Once again, international events are intruding upon the administration's determination to focus on domestic policy. To no one's surprise, except perhaps, that of the White House, Iran once again has signaled that it is not interested in serious negotiations unless all sanctions, presumably to include those imposed for its support of terrorism and violations of basic human rights, are lifted forthwith. In the meantime, North Korea's secular monarch, Kim Jong Un, has sparked a new crisis on the peninsula by ratcheting up his nation's bellicosity to fever pitch. And lastly, the Syrian government appears to have at last resorted to the employment of chemical weapons against the forces of the opposition, thus crossing the "red line" that President Obama drew some time ago.
The administration's response to Iran's predictable behavior has also been predictable: regret and not much more. Its response to North Korea has been more forceful: carrier, missile defense ships and stealth bomber deployments, as well as a boosting of the missile defense budget and joint exercises with the Republic of Korea forces. But it remains unclear, to the American public, the international community, and North Korea itself, how Washington might respond if Pyongyang begins to match its words with deeds.
As for Syria, the Pentagon has deployed about 200 troops from the 1st Armored Division to Jordan, a putative "vanguard" for a larger force that would enter Syria to secure that country's chemical weapons. But if, as Britain and France assert, Bashar al-Assad is already employing these weapons, it is not at all clear how an attempt to "secure" them might actually succeed. Would it be enough to send the 1st Armored Division, with its more than 300 tanks, into Syria? Would they not themselves face the likelihood of a chemical attack by Assad's forces? How would the Syrian population react to the appearance of American tanks inside their borders? Will they be welcomed as "liberators," as they were, all too briefly, in Iraq? And then what?
Moreover, it is highly unlikely that American land forces would enter Syria without the U.S. Navy and/or Air Force launching strikes to destroy Syrian air defenses and ground facilities, and to weaken its land forces. In other words, America would go to war in Syria.
Perhaps Britain and France would join the American operation, though it is unlikely they would lead it as they did in Libya. They simply do not have the resources, and perhaps the willpower to do so. So at the end of the day, the United States would have launched its third major war against a Muslim state since the beginning of the century. And, as with Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed, the lesser Libya operation, for which Washington provided more support than was originally acknowledged, the consequences of such an attack cannot be foretold, and could well be negative.
In any event, it is not at all clear that Washington will in fact invade Syria. The last thing this administration wants is to invade another Arab state. Moreover, any additional forces deployed to Jordan could well be needed not only to assist with humanitarian activities, but also to ensure the stability of that American ally. About a half million refugees have already poured across the Syrian-Jordanian border, and some, perhaps many, of them could well be affiliated with Islamist extremists who are sworn enemies of the moderate, pro-Western King Abdullah. In the meantime, however, Assad would continue to employ chemical weapons as and when he deems it is useful to do so.
How then should Washington respond to the latest developments in Syria? Some suggest imposing an aerial no-fly zone near the Turkish border, and perhaps another near the Jordanian border. Others suggest a no-fly zone under the umbrella of Turkish-based Patriot missiles (assuming the Turks agree, of course). Yet no-fly zones will have little impact on the struggle that is taking place inside Syria apart from that between the regime and the opposition. In the conflict, between, on the one hand, Islamic extremists supported by the Qataris and to a lesser extent the Saudis, and, on the other, the moderate opposition, it is the extremists that are gaining the upper hand. Should the regime fall, and the extremists come to power, they will pose a new, and more immediate threat to both Israel and Jordan. Indeed, such a regime might well choose to align itself with Iran as well; after all, Hamas has received Iranian support ever since it came to power in Gaza. Washington's first priority, therefore, should be to ensure that the extremists do not control a post-Assad government. To do so, it must arm the moderate opposition. And it must do so now; time is not on the side of the moderates; indeed, as the revolutions and civil wars of the past, from the French to the Russian revolutions have demonstrated over and over again, time is rarely, if ever, on the side of the moderates.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
This Saturday, Iraqis head to the polls to vote for provincial councils -- the country's first elections since U.S. troops withdrew sixteen months ago. The balloting comes at a time of growing peril for Iraq. Violence is escalating, as are tensions pitting the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against the country's Sunni and Kurdish communities -- all exacerbated by the raging civil war in neighboring Syria. While posing a stern test to the viability of Iraq's democratic system, the elections will also serve as an important indicator of the relative strength of Iraq's competing coalitions -- especially Maliki's -- in advance of national elections scheduled for 2014.
