Archive for May, 2009

An Israeli Immodest Proposal

Posted in Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Obama foreign policy, US Values and Freign Policy on May 26, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Through Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, the Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahou has announced what it thinks of President Obama’s two-state solution to the Palestine question: No thanks! In Yaalon’s own words, “Western way of thinking (read the two-state solution) has proven irrelevant and dangerous to this region.” By this, of course, he means that Likud reaffirms its opposition to an independtn Palsetinian state, a position on which Mr. Netanyahou hinted at the possibility of some softening while he was in Washington. Yeah, right.

Likud has an alternative solution, of course. According to Mr. Yaalon, what Likud proposes is a settlement whereby part of the West Bank would be annexed permanently to Israel (presumably the parts already parts of Israeli settlements), and the rest would be given back to Jordan, from whom the West Bank was seized in 1967. Palestinians would have the choice of becoming citizens of Israel or Jordan. Problem solved?

Never mind the international legal niceties of all this, such as the fact that annexation of occupied territories violates several legal agreements to which Israel is a party. Never mind what the Palestinians may feel about all this, since it ends their dream of an independent state. Never mind that Jordan has shown absolutely no interest in such an arrangement. All those things are irrelevant.

What is relevant is that such a solution serves two Israeli (ay least Likud) purposes. First, it means the settlers (who are, of course, the electoral backbone of the current regime in Israel) do not have to move. Second, it avoids the appearance of a fully sovereign Palestinian state on Israel’s borders that might, like virtually all other states, develop its own military and security forces.

What is the Obama administration to say about this? Presumably, as long as it goes no farther than being a trial balloon, we will do nothing beyond expressing our reservations through diplomatic channels. If, however, this goes beyond its present status to something more formal, then there is a real problem that includes the possibility of an open breach in U.S.-Israeli relations. Are the Israelis really willing to let matters go to that? We’ll see.

Note: I am going on vacation for a week, so there will be no posting until next week.


Memorial Day 2009: Dueling Visions of America

Posted in Global War on Terror, Obama foreign policy, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , on May 25, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Memorial Day is, or at least ought to be, about the sacrifices Americans have made, which it generally is, but also about what those whose lives were taken died for (which it is less often). Granted, it is a general platitude of Memorial Day speeches that those who fell did so to guarantee our freedom, but the question left unanswered is what kind of freedom?

President Obama and former Vice President Cheney have been engaged in a strange dialogue on this subject, highlighted (if that is the right word) by their back-to-back speeches last week. The debate is strange because it is not clear why an enormously popular sitting president should pay attention the CYA rantings of a hugely unpopular former VP. There is certainly no political gain in this for Obama, while Cheney gets to build a public record of self-vindication for what he did in office. George W. Bush, appropriately, sits silently in his home in Dallas.

These two men have very strong, opposing visions of what it is to be American and hence what can and cannot be done to defend that America. Is America Ronald Reagan’s shining city on the hill, a place that gains its stature and meaning because of its ideals and their application? Or is the United States just another great power with interests and values like other great powers and a situational view about what can and should be done in its name?

This is not a new distinction or debate. Since the beginning of American history, there have been proposals and actions taken by the American government in the name of American security that clashed with, even violated, the founding principles on which the country was formed. Thomas Jefferson played fast and loose with American ideals in dealing with the Barbary pirates, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus on the grounds of saving the union, and FDR impounded U.S. citizens of Japanese-American backgrounds. Creating Guantanamo and engaging in enhanced interrogation techniques is part of this tradition. Its marquee is the necessity of states to protect themselves, even if some American ideals are compromised in the process. This is the position that Dick Cheney defends. He is neither the first not likely the last to do so.

The other side of the coin is that America cannot violate its own principles without diminishing itself as a special place: an America that would violate its own principles is not the same America we like to think it to be; it becomes just another state, like those with less lofty beliefs about themselves. This is the position of American idealism and is the vision Obama has sought to portray.

