Shadow Government

A trip report from Israel: 'We have entered the phase of strategic decisions'

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.

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Shadow Government

The Shadow Government beach reading list

As much of the world heads into August vacation season, we've canvassed our Shadow Government contributors to find out what they are reading (or plan to read) this month. Below are our book recommendations; in many cases our contributors added a few words of background as well. No surprise, many of the books are related to foreign policy, but with some creative twists here and there.

Mitchell Reiss:

I've just finished Christopher Buckley's new book, They Eat Puppies, Don't They? and Nate Fick's One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, which is the assigned book for Washington College first year students this coming academic year. (Nate is coming to campus later this year to meet with the students and discuss the book's themes of leadership and responsibility.) I am currently finishing Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, which won this year's George Washingtion Book Prize as the best book on the revolutionary era. And I hope to start next Rob Litwak's final installment of his foreign policy "trilogy," Outlier States: American Strategies to Change, Contain or Engage Regimes.

Paul Bonicelli:

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Excellent review of the causes of poverty and lack of development because it focuses on the absolute requirement for democratic governance and the rule of law to secure property rights. However, it fudges the culture issue by assuming that institutions and culture are somehow different things, as though the latter does not produce the former.

On China, by Henry Kissinger. Because it's Kissinger.

Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France, by Jean-Vincent Blanchard. Diplomats and policymakers can learn much from this genius who shaped modern European and world affairs to this day by being the first to insist that his state's interests were his North Star. Leaders of an exceptional nation-state like the US have interests beyond power, but they can't achieve them without understanding what Richelieu knew and how he operated for good and bad.

Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome, by Robert Harris. Harris is a master at showing us who Cicero was: a statesman who loved the republic but was a consummate realist in all he did to restore the liberties of Rome (such as they were). He got his hands dirty, but he saved the republic for a few more years by, among other things, defeating the Cataline Conspiracy, the subject of this novel. Harris takes liberties in this work of fiction, but it is nonetheless instructive.

Dan Runde:

State of Disrepair, by Kori Schake (yes, that Kori Schake!)

Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Kori Schake:

Ranald S. Mackenzie on the Texas Frontier, by Ernest Wallace. A history of white settlement of the southwest and the role played in it by the soldier who finally figured out how to win the Indian wars.

Bright's Passage, by Josh Ritter. A lyrical novel about a World War I veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, reminder of the toll that combat takes on the people who fight it for us, how important and difficult it is to stitch them back into society.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason. A collection of short story excursions on themes from the Odyssey. Homer would be turning cartwheels to see his material used with such vigor and creativity.

Will Inboden:

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Why? Because I've never read it before. Impression thus far: it's very long. And very good.

The Reason for God, by Timothy Keller. An erudite and winsome defense of the intellectual plausibility of the Christian faith.

Postwar by Tony Judt. The word "magisterial" is woefully overused, but in the case of Judt's elegant history of Europe from World War II to the present, it is wholly merited.

Phil Levy:

Capital: A Novel, by John Lanchester. A well-written tale of London that I started on a recent trip there.

Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Two very good authors try to disentangle history, politics, and economics.

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. The sequel to Wolf Hall! A distinctive writing style; not necessarily easy, but very rewarding.

Mike Singh:

George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis. A great historian writing about one of the last century's most important diplomats.

At Home, by Bill Bryson. Bryson serves up a reminder about how advances in technology - including seemingly mundane ones - have repeatedly had a major and unforeseen impact on politics and international affairs. Plus beach reading is supposed to be entertaining, after all.

Dan Twining:

Why the West Rules (for Now), by Ian Morris. Meta-history at its best by an archaeologist who combines insights from history, geography, and sociology to explain why it was the West, not the East, that came to dominate the modern world. Like many students of the past, though, his predictions for the future are questionable. Read it for its rich historical insights rather than using it as a crystal ball.

Jews, God, & History (2nd edition), by Max Dimont. As a non-Jew, I discovered this book on my current trip to Israel. Excerpt: "Jewish history is too fascinating, too interesting, too incredible to remain the private property of Jews and scholars.... Jewish history cannot be told as the history of Jews only, because they have nearly always lived within the context of other civilizations. The destiny of the Jews has paralleled the destinies of those same civilizations, except in one important respect. Somehow the Jews managed to escape the cultural death of each of the civilizations within which they dwelled. Somehow the Jews managed to survive the death of one civilization and continue their cultural growth in another which was emerging at the time."

Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, by Lawrence James. When I lived in New Delhi we shunned literature on Britain's Indian empire so as not to give our Indian friends the idea that we were colonial romanticists or Orientalists. However, the legacy of the Raj lives on in India's institutions and in its expanding foreign policy horizons, and it is difficult to understand modern India without an awareness of the nationalist and modernist currents that emerged from the colonial experience. To the extent that the modern world grew out of a British empire on which the sun never set, Britain's experience in India is central to the narrative of global history, and to understanding Asia's other big rising power.

The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr. I recently rediscovered the joys of Niebuhr's philosophy when Shadow Government co-editor and German Marshall Fund fellow Will Inboden gave a presentation of his new paper on Niebuhr's relevance to our understanding of international politics today. During the early Cold War, Niebuhr's thinking on the intersection of human morality (including its darker undercurrents) with democracy, totalitarianism, and the international balance of power shaped the work of generations of scholars and practitioners. His rich understanding of the human condition and its expression in the instruments of state power are a welcome antidote for students of political science unconvinced by the austerity of structural realism and other modern theories of international relations.

Peter Feaver:

"I have already been to the beach where I read a book that dealt with foreign policy challenges in an unusual fashion: The Lunatics by David Barry and Alan Zweibel. If you can get past the cussin' that would make a sailor blush, you will find a mad-cap, absurdist romp through international security. The protagonists inadvertently solve the Castro problem, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the threat from a rising China, among other sundry matters. Not quite the stuff of FP, but definitely delightful beach fare.

For what remains of my vacation in August, I hope to finish:

The Black Sea: A History, by Charles King. This magisterial account covers the fascinating history of the Black Sea and its littorals from prehistoric to modern day. I came across the book while preparing for a recent trip to Istanbul and have found it very rewarding.

Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, by Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog. A team led by one of America's top sociologists draws on in-depth interviews to explain the worldview and cultural markers of the customers we professors are trying to reach: young people aged 18-23.

Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, by Andrew Ferguson. Because one of those potential customers is my own son, I find this brilliant memoir of the college application process almost too painfully insightful to read, and too funny not to read.

John Hannah:

A Fan's Notes, by Frederick Exley

Carried Away: A Selection of Stories by Alice Munro

Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade by James Reston, Jr.

Jamie Fly:

Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising use of American Power, by David Sanger

The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power, by James Mann

In the middle of a presidential election in which national security has played only a minor role, it is important to remember that regardless of whether or not national security issues receive the attention they deserve from voters, the next commander in chief will immediately have to confront a wide range of threats and challenges to America's security. Sanger and Mann's accounts of the early years of the Obama administration portray the evolution of this President's thinking on foreign policy and highlight his team's successes as well as areas in which they have fallen short.

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden. North Korea is often viewed primarily through the prism of its provocative actions against South Korea and its illicit weapons programs and proliferation. Harden's book highlights the amazing story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born in one of the despotic regime's many prison labor camps before he escaped and made it to freedom.

Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics, by Robert Kaufman. This year is the centennial of the birth of the legendary Democratic senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson. Unfortunately, this year, the Senate will lose some of its leading lights on national security issues, such as Senator John Kyl and Senator Joe Lieberman, to retirement. As they depart, we could use more senators in the mold of Jackson, whose tireless work on behalf of America's national security and the promotion of democracy and human rights, left a legacy that lasts to this day.

Joe Wood:

1) Anything by/about Niebuhr.

2) Though many will have read it before, I find Whittaker Chambers' Witness coming up in conversation constantly. I read it this year (recommend the 50th anniversary edition with introductions by Buckley and Novak) and am recommending it often. Several people have told me they are rereading it and find it very much worth the second effort.

3) Beginning with a superb article by Wilfred McClay in May, First Things journal has had a multi-month series on the future of liberalism which has been very good.

