obama has built his entire regional strategy around the "no more Iraqs" objective. There is a double meaning: "no more Iraq" in the sense of leaving Iraq regardless of consequences and taking a hands-off approach to the unraveling situation there, and "no more Iraqs" in the sense of not making any military commitments that involve substantial U.S. ground troops.
Perhaps the prospect of Syrian chemical weapons landing in the hands of terrorist groups would cause the President to change his regional strategy, but a change of that magnitude would require substantial political preparation of the American public. The uncertain and vague comments so far from the Administration are far from adequate to the task. My inference, and likely the inference of Assad, too, is that Options 4 and 5 are effectively off the table.
I can well imagine that the Administration would be tempted to try Option 3, but it is far from clear that it is militarily feasible. And is there anything in the past four years that would suggest this Administration is willing to risk the substantial collateral damage that would ensue?
Option 2 is more likely and, given the fecklessness that would be signaled in Option 1, might be where the Administration ends up. But the Administration has been very wary about getting on other slippery slopes and, despite its boasts about leading from behind in Libya, the Administration understands that doing "another Libya" is a dangerous business. Indeed, the Administration has resisted pressure to do just that up until now when there was more upside potential and so why would they change their mind now when the upside looks far more bleak. It is not at all clear that the use of chemical weapons on Syrian rebel groups would be enough to change Obama's calculus.
If Assad reasons the same way I have just done, he may conclude that what Obama means by military warnings about chemical red lines is simply Option 1: punitive strikes that don't otherwise change the game. In other words, Assad may conclude that Obama's threats are the least of his worries, given how desperate his situation is.
Ironically, then, if the Obama administration really does want to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, it may have to threaten more credibly than it has so far a level of military intervention the President manifestly wants to avoid.
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While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:
1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?
2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?
3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?
4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?
5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?
1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?
2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?
1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?
2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of
2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the
world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you
do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?
3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?
1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?
2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?
3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?
4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?
5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?
1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?
2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?
3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?
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In his second debate with Governor Romney, President Obama tried to convey the idea that his administration had treated the raid on the Benghazi consulate as if it were terrorism from the start. This was a hard sell to anyone who listened to the administration's messaging on Libya over the past month, but many Obama supporters seem inclined to buy it.
I don't buy it, but I am proud to say that I predicted it, several weeks ago.
Here is how I sketched out the evolution of the Obama administration's actual messaging, and the rationale behind it. I think it stands up pretty well (unlike most other things you write, I hear the pseudonymous trolls telling me) some two-plus weeks later:
"Based on what is presently known, the following 5-step scenario seems far more plausible to me:
Initial reports were confusing (initial reports are always confusing) and left open myriad possibilities, ranging from the fairly benign (Youtube-inspired hooligans got out of control) to the most malignant (Zawahiri exacted his revenge).
Romney's initial messaging on the 9/11 anniversary attacks went over poorly and the media outrage, partly real and partly manufactured, eclipsed coverage of the underlying attacks.
The Obama team did everything they could to keep the media focus on Romney's stumbles. Partly this involved tut-tutting about what Romney said, but mostly this required not feeding an alternate storyline that indicated the attacks might have been linked to a resurgent Al Qaeda. They could accomplish the latter simply by repeating what was known -- there was a lot of Youtube-inspired hooliganism -- and keeping quiet about anything that might simply be suspected, even as those suspicions grow stronger and stronger.
The Obama team also responded in typical campaign mode: They protected the candidate and did not say anything that would raise doubts about Obama's foreign policy and national security prowess until the facts accumulated to the point where some concession was necessary. At that point, they conceded the minimum and insisted on waiting until the outcome of a (hopefully lengthy) investigation that (again hopefully) will not report out until well past election day.
The Obama team was bolstered in steps 3 and 4 by one further factor: wishful thinking. As David Ignatius spells out so clearly: "The administration has a lot invested in the public impression that al-Qaeda was vanquished when Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. Obama would lose some of that luster if the public examined whether al Qaeda is adopting a new, Zawahiri-led strategy of interweaving its operations with the unrest sweeping the Arab world." In the language of political science, the Obama team had a strong motivated bias that colored the way they interpreted ambiguous data. They were receptive to information that reinforced what they wanted to believe and viewed with suspicion and skepticism information that challenged this view.
Given that 5-step scenario, the only tricky thing for the administration was navigating the evolving messaging, which they accomplished in three moves:
Initial message: A rowdy crowd was enraged by video, not a resurgent Al Qaeda.
Interim message: Anytime a ambassador is killed by armed thugs that is self-evidently a kind of terrorism.
Eventual message: We have long called the murderous attacks terrorism and we are learning more about the degree to which networks of violent extremists, some of them inspired by AQ, but not tactically controlled by AQ central, helped in those attacks."
Obama got to the "eventual message" in the town hall debate, and then built a firewall around it with self-righteous outrage at the suggestion he would ever play politics with national security. I think he is there to stay. Unless the moderator challenges him, I would be surprised if Obama provided a more candid response at the upcoming foreign policy debate.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Last night's presidential debate was largely devoted to domestic and economic policy, reflecting the primary concerns of voters during this election season. Yet one of the few times that foreign policy came up has also generated a considerable amount of post-debate commentary -- the exchange between President Obama and Governor Romney over last month's Benghazi consulate attack. The complexities of the case came out when debate moderator Candy Crowley's clumsy effort to officiate actually made things worse, and was widely seen as an unfair intervention against Romney -- as Crowley now admits.
Even more notable, today's purported effort by the New York Times at "Clearing the Record on Benghazi" seems to be an unfortunate case of either sloppiness or partisan distortion in the guise of fact-checking. Reporter Scott Shane goes to great lengths to absolve President Obama of mischaracterizing the Benghazi consulate attack on September 11. Specifically, Shane says that "Mr. Obama applied the "terror" label to the attack in his first public statement on the events in Benghazi" and "the next day, Sept. 13, in a campaign appearance in Las Vegas, he used similar language." The article then tries to excuse the fact that the Obama administration refused to characterize the Benghazi atrocities as an organized attack by a terrorist group with the head-scratching assertion that "the 'act of terror' references attracted relatively little notice at the time, and later they appeared to have been forgotten even by some administration officials."
As anyone who has worked in either government or the media knows, senior administration officials use their public words carefully, deliberately, and in a coordinated manner -- they do not simply "forget" how to describe a major event in which four American officials were killed.
The fact that President Obama used the word "terror" is beside the point, since even a spontaneous mob lynching (the White House's preferred characterization at the time) is an "act of terror." Moreover, as anyone who has read the White House transcript can immediately tell, Obama used the word "terror" in reference to the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Curiously Shane's article omits this context and fails to link to the transcript.
Rather, the core question from Benghazi is whether it was a pre-meditated attack by an organized terrorist group, or spontaneous mob violence in response to the anti-Muhammed video. The available evidence overwhelmingly substantiates that it was the former, yet for over a week after the attack the Obama administration systematically insisted that it was the latter.
