I've periodically commented here at Shadow Government on the issue of religious freedom, especially in the context of the Arab Awakening and the Obama administration's relatively weak commitment to an effective international religious freedom policy. On that note, Shadow readers might be interested in an article I've just written here for Policy Review, taking a deeper look at the potential connection between international religious freedom and national security.
Religious freedom is one of those issues that few leaders in the American national security community would actually oppose (after all it is one of our nation's founding principles), but few are willing to make it a foreign policy priority because it is often regarded as a merely humanitarian issue of little if any strategic consequence. In the article I explore some possible ways that religious freedom might actually be related to other strategic priorities such as peace and stability, and ways that religious freedom violations might actually be indicators of potential security threats. This leads to my provisional conclusion that "There is not a single nation in the world that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States." In turn, I suggest ways that making international religious freedom more of a policy priority can potentially help diagnose, ameliorate, and even prevent emerging security concerns.
This is admittedly just an initial exploration, and my conclusions are both tentative and speculative. At a minimum I hope it encourages deeper and more sustained research into this area (PhD students take note: This could make for an interesting dissertation topic). And for the policy community, as I've said before I hope that religious liberty advocates will consider whether and why this issue might have strategic relevance beyond its innate moral appeal. As the broader Middle East faces an uncertain future and continues to be convulsed by competing visions that largely fall along the fault lines of religious intolerance and religious tolerance, an effective religious freedom policy will be a strategic necessity for the next four years -- regardless of which presidential candidate wins on November 6.
Gov. Romney's speech at VMI this morning offers a few new insights into his thinking about foreign policy, such as specifics on Egypt and Syria. But the rhetoric and tone also continue to reveal a leader willing to state in bold terms the foreign policies he would pursue if elected that are unlikely to be popular in the general election nor even with some of the Republican base. Finally, he continues to show that he grasps the ugly realities we face in terms of our enemies and the circumstances they manipulate for their good and our harm, and that the United States must lead if we have any hope for success.
A few portions of the speech demonstrate these points. First, Romney repeats his assertion that no video or enraged mob explains the widespread and violent attacks on our embassies and personnel, including the murder of Amb. Stevens. Says Romney: "No, as the administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West." In the speech he also uses the term "Islamist extremists." Not shying away from this term is important for defining himself differently from the Obama administration.
He goes on, nevertheless, to find hope in this situation, by noting the many Libyans who took to the streets to denounce the terrorism and express their desire to remain close to the United States and not "go from darkness to darkness."
For Romney, such displays increase our hope that the United States can shore up our interests in this region. We should start by calling the problems what they are -- Islamist extremists who commit terrorism -- and then countering them with force and in league with allies.
He draws upon the example of Gen. George Marshall and the defeat of our enemies in Europe and the rebuilding of those societies and free and prosperous countries.
"We have seen this struggle before. It would be familiar to George Marshall. In his time, in the ashes of world war, another critical part of the world was torn between democracy and despotism. Fortunately, we had leaders of courage and vision, both Republicans and Democrats, who knew that America had to support friends who shared our values, and prevent today's crises from becoming tomorrow's conflicts.
Statesmen like Marshall rallied our nation to rise to its responsibilities as the leader of the free world. We helped our friends to build and sustain free societies and free markets. We defended our friends, and ourselves, from our common enemies. We led. And though the path was long and uncertain, the thought of war in Europe is as inconceivable today as it seemed inevitable in the last century.
This is what makes America exceptional: It is not just the character of our country -- it is the record of our accomplishments. America has a proud history of strong, confident, principled global leadership -- a history that has been written by patriots of both parties. That is America at its best."
Second, Gov. Romney offers some specific policy goals regarding several countries and issues. Some statements reflect what he has already said, but in a couple of cases, he offers new policy that is not necessarily the safe stuff that a campaign advisor likes to see. To focus on two (and not the obvious ones of Iran and Afghanistan), regarding Syria, he calls for U.S. involvement in the form of picking a side among the rebels and helping them succeed with arms:
"In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran-rather than sitting on the sidelines. It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East."
For Egypt, he makes it clear we should use our aid to require the Brotherhood government to be open to all voices and be truly democratic, as well as to respect its treaty with Israel:
"In Egypt, I will use our influence-including clear conditions on our aid-to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel. And we must persuade our friends and allies to place similar stipulations on their aid."
There are a number of other points Romney makes in this speech, which is clearly an attempt not only to lay out his views but provide a stark contrast to President Obama. Gov. Romney succeeds at drawing the contrast and in ways that show the same kind of bold and clear leadership, complete with specifics, that he offered recently in the first debate on the economy and healthcare. Thus, we've got a preview for the debate that covers foreign policy.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The murder of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Libya on September 11 has created a growing political backlash in the United States, but there are three other reasons that this attack is significant. First, an al Qaeda unit successfully assaulted American soil for the first time since 9/11. Second, we were -- once again -- caught by surprise, and third, the attacks show that al Qaeda is not just alive and kicking (as I mentioned in my previous post), but that our current strategy for dealing with the group is failing.
While various plots have been attempted by al Qaeda and individuals or cells associated with the group, the sacking of the Benghazi consulate was the first successful attack that can be definitively tied to the organization. Excellent work by Thomas Joscelyn suggests that the attack on the consulate was just one of four separate assaults on embassies carried out by al Qaeda that day. This simultaneity is, by the way, one reason that I immediately suspected -- and wrote about - al Qaeda involvement in the raids, since this is as much a hallmark of al Qaeda operations as, for instance, the use of suicide bombers in Muslim-majority countries and the targeting of international organizations.
Just as worrisome for future events is the fact that the United States was caught off-guard, yet again, by this massive and sophisticated operation. I would argue that there are four reasons for this failure: a widely accepted narrative, a false view, the successes of the targeted attrition program, and assumptions about the war in Libya. For the past 18 months there has been a building narrative among both the expert community and this administration that, with the death of Bin Ladin, al Qaeda is nearly finished and that there is nothing left but a small group of "dead-enders," known as the "core," that need to be dealt with. Al Qaeda, in the narrative, is so weakened that it can barely stay alive, let alone carry out successful and complex attacks like that in Benghazi.
This narrative is based on a false view of al Qaeda: that the "core" is a small terrorist group whose main objective is attacking the United States, that the affiliates have primarily local concerns, that there is little command and control between the "core" and the affiliates, and that, therefore, the United States must only kill off the central leadership to be safe. I responded to this view of al Qaeda in several earlier posts, arguing that the core and affiliates are intimately connected, that the main objective of al Qaeda is taking over the Muslim-majority world, and that the organization is, in fact, attempting to create and lead a global insurgency. If this is all true, then al Qaeda is nowhere near defeat, and is, in fact, doing far better today than at any time in its existence.
The successes of counterterrorism czar John Brennan's targeting program played into both the narrative and the current accepted view of al Qaeda by giving the impression of progress in the war with al Qaeda. As each member of the leadership was killed -- most especially Bin Laden, but many others as well -- experts and administration officials proclaimed that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The belief that the United States was making progress against al Qaeda (along with the notion that the affiliates have mainly local concerns) created a false sense of security in many places, including Libya.
Finally, and most controversially, I believe that this administration's incorrect reading of the war in Libya worked with the narrative and analytical issues to create the preconditions for the United States to be caught by surprise in Benghazi. Unlike the war in Iraq, the United States managed to topple the Libyan dictator without putting American lives in danger and without exacerbating local tensions through the presence of our troops. The result should have been less violence, no insurgency, and no organized al Qaeda group in Libya. The continued, and even strengthening, violence in places like Benghazi -- along with a strong al Qaeda presence -- was unexpected and therefore unplanned for, again adding to the shock of September 11.
The third significance of Benghazi is that it underlines the failure of our current strategy to deal with al Qaeda. For several years, the main strategies for combating al Qaeda have been to take them on through our ground troops (in Iraq and Afghanistan), to empower partners to fight them (many places in the Middle East), or to use attrition to whittle down the group's leadership. With the ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the slow shifting of some partners away from aiding us (see Egypt and Pakistan, for example), we are more and more dependent on attrition as the means for taking out the group. The spread of al Qaeda to many new places, including the Sinai, Mali, Syria, and of course Libya, points to the failure of this strategy to achieve our goals.
Both the Obama administration and Iran's President Ahmadinejad have blamed the recent dramatic fall in value of Iran's currency on international sanctions. It is a convenient explanation for both -- for the White House, it suggests that U.S. strategy towards Iran is working; for Ahmadinejad, it deflects responsibility away from his own policy decisions and toward an external scapegoat.
But as my colleague Patrick Clawson explains, sanctions are only partly to blame for Iran's economic travails. The currency crisis and associated inflationary spiral has its origins in the Ahmadinejad government's mismanaged subsidy reform initiative. Sanctions have indeed exacerbated the problem, both by raising the cost to foreign firms of doing business with Iran and reducing the regime's foreign exchange earnings. The increasing threat of war has also played a role, deepening Iranians' worries about economic stability and increasing their inflationary expectations, and thus leading them to dump rials and seek safe haven in dollars and other hard currency to protect their savings.
However, the regime's maladroit domestic response to the sanctions (for example, its decision to set up "foreign exchange centers," which sparked the current run on dollars) and its loose monetary and fiscal policies have made matters far worse. This is arguably the result of years of economic mismanagement in Iran, particularly under Ahmadinejad, who has subverted what little independence the Central Bank previously possessed and drained it of economic expertise.
Ironically, however, the Iranian regime is relatively sheltered from the present crisis. Although sanctions have reduced its oil exports, they remain high at 1.2 to 1.5 million barrels per day, meaning that the regime's foreign exchange income is considerable, even if diminished. What's more, it has limited external liabilities, and in any event its oil income is dollar-denominated, protecting it from exchange rate risk. This means that as the rial plunges, the regime's fixed rial-denominated payments become effectively cheaper. Meanwhile, Iran's rampant corruption likely shields elites and their families from the worst of the country's economic woes, such as unemployment and increasing scarcity.
As a result, Iran's economic crisis is unlikely to directly cause the regime to change its nuclear calculus. Instead, the sanctions implicitly depend on domestic Iranian outcry -- or the regime's worries of unrest -- to cause the regime to make the desired strategic shift. However, as bad as Iran's economy is, there are few signs of major unrest, and fewer signs still that the regime is responsive to the concerns of the Iranian people (although this will further diminish Ahmadinejad's standing). This is, after all, the regime that showed no compunction in brutally putting down protests in 2009.
By implication, the United States and our allies should be careful not to count on the current sanctions to resolve the nuclear crisis by themselves. Nor should we abandon our focus on targeted sanctions in favor of a return to broad sanctions, which rarely succeed in inducing policy changes in autocratic regimes. Rather than hoping that giving current sanctions "time to work" will force Iran back to the negotiating table, the United States and our allies should add further pressure to the regime and the elites who comprise it, including through additional targeted economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, bolstering the credibility of our military threat to the regime, and support for the Iranian opposition.
