Shadow Government

Would You Release a Convicted Spy to Secure Middle East Peace?

I would, but I am not persuaded that is the question confronting the Obama administration. I think the real question it faces is: Would you release a convicted spy to get an extension on an arbitrary deadline on interim talks that show little prospect of succeeding, but show even less prospect if you don't release the spy?

Reports indicate that the Obama administration is seriously considering releasing Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Navy Department analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel back in the 1980s. The Israeli government has lobbied every president since, begging that they release Pollard. Every president, including presidents who were criticized for being too friendly with Israel, resisted those lobbying efforts and so Pollard has remained languishing in jail. The matter was brought up almost ritualistically in leader-to-leader encounters for years with little prospect of success. And now the rumors coming out of Washington suggest that a U.S. president has never been as close to releasing Pollard as President Barack Obama is right now.

Even stipulating Pollard's guilt, the case for releasing him is not absurd. He has served a long time and, though serving a life sentence, would be eligible for consideration under normal parole conditions in a few years. It seems far less of a concession today than it seemed in the mid-1990s, when CIA Director George Tenet reportedly threatened to resign if President Bill Clinton released Pollard. Moreover, Israel has repeatedly been asked to give up prisoners convicted of heinous crimes on behalf of the peace process -- indeed, one reason for considering the Pollard case now is that Israel is balking at releasing yet another tranche of prisoners, given how painful the last tranche had been. If Israel can be expected to give up convicted murderers, is it unreasonable to ask the United States to give up a convicted traitor?

No, not if doing so seals a final deal. I can imagine a hypothetical situation in which the long-sought final agreement -- one that resolves the so-called "right of return," the status of Jerusalem, the disposition of the Jordan Valley, the management of the Gaza Strip, and so on -- is within reach and all that is required is that Israel concede one more inch on some matter. To buy that inch, we might have to release Pollard and, even though that would mean releasing a convicted traitor, in that hypothetical scenario, I think most people would say the price was worth it.

That does not appear to be the case here. Are there credible indications that the two sides have moved substantially closer on the core issues which divide them? Does the Palestinian Authority look ready to make the painful sacrifices they would have to make to secure peace with Israel? Do things look any more promising on the Israeli side?

There is a real risk that the Obama administration will play a valuable one-time chit and buy very little for it -- perhaps a few months extension, but nothing more. The Palestinian side could well demand an equivalent concession and, having already sunk the costs so deeply in a quixotic attempt at forced-pace negotiations, how could the administration resist further concessions?

The risks for Israel may also be larger than they appear in this deal. While Israel views this case as a matter of justice, the American side would likely view this as a huge concession, one that warrants an equally large response from Israel. Even if Israel is unable to find or make the package of concessions that yields a final peace treaty, the Obama administration will expect something pretty big from Israel in return. Every subsequent Israeli action will be framed, "How could they do 'X' after we released Pollard?" The outrage in the Obama Administration if, say, Israel subsequently announced a new round of building on territory in dispute in the peace negotiations, would be significant, and could throw U.S.-Israeli relations back to the dark days of 2009.

I understand why Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly thinks this is a gamble worth taking. He has invested a considerable amount of personal energy and prestige in these negotiations and he doggedly pursued them when most experts thought they had little chance of succeeding. He is clearly invested in seeing them continue, and he has probably convinced himself that this is his own last chance at a deal. He may even be right about this being his last chance.

But I am not yet convinced that this is America's best chance at a deal, and so I am hesitant to play a card that previous administrations protected so carefully for so long.

GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

James R. Schlesinger, In Memoriam

Last Friday I was at a meeting with some of the United States' most respected thinkers and practitioners.  As I walked in, I was struck by the solemn mood and the somber conversation that hung over the room.  "He was one of our greatest strategic thinkers."  "It's impossible to fill his shoes."  "I always appreciated his easy-going style -- the way he'd put his shoes up on a chair or a desk."  "He was a true gentleman."   Not one person mentioned the name of the man to whom they were paying tribute.  Not one person needed to.

Last Thursday, with the passing of James Rodney Schlesinger, America lost one of its most significant defense intellectuals. He was an insightful analyst. As head of the RAND Corporation's strategic studies program in the 1960s, he helped set the think tank's research agenda at arguably the apex of its influence. No matter the issue, he possessed a refreshing way of getting right to the matter.

He was an able public official, serving in the Nixon and Ford administrations as deputy director of the Bureau of the Budget, director of the Atomic Energy Commission, director of Central Intelligence, and secretary of defense. In the latter capacity, he began moving the U.S. armed forces beyond Vietnam and put in place the intellectual capacity to compete with the Soviet Union over the long term. He established the Office of Net Assessment and brought Andrew W. Marshall to the Pentagon from the White House to lead it. He also approved the Air Force's A-10 attack aircraft as well as the F-16 fighter.

He epitomized bipartisanship at its best. A Republican, he also served as the nation's first secretary of energy in the Carter administration.

I first encountered Schlesinger's work in college when, as a student in the University of Southern California's Strategic Studies program, I read National Security Decision Memorandum 242. In the wake of the post-Vietnam drawdown, the so-called Schlesinger Doctrine sought to restore credibility to the American nuclear deterrent by formulating a doctrine of limited nuclear options. In later years, I was lucky enough to meet and occasionally work with him on various projects and commissions.

To say merely that he will be missed is to understate both the scope of his contribution to U.S. national security as well as the void that his passing has left. His shoes are indeed impossible to fill.

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