This line was most evident in U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's talking points, delivered verbatim at the behest of the White House on multiple news shows. Those talking points were explicitly designed to do two things: 1) knock back the "this was a terrorist attack" allegation and 2) advance the White House's preferred angle that the assault on the consulate was a spontaneous mob response to the offensive video. This deliberate messaging campaign achieved both goals temporarily, until more evidence began to surface publicly about both the nature of the attack and the early reporting on it by the American intelligence community.
Only after this campaign crumbled did the Obama administration decide to pivot awkwardly to the new angle that President Obama himself pushed last night -- creating the misleading impression that the White House had never peddled the "this wasn't a pre-meditated terrorist attack" line in the first place.
Why does this even matter? Because it is not a trivial quibble over words but rather a serious debate over some of the Obama administration's core national security doctrines and claims of success. To Shane's credit, he mentions this at the end of his article. Specifically, the White House has for months been boasting that Al Qaeda is near-defeat, and has been portraying the 2011 Libya intervention as an unqualified success. These are in part political claims that feature in the Obama re-election campaign, but they are also policy commitments that guide how the administration acts -- including mid-level State Department officials who deny requests for increased security in Libya.
The fact that an Islamist terrorist group with links to al Qaeda and operating in Libya could stage such a destructive attack on American property and personnel severely undercuts both of those White House claims. Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers may not be "on its heels" after all (as even the White House might now be acknowledging), and "leading from behind" coupled with anemic post-conflict stabilization efforts may not have led to a stable, peaceful Libya. At a minimum, those are legitimate topics for debate.
A perpetual concern of policymakers is to learn from the purported "lessons of the past," and in particular to avoid the alleged mistakes of their predecessors. This mentality characterizes almost all presidential administrations that assume power following a presidency by the other party, and was especially explicit in the Obama White House as it took office determined to be the "un-Bush." Exhibit A in this paradigm was the Iraq War, and among the lessons that the Obama team took from Iraq were the profound risks and unintended consequences of American interventions in troubled Middle Eastern countries. These negative outcomes included sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence.
Yet here is the problem. Now that a year and a half has elapsed in the war in Syria, and the Obama administration's non-involvement has resulted in ... sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence.
Consider this grim assessment from today's New York Times article by David Sanger (a reporter generally quite sympathetic to the Obama administration). Reporting on how the arms being supplied to Syrian rebels by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are ending up in the hands of the most virulent Islamic extremists, Sanger observes this "casts into doubt whether the White House's strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States."
Jackson Diehl renders an even more caustic verdict in today's Washington Post. President Obama's posture on Syria "exemplifies every weakness in his foreign policy -- from his excessive faith in "engaging" troublesome foreign leaders to his insistence on multilateralism as an end in itself to his self-defeating caution in asserting American power. The result is not a painful but isolated setback, but an emerging strategic disaster: a war in the heart of the Middle East that is steadily spilling over to vital U.S. allies, such as Turkey and Jordan, and to volatile neighbors, such as Iraq and Lebanon."
In other words, the Obama administration's hands-off approach has contributed to the very outcomes that the White House presumably wanted to avoid, and thought it could avoid by "learning from Iraq."
This does not mean that a more assertive American role -- whether directly supplying arms to the rebels, or more active covert support, or enforcing a no-fly zone, or even stronger measures -- would have been cost-free or even successful. Policymaking is inherently uncertain, with risks, trade-offs, and potential downsides for just about any action taken or not taken. We can't know for sure that an American intervention of some sort would have produced a substantially better outcome. But we can (and do) know that the Obama administration's approach has been disastrous.
What are some potential implications of all this? First, learning from history does not mean rigidly applying the template of the past to the present -- in other words, don't assume that just because one previous intervention turned out one way, any future intervention is bound to turn out the same way. Dissimilarities matter as much as similarities. Second, consider the past alternatives. When assessing a historical episode, don't just look at how it played out, but consider also how alternative courses of action might have transpired. In the case of learning the lessons of Iraq, this means not only examining the many mistakes made by the Bush administration, but also examining how if at all the past containment and sanctions regime could have been maintained, or what the consequences of a Saddam Hussein still in power might be. Third, when weighing the costs of any particular action, consider the costs of inaction as well. In the case of Syria, those latter costs are becoming sadly and regrettably clear.
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Last night Martha Raddatz broke the media's code of silence and revealed to the American people that there is a country called Afghanistan, that American troops are there, and that we are at war. This shocking betrayal of omerta temporarily ruffled the presidential race as it forced Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to acknowledge these heretofore unspoken realities. In the epic two-year race for president, the candidates -- no, their seconds -- were forced to spend an entire ten minutes talking about it. How did they fare?
Ryan gave one of the clearest and most thoughtful comments on Afghanistan that I've heard from any American politician from either party in years (admittedly, that is a low bar). He made clear that the Romney/Ryan ticket is committed to a successful transition to Afghan leadership. It is remarkable for its moderation; for the fact that Ryan thinks and speaks in whole, complete sentences; and for its acknowledgment of the importance of finishing the job. It is worth quoting at length (Politico has a transcript).
We don't want to lose the gains we've gotten. We want to make sure that the Taliban does not come back in and give Al Qaida a safe haven. We agree with the administration on their 2014 transition...What we don't want to do is lose the gains we've gotten. Now, we've disagreed from time to time on a few issues. We would have more likely taken into accounts the recommendations from our commanders, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, on troop levels throughout this year's fighting season. We've been skeptical about negotiations with the Taliban, especially while they're shooting at us. But we want to see the 2014 transition be successful, and that means we want to make sure our commanders have what they need to make sure that it is successful so that this does not once again become a launching pad for terrorists.
By contrast, Joe Biden said:
But we are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period. And in the process, we're going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion. We've been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now, all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's.
Biden appeared to go rogue on foreign policy. The position he outlined last night -- a complete withdrawal of all troops by 2014 -- is not the Obama administration's position, at least not its public position. President Obama has committed to an enduring international military presence beyond 2014. At the very least, it will include continued training for the Afghan army and police and an American counterterrorism capability. At the NATO Summit in Chicago earlier this year, ISAF's Declaration on Afghanistan promised NATO support to Afghanistan "up to 2014 and beyond," and promised to establish "a new training, advising and assistance mission." In the new U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed in May 2012, Afghanistan agreed to "provide U.S. forces continued access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014, and beyond as may be agreed...for the purposes of combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates."
The post-2014 mission could easily require more than 20,000 - 25,000 troops to remain in Afghanistan. Because media outlets regularly report 2014 as a "withdrawal" deadline instead of a transition deadline, it will take Americans by surprise that this is already U.S. policy. In the absence of any decisions to the contrary, bureaucratic inertia will leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan well beyond 2014. Biden is either unaware of this, or unwilling to acknowledge it. And (hat tip to The Cable), he also misstated the administration's view on the war's basic purpose and goals.