On their own, sanctions are unlikely to work. Instead, for the United States to succeed in its aims, sanctions must be just one part of a broad, coordinated, and disciplined policy which brings all policy tools to bear on the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Fred and Kim Kagan have an important article on Iraq that should be required reading of everyone covering foreign policy in this presidential campaign season. Their bottom line: "Far from being a success, then, American policy in Iraq has created an extraordinarily dangerous situation over which we have almost no influence."
The Kagans have earned the right to a respectful hearing on Iraq. They were some of the earliest critics of the way the post-conflict stabilization phase of the Iraq war unfolded, and they were some of the most persuasive and early advocates of the surge strategy President Bush shifted to in 2007.
Just as their earlier position on the surge went from iconoclastic to conventional wisdom over the course of several years -- so much so that even the Obama team, which tried very hard to thwart the surge from the outside, ended up acknowledging the surge's success in the end -- I suspect their current position may one day become the conventional wisdom: that Obama failed to lock in the gains of the surge and left Iraq in worse shape than might otherwise have been achievable.
The Kagans' argument reminded me very much of a similar moment during Bush's tenure, when we were trying to figure out whether our strategy was adequate or whether a shift to something new was required. Before we could figure out what changes were needed, we had to figure out that change was needed. This may seem obvious in retrospect, but it is not obvious in the moment when there are multiple indicators and trade-offs. The Bush administration reached that point over the course of 2006, and a key step in the process was identifying each of the assumptions behind the then-prevailing strategy and evaluating them with fresh eyes.
Obama's Iraq strategy may well have reached a similar point, but I wonder if anyone inside is doing that kind of painful self-scrutiny. If not, the Kagans have given them a head start.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Has Obama fulfilled his most famous national security campaign commitment from 2008: to end the Iraq war "more responsibly" than he says we began it? According to this excerpt from Michael Gordon's new book on Iraq, the answer may well turn out to be no.
Gordon is considered by many to be the best reporter on the Iraq war and his long-awaited book is likely to shed new light particularly on the last half-decade of U.S. involvement. The excerpt in Sunday's New York Times covers the Obama administration's failed effort to negotiate terms for the long-planned-for stay-behind military force. The Obama administration is understandably reluctant to talk about these efforts much, and nowadays when the president mentions Iraq he makes it sound like he never considered anything other than withdrawing all but a handful of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. However, if that was what the president secretly intended all along, it was not what the administration was officially pursuing for the first several years when it tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement.
The picture is not very pretty. Gordon documents:
Perhaps a more adept president would have also failed to secure a follow-on Status of Forces Agreement. It is true that what the United States wanted from the Iraqis to secure an agreement was a very big ask, one that Prime Minister Maliki proved ultimately unwilling to give: immunity granted by the Iraqi parliament for all U.S. troops. But it is also true that the way Obama approached Iraq made it even harder for Maliki to deliver on his side.
Given the prominent role that the Iraq story played in Obama's approach to the 2008 election, it is ironic that it seems to play no role whatsoever in 2012. If Gordon's book reinforces the assessment that his excerpt provides, the lower profile may benefit Obama. The closer one looks at the facts, the less they seem to support the campaign spin of a "responsible" end to a troubled war.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Recent days have witnessed the emergence of two divergent narratives regarding the wave of anti-American protests that have spread throughout the Islamic world and beyond.
The first, which originated from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo at the very beginning of the unrest, is centered on the spontaneous and righteous indignation of the Muslim street in the face of an amateurish film defaming their religion. Although the administration subsequently distanced itself from the embassy's statement laying blame for the violence at the feet of the filmmaker, the assertion that the ongoing unrest was the result of a trailer posted on YouTube, rather than a more fundamental outpouring of rage, remains at the core of the administration's narrative.
The second narrative, which the administration appears keen to play down, involves a deliberate attack by an Al Qaeda affiliate on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Although senior administration officials, most recently United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, have termed the attack a spontaneous event, such a view is increasingly at odds with the facts. In an interview with National Public Radio (hardly at the forefront of the vast right-wing media conspiracy) Libya's interim president, Mohammed el-Megarif, described the attack on the U.S. consulate as pre-planned and multi-phased.
Each narrative is problematic for the Obama administration. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is a coincidence that this wave of protests began on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. But perhaps not. Regardless of its origins, the ongoing violence is stark testimony to the failure of the outreach to the Muslim world that lay at the heart of Obama's Middle East policy.
Obama, a Christian originally of Muslim heritage who lived in Indonesia and attended a predominantly Muslim school as a child, has seen himself as uniquely qualified to use the force of his personality to transform America's relationship with the Islamic world. Speaking in Cairo in June 2009, Obama pledged to repair relations with Muslims. The logic undergirding Obama's policy was that a conciliatory approach would increase America's standing and improve its security.
Such logic appears increasingly open to question. First, data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project shows that the United States is more unpopular now in key Muslim states than it was when Obama first took office. In 2009, for example, 74 percent of Jordanians held an unfavorable view of the United States; today it is 86 percent. In 2009, 68 percent of Pakistanis held an unfavorable view; today it is 80 percent. And in 2009, 70 percent of Egyptians held an unfavorable view of the United States; today, after Obama's Cairo speech and the overthrow of Mubarak, the number stands at 79 percent. In other words, the roots of Muslim rage lie not in who occupies the White House, but in more fundamental and less tractable causes.
Second, the logic of Obama's policy was that if Muslims liked the United States more, then Americans would be more secure. Despite Obama's admonition that U.S. leaders not "spike the football" in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration has initiated repeated bouts of chest thumping. In recent months, administration officials have repeatedly portrayed Al Qaeda and its affiliates as organizations in decline.
The situation on the ground would appear to be somewhat different. Aside from the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, the U.S. position in Afghanistan has suffered setbacks at the hands of Al Qaeda's friends, the Taliban. On Friday, U.S. forces at Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan suffered an attack that killed two Marines and destroyed seven percent of the AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft in the U.S. combat inventory. Yesterday the U.S. military suspended combat patrols with Afghan forces because of a mounting wave of attacks by Afghan security forces on their American partners, undermining the thrust of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
It remains to be seen how the past week's events will affect the presidential election. At the very least, these emerging narratives call into question Barack Obama's stewardship of American foreign policy. More seriously, they could prefigure a more serious weakening of our position in the Middle East.
Precisely eleven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the question of U.S. relations with Islamic countries and communities is once again at the top of the foreign policy agenda. As violent anti-American protests rage around the world, the Obama administration has focused on safeguarding U.S. citizens and installations on one hand, and seeking to dampen the fury of the protests on the other by pointing out that the U.S. government had nothing to do with the anti-Islamic video that ignited this burst of anger.
While this immediate focus on quelling the crisis is prudent, the U.S. response cannot stop there. While the video in question may have catalyzed these protests, it cannot accurately be described as the cause of them. In any event, any effort to quash future provocations of this sort is bound to be futile -- given the ease by which such media can now be produced and distributed -- as well as profoundly contrary to the American belief in the right to free expression.
The current unrest is not in fact a result of a single offensive video, but is rather a continuation and outgrowth of the Arab uprisings of 2011. Those revolutions were the result of deep-seated political and economic grievances that had been decades in the making: the absence of economic prosperity or the hope of individual advancement, paired with the inability to do anything about it as a result of the simultaneous absence of political rights.
But while the Arab uprisings resulted from those grievances, they did not by any means resolve them. Indeed, economies like Egypt's and Libya's are worse off now than they were at the beginning of 2011, as unrest and political uncertainty have driven away tourism and investment and politicians have as frequently sought to settle old scores instead of taking their countries forward. Political participation has increased, but it has not brought results sufficient to meet the (unrealistic) expectations of the people in these countries.
In such circumstances, it is not unusual for people to look for others to blame. As much as the recent anti-American protests and attacks on U.S. embassies have conjured an image of a U.S.-Islamic conflict, the United States is in fact just one of many parties upon whom blame for the Middle East's woes has been cast. The former regimes, religious minorities, wealthy businessmen, Israel, and liberals are among those who have been targeted in these Arab uprisings.
Just as there is no shortage of parties to blame, there have been an abundance of parties both within and without these countries ready to stoke these hatreds to advance their own agendas. Radical Islamists have perhaps been the most pervasive and vocal of these, but certainly not the only ones. In many Middle Eastern states, secular politicians have been as vocally anti-American as their Islamist counterparts. Whatever their ideology, the angry voices have drowned out the introspective ones, and those preaching simple fixes have too often prevailed over those offering sensible albeit difficult paths forward. In highly-charged environments where security and political institutions are either absent or non-functioning, it is a small step from rhetorical attacks on such perceived foes to physical attacks.
At such a pivotal moment, it is important that we correctly understand what is happening and why, and mount the appropriate policy response. We must in particular avoid the temptation of misapprehending the current spurt of violence as the harbinger of some sort of epic civilization-level conflict between the West and Islam, or the urge to disengage with the Middle East in frustration over the persistence of anti-Americanism and chaos there. The Middle East remains a region which is vital to U.S. interests, and we cannot afford either to ignore it or to act in a rash or naïve manner there.
Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the Obama administration has adopted a passive, hesitant approach to events, conveying the sense that America is increasingly disengaged, indifferent, or both when it comes to the Middle East. This can be seen in the disconnect between rhetoric and action on Syria, diffidence in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, "leading from behind" in Libya, and even in the talk of a "pivot" to Asia in our foreign policy. The result has been a diminution rather than an enhancement in both U.S. influence and -- despite strenuous efforts to avoid disputes with new governments in the region -- our popularity.
Going forward, the United States should not lose our hope for a positive future in the Middle East or confidence in our own ability to shape outcomes there. However, we should be clear-eyed about the challenges that we face and the long timetable which lies before us to accomplish what we set out to achieve. Foreign policy has three fundamental objectives -- to promote American security, prosperity, and to advance U.S. values. This should be the starting point for successful policy in the region -- firmly and unapologetically advocate our interests, help governments to reform politically and economically, and support and work with parties within and without the region who share our interests and values.
Any spark can start a fire, but a sustained conflagration requires fuel and oxygen to sustain itself. There is little U.S. policymakers can do to prevent future sparks of the sort that triggered the violence convulsing the Middle East today. But through a clear understanding of the region's challenges and a principled and realistic response to them, we and our allies can hope to prevent them from becoming infernos which engulf our interests and those of the region's citizens.
Like every other foreign policy specialist I know, I have spent the last week thinking and talking (hopefully in that order) about the unfolding crisis in the Middle East. My initial thoughts hold up pretty well, I think, but some revisions and extensions are in order.