At stake are nearly 450 seats on local governing bodies. More than 8100 candidates from some 265 political entities are competing. The elections cover 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. The three provinces comprising the Kurdistan Regional Government will vote later this year, while elections in oil-rich and ethnically disputed Kirkuk have (by tacit agreement among the competing communities) not been held since 2005.
But in a highly controversial move, Maliki's cabinet decreed in March that balloting would be delayed by up to six months in Iraq's two most influential Sunni-majority provinces, Anbar and Nineveh -- both of which border Syria and have for months been the locus of large-scale (but mostly peaceful) anti-Maliki protests. Maliki claimed -- not entirely without justification, especially in Anbar -- that he was simply responding to the petition of local leaders worried that voters could not be adequately protected from growing collaboration between al Qaeda affiliates on either sides of the Iraq-Syria border.
His opponents charge that the prime minister's real agenda is avoiding a massive anti-Maliki turnout that would further escalate opposition to his government. They correctly note that previous elections were conducted under far more threatening conditions. Both the U.S. and U.N. urged Maliki to reverse course, worried about the appearance of disenfranchising millions of Sunnis already agitated by claims that Maliki has been systematically moving to marginalize their community in the interests of establishing an Iranian-backed Shiite dictatorship. Maliki turned aside these criticisms, while suggesting the delayed elections might occur as early as May.
The reality is that violence threatens voting throughout Iraq. A series of more than 20 terror attacks on Monday hit targets across the country, including prospective polling places, killing Sunnis and Shiites alike. These were but the latest in a string of al Qaeda-linked assaults that have occurred at increasingly regular intervals. The campaign has also been marred by at least 15 candidate assassinations, all of them Sunnis and many believed to have been killed not by Al Qaeda but by political rivals within their own community.
Whether Iraqi security forces can successfully protect the elections without the support previously provided by tens of thousands of U.S. troops is a major question mark. The fact that close to 700,000 army and police officers went to the polls in early voting last Saturday without incident was encouraging. Also of concern, however, is the possibility that the mere threat of violence could significantly depress turnout, stoking doubts about the legitimacy and future of Iraq's shaky democracy. An especially important indicator could be the participation of Sunnis -- a potential barometer of that disgruntled community's continued commitment to the post-2003 political order or, alternatively, a troubling sign that, perhaps inspired by co-religionists in neighboring Syria, they are looking to more confrontational methods to redress their grievances.
Beyond violence, ensuring the integrity of the electoral process has to be a real worry. There is no doubt that America's heavy involvement during past elections helped deter fraud to a minimum. Absence that involvement, the risk of widespread wrongdoing -- or simply the perception of wrongdoing -- increases dramatically, even with the presence of a few hundred international observers and several thousand domestic monitors. The danger that significant swaths of the public may simply reject the legitimacy of the results cannot be discounted.
Assuming a relatively free and fair vote, the outcome of Saturday's elections is hard to predict. No reliable polling is publicly available. Maliki has confidently claimed that his coalition will win big. In recent weeks, he has shrewdly sought to divide his Sunni opposition (including through a surprising set of proposals to ease de-Baathifcation laws), successfully co-opting stalwart nationalists like Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq. The Iraqiya bloc of his main rival, former prime minister Ayad Allawi (a secular Shiite), has splintered, with the current speaker of parliament, Osama Nujaifi, and the former finance minister, Rafi Issawi, forming their own Sunni-based coalition.
Nevertheless, surprises remain possible. In local elections, a voter's familiarity with a hometown candidate can often trump allegiance to a national party. In provincial balloting four years ago, Iraqis voted to punish incumbents -- an inclination that if repeated on Saturday could well work against Maliki and to the benefit of his major Shiite rivals in the Islamic Supreme Council and Sadrist camp -- both of which are fielding their own candidates. For all his troubles, Allawi's bloc is the only one competing in all Iraq's provinces, both Sunni and Shiite, a nationalist vocation that could well accrue to his benefit. And even if Maliki's State of Law emerges as the top vote getter, post-election coalitions among his opponents could emerge that deny him the degree of local domination that he seeks.
Should Maliki nevertheless secure an overwhelming victory, it will likely fuel fears that his most worrisome authoritarian tendencies will be emboldened: more consolidation of control over key state institutions, particularly the means of coercion and the courts; more targeting and exclusion of political opponents; an intensified effort to resolve disputes with Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni minorities through confrontation; and increased dependence on Iran. Maliki's chances of winning next year's national elections, another four years in office, and increasingly unconstrained powers would increase significantly. Should such fears be realized, the results for Iraqi stability and unity could be dire indeed -- especially in a regional context of dramatically heightened sectarian and ethnic tensions, perhaps leading to all-out state collapse in next-door Syria.