Biden's comments give credence to conservatives' fears that the Obama administration is being disingenuous about its true policy; that it has no real plans to leave a stay-behind force in Afghanistan after 2014 and is only lip-synching the responsible rhetoric to keep things calm while they hasten to withdraw. That's essentially what they did on Iraq. Ryan could have highlighted the botched efforts to get a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq and the deteriorating security there as a result, and warned the same thing may happen in Afghanistan if Obama/Biden is left in charge for another four years. He didn't, but the Romney campaign could take up that critique in coming days. If you liked Afghanistan before 2001, or if you think Iraq today is a good model for post-2014 Afghanistan, then you'll love what a second Obama term will bring us.
Vice-President Biden may have fired up his base with his sneering condescension last night, but I wonder whether he may have unintentionally fired up others as well.
Before the debate had reached the 10 minute mark, FP.com's own Josh Rogin pointed out that Biden told a whopper on Benghazi security. This is not a trivial matter, and when even mainstream reporters are saying that Biden has some "clean up of his own to do today on Libya," Biden must know he made a grave mistake.
Moreover, as this careful reconstruction makes clear, the administration faces very serious and troubling questions about the way they have misled the public on what happened in Libya.
The administration desperately needs a scapegoat to keep this scandal as far from the White House as possible. And that is why I think that, beyond Biden's fact-challenged statements, the more consequential thing he did last night was to try to make the intelligence community (IC) the scapegoat (and I am not the only one who picked up on this). Based on this interview with Obama's deputy campaign manager, the fingering of the IC appears to be a deliberate, coordinated strategy by the politicos -- and it is very risky.
First, as numerous fact-checkers have already pointed out, the administration did not merely go with whatever the IC told them. They went with whatever was the most politically useful story at the time. The Obama campaign keeps complaining about how Romney-Ryan have politicized this issue, but in fact the Obama campaign has played this as a political issue from the very start.
Second, the IC can fight back. Frustration has been mounting for years within the IC over the way the administration has politicized intelligence. At some point, that frustration could bubble over into retaliatory leaks and damaging revelations.
So far, the Obama campaign has been careful not to finger a specific person as the scapegoat.Last night, Biden kept it vague. But the talking points Biden was hiding behind were CIA talking points and the head of the CIA is David Petraeus, undoubtedly the person in the administration the American people trust most on national security -- and yet, paradoxically, perhaps the person the hardened partisans in the Obama White House trust the least. I have been surprised that Petraeus has not personally been drawn into the fight thus far, but I wonder if he heard Biden calling him out last night.
The CIA was not the only national security institution Biden took aim at last night. Even more troubling was the damage he did to civil-military relations, which I will take up in a later post.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
After giving the Obama team a pass for the first couple weeks on the likely al Qaeda 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi, the media is finally asking tough questions. And what they are finding raises troubling questions about what the Obama administration did before, during, and after the al Qaeda anniversary attacks.
Republicans risk over-reacting to this evolving storyline, particularly with the "Obama lied, Ambassador died" meme that is rising in certain sectors of the pundit world.
We may find evidence that Obama or his spokespeople lied -- that is, said things that they knew at the time were not true -- but I haven't seen convincing evidence of that yet. And, frankly, I would be surprised if that were the case. Most often, what partisans call "lies" are actually something far less sinister: inferential errors and wishful thinking. Since Democrats have peddled for years their own Big Myth about the Bush Administration "lying" about Iraqi WMD, the desire to pin that same tale/tail on the donkey is understandable. But Republicans should hold themselves to the higher standard they wish Democrats would meet rather than sink down to the level of their partisan attackers.
Based on what is presently known, the following 5-step scenario seems far more plausible to me:
Given that 5-step scenario, the only tricky thing for the administration was navigating the evolving messaging, which they accomplished in three moves:
Initial message: A rowdy crowd was enraged by video, not a resurgent Al Qaeda.
Interim message: Anytime a ambassador is killed by armed thugs that is self-evidently a kind of terrorism.
Eventual message: We have long called the murderous attacks terrorism and we are learning more about the degree to which networks of violent extremists, some of them inspired by AQ, but not tactically controlled by AQ central, helped in those attacks.
This is all very
understandable, and I just don't have much patience for the view that pretends
to be genuinely shocked that the Obama team has been playing politics with
national security at this stage in the campaign.
Perhaps we also shouldn't be shocked that the media let them get away with it for so long. The political game of footsie I outline above was only viable if the media played along, which they were willing to do for a while but no longer. The media was willing to play along because they are biased, even when they do not want to be. They find it easier to understand people like themselves, Democrats, and have to work harder to understand people not like themselves, Republicans. They are as prone to reading events through pre-established filters -- for instance, the filter that says Romney is gaffe-prone on national security and Obama has a strong record on terrorism -- as everyone else. And they must work in the hostile environment of the White House's "Chicago rules," which punishes reporters who challenge the administration. The better reporters overcome this, and we can see the fruits of their labors in the new scrutiny and skepticism of recent stories.
Campaigns should certainly point out and push back against biased media coverage, but campaigns should also understand that media bias is a given, rather like the Electoral College, and strategize accordingly.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages
Prior to the terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the subsequent anti-U.S. demonstrations throughout the Muslim world, the conventional wisdom held that President Obama was unassailable on foreign policy during the election campaign. Yet rather than tout the administration's successes -- which have produced an edge in polls as to who the public trusts on foreign affairs -- the Obama campaign and its allies seem more eager to warn voters that Mitt Romney is planning to bring back George W. Bush's foreign policy than tout the president's "successes." "Of Romney's 24 special advisors on foreign policy, 17 served in the Bush-Cheney administration," wrote Adam Smith, the most senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee -- and that's "a frightening prospect." Similarly, during the Democratic convention, Senator John Kerry said: "[Romney] has all these [neoconservative] advisers who know all the wrong things about foreign policy. He would rely on them." Now, noted foreign policy scholar Maureen Dowd has written not one, but TWO columns decrying "neocon" influence over Romney's foreign policy.
This is an especially odd line of attack given that most of the Obama administration's foreign policy achievements are little more than extensions of Bush administration policies.
President Obama frequently boasts that he fulfilled his promise to "end the war" in Iraq. In reality, he merely adhered to the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement negotiated and signed by the Bush administration in 2008. What's more, as a senator Mr. Obama opposed the 2007 surge of U.S. forces that made this agreement possible. The Obama administration's only policy innovation on Iraq was last year's failure to broker a new strategic framework agreement with Iraq, a deal they had previously insisted was necessary and achievable.
Then there's the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. To be sure, the president deserves credit for launching the raid against the advice of so many of his advisors, including Vice President Joe Biden. But Mr. Obama fails to acknowledge that the intelligence chain that led to the Abbottabad raid began with detainee interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and CIA "black" sites that he vowed to close upon taking office.
What about drones? President Obama deserves credit for the successful "drone war" against al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, but the uptick in U.S. drone attacks there began in July 2008. The Obama administration's continuation of this policy is an acknowledgment -- unspoken, of course -- that the Bush administration was correct to treat the war on terror as an actual war rather than a global law-enforcement campaign.