First, an additional level needs to be considered: the ceremonial. The killing of Ambassador Stevens -- the first U.S. ambassador to be killed like this since 1979, a painful echo to the troubled times of the Carter administration -- elevated the crisis from mere anti-American riots into a far more serious dimension, one that called for a different, more elevated response than the Cairo riots required. President Obama performed well at this ceremonial level, and Governor Romney did not. For the subsequent 24 hours, Obama and his administration fulfilled the role of Mourner-in-Chief and Spokesman-for-the-Country, and did so with eloquent eulogies to the slain and to their professions. The anti-Romney critics were wrong to claim that Romney's less than satisfying performance of this ceremonial role called into question his capacity to be an effective commander-in-chief, but they had a legitimate point that Romney has a way to go before he can be as effective a Consoler-in-Chief as Obama. This is a reasonable, albeit limited, critique and the Romney team should take it on board and not dismiss it just because it is usually delivered in a package wrapped with partisan sneer.
Second, if I was too kind to Romney by omitting the ceremonial level of analysis, I was probably too kind to Obama on evaluating his performance at the tactical level. The more we learn about what was happening at the tactical level, the more troubling the picture gets. We still have much to learn, and hopefully a vigorous Congressional oversight process will bring this all to light, but here are just some of the questions that need to be resolved:
And, finally, those infamous tweets merit a bit more serious attention than most of the media has given them thus far. All along, Obama partisans have sought to criticize Romney for the timing and tone of his complaint about the tweet -- the complaint came late at night while the crisis was still unfolding and Romney reiterated the complaint rather than pivot to language befitting a Mourner-in-Chief once he learned about the fatalities in Benghazi. As I said in my original take, and repeat more forcefully here, I think there are legitimate complaints to make about Romney's timing and tone. But Romney's original complaint itself also had merit, and perhaps it is time to spend a fraction of the electrons devoted to criticizing how Romney said it to exploring what Romney said. When we do, several questions arise:
Both the Obama and the Romney campaigns agree that the events of the last week raise important and perhaps awkward questions for the other side. I hope both sides will step up and answer those questions. That will only happen if we keep asking them.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
As the Islamic Republic moves closer to obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, talk of an Israeli attack on Iran is increasingly the subject of articles and reports in the international media. On the one hand, it is certainly understandable why Israel is extremely concerned about the Islamic Republic's nuclear capability, particularly given the escalating anti-Israeli rhetoric coming from Tehran. On the other hand, is an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities really the best solution to the nuclear threat posed by the Islamic Republic?
The answer to this question lies in the effectiveness of the international sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic and whether a coalition of concerned countries, with American leadership, is now willing to support the Iranian freedom movement.
The international sanctions that have delivered the biggest punch to date have been those imposed on Iran's oil and gas industry and its financial institutions. Iran's crude oil shipments have dropped by 52 percent since July 1 and the Islamic Republic is losing $133 million a day all without the devastating oil-price spike that many had feared would happen. Sensitive internal government reports are beginning to leak in Tehran warning of an impending financial crisis in which the regime might not be able to meet the government payroll in the next three months. The regime has warned its ministries to expect a 50 percent cut in the salary of all government employees.
While Ali Khamenei and his minions have been trying to minimize the effects of international sanctions, it appears that the regime's foreign currency reserve may be exhausted in the coming months. The IMF estimated that the regime had $106 billion in official foreign reserves at the end of 2011; estimates by private economists now put the regime's reserves remaining at $50 billion - $70 billion. In spite of Iran Central Bank Governor Mahmoud Bahmani's efforts to hide this alarming situation and halt the dramatic slide of the rial, the rial's unofficial rate is reported to have plunged to record low rates of 25,000 to 29,000 rials to the U.S. dollar. The regime anticipates that the rial may fall to a devastating 67,000 rials to the dollar as the Iranian central bank tries to curb the sharp drop in its reserves.
Inflation has plagued the Iranian economy since the Islamic Revolution. The removal of government subsidies on food and fuel amplified this problem and sanctions have added to the inflationary pressures. With inflation now at 33 percent, prices have escalated to a point that the burden is very difficult if not unbearable for the average Iranian consumer. Discontent with the regime is on the rise. Indeed, if the leaked classified reports are to be believed, the regime should anticipate that riots will occur in border cities where day-to-day conditions are most rapidly disintegrating. The Iranian people blame the regime and its policies for their growing poverty, and food and fuel shortages. Momentum is shifting from the regime to those seeking a free, democratic Iran.
The regime's relentless pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability presents a genuine dilemma. While it is important to keep a credible military strike option on the table, a military attack, especially if Israel executes it unilaterally, will not have long-lasting effects in preventing a nuclear weapons-capable Iran. Israel and all countries concerned about the regime's nuclear threat should not lose sight of the fact that discontent among the Iranians is at its highest level since the Revolution. The Iranian people are capable of surprising the world again by rising up against this oppressive, illegitimate regime just as they did in the 2009 post-election protests.
It is impossible to predict the precise moment when another uprising will happen in Iran, but a military attack will be a serious impediment to the success of any democratic movement in Iran. It will give the mullahs the perfect chance to play victim on the international scene and to impose even greater oppression on the Iranian people. Perhaps this is why the public pronouncements of leaders of the Islamic Republic have been so provocative lately.
The regime believes that a nuclear weapons capability will bestow upon it what the Iranian people will not -- unchallenged legitimacy. Consequently, the Islamic regime will never abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. A free and democratic Iran is the only permanent solution to the Islamic regime's nuclear threat to the security of Israel and international peace. It requires a concerted international effort to financially paralyze the regime. It also requires a policy by the United States and its allies, including Israel, to support the Iranian freedom movement both inside Iran and abroad.
The Iranian people rose courageously once to show their opposition to this regime and their desire for a peaceful democratic government, but the governments of the free world failed to support them. Today, finally, these same governments, with U.S. leadership, are beginning to take major steps in the right direction through rigorous sanctions. Instead of a military attack, the U.S. and Israel should immediately launch major funding and human rights initiatives to support the Iranian freedom movement in its efforts to bring about a free, democratic Iran that is committed to playing a peaceful and constructive role in the Middle East. The Iranian freedom movement is not asking the United States or its allies to shed blood to advance its struggle with the regime in Tehran. Those seeking a free, democratic Iran are simply looking for strong international public support to secure their God-given freedom and fundamental human rights.
G. William Heiser is a former official in the Reagan National Security Council Staff and currently is an advisor to the Confederation of Iranian Students.
Amir Fakhravar is Secretary General of the Confederation of Iranian Students and a former political prisoner of the Iranian regime. He is presently a Research Fellow and Visiting Lecturer at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of international affairs in Washington, DC.
The events in Benghazi created a major opportunity for President Obama to speak out about an important problem that afflicts a significant segment of the Muslim world: an inability to recognize that it is not just its religion that deserves to be respected. Muslims were rightly outraged by the disgusting film that denigrated their religion. Those who produced it -- evidently someone using a pseudonym -- and those who support it -- are beyond the pale of decency, much less religious behavior.
But the same respect is due to other religions as well. The Golden Rule -- do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- applies to the treatment of a religion other than one's own.
Sadly, this has far too infrequently been the case in the Muslim world. When mobs attack Christians, as they have done in Libya, and extremists kill Westerners in the name of their religion, too many Muslim religious and secular leaders stay silent. When individual imams teach that Jews are no better than monkeys, too many of their colleagues have nothing to say. When Hindu and Buddhist shrines are desecrated by Muslim extremists, in too many corners of the Muslim world the silence is deafening.
Muslims certainly do not have a monopoly on extremism, nor on the violence and damage that such extremism all too often generates. But unlike the case with respect to their counterpart religions, too many of their leaders, both religious and secular -- and many of their secular leaders, notably those from the Muslim Brotherhood, have close ties to religious leaders -- do not cry out in protest against such behavior.
The president had an opportunity, and still has the opportunity, to call upon Muslim leaders to teach those who heed their words that they accord to others the same respect for the heritage and practices of other religions that they rightly expect for their own. He has yet to do so. Nor, so far as I have been able to determine, has any senior member of his administration. It is not enough to speak of "respect for other religions." That is far too bland a formula for what is a problem that plagues Muslim leaders to a greater extent than those of other religions.
Teachable moments do not often present themselves, and the president and administration's failure to make the most of the moment at hand is unfortunate at best, tragic at worst.
I know. Foreign policy has been largely an afterthought in the presidential campaign. Iraq, for all intents and purposes, is off the radar screen entirely -- except as a Democratic talking point, Bush's misbegotten war that Obama allegedly "ended." So a post on the plight of a rather obscure Iraqi politician -- and the merits of the Kurdish region he now calls home -- amounts to so much spitting in the wind, right?
Probably. On the other hand, this week's news -- rampaging anti-American mobs across the Arab world, skyrocketing U.S.-Israeli tensions -- has brought into sharp relief one of the main critiques of the administration's foreign policy. Its sustained efforts to mollify enemies at the expense of longtime friends has fomented a dangerous perception of American weakness, irresolution, and retreat in the Middle East -- the slow-motion breakdown of a U.S.-led order that, unless reversed, will inexorably invite far more destabilizing and costly challenges down the road.
From that perspective, perhaps an appeal for greater solidarity with some true Iraqi friends will not fall totally on deaf ears.
Mithal Alusi is the leader of Iraq's Democratic Nation Party. Since his return to Iraq in late 2003, Mithal has been without question the country's most outspoken and courageous champion of liberal values, unwavering in his defense of free speech, free press, free markets, religious tolerance, and human rights -- especially full equality for women.
Mithal's foreign policy prescriptions have been no less bold. The enemy is clear: Fascists in all their guises -- Islamic or secular, Shiite or Sunni -- that systematically deploy terror, violence, and brutality against innocents at home and abroad in service to their own power, ambition, and ideologically-driven delusions of grandeur. Iran, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Bashar al Assad, and the miscreants that murdered Chris Stevens and his colleagues in Benghazi all fit the bill. Clear, too, is Mithal's prescription: an anti-fascist alliance dedicated to defending civilization against its enemies, led by those countries most victimized by totalitarian terror, the United States, Israel, and . . . Iraq.
And Mithal has walked the walk, at great personal sacrifice. In 2004, he attended a counter-terrorism conference in Israel. When he returned to Baghdad, Islamists called for his head. One-time political allies ran for cover, disavowing and abandoning him. In early 2005, Sunni extremists targeted him for assassination, in the process murdering his two sons -- Mithal's only children.
Alusi refused to bow. Instead, he started his own grass-roots political movement dedicated to building an independent, liberal, and unabashedly pro-Western Iraq. If anything, Mithal's denunciations of Saddamists, Al Qaeda, and the Iranian mullahs grew louder. Starved of cash, advertising, and foreign support, facing an electoral system heavily rigged in favor of large Islamist parties, and equipped solely with his own compelling message, Mithal defied overwhelming odds to win a seat in Iraq's December 2005 parliamentary elections.