From that standpoint, Iraq's future may be best served if Saturday's elections see not only minimal violence, maximum participation, and limited irregularities, but also no clear winners and losers -- a triumph not only of the democratic process, but a therapeutic re-balancing of Iraq's political landscape that reminds all parties of the continued imperative of negotiation, compromise, and political partnership.
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
Experts and policymakers watching the situation in Syria are conflicted about what should be done to stop the bloody actions of the Assad government. Those who support a "responsibility to protect" argue that the international community -- including the U.S. -- should be doing more to stop Assad's slaughter of innocents; realists claim that there is not enough at stake for the U.S. to become involved in yet another Middle East conflict; and al Qaida experts are concerned that aid sent to the rebels could end up helping the extremists rather than ordinary Syrians.
If either the U.S. or international community had intervened before the fall of 2012, there would have been fewer disputes about Syria policy. Both al Qaida experts and those who support "responsibility to protect" were generally on the same page: Stopping the brutal actions of the regime and preventing the extremists from gaining a foothold required involvement, and there was a clear non-extremist resistance group to support.
Since then, however, part of the resistance -- embittered by our lack of assistance and desperate to survive -- has been enticed into the embrace of extremists and especially into that of an al Qaida affiliated group called Jabhat al-Nusra. If the international community or the U.S. decides to arm the resistance now, there is a fair chance that the weapons and other support material could fall into the hands of al Qaida and be used against us after the conflict in Syria ends.
While the experts have debated policy, the bloodshed has continued. Assad's decision to once again bomb civilians has, however, returned to the fore another possibility for U.S. policy in Syria: the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent Assad from targeting and killing civilians with his air force. This strategy has been proposed by many others over the past two years and was recently raised once more by Carl Levin. I would suggest that now, more than ever, it needs to be seriously considered by both the Obama administration and by realists, since the risks of inaction are now far greater than the risks of action. If the U.S. chooses to continue to do nothing, there are five very bad things that are likely to happen, while if the U.S. chooses to put in place a no-fly zone there is a low probability of bad outcomes and a greater chance for a whole series of good results.
The Risks and Benefits of Inaction
There are only two benefits associated with inaction: We will save a little money and pilots will not be put in jeopardy. The risks of inaction are, in contrast, overwhelming. First, thousands more Syrians will die and Syrians will blame the U.S. and international community for these deaths. After all, the U.S. showed in Libya that it could intervene to overthrow a tyrant whenever it chose, but for reasons that do not make sense to Syrians has determined not to help them. Second, the conflict will continue to spread beyond Syria. Over the past few months, violence has erupted in northern Lebanon, where Jabhat al-Nusra has spread its influence, and the war has spilled across the borders into Iraq and Jordan. Third, at this point, the war in Syria may be radicalizing as many Sunnis throughout the Muslim-majority world as the war in Iraq. Not only that, but this radicalization is being pointed by the extremists at the U.S. and other Western powers. The extremists have been quick to use our non-intervention to argue that the U.S. is allowing the slaughter of Syrians and in fact actually supports Assad's bloody reign. Finally, there is a possibility that the current resistance might overthrow Assad without our help and create a new Syria that is open to domination by the extremists. What chance would the U.S. and the international community have to influence the direction that this new Syria might take if we did not intervene when we could to save lives?
The Risks and Benefits of Action
In direct contrast, the risks of action are minimal: Although highly unlikely, it is possible that Assad might be able to shoot down an American plane. There is also the chance that the U.S. might, however indirectly, empower extremists within the resistance. But the benefits far outweigh these risks. A no-fly zone will save lives, show ordinary Syrians and Muslims around the world that the U.S. and the international community take the bloodshed seriously, help to mitigate the radicalization and influence exerted by the extremists, and grant us some say within any new Syria that is created. But time is running out. The longer the conflict continues without our involvement, the more Syrians and other Muslims will be tempted to listen to the arguments of the extremists about our supposed hatred for Muslims and the more they will be radicalized into action against us and others.