On Iran, President Obama brags that "Iran is under greater pressure than ever before, "and "few thought that sanctions could have an immediate bite on the Iranian regime." Putting aside the fact that these sanctions were imposed upon the president by a 100-0 Senate vote, and that Obama's State Department has granted exemptions to all 20 of Iran's major oil-trading partners, this triumphalism ignores that the Bush administration worked for years to build multilateral support for sanctions (both at the United Nations and in national capitals). The Obama administration broke from this effort for two years, attempting instead to engage the Iranian leadership. When this outreach predictably failed, the Obama administration claimed that Tehran had proven itself irrevocably committed to its nuclear program -- precisely the conclusion the Bush administration had reached years earlier.
Yes, there's more to the Obama administration's foreign-policy case, but the other "achievements" are muddled ones. Even before the Benghazi attack, post-Qaddafi Libya was so insecure that the State Department issued a travel advisory warning U.S. citizens against "all but essential travel to Libya," and NATO's intervention in Libya raised the inconvenient question of why the administration intervened to alleviate a "medieval siege" on Benghazi but sits silently as tens of thousands of civilians are slaughtered in Syria.
In Afghanistan, the surge ordered by President Obama in December 2009 had the operational effect intended. But even in taking this step, the president undermined the policy by rejecting his military commander's request for 40,000 troops, declaring the surge would end according to a fixed timeline rather than conditions on the ground, and announcing the withdrawal of the last 20,000 surge forces before the Afghan fighting season ended (but before the November election). The Bush administration veterans advising Governor Romney surely know more about the importance of seeing a policy through to its fruition.
The Bush administration made many foreign policy mistakes during its eight years in office, most notably the conduct of the Iraq War after the fall of Baghdad. And Governor Romney still needs to provide details demonstrating why he would be a better steward of U.S. national security than President Obama. But the potential devolution of the Arab Spring into anti-U.S. violence demonstrates why both candidates owe the American people a serious discussion about foreign and defense policy. Hopefully in the election campaign's waning weeks the Democrats will offer much more than the ad hominen anti-Bush attacks they have provided to date.
Benjamin Runkle served in the Department of Defense and National Security Council during the Bush administration, and is author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
As the Syrian civil war drags on, and Israel moves ever closer to attacking Iran's nuclear sites, the Obama Administration seems fixated on just one objective: delaying anything from happening in the Middle East before Election Day. The White House remains passive as Bashar al-Assad continues to up the military ante against the opposition. And it continues to send high level officials to Jerusalem bringing gifts of more military machinery that, it is hoped, will assuage the Israelis for the next few months.
Despite assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, with some sotto voce help from Turkey as well, after eighteen months the rebels still have been unable to dislodge Assad. Supported by Iranians on the ground, and the Russians and the Chinese in the UN, the Syrian dictator has shown no compunction about killing as many men, women and children as it takes to quell the rebellion. He continues to play the ethnic card as well: his Kurdish PKK allies have stepped up their terrorist attacks in southeastern Turkey, while Syria's Christian communities, long protected by Assad and his father, remain nervously neutral.
At the same time, Assad's Alawi supporters are hedging their bets. They have begun a process of ethnically cleansing those enclaves where they are in the majority. It is presumed that if all else fails for the Alawis, they will withdraw to their mountain fastnesses, and take Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons with them, so as to deter any attacks from the majority Sunnis that will have come to power. Indeed, the increasingly ethnic nature of the Syrian conflict has already spilled over into both Lebanon and Iraq, promising a major regional convulsion that would likely drag in Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States and perhaps Israel as well.
Israel, in the meantime, continues to express its frustration with the lack of progress in the diplomatic talks with Iran, even as Tehran continues to upgrade its centrifuges, build more of them, and increase the number of cascades to enrich its uranium; fortify its facilities, especially at its underground Fordo site; and play cat-and-mouse with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose reports increasingly are confirming Israel's worst fears. As if that were not enough, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have stepped up their exterminationist rhetoric, calling for the removal of the cancer that is Israel.
Washington's passivity has only aggravated both situations. The Syrian civil war calls for more drastic American action. After all, when rioters initially threw stones at Assad's men, his forces responded by using light weapons against the demonstrators. When the rebels obtained light weapons, Assad's military resorted to heavy weapons. As the rebels began to use mortars, the Syrian Army attacked with tanks. And so it has gone until now, when Assad has called in his air forces to bomb the opposition into oblivion. While there is no immediate need for American military intervention, the United States could certainly do more to strengthen the hand of the rebels. Washington could ship more, and more sophisticated, arms to the rebels via their allies, who certainly can afford to pay for American equipment. And the United States could also provide more intelligence support, if not directly to the rebels, then indirectly through Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. By failing to step up its support of the rebels, the Administration undermines its credibility, both with the rebels whom it professes to support, and with Assad, whose departure it so vocally seeks.
As for the impasse with Iran, here too, the key to achieving American objectives is the credibility of American pronouncements. There is more than Washington can do as it attempts win the trust of Israel's key decision makers on any Israeli attack-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Supplying missile defense systems is simply not enough for a nation that cannot tolerate even the most minimal probability that a nuclear weapon could penetrate those defenses.
To begin with, the Administration should not backslide on the question of Iran's ability to enrich uranium. The original US position was that enrichment should terminate; any indication of a more pliable position simply reinforces the view in both Tehran and Jerusalem that Washington is not serious about stopping the Iranian program. In addition, the Obama Administration should close the massive loopholes that it has created in the sanctions program: there is no reason why exceptions should be made for China or any of the other seventeen countries that continue to buy Iranian oil without penalty. Washington's willingness to look the other way further intensifies Israeli fears that, at the end of the day, Iran will develop a nuclear capability while America and the West wring their hands.
An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is likely to prove counterproductive. Even an American attack may not shut down the Iranian program. As with Syria, so with Iran and Israel: the only way to achieve American objectives is to restore American credibility in the region. It does not help at all that the Administration not only continues to talk of a "pivot" to Asia, but is prepared to tolerate a massive reduction in American defense capability, which will surely signal an abrupt end to American presence in the region. Unless and until the Administration recognizes that it is futile, and dangerous, both to tread water until November, and treat the U.S. defense program as a hostage to tax increases, the situation in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate, to the point where, possibly as soon as October, it may well spin out of anyone's control.
As the crisis in Syria heats up, so too has talk of a possible Iranian role in resolving it. Visiting Tehran last week, U.N. envoy Kofi Annan asserted that "Iran could play a positive role" in Syria. Two weeks earlier, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov lobbied for Iran to be invited to Annan's "Syria Action Group" meeting in Geneva, citing the need to invite "everybody who has influence on all Syrian sides." The Iranians themselves have also joined the chorus, pushing to include Syria on the agenda of recent P5+1 talks and, on Sunday, offering to host talks between the Syrian regime and opposition.