From his legislative perch, Mithal ignored advice to trim his sails. In 2008, he repeated the heresy of visiting Israel. Again, he called for a U.S.-led alliance to combat terrorism. He mocked the Islamic world's boycott of Israel, asking why the likes of Abu Mazen or Ali Khamenei should be allowed to dictate the foreign policy of an independent Iraq, denying it the chance to serve as a bridge for Middle Eastern peace and benefit from relations with a prosperous and technologically advanced Israel.
Mithal's enemies responded with a vengeance. Islamists in Iraq's Council of Representatives moved to strip Mithal of his parliamentary immunity, demanding his arrest under a Saddam-era law that made travel to Israel a hanging offense. His government-funded security detail was withdrawn -- even as the threats against his life escalated exponentially.
True to form, Mithal didn't run. He fought back. He went on the offensive against his political opponents, branding them tools of Iran. He took his case to Iraq's Supreme Court, arguing that the law forbidding his travel to Israel violated Iraq's constitution. To people's amazement, the court agreed. Mithal returned to parliament, triumphant, but with his enemies more determined than ever to see him gone.
Their chance came in 2010 when Mithal lost his bid for re-election. Beset by all the same obstacles he faced four years earlier and more, Mithal insisted that his vote count had been suppressed through a combination of fraud, intimidation, and dirty tricks. Iraq's electoral authorities denied his claim.
Bereft of any official position, the state-sanctioned squeeze against Mithal intensified. His official security detail was again withdrawn. Then his personal bodyguards, comprised of supporters who often worked for no pay, were denied permits to carry weapons. Pretexts were found to shutter his party's headquarters in Baghdad. When badges expired that authorized Mithal and his wife to enter the heavily fortified Green Zone where their home was located, the Iraqi government refused to renew them. And just last month, on orders from the office of Prime Minister Maliki, Mithal received an eviction notice, informing him that his home -- assigned in the wake of the 2004 terrorist attack that took his sons -- was being re-claimed by the government.
Exposed and vulnerable, under constant threat of assassination by Iranian-backed militias and Al Qaeda terrorists, Mithal was forced to leave Baghdad in 2011. At the invitation of Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Mithal took up residence in northern Iraq, where his party had long maintained an active presence.
It wasn't the first time Barzani had come to Mithal's defense. In the middle of the furor over his 2008 trip to Israel, when Iraq's other political leaders were running for the hills, Barzani offered to dispatch Kurdish security guards to ensure Mithal's protection. Nor was Mithal the first Iraqi to seek internal exile in Kurdistan. Indeed, thousands have found refuge there, seeking to take advantage of the region's greater sense of security, prosperity, and personal freedom.
To my mind, standing up for Mithal Alusi and the Kurds should be an easy call for the United States. In a Middle East caught in transition between an autocratic past and a rising tide of Islamist fanaticism, true friends are hard to find. Mithal and the Kurds are the real deal -- unapologetically pro-American, determined to resist the Iranian threat, and aware that Iraq's fate ultimately depends on its ability to forge a genuinely civil state that fairly reflects the country's diversity and assures the rights of all its citizens.
Alusi, for sure, is but one individual, a solitary politician now deep in the political wilderness. Ignoring him might be the path of least resistance, but it would be a shortsighted calculation. Keeping faith with those in distant lands who -- against all odds and at great personal sacrifice -- have tirelessly stood vigil on behalf of our common values has almost always redounded to America's long-term benefit. Maintaining a sustained strategy toward democratic dissidents is no mere sentimentality, but an essential element of the ground game for building the kind of soft power that can help fell empires -- see Sakharov, Andrei; Sharansky, Natan; Walesa, Lech; or Havel, Vaclav. And the costs of doing so are relatively trivial. U.S. officials that travel to Kurdistan should call on Alusi. Vice President Biden could phone him. And when President Obama next speaks with Prime Minister Maliki, he might mention America's concern for the wellbeing of Alusi and others who have been forced to flee Baghdad on account of their beliefs.
Of course, the strategic case for bolstering relations with the KRG is much more straightforward. Even a casual observer of world affairs might have noticed that there is something of a Kurdish Awakening afoot across the region, one that has real potential over the next several years to transform not just the politics, but in some cases even the geography, of southwest Asia. And the epicenter for this movement is in Iraqi Kurdistan. The KRG is now without question an emerging power of substantial influence, whose policy decisions could have far-reaching consequences for the future of not only Iraq, but Syria, Turkey, and Iran as well -- all key regional powers where Kurdish minorities are large and U.S. interests run deep.
What else? The KRG is on the cusp of becoming a major producer of oil and gas, and has recently inked deals to partner with the world's most powerful energy companies, including Exxon, Chevron, Total, and Gazprom. It possesses hardened security and intelligence forces that have worked hand-in-glove with their U.S. counterparts for almost a decade to fight Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, while keeping tabs on the nefarious activities of the Iranian IRGC. The Kurds are building a strategic relationship with our NATO ally, Turkey, grounded in economics, but rapidly expanding to include coordinated efforts to address the crisis in Syria, deal with PKK terrorism, and contain the growing threat that Iran poses, not just to Iraq's independence, but across the broader region.
Building as much U.S. leverage and influence as possible with the KRG, as the centerpiece of what should be a broader strategy toward the overall Kurdish Awakening, seems like a no-brainer -- especially if done in close consultation with Turkey. All the more so since we are pushing on an open door, with the Kurds still hungry to knit as close a relationship with the United States as possible.
Some have argued that we should keep our distance from the KRG for fear of alienating Prime Minister Maliki. Others complain that the KRG itself is too marred by corruption, nepotism, and human rights shortcomings to warrant close relations with the U.S. In this debate, however, I'll take my counsel from Alusi. Mithal takes a back seat to no one in recognizing the need for continued KRG reform. He believes that it must be an essential part of the overall U.S. agenda with Erbil. But he -- perhaps better than most -- also understands the vital distinction between friends and enemies, and the imperative of dealing with the former much differently than you do the latter -- on the basis of trust, respect, appropriate humility, and quiet, but firm, pressure applied over time.
With a strong frame of comparison from his years in Baghad, Mithal puts an enormous premium on what President Barzani, Masrour Barzani (the KRG's intelligence chief and recently-appointed director of national security), and other Kurdish officials have achieved in maintaining a sustained sense of stability and safety in the north. The contrast with the rest of Iraq could not be greater. One remarkable statistic: Since 2003, Iraq on average has experienced more terrorist attacks per day than Kurdistan has suffered in two decades.
That's not an accident. It's not luck. It's a huge accomplishment that no one should take for granted. Terrorists of every stripe, including ones backed by Iran, are hard at work attempting to disrupt the region's tranquility. And they have consistently failed because of the success, competence, and professionalism of Kurdish forces in neutralizing them -- in strong cooperation with the United States.
And that achievement on security, of course, has underwritten every other positive development that the region has experienced: a rapidly growing economy, tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment, expanding interactions with the outside world, and a degree of normalcy and freedom in the personal lives of its inhabitants that is the envy of the rest of Iraq. There clearly remains much to do to address the legitimate political, economic, and social needs of the Kurdish people, but -- as Alusi strongly advises -- that task will be pursued most successfully in a spirit of deepening friendship, not animosity, that fully appreciates and jealously protects the enormous gains that have already been made.
As for Maliki's reaction, Alusi -- a staunch opponent of Kurdish separatism -- is convinced that the stronger the partnership between the U.S. and the KRG, the greater the leverage America will have in Baghdad. "Maliki currently pays no price for ignoring U.S. interests and catering to Iran," Mithal notes. "If he feels the United States can affect his political position by supporting parties in Baghdad that are resisting the most troublesome parts of his agenda, he will finally be forced to take American concerns seriously." Mithal is also certain that the stronger the KRG's position in Baghdad, the stronger the voice will be of all those, like himself, pushing on behalf of a unified, democratic, federal Iraq, with a government constrained by meaningful checks and balances.
As President Obama watches his much-trumpeted Muslim outreach literally crash and burn on streets across the Arab world this week, one hopes he's capable of adjusting an approach that many have long feared will eventually reap a bitter harvest of escalating contempt, instability, and chaos. Just as charity begins at home, diplomacy begins with reliable friends -- making them, keeping them, and standing by them when times get tough. A storm is surely brewing in the Middle East and the U.S. will need to rally all the allies it can get, and fast, to navigate the rough waters ahead. In Iraq, at least, Mithal Al-Alusi and the KRG are standing by, just waiting for America to call.
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images
The immediate responses to the Libya tragedy have been instructive, and have played out on three levels: tactical, political, and strategic.
The Obama administration has been mostly focused on the tactical: moving drones, beefing up diplomatic security, vowing to find the perpetrators, and, as fears of potential mob violence were mounting, tweeting sentiments aimed at defusing a riot. The tactical responses haven't been flawless, but most of them made sense. The tweets have come in for criticism, not without justification, but I have some sympathy for President Obama's observation that when a riot might be forming outside one's office a certain amount of panic is understandable. There will be time afterwards to review the tactics leading up to the tragedy and perhaps we will learn that warnings went unheeded or security went unprovided for. But assuming no such findings, the Obama administration's tactical response has seemed mostly defensible. There is no corresponding opportunity for tactics from the Romney team since they are not in power.
The Obama campaign, which includes surrogates and supporters in the media/blogosphere, has focused almost entirely on a political response, launching a blistering and relentlessly partisan attack on Governor Romney for his early comments on the crisis. I recognize that in the midst of a campaign, particularly in a week devoted to attacking Romney on national security grounds, one should expect a partisan response, but even so the vehemence of the anti-Romney attacks is quite striking. Now Obama supporters would claim that they are merely responding to Romney's own critique -- and they could point to second-guessing by Republicans as proof that Romney crossed a line -- but the Obama campaign's response is far too unhinged and opportunistic and orchestrated to be blamed entirely on Romney.
Then there is the strategic level, which is asking the bigger questions of whether the Obama administration's tactical reflex response to the crisis indicated a deeper strategic failure to understand the roots of the problem, whether Obama's approach in the region is working, whether more active American leadership might have positioned us better, whether the Obama administration was too quick to declare Mission Accomplished in Libya and, in so doing, took its eye off the ball there, and so on. Romney's response to Libya has been pointed in the direction of raising the discussion to this strategic level. That is ultimately where the debate needs to go and it is certainly a legitimate debate to have.
Now did Romney err in raising such strategic questions at a time when the administration was understandably focused on the tactical level? I suppose one can always second-guess the wording of a statement or rue the timing of lifting an embargo here or there. But to argue that Romney's critique crossed a line and justified the aggressive political response of Obama partisans -- as, to pick just one from dozens of ardent Obama partisans in the media, Dana Milbank, does -- requires that you ignore completely the substance of Romney's critique and focus entirely on the timing and tone, which, of course, is what Milbank and the rest of the campaign does.