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
As I write this, the news is still fragmentary and unfolding concerning the Algerian hostage situation following France's military intervention in Mali and effort to arrest the territorial gains made by the jihadists. However this latest crisis plays out, events thus far seem to expose several of the Obama administration's strategic deficiencies, including:
Premature declaration of victory over al Qaeda. As if we needed yet another reminder, the White House's past declarations of looming victory against "core al Qaeda" were woefully premature. This is most costly not as a public relations blunder but as a strategic blunder; when an administration's leadership signals a change in strategic priorities, the rest of the national security apparatus shifts accordingly. Such a premature spiking of the ball seems to have influenced the administration's mishandling of the Benghazi consulate attack, and now seems to have caused a corresponding neglect of Mali. Yet Mali may be emerging as just the latest front in the war, as Peter Chilson points out the bracing fact that "Northern Mali is currently the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world."
The shifting fissures and fusions of various jihadist groups, a kaleidoscopic combination of local grievances and global aspirations, should not obscure that in the minds of the terrorists there is in part an international and universal dimension to their campaign. Terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar's reported demand that the U.S. release the "blind sheikh" Omar Abdel-Rahman, imprisoned for his role in masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is just one example of their grievances towards America. Whether or not the al Qaeda branch in northern Mali is ever able to stage an attack against the continental United States, its hostage operation against the Algerian gas field installation shows a capability and willingness to target U.S. interests and allies (such as the French, British, and Japanese employees). That alone should justify a more vigorous American response than the Obama administration has thus far marshaled.
Leading from behind. An Obama administration official first proudly described the White House's multilateral strategy as "leading from behind" in the context of the Libya intervention. What might have sounded good then does not sound so good now, as unfortunately the Mali chaos emanates directly from the Libya spillover, and the corresponding failure to engage in an effective post-conflict stabilization operation. Now the latest chapter of "leading from behind" has the French intervening in Mali while the U.S. sits on the sidelines. This has the effect of further annoying important NATO allies while ceding leverage and initiative to the jihadists. The U.S. admittedly has limited resources and bandwidth to bring to bear here, so I am not making the simplistic argument that an earlier full-scale American intervention would have been easy or solved the problems besetting Mali. But while the downsides of excessive involvement are well-known, the ongoing crisis shows in turn the downsides of dogmatic passivity.
Anemic religious freedom policy. Six months ago I wrote about Mali and made the point that violations of religious freedom are often a leading indicator of a looming security threat (an argument later elaborated here). As I said at the time:
"One worrisome indicator is the jihadists' destruction of traditional Muslim burial grounds and other iconic sites, a sign of the vicious religious intolerance that militant Islamists show towards other Muslims, let alone believers in non-Islamic faiths ... This campaign of religious intolerance may be an early warning indicator of a looming security threat, particularly if northern Mali becomes a terrorist safe-haven and magnet for jihadists planning attacks on the West ... at a minimum, American counterterrorism and religious-freedom policymakers should be watching Mali closely, and talking to each other. In the case of Mali, their concerns may be more aligned then they realize."
Unfortunately the Mali situation is just the latest indicator that the Obama administration still has not made religious freedom policy a priority, either as a value in its own right or as a strategic interest. From that time six months ago, conditions only worsened in Mali as the jihadists began imposing their perverse version of Islamic law. If the Obama administration had been paying more attention to religious liberty deteriorations, it would not have been as surprised at Mali's perilous straits.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:
1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?
2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?
3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?
4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?
5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?
1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?
2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?
1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?
2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of
2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the
world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you
do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?
3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?
1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?
2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?
3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?
4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?
5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?
1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?
2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?
3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Jordan have led both administration officials and the chattering classes to conclude that democracy is on the march in the Middle East. Having once again been caught by surprise by events overseas -- one wonders where our intelligence agencies have been hiding -- the Obama administration is now trying to push itself into the forefront of those seeking democratic change in the region.
Yet it was not democracy that led a young Tunisian to immolate himself and, apart from English-speaking educated intellectuals, it does not appear that democracy is what most people have been demonstrating about. Instead, what they are seeking, first and foremost, is economic opportunity unfettered by corruption and favoritism. Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire because he was prevented from earning a modest living. Three Egyptians have burned themselves because of lack of job opportunities.
Secondly, Tunisians and Egyptian appear to be seeking responsive government, which is quite different from Western notions of democracy. In fact, it is arguable that they and other demonstrators in the Arab world would be quite comfortable living under a Chinese-style system, where there is a high and consistent level of economic growth and standards of living continue to rise. Would Tunisia have overthrown Ben Ali if its economy grew, as it had in the 1990s, and if the President's family curbed their greed? Would Mubarak be in the trouble he is now if he had a far greater percentage of the population benefitting from Egypt's economic growth?