The notion that Iran will help to usher in a political transition in Syria has been met with skepticism in the West. According to a recent Defense Department (DOD) report on Iranian military power and strategy, Tehran has provided the Assad regime with "military equipment and communications assistance" during the uprising, and has "probably provided military trainers to advise Syrian security forces." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it more succinctly, asserting that Iran was "helping to stage-manage the repression" in Syria. Iran's actions have not only provoked new U.S. sanctions, they run afoul of preexisting U.N. sanctions prohibiting arms sales by Tehran.
For Western policymakers to understand which view is correct -- that is, whether Iran is a potentially constructive player whose influence could sway Assad to change course, or a spoiler which could be counted upon to stymie efforts to foster an orderly political transition -- they must examine Iranian interests in Syria as well as how Iran's inclusion would affect the dynamics of international diplomacy. Such an examination yields a clear conclusion: Iran should be excluded.
The first question that must be addressed is in regard to Iranian interests in Syria -- that is, what does Tehran want to achieve in Syria? According to the DOD report, Iran as a matter of strategy "seeks to increase its stature by countering U.S. influence and expanding ties with regional actors," and uses tools including "active sponsorship of terrorist and insurgent groups...to increase its regional power." For these reasons, Syria under Assad has been an invaluable asset for Iran: a rare ally in the effort to challenge American interests in the region, a territorial base for coordinating Iranian support to groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and a forward operating hub to exert influence in Lebanon and keep Israel at bay.
Advocates of including Iran in diplomatic efforts on Syria observe that Iran was purportedly helpful in Afghanistan after 9/11, and that the U.S. engaged diplomatically with Iran regarding Iraq during the last decade, both by including Iran in multilateral meetings and by assenting to trilateral U.S.-Iran-Iraq consultations. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, however, Iran was faced with conflicting interests. In both places, Tehran shared an adversary with Washington -- the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Saddam in Iraq -- and wanted to prevent the return of that adversary.
At the same time, and demonstrably more importantly, Iran wanted to see U.S. forces exit these countries, and in both places provided lethal material support to militants waging war on U.S. forces. As it does with Syria today, Iran professed a desire to see peace and stability in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is notable, however, that even after the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Iran continues to support militias and terrorist groups in Iraq, suggesting that Tehran is in fact perfectly content to subvert regional governments and destabilize its neighbors in pursuit of its own security.
In Syria, Iran faces no such conflicting interests. The outcome the West has in mind in Syria is to Iran a worst-case scenario: an orderly transition to a representative government. Any such transitional government -- while it may not feel terribly indebted to the West, given international inaction on the Syrian people's behalf -- is likely to be at best neutral towards Iran, and more likely hostile to it, leaving Tehran deprived of one of its few allies and unable to use Syria to advance its security strategy. Iran's leaders may also worry about the precedent that would be set by Assad's forced departure, given their own recent struggles with domestic opposition.
To safeguard its apparent interests, Iran must preserve Assad or a similarly cooperative proxy, or it must fuel Syria's descent into the chaos in which Iranian agents thrive. Given Iran's track record, it can be expected to try to do both -- to continue funneling aid to Assad's forces and other proxies to battle the opposition, even as they seek to involve themselves in diplomacy with the aim of salvaging Assad's crumbling rule.
Furthermore, inclusion in international diplomacy would serve another Iranian interest at a particularly opportune time. It would bolster Iran's regional prestige and send the message that it is not, as the U.S. and others assert, isolated internationally, but is in fact a key player in shaping the Middle East's emerging security and political landscape. This may sound far-fetched in Washington and the capitals of Europe, but conspiracy theories gain ready purchase in the Middle East. With the P5+1 appearing eager to avoid war and prepared to offer concessions to Tehran, the notion of a U.S.-Iran deal on Syria will be met with credulity.
Given this -- or any alternative -- reading of Iranian interests, a second question must be addressed: How would Iran's inclusion affect the dynamics of diplomacy on Syria? Iran's participation would likely ease Russia's isolation in multilateral forums on Syria, and thus reduce the pressure on Moscow to reconsider its own support for Assad. Given that Western strategy -- wisely or not -- hinges upon persuading Russia to change course and lift its veto of U.N. Security Council action on Syria, inviting Iran to the table would be diplomatically counterproductive.
Despite hopeful pronouncements to the contrary, mere invitations to diplomatic deliberations do not cause states to revise their interests. Rather, they provide them with a vehicle to advance those interests, for better or worse. Nor do such deliberations succeed best when "everyone with influence" is invited. Rather, they work best when enough states which together have enough influence -- and who can find an overlap in their interests which all participants find preferable to the status quo or most likely alternative -- are involved. As long as the Iranian regime seeks to ensure its own security by undermining that of its neighbors, it does not qualify.
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Peter Bergen has a new piece up on CNN's website that argues the United States can declare victory over al Qaeda and wind down the war against the group. Reading through his article, I found several places where I profoundly disagreed with his analysis and therefore with his overall conclusion that al Qaeda has been defeated.
First, Bergen begins with a false analogy by arguing that the current war is nothing like World War II, and that therefore there can be no culminating peace as was signed between the Allies and Nazi Germany. This argument implies that a definitive victory over al Qaeda, one on the model and scale of the victory over the Nazis, is impossible. The current war is indeed nothing like WWII -- it's an irregular conflict being fought against an insurgent group, while WWII (for the most part), was a regular conflict fought against recognizable nation-states. It might therefore be impossible to sign a peace treaty on the decks of a battleship when this war ends, but it is entirely possible to win irregular wars and to win them as definitively and recognizably as WWII was won, as the examples of multiple conflicts throughout the twentieth century show. For instance, from 1898-1954, the U.S. absolutely defeated three separate insurgencies in the Philippines, including a nationalist insurgency, an insurgency by local Muslims, and a communist insurgency. The British took on and repeatedly defeated insurgencies (the Boers, the Malay communists, and the Kenyan Mau-Mau, for instance), and it is actually difficult to find, beyond the Sandinistas and Castro's group, an insurgency that has succeeded in Latin America.
Second, Bergen argues that the war against al Qaeda is not an "essential challenge" to the U.S. and thus can be safely relegated to some level of effort short of war. It is true that the death of 3,000 Americans in the first attack on the U.S. homeland since WWII was not an existential threat to the U.S., nor have the pinpricks that al Qaeda has managed since 9-11 posed a serious challenge to the continued existence of the United States. On the other hand, this assessment fails to take into consideration the global growth of al Qaeda, its absorption of every other major jihadist group on the planet, and its ability to take and control territory throughout the Muslim-majority world. While I have heard some deride this spread as only threatening the 'garden-spots' of the world, we need to remind ourselves that it was from just this sort of uncontrolled territory that 9-11 was carried out, and once the 'garden-spots' are taken, our vital lines of communications and territories that we (apparently) care more about will be threatened. In addition, I would note that it has only been through our wartime footing that we have managed to keep al Qaeda in even this loose net. If we downgrade our effort, al Qaeda will be able to grow even faster and push its control even further.