There are two inconvenient truths that disrupt this party line. First, and foremost, the Obama administration itself acknowledged that the tweets were worthy of criticism. No, they went beyond that: They criticized the tweets and threw the tweeter under the bus, trying to distance the White House as best they could. We know all of this because FP's own intrepid reporter, Josh Rogin, painstakingly reconstructs the events that precipitated the original Romney comment. Rogin is a reliable Romney critic, so his reporting on this particular issue carries extra weight.
Second, the Obama campaign hardly suspended political operations during the 9/11 anniversary and the unfolding tragedy itself. Stephen Hayes provides a revealing tic-toc of the political activities of the Obama campaign laid side-by-side with events of the day. President Obama himself took time off from managing the crisis to show up on CBS to deliver a partisan attack line against Romney. Obama partisans are reduced to arguing that Team Romney shamefully continued campaigning whilst Team Obama nobly continued campaigning during a day of mourning.
Why the relentless partisan response to Romney? Peter Baker and Ashley Parker suggest a possible answer in their New York Times story on the partisan response:
"The debate over his comments drew attention from questions about how Mr. Obama had managed the popular uprisings in the Arab world, the aftermath of the war in Libya and the broader battle against Islamic extremists."
Diverting attention away from the question "what do events in the Middle East tell us about our strategic approach to the region" and toward "what does the timing of Romney's statement tell us about the horse race" may be an effective way to get reelected, but I don't think it is an effective way to advance America's foreign policy interests in the region.
The current crisis in North Africa has cast into sharp relief the decline of American sea power. According to press reports, the Pentagon has dispatched two destroyers (actual American destroyers, not the Russian warships displayed during the tribute to American veterans at last week's Democratic National Convention), to waters off Libya. Such a response is prudent. Indeed, it would scarcely be remarkable except for the fact that, according to press reports, those two destroyers constitute fully half of the U.S. naval presence in the Mediterranean. That is, with a civil war raging in Syria and unrest in Egypt and Libya, the United States has maintained only four destroyers near these hot spots.
Not too many years ago, the United States would have routinely deployed a much more powerful force in the Mediterranean, including a carrier strike group. Not too long ago, the Marines who have reportedly been dispatched to protect U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya would have deployed from nearby amphibious ships, not from places far away.
It is at times like this that the erosion of American sea power is most apparent. Today, the U.S. Navy is the smallest it has been since 1916 and is stretched thin beyond prudence and good operational sense. We should all hope that the United States will not need to evacuate American citizens or use force to defend them, for if we do, we may very well regret the neglect of sea power.
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.
Obama administration counterterrorism official John Brennan was out on the hustings yesterday trying to once again get the administration credit for what they're not doing. In this case, it was to foster the illusion that the administration is actively exploring options for intervening in Syria's civil war. "Various options that are being talked about ... are things that the United States government has been looking at very carefully, trying to understand the implications, trying to understand the advantages and disadvantages of this." This is little enough seventeen months into a popular uprising against one of the world's worst governments. Italians gave us the concept of festina lente, to hurry up slowly; the Obama administration wants to laurel itself for boldly acting cautiously.
But Brennan's comments are also illustrative for how they characterize the problem in Syria. While at pains to pretend the Obama administration is considering no-fly zones to prevent the Syrian military from killing civilians in refugee camps -- although the administration seems comfortable enough with the Syrian military killing civilians in their homes -- Brennan attested that the administration is "quite busy making sure that we're able to do everything possible that's going to advance the interests of peace in Syria and not, again, do anything that's going to contribute to more violence." That's incredibly revealing: the administration believes that violence is the problem, not the injustice and repression the regime of Bashir al-Assad is imposing on its long-suffering population.
The Obama administration seems not to understand that violence has political causes, and that "preventing violence" only reinforces the grip of those in power. They are diagnosing symptoms, not diseases. As no less a source than Elie Wiesel said, "we must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." The Obama administration applauds itself for "new pragmatism." That should be called what it is: a studied neutrality to the claims of a people against their government, an even-handedness between repressors and repressed.
I recently returned from a trip to Israel. I met with a handful of very senior foreign policy and defense officials, but did not speak with any member of the "Forum of Eight" -- Israel's security cabinet that is responsible for key decisions concerning war and peace. With that important caveat, I thought I'd share several random impressions:
First, Israelis realize full well that they're in the middle of a geo-political hurricane. The pillars that have anchored their national security strategy for a generation are being washed away, swamped by a rising tide of Islamism. The Egypt of Sadat, Mubarak and Camp David is no more. Jordan, Israel's other critical peace partner, is under enormous strain. The once vibrant military relationship with Turkey has withered. Syria is awash in blood, raising the specter of loose WMD, a jihadist safe haven, and generalized chaos on what for nearly four decades (despite the Assad regime's enduring hostility) has been Israel's quietist front. All this, of course, on top of the pre-existing threat of Hezbollah in Lebanon with 50,000 rockets and missiles in its arsenal, and patrons in Tehran hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons with which to terrorize the Middle East in service to their particularly virulent brand of anti-Zionism.
Second, while deeply concerned with the turmoil that surrounds them, Israeli officials exude a degree of quiet confidence that they can weather this storm. I detected no sense of panic, but rather a steely-eyed determination to do what was necessary to secure Israel's core interests. Given the degree of uncertainty inherent in the current regional upheavals, it would be an exaggeration to say that Israelis are yet at the point of developing any new grand strategy. But one can discern some basic principles that have emerged to help navigate the turbulence that will continue to roil the region for the foreseeable future. Three in particular stand out:
1. Be ready, militarily, to respond to and contain sudden crises on very short notice. The triggers for conflict have multiplied exponentially and could come from any direction, at any time -- a terrorist attack from a newly-lawless Sinai (as witnessed just this past weekend); chemical weapons in Syria; a Hezbollah-manufactured clash in the north; or large-scale instability that threatens Jordan's monarchy. The possibilities are endless. Adding to the challenge: The fact that the region's sweeping political changes (untested leaders, haphazard decision-making structures, populist pressures, etc.) increase the risk that a relatively minor incident could escalate rapidly and in unexpected ways.
2. Unless directly threatened, exercise enormous caution in approaching the volatility on Israel's borders. Now is not the time for rash moves. Rather, it's a time to watch, analyze, and gather intelligence; to prioritize challenges and husband national resources, to avoid diverting energies by being drawn unnecessarily into the vortex of the Arab revolutions. Indeed, I found Israeli officials extraordinarily humble when assessing their ability to influence the historic drama now playing out across their neighborhood.
3. Do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear military capability. Amidst all the sturm und drang created by what many believe is the unraveling of the Middle East's post-World War I order, Israeli officials have maintained a laser-like focus on the Iranian nuclear threat. Stop the mullahs from fulfilling their atomic ambitions, Israeli officials opine, and the chances of coming out the other side of the Arab Awakening in relatively positive fashion increase dramatically. Fail to do so, however, and the dark shadow of expanding radicalism, nuclear proliferation, and violent instability will quickly descend upon the region, posing an unprecedented -- and unacceptable -- threat not only to Israel's survival, but to vital U.S. interests as well.
Third, Israeli officials have lost almost all faith that the current American strategy of negotiations combined with escalating economic pressure can succeed in compelling Iran to back down. They are at pains to stress how much they value the Obama administration's strong support for Israel's security needs, as well as the excellent lines of communication they have established at the administration's highest levels. They are also deeply appreciative of the recent, albeit belated, U.S. and European efforts to impose crippling sanctions on Iran's economy. But at this late date, Israeli officials suggest, coercive diplomacy's only chance of succeeding is if it is rapidly coupled with the credible threat of an overwhelming and imminent American attack. At present, they despair, no such threat exists and the Obama administration appears unwilling, or incapable, of generating one. Worst of all, the Iranians know it. So long as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains convinced that President Obama has neither the will nor the intention of destroying his nuclear program by force, negotiations are doomed to fail -- leaving Israel and/or the U.S. with no option but war to retard Iran's dash to the bomb.
Fourth, with rare exception, the Israelis I spoke with have little to no confidence that President Obama will act in a timely manner to stop Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capability. "Politically, Obama has a policy of prevention," one official told me, "but substantively, he's headed toward containment." Israelis pointedly note that Obama has backed away from any commitment to stop Iran from gaining the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Instead, the president now only speaks of stopping Iran from assembling an actual bomb. "He's prepared to let them get one turn of the screwdriver away," several Israelis remarked. "We're not."
To Israeli minds, a genuine U.S. commitment to prevention would be undergirded by a single-minded campaign to convince Iran's leaders that a massive military onslaught was inevitable if they did not relent in short order. They also believe that the president and other top U.S. officials would be speaking far more frequently to the American people about the threat to vital U.S. interests that a nuclear Iran poses. Instead, Israeli officials point out, what Tehran has been treated to is an unending display of American hand-wringing over the possible use of force, epitomized by a series of very public warnings against any Israeli military action, and constant fretting over the parade of horribles that might accompany a possible clash with Iran.
Fifth, the Israelis take the concept of a "zone of immunity" very seriously. They believe there will come a moment when Iran's military nuclear program is so well buried that Israel, on its own, will not have sufficient capability to inflict meaningful damage. Though the U.S. military would still be able to mount a successful attack past this point, Israeli officials are loathe to allow such a situation to emerge. Indeed, they are adamant that in the face of such an existential threat to the very survival of the Jewish state, it would be "absolutely unacceptable" for any Israeli prime minister to permit the issue of dealing with it to pass out of Israeli hands -- even if the hand off is to Israel's most dependable ally, the United States. The Israelis I spoke with insist that even in the best of circumstances -- with an American president in whom there was total trust -- such dependence would run contrary to Israel's entire ethos and everything that it stands for. Exactly how close Iran is to reaching the zone of immunity my Israeli interlocutors would not say. But they left little doubt that we are getting perilously near -- at best, a matter of months, not years. I was told that the Israeli military has presented its detailed options for attacking Iran's nuclear program to Israel's political leaders, and that "we have entered the phase of strategic decisions."
Sixth, my impression was that Israel's resolve to deal with the Iranian nuclear program on its own is no mere bluster, no tactical feint simply to leverage greater American action -- though it certainly serves that purpose as well. The Israeli officials I spoke with were incredibly sober in sharing their assessments, as well as their policy implications. They very much gave the appearance of people who would prefer to be reaching quite different conclusions if the facts allowed, but honestly believe reality is rapidly conspiring to restrict their country's options to deal with a mortal threat. All of them would clearly love to see a diplomatic solution. And should military action be necessary, most would much rather have the U.S. military lead the way because of its ability to wreak far more substantial damage on the Iranian program. But as more than one Israeli official told me with obvious regret, "We are forced to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it would be."
Seventh, while acknowledging a vigorous domestic debate over the best course of action against Iran, my Israeli contacts express quiet confidence that the country will be united should the government decide to strike. They appreciate the significant pain that Israel's citizens may have to endure in any Iranian retaliation, but are confident of two things: 1) Israel has prepared well to address the full spectrum of likely contingencies; and 2) The price Israel pays will be far worse if Iran is permitted to acquire a nuclear military capability.