It is noteworthy that for all the talk of upheavals in the Arab world, there has so far been little unrest in the traditional Gulf emirates or in Saudi Arabia. The rulers of the smaller Gulf States have long made it their policy to distribute wealth widely among their citizens. (Non-citizens don't count, of course. And if they made any trouble they would be deported.) Despite predictions of their imminent demise over the past two decades, the Saudis likewise have so far remained quiet. The al-Saud family recognized some ten years ago that it needed to spread more wealth to ensure the support of its increasingly younger population; so far so good.
Even Bahrain, which might have been expected to be the scene of riots, given the secondary status of the majority Sh'ia population, has not witnessed any major demonstrations. Again, most of the Bahraini Sh'ia appear to recognize that a stable Bahrain means more wealth for them too -- even if they do not achieve economic parity with the dominant Sunnis. They also know that Saudi tanks are not far from the causeway that links their state to its much larger and more powerful neighbor, and that those tanks would be quick to cross into the island kingdom if the ruling family came under siege.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
For an administration that claims there is no conflict between our interests and our values, the Obama administration has sure seemed to have a difficult time balancing U.S. interests in a stable Egypt with the U.S. values of a democratic Egypt.
The administration is in a legitimately tough position deciding how much support to continue giving an authoritarian government that has proved useful to us. But as the protests have worn on, the president, like Secretary Clinton, hit a better balance, calling on the Mubarak government to set in motion a transition to free elections. Vice President Biden was characteristically maladroit, claiming Mubarak was not a dictator and explaining that all the Egyptian protesters were seeking was "a little more opportunity." The Pentagon was characteristically calm and forward leaning, reaching out to the Egyptian defense establishment -- which is indistinguishable from the Egyptian government at its highest levels -- to urge professionalism and restraint.
The Egyptian military has already delivered on the only important near-term military request the United States is likely to make: not using force against the protesters. How might democratization in Egypt affect U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation? Short of an Iranian-style Islamic government overtly hostile to the United States, Mubarak's departure is unlikely to affect military cooperation with the United States. The United States does not actually rely on the Egyptian military for much militarily, and most of that which the United States does is very much in their interests to continue. But it could affect Egyptian-Israeli cooperation, with enormous consequences for the United States.
For military purposes, the United States relies on the Egyptian government in three main ways: 1) acting as a transit for U.S. military forces, 2) preventing Egypt from becoming a base for terrorist activity that would affect the United States, and 3) protecting Israel.
CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images
I have held off commenting on the "Ground Zero mosque" controversy, in part because it seemed to be primarily a domestic political issue but mainly because I was dismayed by the hyperbole, demagoguery, and dishonest argumentation I found -- and, sadly, there are plenty of culprits on both sides of the debate. Some of the debate has been principled, nuanced, and careful, but not enough of it has and like an email flame war, the rhetoric has escalated even as the actual underlying points of dispute have narrowed.
However, one underappreciated point of consensus in the debate has prompted me to weigh in. Both sides of the debate appear to agree on one narrow claim: that the Ground Zero mosque is an important issue, symbolic or otherwise, in the ideological struggle in which the war on terror is embedded -- what Bush administration insiders referred to as the war of ideas.
I think it is certainly relevant to the war of ideas. Al Qaeda has sought to turn a broad civil war within the Muslim world into a war between Islam and the infidels (everyone else). If al Qaeda ever succeeded in that aim, our prospects for success would dim considerably. In fact, as President Bush and his advisors made clear within hours of the 9/11 attacks, and as leaders from both parties have emphasized repeatedly ever since -- and as most Americans have accepted to a remarkable degree -- the United States has not viewed the war on terror as a war against Islam. On the contrary, Americans have expended considerable blood and treasure to help protect Muslim victims of al Qaeda and other like-minded terrorist groups. And American leaders have sought, wherever possible, to reach out to the Muslim world and highlight America's long tradition of religious freedom and unrivaled record as a society that welcomes and integrates immigrants from all walks of life.
President Obama has made this particular aspect of the ideological struggle a personal priority of his and he deserves some credit for doing so.
Yet, all of the focus on the Ground Zero mosque controversy may now be having the ironic effect of distracting us from a much more important and much more urgent issue in that ideological struggle: the vast humanitarian crisis caused by the floods in Pakistan. The human toll is staggering, and that alone ought to be enough to prompt an outpouring of generosity from the American people.