Third and fourth, the article goes on to conclude that it is possible to "declare victory" and move on because 1) al Qaeda's offensive capabilities are "puny" and 2) U.S. defenses are strong. The first of these assessments is based on an assumption about al Qaeda that is unwarranted; that is, that al Qaeda's main objective and goal is to attack the United States. The recent release of documents from Abbottabad make it clear that attacking the United States was (and is) but the first step in a staged strategic plan, a plan that begins by attriting the United States, and weakening it so much that the United States will be forced out of all Muslim-majority countries. The next stage of al Qaeda's strategic plan is to take over and control territory, declaring "emirates" that will be able to spread safely because the United States will be too weak to intervene. This means that the affiliates are not just dangerous when they attack the United States (which Bergen implies in his article), but are a threat to our security when they overthrow local governments and set up local emirates that have greater, global ambitions. I would also note that while polling data is important for understanding how well we are doing in our fight against al Qaeda -- and here the indications are positive -- it is a fact that insurgencies need only a tiny percentage of active support in order to be self-sustaining (usually defined as 5 percent of the populace). Al Qaeda would like the consent of the governed, but they are perfectly happy to violently enforce obedience to their rule when necessary. And by the way: No al Qaeda affiliate or partner (including the Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, or the Shabaab) has been deposed from power by an uprising of the local population alone. They have needed outside intervention in order to expel the insurgents, even when the people have hated al Qaeda's often brutal rule.
On Bergen's second point, I agree that U.S. defenses are strong, but disagree profoundly with the current mission of Special Operation Forces as the right method to defeat al Qaeda. This counter-terrorism mission is based on killing al Qaeda members, i.e. attrition, a strategy that assumes that al Qaeda is still a terrorist group as it was in the 1990s. This is simply not true. Even then, the group's leadership aspired to bigger things, and al Qaeda has now succeeded in becoming an insurgent group, one that takes and holds territory, recruits far more soldiers than we can kill, sets up shadow governance and attempts to overthrow governments around the Muslim-majority world. While attrition can succeed as a strategy against terrorist groups (see i.e. the Spanish and French fight against ETA), it is absolutely counterproductive against an insurgency, which simply uses the killings to recruit more members and to fuel its propaganda.
Fifth, some part of Bergen's declaration of victory is based on wishful thinking. He argues, for instance, that killing or capturing AQAP's bomb-maker will 'likely' cause the threat from AQAP to recede. This assumes that 1) the bomb-maker never trained replacements and 2) that AQAP is incapable of thinking up other ways to attack us. It also ignores the real threat from AQAP if it manages to overthrow the government in Sana'a and push on into Saudi Arabia.
Finally, the last sentence of his article is a straw man. The objective of the Allied war on the Nazis was the same as every other regular war: To break the enemy's will to resist. It was simply not necessary to kill every Nazi in order to achieve this objective. The objective of irregular wars is rather different, however: to secure the population by clearing out the insurgents; then holding the territory through persistent presence; and finally creating the political conditions necessary to prevent any further appeal by the remaining insurgents. In this view, winning against al Qaeda does not depend on body counts, but rather would look very much like victories against other insurgents: the spreading of security for populations in Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel, and elsewhere; the prevention of a return of al-Qaeda to these cleared areas; and the empowerment of legitimate governments that can control and police their own territories. By these standards, we have not yet defeated al Qaeda; in fact, beyond Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, we have hardly engaged the enemy at all.
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It's official: The Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt. After a tense several months in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces attempted several times to reassert control over the levers of power, Egypt's electoral council today announced that Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, has been elected president of Egypt.
The SCAF had assured American interlocutors during the voting that they intend to swiftly hand over power to whomsoever was elected. But they also asserted a decree making themselves arbiters of the yet-to-be-written constitution and wielders of parliamentary powers until a new parliament can be elected (Egyptian courts had dismissed parliament last week, worrying many of collusion between the military and judiciary).
It is illustrative of the tumult Egypt has experienced since protests drove Hosni Mubarak from power that electing an Islamist president seems a less worrisome outcome than the election of a secular alternative that represents the corrupt "deep state" that Mubarak and his military cabal kept Egypt submerged under for 30 years.
Mubarak argued that without his strong hand, jihadist radicals would take over Egypt. American administrations of both parties agreed with him, or at least were fearful enough we did precious little to attenuate his grip. A speech on the inevitability of democracy here, some minor funding of political party organization there...but neither Republicans nor Democrats redeemed our universal values in Egypt.
Presidents of either party were unwilling to risk unwelcome change in Egypt of the kind elections brought in Palestine, where a party that brought violence into politics was voted into power. But the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not Hamas in Gaza. Even in Gaza, Hamas has lost significant public support because of its incapacity to govern. The desire for safe streets, good schools, and functioning sewer systems is the true universality on which democracy attenuates extremism.
Both in Gaza and in Egypt, Islamist parties are being held accountable, not just for ideology but for governance. This is the basis for the drop in popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after their victory in the parliamentary elections last spring. Egyptian voters were put off by their ineffectualness, by their mendacity in committing to coalition governance then taking power on their own when it proved possible, by their claiming they would not run a presidential candidate since they controlled parliament and then entering a candidate in the presidential sweepstakes.
Voters did question their motives, take them to task for their reversals. A huge part of the appeal of Brotherhood candidates in Egypt has been their opposition during the Mubarak years. They seem to have clean hands, and that is an enormous political advantage as Egypt shakes off the tawdry hold of Mubarak's spoils system. It appears to have been enough to carry the presidential election, a stunning rebuke of the "secular" military.
There is much to be concerned about with the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power. They have been staunchly anti-American. They intend to reform the basis of society with Koranic law as its foundation. They are profoundly uncomfortable with Western mores, especially where the rights of women and religious minorities are concerned.
But this does not mean Egypt's Muslim Brothers will be anti-democratic. In fact, they proved the more democratic force than SCAF since Mubarak's overthrow. There is little sign yet that they will refuse to play by the rules -- SCAF was more likely to bring about "one man, one vote, one time" than the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt's transition is disconcertingly messy. Both the process and the victors raise a serious question about how worried Americans should be about Egyptians' commitment to democracy. But with the advocates of representative government is still where we should place our bets, and offer our assistance.
Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images
The world's focus, which increasingly suffers from attention deficit disorder, has shifted to Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi has been named winner of that country's first-ever truly democratic presidential election. Already consigned to yesterday's forgotten news is the passing of Saudi Arabia's Prince Nayef, and the succession of his younger brothers Prince Salman and Prince Ahmed respectively, to the positions of Crown Prince and Interior Minister. The changes in Riyadh should not be so quickly forgotten, however, for they portend more of the same in Saudi Arabia, with potentially significant implications both for the balance of power in the Arabian Gulf and relations with the United States.
The passing of Prince Nayef, just nine months after the death of his older brother and predecessor as Crown Prince, Prince Sultan, is even more rapid than the turnover in the Soviet leadership during the period 1982-1985. At that time, Leonid Brezhnev was succeeded first by Yuri Andropov, and then when Andropov suddenly passed away just two years later, by Konstantin Chernenko, who died thirteen months after taking office. Prince Sultan also held the post of Defense Minister -- Prince Salman succeeded him in that role, and remains Defense Minister. Prince Salman, who is 76, and has already suffered a stroke, may nevertheless remain active for a decade or more; King Abdullah is 88, after all. Still one wonders how long the current generation of Saudi princes will remain at the helm of the country that was united and founded 80 years ago by their father, King Abdul Aziz.