Again, it's important to stress that none of the above is based on direct talks with Israel's top leaders. But for what it's worth, I left Israel believing that an attack on Iran was significantly more likely than before I arrived. I also got a distinct feeling that the moment of truth for an Israeli decision to strike is getting close, perhaps much closer than many appreciate.
Could it come before November's elections in the U.S.? The Israelis I asked were strident in emphasizing that a move of such national importance would be based entirely on Israeli security interests and the state of Iran's nuclear program, not America's electoral calendar. But when pushed, a few reluctantly acknowledged that securing maximum U.S. support for Israeli military action would be an important variable. And there's no doubt that many further believe that, all else being equal, securing the full-throated backing of the Obama administration is far more likely before an overwhelmingly pro-Israel American electorate goes to the polls than afterwards.
We are living in momentous and perilous times, of that there should be no doubt. Powerful forces of revolution, technology, and ideology are mixing in highly combustible ways. In some cases, the fate of nations hang in the balance. America's stake in how this drama unfolds, in a region so vital to our national interests, seems obvious to me -- as does the proposition that our own wellbeing is best served by standing strong in support of those alarmingly few friends and allies we actually have in the Middle East (or around the world, for that matter) who possess both the will and the capability to act in concert with us to defend our common interests and values against those who, given their druthers and the necessary means, would surely destroy us.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Kofi Annan's bitter resignation yesterday from his hopeless assignment as the UN's Special Envoy for Syria merely confirms what has long been apparent: the Obama administration's Syria policy has failed. The policy seems to have thus far consisted of a combination of sternly-worded denunciations, persistent outsourcing of international legitimacy to Russia and China, and belated, unenthusiastic, and possibly ineffective provisions of non-lethal aid to some Syria rebels for communications and logistics. As Peter Feaver has observed, this is not just "leading from behind" but rather "following from behind." Meanwhile, the fact that Syria represents a confluence of strategic interests and moral imperatives has not prompted a proportionate response from a White House wary of action in an election year.
Into this void comes a compelling op-ed by Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Financial Times. Slaughter, an eminent Princeton professor who served as Obama's director of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department during the first two years of the administration, makes an impassioned call for meaningful action. Specifically she urges that the United States lead a coalition of nations in providing "heavy weapons (and possibly air cover)" to all Syrian opposition leaders who show their commitment to democratic principles.
Though now returned to the halcyon groves of academe, Slaughter remains one of the more influential foreign policy voices today. Recall her New York Times op-ed shortly after she left the State Department urging American intervention in Libya, which anticipated (and very likely influenced) the Obama administration's eventual decision to do just that.
Slaughter's latest op-ed takes seriously the many factors and risks that argue against intervention, including the possibilities of arms ending up in the hands of jihadists, or of exacerbating the conflict and increasing tensions with Russia and China, not to mention the potential unintended consequences of taking sides in a civil war. It also contains a head-snapping concession when Slaughter admits that "sending arms without U.N. approval would put the U.S. on the wrong side of international law." The fact that one of the most eloquent proponents of international law and multilateral organizations is now channeling her inner John Bolton shows how grave the situation in Syria has become. One would hope that this point will also chasten some of the sanctimonious voices who are so quick to denounce any perceived violations of international law. International law's many merits exist alongside ambiguities and cynical obstacles to actions that may be moral and strategic necessities.
Slaughter's article reminds us that statecraft is rarely the art of choosing good policies, but rather involves choosing the least bad policy among an undesirable set of flawed options. The downsides to supporting the Free Syrian Army are many, and at this point can be cited ad nauseum by any foreign policy expert and probably even the average man on the street.
But there are also the downsides of inaction, and I share Slaughter's worry that the White House has thus far not carefully assessed the costs of its own policy of restraint bordering on neglect. She cites several of these costs, most eloquently the opening words of her op-ed from the sister of a dead Syrian rebel soldier: "When we control Syria, we won't forget that you forgot about us." In other words, staying out now seriously diminishes American influence in whatever emerges as the new Syria. To this downside can be added that passivity also limits American influence in shaping now what the new Syria will look like; creates an opening for a greater role for jihadists and other malevolent elements; diminishes our ability to monitor and secure Syria's vast chemical weapons stockpiles; risks allowing the conflict to spill into neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq; removes one potent lever for cutting off Iran from its most important ally; and increases the perception in the region of American weakness. Most poignantly there is the humanitarian cost, the thousands of dead Syrians who perish each month while the State Department continues to "monitor the situation closely."
For these reasons I signed this letter organized by the redoubtable teams at the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, urging the White House to help create safe zones and provide arms to the rebels. Finding the best policy on Syria remains exceedingly difficult, but Kofi Annan's resignation and Anne-Marie Slaughter's op-ed together show that the White House's current policy has not been it.
News reports describing the U.S. role in developing the Stuxnet computer virus, and similar allegations about the existence of a second computer virus, named Flame, have sparked a much-needed debate of cyberwarfare and cybersecurity. President Obama contributed to the discussion last week with a call for greater attention to the latter in the Wall Street Journal.
News of Stuxnet has also, however, generated its share of hysteria. Writing in the New York Times, Columbia University's Misha Glenny painted an alarming picture:
"The ... Stuxnet computer worm ... marked a significant and dangerous turning point in the gradual militarization of the Internet ... If it continues, contemporary warfare will change fundamentally as we move into hazardous and uncharted territory ... Stuxnet has effectively fired the starting gun in a new arms race that is very likely to lead to the spread of similar and still more powerful offensive cyberweaponry across the Internet."
Glenny goes on to warn of the "frightening dangers of an uncontrolled arms race in cyberspace" where viruses "inevitably seek out and attack the networks of innocent parties." He worries that "Nobody can halt the worldwide rush to create cyberweapons" but calls for a treaty to regulate their use in peacetime.
Strong stuff. And certainly there is reason to harden U.S. infrastructure against cyber attack. In doing so, however, we should avoid cyber hysteria. Earlier this year, Thomas Rid of King's College London published an important article on cyberwarfare in The Journal of Strategic Studies (which, in the interests of full disclosure, I edit). Rid argues, persuasively in my view, that it is misleading to talk about "cyberwar" when, in fact, all politically motivated cyber attacks to date are merely more sophisticated versions of three traditional activities: sabotage, espionage, and subversion. Stuxnet clearly falls into the first category; Flame into the second.
I would take the argument a step further. Although many view cyber weapons as tools of the weak, they are likely to be most effective when wielded by the strong. That is because cyber means cannot compensate for weakness in other instruments of power. In other words, if a cyber attack by a weaker power on a stronger one fails to achieve its aim, the attacker is likely to face retaliation. In such a situation, the stronger power will possess more, and more lethal, options to retaliate -- what is known in nuclear deterrence terminology as escalation dominance. A weak power might be able to cause a stronger power some annoyance through cyber attack, but in seeking to compel an adversary through cyberwar, it would run the very real risk of devastating escalation.
In addition to escalation dominance, stronger powers, particularly stronger states, are likely to possess a greater ability to combine cyber means with other military instruments to conduct a combined-arms campaign. As a result, it may very well be that although weak powers may attempt to wage cyberwar, they are likely to face cyber weapons wielded by the strong
Because Glenny overestimates the effectiveness of cyber weapons, he also overestimates the speed and scope of their spread. There is a considerable body of work on the diffusion of innovations, and that research tends to show that new ways of war tend to spread more slowly, unevenly, and incompletely than one might think. Adam Liff of Princeton University has recently argued, again in The Journal of Strategic Studies, that the spread of cyber weapons is likely to have a relatively small influence on the frequency of war and that in some cases it may actually decrease its likelihood.
The growth, spread, and effectiveness of cyber weapons is an important subject. Although cyber-hysteria may grab headlines and sell books, it is a topic important enough to deserved focused, reasoned, and thoughtful discussion. Let the debate begin!
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
If words were weapons, the Obama administration would have already brought down the Assad regime and probably started a conflict with Russia and China. Last week, Jay Carney responded to Russia and China's veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution imposing additional sanctions on Syria by saying that the two countries were on "the wrong side of history," describing the vetoes as "very regrettable," "deplorable," and "highly unfortunate." UN Ambassador Susan Rice added "reprehensible and immoral" to the mix in an appearance on CNN, before saying: "The reality is that Russia and China are isolated outliers, [have] put all their chips on a sinking Assad vessel, and [are] making a big miscalculation over the long term, in terms of their interest and in terms of how history will judge them. History will judge them as having stood by a brutal dictator at the expense of his own people, and at the expense of the will of the international community and countries in the region."
But unfortunately, the tyrants of the world do not fear words, at least coming from this president. So how will history judge the Obama administration's handling of the Syrian crisis even if Assad falls in the coming weeks or months? Despite the self-righteous indignation of administration officials, Syria still burns. Secretary of Defense Panetta noted on Wednesday that the situation was "rapidly spinning out of control" and State Department officials have described a growing humanitarian crisis as thousands of refugees flee to Syria's neighbors to escape the violence.
This all comes as elements of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile are reportedly on the move, raising the real possibility that the regime might use such weapons against civilians in embattled areas in a last ditch, desperate attempt to survive or that these deadly weapons of mass destruction will fall into the hands of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or other terrorist groups.
Even if chemical weapons are not used and the Assad regime collapses quickly, there is a real concern that violence between elements of the opposition or various sectarian groups could break out as state institutions collapse or fade away
Amidst all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear. The Obama administration is completely unprepared and possibly unwilling to shape Syria's future. What is also clear is that in recent months and even this week, the United States has sent a horrible message to tyrants elsewhere about the (non-existent) costs of mass killings of innocents.
On July 16th, Secretary of State Clinton told Margaret Brennan of CBS News that the key to resolving the conflict was all about the "will that we're trying to engender between both the government and the opposition to ease the violence and work toward a transition that leads to a democratic future." That followed this exchange:
BRENNAN: "How is the U.S. supplying the rebels at this point?"
SEC. CLINTON: "With non-lethal assistance. Which is what we said we would."
BRENNAN: "What would make you change the type of support?"
SEC. CLINTON: "At this point, nothing. We are focused on doing what we think is appropriate for us to do. We don't want to further militarize the conflict. We don't want to support either directly or indirectly the arming of people who could perhaps not use those weapons in a way
we would prefer."
Remember, this is more than 17,000 deaths into the crisis and even as chemical weapons were being pulled out of storage. The equivalence between the regime and the opposition is absolutely stunning, as is the statement that "nothing" would cause the administration to think about more aggressive actions. So much for a "responsibility to protect" or for the much publicized Obama administration's track record of faster, more nimble, less messy interventions than its predecessors.