But if you are not moved by the human suffering, perhaps the national-security concerns will prompt you into action. Pakistan is at the epicenter of the war on terror, and it is hard to see how that larger struggle will turn out well if the Pakistani state collapses and the society plunges into anarchy. The country was already teetering on the edge with a bankrupt economy, severe food and water problems, and an ongoing insurgency in Balochistan. And, by the way, al Qaeda and other terrorist networks are primarily in Pakistan, not Afghanistan -- indeed, several of the recent attempted terrorist attacks in the United States have originated from or had links to groups in Pakistan. Oh, and Pakistan has a sizable nuclear arsenal.
The stakes in Pakistan are exceptionally high and the international response thus far has been inadequate. The United States has done better than most, but we could do more. The most successful things the Bush administration ever did in the war of ideas were the rapid and substantial responses to the Asian tsunami of 2004/2005 and the Pakistan earthquake of 2005. More than anything, our actions confounded critics in the Muslim world (and elsewhere) and thwarted al Qaeda's goal of fostering a war between Islam and the West.
The current Pakistan crisis dwarfs both of those prior disasters, but the international response, beginning with ours, has not yet been commensurate. There are many reasons for that, but maybe one of those reasons is our national preoccupation with the mosque debate.
Perhaps it is time for our national attention to pivot from the mosque controversy on to the far more serious Pakistan crisis. Perhaps it is time for all of those political leaders and pundits who have scored points on their partisan enemies on this issue to take a pause, make a donation to the International Red Cross, and urge others to do the same.
By Peter Feaver
For my part, I thought the speech was a workmanlike effort laboring under the impossible burden of great expectations. I am keen to credit the President Obama's good intentions and, for the most part, I think he did what he had to do. I did not see any howlers -- egregious mistakes that would torpedo the effort. Nor did I see any "aha's" -- moments of rhetorical epiphany when the president (or his speechwriters) captured perfectly a hitherto elusive truth. Perhaps the real news of the speech is that there is no news. In a time and a world where there is too much news -- especially these days in that region of the world -- perhaps the absence of news is a good thing.
I was reading closely to see if the president would commit the mistake so often committed by pandering politicians and academics, especially those who are tone-deaf on religious matters: trying so hard to flatter Muslims that one insults the faith of Christians (and others). I think the speech avoided that, though I will be interested to see how many people agree with me. Certainly one could find missed opportunities in this area in the speech. Indeed, one could code the entire section on "religious freedom" as one big "missed opportunity."
But it is perhaps unfair to expect Obama to really "tell it like it is" in a speech whose primary purpose was to begin the delicate process of translating Obama's celebrity status into a diplomatic asset in the ideological struggle formerly known as the global war on terror. Yes, Obama treads exceedingly lightly on the global persecution of Christians, or the role of Arab political elites in promoting myths about 9/11 or Jew-hating and Christophobic myths. Yes, the president trades in some false if convenient rhetorical subterfuge of his own -- the bogus "war of choice vs. war of necessity" dichotomy, or the statement (surprising from a self-proclaimed "student of history" on the eve of the anniversary of the invasion of Normandy) that "no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other." Yes, there are some carefully chosen code-words and phrases that have the effect of creating false moral equivalencies: For example, does Obama seriously believe that tax rules on charitable giving impose upon American Muslims religious constraints comparable to, say, what evangelical Christians endure in Saudi Arabia?
Yet, there are also carefully chosen phrases that represent progress, sometimes over rhetoric from the Bush administration and sometimes over Obama's own earlier campaign rhetoric. I think "Muslim communities" is better than "Muslim world," for instance. And I was rather surprised to hear him say, "I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein," the circumlocution that most Bush administration people use to describe the positive side of the ledger on Iraq -- so surprised, in fact, that I am willing to give him a pass for sullying that thought with the utterly tendentious caveat that followed: "I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible." (Is there anyone so blinkered that they believe supporters of the Iraq war would disagree with that bromide?)
And there are enough gestures to true candor -- for instance, calling out the cowardice of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, or the forceful restatement (without credit, of course) of President Bush's rhetoric about universality of democracy's appeal -- that will be useful if the speech, as I respect, receives rave reviews. To the audiences giving the speech a standing ovation, those snippets of candor can be put to good use. To misappropriate another bit of scripture, be ye not just hearers of the word but doers also.
We can and should view this speech as a step forward. A modest step, perhaps, but in the right direction.
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.