Unlike Prince Nayef, whose cooperation with the United States against al Qaeda and related terrorists never got in the way of his conservative, indeed fundamentalist, unease regarding all things Western, Prince Salman has the reputation of being a more open-minded and forward-looking (though cautious) individual, evidently cut from the same cloth as King Abdullah. In addition, during his tenure at the Defense Ministry, he has presided over the largest-yet arms purchase from the United States, totaling $90 billion, up from an announced $60 billion at the end of 2011. These purchases include both aircrafts and ships, the latter to modernize the Eastern Fleet, headquartered at Jubail, in the heart of the Saudi oil rich Shia populated Eastern Province.
Both the air and naval deals had been contemplated for years, but nothing was finalized until Prince Salman took the helm of the Defense Ministry after Prince Sultan's passing. The decision to undertake both deals is crucial for the preservation of an American industrial base that is already reeling in the wake of U.S. Department of Defense budget cuts. It reflects the newly named Crown Prince's readiness to maintain the close military ties that characterize U.S.-Saudi relations. The French had tried every possible means, including visits by President Sarkozy, to win the navy contract.
Equally important, the fact that Prince Salman decided upon both contracts so quickly after assuming office points to a degree of decisiveness not seen in the Saudi defense ministry for some time. (The decision to send troops to Bahrain was made at a much higher level). This too bodes well for the United States.
Standing behind Prince Salman in the line of succession are Prince Ahmed, promoted to Interior Minister in succession to Prince Nayef, and who is in his early seventies and behind him, informed Saudis believe, Prince Mukhtar, who is in his sixties. The latter probably represents the transition to the next generation of Saudi leaders. With so much turmoil in the region, the smooth Saudi transition is to be welcomed. Hopefully when the time for another such transition takes place, it will be equally smooth.
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Bashir al Assad's government killed another 90 civilians on Saturday, firing artillery shells into a village and following up with gunshot-to-the-temple executions. At least 32 children under the age of 10 were among the victims. If you have the stomach to bear witness to the Syrian people's grief, most major news outlets have posted pictures.
The reaction of the Free World's leaders reads like a parody of fecklessness, but here are the actual quotes from the New York Times article:
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton focused on what she described as the "vicious assault that involved a regime artillery and tank barrage on a residential neighborhood."
"Those who perpetrated this atrocity must be identified and held to account," she said in a statement. "And the United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end."
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, issued a statement accusing Syria's government of committing "new massacres" and added that France would organize a meeting of the roughly 80-member Friends of Syria group as soon as possible.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said Britain was looking for a strong international response and hoped to convene an "urgent" session of the United Nations Security Council "in the coming days."
The New York Times explains that the Obama administration is working with Russia to ease Assad out of power, and that "Mr. Obama, administration officials said, will press the proposal with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia next month...." But it also reveals that Obama administration National Security Advisor Tom Donilon raised the same proposals in Moscow more than three weeks ago. The massacre in Houla is what we have to show for it.
President Obama's surprise speech in Kabul was a political stunt filled with the kind of mischaracterizations typical of a campaign, but the actual U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement that he signed while there was something of greater substance.
The crux of the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in the new agreement is the American promise to designate Afghanistan a Major Non-NATO Ally. The designation communicates a relatively strong U.S. commitment to Afghan security and begin to undo the damage done by the Obama administration's various and shifting deadlines for the Afghan mission.
The agreement, however, has weaknesses. Click for my full analysis over at the AfPak Channel.
Afghan Presidential Palace via Getty Images
The Obama administration's two major weekend summits, the G-8 gathering at Camp David and the ongoing NATO meeting in Chicago, happen to be occurring as the U.S. presidential campaign gets underway. That coincidence of timing presumably helps explain an otherwise baffling statement by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon posted over at the Cable previewing the meetings:
Look for the Obama team to drive home the argument this weekend that the G-8 and the NATO summit are a testament to Obama's ability to repair alliances frayed during the George W. Bush administration.
"It had been an exhausting period leading up to 2009, and the president set about reinvigorating -- indeed, one of the first sets of instructions that we got during the transition, at the beginning of the administration, was to set about really building out and refurbishing, revitalizing our alliances," Donilon said.
"No other nation in the world has the set of global alliances that the United States does... And alliances, I will tell you from experience, are a wholly different qualitative set of relationships than coalitions of the willing."
The best explanation I can muster for this is that Donilon is channeling David Axelrod and indulging in some spin for the campaign "silly season." One hopes that the Obama administration doesn't actually believe that its record on alliances is so exemplary, because to do so means that the notorious White House-bubble must be even thicker than usual. Yet I suppose that as long as the media gives a free pass on these kinds of claims, they will be made. Even the Humble Cable-Guy, normally vigilant to call out any manner of fluff, spin, or distortion, seems to have missed this one.
Campaign spin notwithstanding, the reality is different.
First, taking Donilon's own timeline, the Obama administration inherited a set of alliances in solid shape. When Obama took office the Bush administration had largely repaired bilateral relationships that had been admittedly frayed during its first term. Gone were the "old Europe/new Europe" lines, the feuds with Chirac and Schroeder, etc. By 2008, America had very solid relationships with allies such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, as well as emerging partners such as India. Expanding these partnerships and inviting rising powers to the high table of international politics, Bush had even convened the first-ever G-20 summit in Washington to deal with the eruption of the global financial crisis.
Second, the Obama administration's record on relations with U.S. allies is wanting, to say the least. American allies and friends on almost every continent have been neglected or undercut by the Obama administration. These include specific countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Israel, Poland, Czech Republic, Georgia, Ukraine, and Colombia. While the specific issues may have varied -- whether neglected and re-litigated free trade agreements, abandoned missile defense commitments, cancellations of state visits, shirking of defense needs, rebuffs on energy cooperation, dithering on multilateral interventions, hectoring on fiscal policy, or just thoroughgoing neglect -- all of these nations, among them America's most important allies and partners, have suffered poor treatment at the hands of the Obama administration. Anecdotally, one can hardly visit a European capital without hearing private complaints from European diplomats over the neglect they feel from the Obama administration.
Third, Donilon's sanctimonious dig contrasting "alliances" with "coalitions of the willing" was unflattering as well -- to the Obama administration. After all, this White House has, for justifiable reasons, made frequent use of coalitions of the willing on its most significant foreign policy initiatives, such as the Libya War (which included non-NATO members such as Sweden, Qatar, Jordan, and UAE), the P-5 Plus One coalition on Iran, the "Friends of Syria" Group, and the Afghanistan War (forty non-NATO participants).