Despite the ham-handed way in which the Libya intervention was explained to the American people and to Congress, it did save thousands of lives and has given Libyans an opportunity to make something of their country. But in Syria, there is a fifteen month record of "leading from behind" and empty rhetoric, but no real willingness to save Syrian lives or to protect and advance American interests. Even as U.S. allies in the region jumped in to fill the void, pursuing their own, more narrow interests, we stood largely on the sidelines, giving us little leverage now with Syria's future leaders.
So, even before the fall of Assad, which now in and of itself, may bring further chaos and bloodshed absent significant outside intervention, the Obama record is clear. Secretary Clinton and her colleagues will now join the pantheon of American officials who have stood idly by while thousands died. Move over James Baker -- although at least Baker was honest with his view that America had no reason to get involved in Bosnia, just as the Russians and Chinese are honest about their interests in propping up Assad.
So what would help to resuscitate this Obama record littered by the bodies of innocent Syrian men, women and children and the very real repercussions of an imploding Syrian state? At this point, short of a miraculous change in behavior, nothing.
The best description of the Obama doctrine in the Middle East is the one offered by a White House staffer in a revealing interview last year: "leading from behind."
At the time, the moniker was meant to signify that the Obama administration would let other states take the more prominent lead positions in confronting the challenges posed by the serial revolutions known as the "Arab Uprising." The United States would nudge things along from the back seat. This fit rather well with how the administration saw the Libyan intervention, though in truth the allies began to falter and the U.S. role grew much larger than advertised. However, it is hard to believe that without the out-in-front leadership of the U.K. and France, the Obama administration would have pushed forward a Libyan intervention. If the United States led at all in Libya, it was from behind the U.K. and France, and arguably behind the Arab League.
There is another way in which "leading from behind" might be an apt description of the Obama administration approach in the region: leading from behind events. That is, rather than dictating events -- what was called "hurrying up history" in the Bush era -- the administration has been more willing to let events unfold, to see where history takes us and then, if possible, get on the right side of history.
This description seems to fit the Egypt story, where the United States initially was unwilling to join in the effort to push Mubarak out of office, but joined later when Mubarak's early departure was perceived as the inevitable outcome. When a different outcome took shape in Bahrain, the United States got behind that, too.
A similar story is playing out in Syria. The United States has offered strong words of outrage at the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Syrian civil war, but has not matched dramatic rhetoric with dramatic action. Alas, there is plenty of dramatic action on the ground in Syria. The latest escalation suggests the Syrian civil war could be morphing into a full-scale conflagration.
The international community is now more than a few steps behind events -- leading from behind is becoming following from behind. And follow we must, for U.S. interests are too inextricably tied to the region for us to ignore what is happening.
President Obama often talks about trying to avoid distractions that would disrupt his focus away from what he considers to be the big issues at stake in his reelection, primarily issues of domestic policy and the economy. If events continue along their current trajectory, Syria may be one such distraction that he cannot avoid. Leading from behind may walk everyone right into a quagmire.
D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages
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.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
This post is the first in a series on Timor-Leste's July 7th parliamentary elections.
One country in transition is best described as political chaos. The other has its share of economic and political growing pains but is steadily evolving as a young democracy.
One country is a poor example to its regional neighbors and the world while the other in some ways should be emulated.
One country is not much further along than when it first started, and the other, despite long odds, is on the verge of conducting its third round of elections.
Not long ago, few people would have guessed Egypt as the first country and Timor-Leste as the second.
After the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egypt enjoyed an economic infrastructure and functioning civic and government institutions that could help pave the way for its democratic transition. But despite its relative advantages, Egypt sadly remains hostage to its military rulers. Even the recent announcement of a presidential contest winner, while a small step in the right direction, is no cause for celebration after the position was gutted of real authority. Political and economic liberals are either unable or unwilling to unite, develop viable political parties or present credible alternatives to the Egyptian public.
Timor-Leste, sometimes called East Timor, is off the proverbial radar screen for many, even in foreign policy circles.
Compared to Egypt, it had no economic or political structure on which to capitalize after gaining independence. An impoverished country, it had virtually no self-governance experience for about 300 years, first as a Portuguese colony, then under brutal Indonesian occupation.
To be sure, Timor-Leste's democratic transition is far from perfect, even marred by civil conflict and violence. The country lacks economic diversity, unemployment is high and public corruption hinders efficient allocation of resources and undermines public confidence in representative government.
Still, it has conducted credible elections, seen an orderly transfer of political power, and now enjoys, for the most part, a stable peace. Its political parties are in the final stages of preparing for July 7th parliamentary elections with campaign appeals revolving around differing prescriptions for the country, particularly how to utilize the country's multi-billion dollar energy fund, not merely the cult of personality.
No struggle for independence and freedom is easy. From the new American colonies to the former Soviet states to the Middle East, more often than not, it's messy and chaotic. Timor-Leste will be no different but offers valuable insight for others in transition and for mature democracies that hope to support them.
Brian C. Keeter is a Timor-Leste election observer for the International Republican Institute and will provide a series of posts about the July 7th parliamentary elections. He served at the Department of Transportation in the Bush administration, and is director of public affairs at Auburn University.
VALENTINO DE SOUSA/AFP/GettyImages
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.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
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.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
The political scientist Kenneth Waltz, who is known, among other things, for his view that nuclear proliferation is a good thing, recently weighed in on the subject of Iran. Writing in the pages of USA Today in advance of an article in Foreign Affairs, Waltz argues that, "a nuclear-armed Iran would probably be the best possible result of the standoff and the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East."
Waltz writes that diplomacy and sanctions are unlikely to convince Tehran to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons, concluding that, "a country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons can rarely be dissuaded." He similarly dismisses the possibility that Iran could stop short of producing nuclear weapons, arguing that leaders in Tehran would see a "bomb in the basement" as an insufficient deterrent to Israel. Rather, he believes the most likely future as one in which Iran overtly acquires a nuclear weapon.
Such a diagnosis is hardly unique. What is likely to grab attention is his prescription. He argues that Iranian nuclear weapons would be a good thing for the stability of the Middle East. In his words, "policymakers and citizens worldwide should take comfort from the fact that where nuclear capabilities have emerged, so, too, has stability. When it comes to nuclear weapons, now as ever, more could be better."
Waltz is a serious scholar, and his argument deserves serious attention, even if his embrace of nuclear weapons is the sort of thing that makes policy-makers doubt the value of the academy in policy debates.
As befits an international relations theorist, his arguments about the prospects and consequences of proliferation are categorical. Sweeping statements are fine when it comes to theory, but Waltz's assertions regarding proliferation all too often collide with the facts.
In fact, as Waltz concedes later in the piece, the spread of nuclear weapons is hardly inevitable. Over the last seventy years, a number of countries -- including Argentina, Brazil, Sweden, South Korea and Taiwan -- launched nuclear weapons programs only to abandon them because of foreign pressure and domestic political change. South Africa fielded a nuclear arsenal only to give it up for similar reasons. Most recently, Muammar Qaddafi gave up Libya's nuclear program in response to a series of carrots and sticks. And contrary to the arguments of some, governments have used force to interdict a country's nuclear ambition, including Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor and its 2007 attack on Syria's Al Kibar reactor. As Sarah Kreps and Matthew Fuhrmann show in an article in The Journal of Strategic Studies last year, peacetime attacks on nuclear facilities can delay proliferation, particularly when launched well before the nuclear threat is imminent. Such attacks are, however, the least legitimate under international law and are thus most likely to elicit censure.
If Waltz's fatalism regarding the acquisition of nuclear weapons is misplaced, then so too is his optimism regarding the impact of nuclear possession on state behavior. Not all states are alike. Nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea or Iran are of far greater concern than those in the hands of Israel or India. Nor would all would agree with his assertion that "fears of proliferation have proved to be unfounded." The world is a more, not less, dangerous place because of North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons, and it would be an even more dangerous place should Tehran get the bomb.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
A standard complaint of the last decade is that President Bush's foreign policy overly relied upon elections. Someone trotted out this tired trope as recently as a few days ago at the annual CNAS hoe-down. (The event was a great success, and I encourage folks to watch the archived video, if you missed it. I had lots of fun on my panel with Bob Kagan, Colin Kahl, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is something of a rock star at these sorts of events...but I digress...)
The Bush critique was usually offered in a very simplistic fashion, but it was not entirely without merit. Certainly 2006 was a tough year in this regard, what with the difficulties the Iraqi government faced in forming a government after their December 2005 election. And, of course, Hamas' electoral success in the Palestinian elections of 2006 greatly complicated the peace process. The "don't make U.S. policy hostage to elections" became a standard partisan talking point, and the Obama team came into office promising a more hard-headed, less naive approach to elections.
So it is ironic that elections have proven so difficult for the administration -- indeed, pretty much every election (domestic and foreign) has produced a setback for Obama. The domestic electoral setbacks are obvious, but the foreign electoral setbacks have been consequential as well. By year, consider just this small sample, limited to just one election each year:
Obama over-invests in the Afghanistan elections, over-reacts to electoral irregularities, and then backs down, forced to deal with a re-elected Karzai who has lost all trust in his American partners. U.S.-Afghan policy has never recovered since -- even a surge was insufficient to regain lost momentum.
Iraq has elections, but the leader with a narrow advantage in the vote-cout -- Ayad Allawi -- is unable to forge a government. Iraq plunges into many months of political paralysis, accelerating the evaporation of American leverage (an evaporation that was already happening too fast because of Obama's commitment to leave Iraq regardless of the consequences).
The Arab Spring catches Obama (and, to be fair, most everyone else) off-guard and the administration struggles to forge a viable strategy for balancing the groundswell of support for greater electoral accountability with the need to advance basic national interests in the region, cf. the success of islamist parties in Egypt.
Putin deals a death-blow to the "reset" by running a successful presidential campaign on a blatantly anti-American platform.
This weekend, there will be two more elections, and the betting money is both will produce further head-aches for the Obama administration. The Egyptian elections are in turmoil, following the court ruling that the Parliament must be disbanded. And the Greek elections may light the fuse that blows up the eurozone.
Of course, President Obama is not the primary actor in any of these electoral stories and he does not deserve the lion's share of the blame for the adverse developments. But he is not an innocent bystander, and, crucially, he has an obligation to forge a foreign policy that can preserve U.S. national interests even in stormy electoral seasons.
Because of the repercussions of some of the upcoming elections, especially the Greek one, it might even be said that what happens in those elections could determine what happens in the one election where Obama IS the primary actor: His own.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Whatever your perspective about counterinsurgency (COIN), there is one position that is clearly wrong: the view that debate about COIN is not important, necessary, or productive, as retired Army colonel Robert Killebrew recently suggested over at the Best Defense. Beyond advancing the peculiar idea that a contentious issue in American foreign policy merits no further discussion, Killebrew has it exactly backwards: The debate over COIN is at an important turning point, and is in many ways just getting started. Scholars and strategic thinkers are increasingly engaging the ideas of counterinsurgency in new and sophisticated ways. This development should hearten supporters of the intellectual enterprise generally ,as well as those who embrace the notion that better thinking can lead to better policy.