Steve Biegun:

Catherine the Great; Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. Recently finished. Another fantastic Romanov biography by the unsurpassed Robert K. Massie. He fits 18th Century Russia into the broader context of Europe's age of Empire, illustrates the duality of Catherine as both a liberalizer and autocrat, and dispels several commonly held myths about Catherine and her consort Potemkin (and also confirms a few).

The Man without a Face; The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen. Just finished reading. A real A to Z on Russian President Vladimir Putin by a well known and highly regarded Russian journalist, author and democracy advocate. In a word, yikes. A little conspiratorial in parts but then again, who knows. Some pretty disturbing stuff regardless.

The Civil War by Bruce Catton, and The Atlas of the Civil War by James M. McPherson. Now reading (while periodically consulting the excellent, illustrated Civil War battle atlas by McPherson). These books were an impulse gift shop purchase during a summer family trip to Gettysburg National Military Park this summer. Catton's book was highly recommended by the gift shop librarian as the best overview of the United States Civil War. It has surpassed expectations as it succinctly follows the military campaigns in the Eastern, Western and Southern United States as well as the rise and fall of the many Generals who led the armies. For anyone who wants to see how the whole picture fits together from Fort Sumter to Antietam to Gettysburg, Vicksburg and beyond, this is your book. Better yet, go visit Gettysburg Battlefield less than two hours from Washington, DC (and next July commemorating the 150th anniversary of that great and terrible battle).

Googled; The End of the World as We Know It by Ken Auletta. Planning to read before summer ends. Hoping that this in depth chronicle of Google's rise, and its battles with old media competitors, will help illuminate how an innovative new company makes the transition from being an insurgent to being "the Man".  At first look, it appears that, in the author's view, it has a lot to do with being led by engineers who see every problem as having a data driven solution. Definitely a different world than that occupied by Shadow Government.

Ian Brzezinski:

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson. Acemogul and Robinson examine how political institutions and culture affect a state's or a people's prosperity. It's a powerful reminder that freedom and rule of law count.

Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater than People In Power by Wael Ghonim. This is a memoir of Wael Ghonim whose Facebook page emerged as one of the catalyst driving the Arab Spring in Egypt. It's an insight into the interface between today's information technology and society, particular those societies struggling for greater freedom and accountability from their governments.

The World America Made by Robert Kagan. A powerful reminder of why American power -- ideological, political, economic and military -- is a force for good in the world and why its future should not be underestimated.

The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution by Alex Storozynski. A easy to read account of Kosciuszko's contributions to the American Revolution.

The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power by James Mann. Because I still cannot figure out the rationale behind the foreign and defense policies of the Obama administration.....

UPDATE: Two more Shadow Government bloggers contributions:

Kristofer Harrison:

Red Capitalism by Carl Walter and Fraser Howie. Because I'm just trying to understand what's going on over there. The scale of China's Enron antics are just breathtaking.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. Because it's huge and I have lots of time on my hands. Plus, it's a damn good story about an interesting time in Chicago's history.

Mike Green, former Senior Director for Asian Affairs, NSC:

If Mahan Ran the Great Pacific War, by John Adams. I began reading this while preparing an independent assessment of US force posture strategy for the Asia-Pacific region that CSIS was asked to do under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. Adams applies strict Mahanian principles on geostrategy and naval warfare to the performance of Yamamoto, Nimitz, MacArthur and others from 1941 to 1945. The book has lots of lessons about the interplay of technology and geography that have relevance to our Asia-Pacific strategy today.

Empire: A Novel, by Gore Vidal. I read this novel of political and personal drama in turn-of-the- Century Washington,DC years ago and was inspired to re-read it after recent obituaries of Vidal reminded me how viscerally he (and more recent authors on the Left) reviled Theodore Roosevelt. A fine badge of honor for our 26th President.

A Blundering Administration, by Elihu Root. Former Secretary of State Root lambasts the anti-business and still isolationist Wilson administration in this 1916 monograph in terms Team Romney would find inspiring. After Wilson won the presidential election and took the US into the Great War, Root became an American first and Republican second, helping Wilson with Japan, Russia and the Republican senate and forming bipartisan internationalist institutions like CFR and Carnegie. It is a good reminder that the United States has produced leaders who can be both enthusiastic partisans and great statesmen. Of course, a better ending would have been for Root's Republican candidate, Charles Evan Hughes to have won.

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