The Obama administration's efforts to keep blaming Bush have an almost perfunctory quality. If anything, they reveal this White House's own anemic record to base re-election on [insert obligatory "three envelopes" joke here]. I have some sympathy for the administration in that working with allies in practice is much harder than campaign rhetoric would indicate. But here the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is significant.
Obama campaigned claiming he would improve America's global image, but his treatment of allies has undermined our nation's credibility. In a way, Obama's international reputation seems to mirror his domestic reputation. At both home and abroad, personal affection for him far exceeds approval for his policies. He has been successful at cultivating his personal image in the world, but in the process America's standing has been diminished. In terms I hope our Anglosphere allies will appreciate, this White House may talk like Ringo Starr, but too often it has acted like Mike Reno.
Washington is abuzz with speculation about a possible interim deal that might help defuse the brewing crisis over Iran's nuclear program. Color me skeptical.
That said, one thing seems clear. Iran's increased interest in negotiations has been driven almost entirely by its search for relief from harsh Western sanctions imposed in the last six months.
A top official from the Obama administration recently told me that "from what we are seeing, the threat of an Israeli strike hardly figures right now in Iranian calculations. On the contrary, everything indicates that what really worries Iran's leaders is the impact of sanctions and the danger that they could spark domestic unrest." Senior Israeli intelligence analysts have reached a similar conclusion, noting in conversations that, "at the moment, Iran doesn't think Israel will attack [without endorsement from the U.S.] . . . . The need for sanctions relief is the reason they're back at the table."
Of course, the centerpiece of the sanctions campaign has been the U.S. decision at long last to target the Central Bank of Iran (CBI). Foreign financial institutions that continue dealing with the CBI to make payments for Iranian oil now risk being cut off from the U.S. banking system. Only countries that show significant reductions in purchases by late June will qualify for exemptions.
In response, the European Union has agreed to end all imports of Iranian oil as of July 1. Japan -- Iran's second largest customer -- has already secured a U.S. waiver for its efforts to slash imports. Other major purchasers of Iranian crude, including South Korea, India, South Africa, and Turkey, are scrambling to follow suit. There are even signs that China, Iran's biggest buyer, may be reluctantly cutting back, or at least taking advantage of the shrinking demand for Iranian product to negotiate significant price reductions.
At the moment, the impact on Iranian revenues is shaping up to be truly major. Oil sales account for more than half of Iran's national budget. Some estimates now suggest that Iranian exports could drop by as much as 30-40 percent in the next several months. To find buyers for the rest, Iran may well be forced to offer steep discounts, further cutting into its revenue stream.
As a result, Iran now stands at the precipice of its most severe economic crisis since the devastation of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. With memories of 2009's popular uprising still fresh in their minds, Iran's ruling mullahs are no doubt concerned over the risks they run by continuing down a path of unbridled confrontation, one that promises to double down on the substantial misery they've already inflicted on the Iranian people. Thus -- surprise, surprise -- we get the regime's recent negotiations gambit and the prospect, however slim, of meaningful compromise.
Given the obvious success that CBI sanctions have had in escalating pressure on Iran, an interesting question is why it took so dreadfully long for Washington to pull the trigger. After all, the basic idea of attacking Iran's oil sales by targeting the CBI has been around for years. I can recall discussions on the topic within the U.S. government as far back as 2006. Indeed, I vividly recall President Bush at numerous meetings beseeching his advisors to provide him new sources of leverage for pressuring Iran, and explicitly raising the idea of going after the CBI. Equally vividly, I recall Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson shooting the idea down, labeling it the "nuclear option" and direly predicting that it would wreak havoc on global markets and the U.S. economy. And that was largely that. The supposed Master of the Wall Street Universe had spoken and further discussion, for all intents and purposes, was closed off.
Distressingly, what I don't remember is anyone stepping forward to back up Paulson's reflexive conclusion about the unworkability of CBI sanctions with any hard analysis or data. Despite President Bush's obvious interest in the issue, and its potential import on a matter of vital national interest, I don't think any of the relevant agencies -- Treasury, State, the CIA -- ever took it upon themselves to produce a serious study of what the actual impact of CBI sanctions would be on international markets, much less what steps the U.S. might take to mitigate any adverse consequences. Regrettably, I also don't recall any of the president's advisors -- myself included -- ever taking action to challenge Paulson's thesis by tasking the intelligence community to model it systematically. In retrospect, I think it's an instance where the "process," the bureaucracy, clearly failed to serve the president well.
As far as I can tell, a similar failure also beset the Obama administration -- at least until Congress presented it with the fait accompli of CBI legislation late last year. It's widely understood that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, like Paulson before him, opposed CBI sanctions, fearing that they would panic the oil markets, send already-high gasoline prices skyrocketing, and tip the U.S. economy back into recession. Once again, the Treasury Secretary's edict was more or less taken on faith, unsupported by serious study and unchallenged by the bureaucracy.
Thankfully, not everyone was quite so complacent. Here, I'm thinking in particular of my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), Mark Dubowitz. Refusing to accept the conventional wisdom that CBI sanctions had to be off the table, Dubowitz led an expert team in systematically analyzing the potential oil market impact. The result was a detailed assessment -- the first, at least as far as I'm aware -- that modeled what would happen to petroleum prices and Iranian revenues under different supply restriction scenarios. FDD's confidential report demonstrated that it would indeed be possible to fashion a sanctions regime against the CBI that could dramatically affect Iranian revenues without triggering a devastating disruption in global energy markets.
Dubowitz's study provided members of Congress with the analytical tools they needed to push back effectively against the doomsday scenarios, and heavily informed the CBI legislation crafted in late 2011 by Senators Kirk and Menendez that was overwhelmingly adopted. And when the Obama administration finally relented in the face of this Congressional tidal wave, FDD's assessment assisted administration experts in developing a nuanced implementation strategy to maximize pressure on Iranian revenues without triggering a massive oil shock.
So far, the measure looks remarkably successful. Iran's customer base is dwindling. Those that remain are now in position to demand discounts of as much as 20 percent as Iranian oil increasingly takes on the qualities of a distressed asset. Reductions in the amount of Iranian crude on the market have been adequately covered by corresponding increases in production by countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. While the sanctions did coincide with a temporary spike in global prices earlier this year, that seems to have had more to do with a crescendo of speculation about an imminent Israeli military strike than with U.S. action against the CBI. Accordingly, as that speculation has receded, oil prices have gone down. While the market no doubt remains tight, it has clearly stabilized -- and all the while Iran faces the likelihood of tens of billions of dollars in lost revenues, driving it back to the negotiating table in search of relief.
That a weapon this effective was not deployed several years ago, at a time when Iran's nuclear program was far less advanced, is indeed a great pity. It's also a potent reminder of the kinds of shortcomings that the U.S. government is perfectly capable of -- even when it comes to the most pressing national security issues. And it's as important an example as I can recall of the potentially vital contribution that private think tanks are capable of making to the policy-making process, when they challenge conventional wisdom and bring their intellectual capital and resources to bear decisively on those critical questions that the government, for whatever reason, has neglected, overlooked, or -- quite mistakenly -- already decided that it has all the answers to.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.