Last week the Robert S. Strauss Center at the University of Texas (UT) sponsored a workshop, Reassessing Counterinsurgency, together with partners from King's College London and the University of Queensland. The workshop brought together scholars and practitioners to tackle the subject of counterinsurgency in critically new ways. It included COIN's most articulate advocates and critics, policy experts, strategic analysts, historians, and political scientists from the U.S., Britain, and beyond who are doing path-breaking new work on the subject.
At least one thing became clear over a day and a half of refreshingly nuanced discussion. Despite years of attention in the Beltway, the counterinsurgency debate remains remarkably muddled. Terms are still frustratingly ill-defined. Distinctions between tactical advice and strategic direction are lost in the jumble, as larger disagreements over policy in Iraq and Afghanistan are tangled into the discussion about COIN. Scholars bristle at what they see as the intellectual shallowness and lack of theoretical rigor of counterinsurgency ideas, while policy hands and some military officers have no patience for what they perceive as the academy's tendency to suffer from analysis paralysis.
The confused mishmash notwithstanding, the UT workshop surfaced a few recurring themes. As the army is in the midst of revising their counterinsurgency manual, there are at least four key sets of questions that doctrine writers might consider, and that should help shape the scholarly research agenda and the next phase of the debate:
1. Are We Speaking the Same Language?
If the first step in developing good theory is defining terms, then there is much work still to be done in counterinsurgency. There is a growing consensus that the term itself is ambiguous, misused, and has experienced "conceptual stretching." As one workshop participant has written, "in a remarkably short period of time, counterinsurgency has become the new Kuhnian paradigm, or normal science, for non-kinetic (or limited kinetic) warfare. However it is far from obvious that this framework truly captures the dynamics that are occurring in an increasingly complex and interconnected world."
Is "counterinsurgency" merely one type of what scholar Harry Eckstein referred to as "internal war"? If so, how should we understand its features as compared to other manifestations of internal war, such as civil war and revolutions? Taking one step further back, is war divisible into such classifications, or, instead, as Clausewitz would have it, always a chameleon? This most fundamental conceptual question -- how (or whether) to subdivide conflict analytically and how counterinsurgency fits into a broader typology -- has received surprisingly little attention in the debate over COIN.
There are other important, and largely unanswered, questions. What are the differences between "first-party COIN" -- that conducted by a state within its own territory -- and "third-party COIN" conducted by an intervening outside power? Is there a difference between "big COIN," or large-scale state-building, and the more modest ambitions of "little COIN," focused on small-scale assistance? If these different types of COIN are significantly dissimilar propositions, should they be called the same thing? The gaps in the theoretical and scholarly literature are legion, and they can only be filled by continued research, better evidence, thinking, and yes, debate.
2. Is Field Manual 3-24 COIN? Is COIN Field Manual 3-24?
These discussions also raise the important question of how to situate the Army's Field Manual (FM) 3-24, published in December 2006, in the broader literature on COIN. In disputes over counterinsurgency, FM 3-24 and COIN are frequently conflated. Yet their precise relationship remains unclear. Did FM 3-24 represent the state of the art in thinking on counterinsurgency, or was it, as some suggest, merely a military doctrinal manual, a small slice of a larger intellectual pie focused on tactical advice to soldiers and the conflict in Iraq? According to this view, it would be unjust to impugn counterinsurgency more broadly based on perceived deficiencies in the manual, and those who take issue with COIN might best participate in the manual's revision, rather than throw rocks from the sidelines.
Yet if FM 3-24 was just a doctrinal manual, it was also undeniably unique in many ways. It was certainly the first military doctrine to be unveiled with such fanfare, including appearances by the drafting team in various media outlets to herald the manual's arrival. One could be forgiven for seeing a larger enterprise in a University of Chicago edition, which featured an introduction that seems to range far beyond the document's nominal, tactical, remit. FM 3-24 arguably played an important role in the bureaucratic and domestic politics associated with the decision to surge in Iraq, and it seems hard to dispute that various personalities and Washington think tanks linked to the document played a major role in U.S. policy deliberations over both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a truism that military doctrine is not strategy. But what if, in this case, a doctrine became a strategy, as critics have argued?
As FM 3-24 is revised, it seems a good moment to have a larger debate about the interactive effects of doctrine and strategy, real or prospective. Is COIN per se the right manual, or should it be written as part of a broader document that addresses other forms of internal conflict? Does the mere existence of a manual inevitably create a "moral hazard" effect, lulling policymakers into a false confidence about what is possible? Might it provide incentives for policymakers and strategists to "name" a conflict according to the manuals that are available, rather than the facts on the ground? To what extent should a doctrinal manual take account of the risk of its misuse?
3. History and Statecraft
Counterinsurgency also raises critically important questions about the uses of history. The basis of counterinsurgency is a set of particular historical cases, most notably the British in Malaya, the French in Algeria, and the U.S. in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent the British experience in Northern Ireland and imperial policing operations in the U.K.'s former dominions. These cases raise two different, but related questions: 1. What happened?; and 2. How do we use what happened? Despite the rather blithe use of these historical analogies in many discussions about COIN, both of these questions are highly contested by scholars.
While Malaya is widely considered the perfect case study of counterinsurgency principles (at least as articulated in FM 3-24), a new generation of scholars, such as British historian Karl Hack, has begun to challenge popular understandings of what happened there, including the much discussed "hearts and minds" approach. Scholars are also examining the other case studies of COIN in critical ways and developing new, much more nuanced, understandings of those histories.
But the second part of the question is how we use those cases, and this connects to a larger and long-standing debate about the uses of history for policymaking. At Harvard, the late Ernest May and Richard Neustadt spent decades examining the uses of history and warning against the perils of simplistic historical analogies in developing and/or justifying policy. Francis J. Gavin and James Steinberg recently offered a wise and thoughtful refresher on this subject, reminding us that history's "lessons" can be as often misleading as helpful.
But this question has received surprisingly little attention in the COIN debate. Despite the certainty with which COIN advocates have offered historical models, it is not at all obvious or well demonstrated that the classic case studies of COIN are applicable to modern American warfare. Imagine that we conducted the very simple exercise, suggested by May and Neustadt, to test the applicability of an historical analogy: Divide a sheet of paper in half, and on the left side write down the similarities between Iraq and, say, Malaya. On the right side, write down the differences. Would the left side really be more robust than the right? And even if the relevance of historical cases seems plausible at first blush, surely the evidentiary burden lies with those who argue for the use of the analogy. In the field of counterinsurgency, there has been surprisingly little deep scholarship that would even begin to meet this burden.
4. What Really Happened in Iraq, and Why? What of COIN in Afghanistan?
Inextricably woven into the previous three sets of questions is the U.S. experience in Iraq during and after the Surge, which, for some, offers the most recent, and most potent, case study in successful COIN. According to this view, COIN, as described by FM 3-24, was taken to Iraq in 2007, implemented there, and violence declined. What better evidence of COIN's utility than our own experience but a few years ago?
But there are serious and unresolved questions about what really happened in Iraq, and both sides of the argument have suffered from an absence of evidence. It has been hard to prove that the Surge (and its alleged accompanying COIN techniques) worked, but also hard to demonstrate that it did not, and both sides have plausible, but unproven, explanations for the observed outcomes. In an upcoming article in International Security, Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro use recently declassified data on violence to explore various competing arguments about the Surge. Without spoiling the surprise, their answer is that the story is complicated, and reveals the limits of several sides of the argument.
The Iraq question leads us irretrievably to a discussion about how counterinsurgency ideas featured in later policy -- and results -- in Afghanistan. Here there are also important, unanswered questions that scholars must tackle in coming years. Was the problem that COIN was never fully implemented in Afghanistan, as some argue? Or did the U.S. try, and fail, at counterinsurgency there, as others would have it? Beyond the facts on the ground there is also an important, and insufficiently understood, history of how interpretations of the Iraq experience affected the thinking of military and civilian senior leaders in policy on Afghanistan, for good or for ill.
If indeed COL Killebrew is right that counterinsurgency is here to stay, then so long as we are sending young men and women into danger to undertake such conflicts, it is imperative that we get it right, or as right as we can. We are obligated not to sit back, be quiet, and declare the debate over, but instead work diligently to fill the serious intellectual gaps in this fascinating and critical subject that has had such a profound impact on American policy and real lives on the battlefield.
By Aaron Marr Page, Attorney for the Ecuadorians suing Chevron
It is disappointing that José Cárdenas feels the need to throw in a little gratuitous boosterism for Chevron in the middle of an important foreign policy discussion about trade. Chevron is overtly trying to destabilze U.S.-Ecuador relations as part of a self-serving strategy to escape legal accountability for egregious misconduct in Ecuador's Amazon. Cárdenas uncritically recites Chevron's talking points about being the victim of a judicial "shakedown" when in fact overwhelming scientific evidence produced by Chevron itself (and as found by multiple courts) concluded that the oil giant has committed monstrous environmental abuse in Ecuador, decimating indigenous groups and causing an outbreak of cancer. For a summary of the evidence against Chevron, see this video here and this document here.
It was Chevron that insisted the claims filed by more than 30,000 indigenous people and Amazon residents be heard in the courts of Ecuador, declaring the courts in 14 affidavits fair and just. Once the trial started in 2003 and the evidence pointed to Chevron's guilt, the company started a public relations and diplomatic campaign to taint Ecuador of which trade lobbying is an important component. Ecuador's government estimates that cutting trade preferences could negatively impact 320,000 jobs, but to Chevron that's a small price to pay if it means it can politically engineer the legal outcome it seeks.
Chevron was right about the competence of Ecuadorian courts: they performed admirably, supervising an 8-year trial that included over 50 judicial site inspections and the submission of over 100 detailed expert reports containing over 64,000 scientific results from soil and water samples. Dozens of witnesses testified and each and every one of the company's legal defenses was thoroughly briefed and analyzed in the trial court's 188-page final judgment. Classified State Department cables released by Wikileaks reveal that the company repeatedly admitted to U.S. diplomatic staff in private that it had "no real complaints about the administration of the case." See here. Chevron has tried to undermine the rule of law at every turn. For a summary of Chevron's strategy of harassment, delay, obstruction, and misconduct, see this sworn affidavit.
Chevron is now engaged in an ugly bit of diplomatic theater in an effort to end-run a case that it lost. The last time Chevron stormed Capitol Hill with lobbyists to destabilize the trade relationship with Ecuador, twenty-six members of Congress wrote to ask the USTR to steer clear of the issue. As the Los Angeles Times wrote at the time, "punish[ing] Ecuador because its government refuses to halt a private lawsuit against the oil giant" would "harm broader U.S. interests" and "create needless ill will in a region where President Obama has promised to end North American bullying."
José R. Cárdenas responds: "Examples of judicial misconduct and political interference in the Chevron case have been well-documented. I stand by my comments."
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
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.