I am reminded of a similar debate during the Cold War over the kinds of things the CIA should be permitted to do. It centered on the question of covert operations, and especially “wet” operations (actions involving killing people). Manyof the kind of activities that were debated involved breaking American laws and the laws of countries in which the acts occurred: murder, bribery, influence peddling, and the like. Those who supported CIA actions in this area argued essentially situational ethics: the Soviets, they argued quite accurately, did these things, and the United States will be disadvantaged if it cannot do them too. In the Cold War competition, the necessities of state trumped the niceties of American values, adherence to which was an unsustainable luxury. Opponents argued that doing these things made us no better than the adversary, whom we opposed because his values were inferior and anathema to us. Can the United States remain pure if it acts in impure ways? We in fact did these things and survived the Cold War. Does that make it okay to have done what we did?

The same kind of argument is going on today, although it is made less theoretical because those who made decisions to “go beyond” American ideals apparently committed real, enforceable crimes–violations of both American and international law. That makes their defense on national security grounds more pressing than it did if one was, for example, debating on whether a CIA operative violated the law by trying to fix a corrupt election somewhere in the Third World during the Cold War. Nonetheless, the argument still goes back to the question of what can be done in the name of America without changing–tarnishing?–what it means to be American.

The current debate will not end the controversy, because there will almost certainly be crises in the future that are analogous to those in the past, where the same options and questions will arise. In the end, it boils down to what can and should be done to protect the United States from its enemies–an d from itself.

Barack and Bibi: Nobody Drowned!

Posted in Iran, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace, Obama foreign policy with tags , , , on May 19, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The mini-summit between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahou went off with hardly a hitch yesterday. Both men carefully avoided backing the other into a corner on issues that divide them, and each sought to nudge the other toward an emphasis on what serves him best and thus sought to avoid what does not. Both men, in other words, successfully treaded water.

Clearly the preferred ordering of agenda items was different for the two men. Obama wanted to talk about the two-state solution, and Bibi did not. Bibi wanted to talk about the Iranian threat, and Barack wanted to make sure that was not the centerpiece of the discussion. In the end, they talked about both and agreed on neither. This was hardly a surprise.

Like the Wizard of Oz standing behind the curtain belching smoke, Netanyahou attempted to argue he was all peace with the Palestinians, saying demurely that Israel has no desire to rule the Palestinians and that they would like to move toward Palestinian autonomy and prosperity. This, of course, is all code language for dragging out the peace process more or less indefinitely until the West Bank is so overwhelmingly Israeli that no Palestinian state there is possible. Moreover, Bibi intoned that any agreement must “allow Israel the means to defend itself,” which is code language for no Palestinian military and the “right” of Israel to defend the Palestinian entity. Everyone knows the Palestinians cannot and will not accept any of this and that it is, to put it mildly, disengenuous to put it forward in a serious manner. As Obama said that expansion of the settlements must stop, you could virtually hear the cement mixers pouring more foundations and the carpenters hammering more nails into new settlements–and the peace process. To his credit, Bibi said all this with a straight face. To his credit, Obama did not reply, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”

The other part of all this is Iran, a subject of past entries here. Clearly, Netanyahou came to Washington with two purposes on this issue. One was to keep the United States from fully condemning Israeli contingencies for attacking Iran in advance. The other was to try to convince the Americans that solving the Iran problem was both more urgent than and prefatory to the pesky Palestinian problem. Once again, the Wizard stood behind the screen shouting with great bluster. Obama replied he agreed the problem should have out attention.

Bibi’s real message, in my reading, was contained in a statement he made publicly. “We want to move simultaneously and then parallel on two fronts: the front of peace and the front of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” He certainly reversed the order in which he would like the two issues considered, at least from his vantage point. In the end, Bibi’s real intent was to divert attention from the Palestinian issue by elevating Iran to a higher level of concern, and one where the two countries are not in quite such basic disagreement. Whether he succeeded or not remains to be seen.

Barack and Bibi: Treading Water?

Posted in Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , on May 17, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Israeli Prime Minister Benyimin (Bibi) Netanyahou is coming calling to the White House tomorrow. After the self-flagellation of delivering the commencement address at Notre Dame, it may seem a relief for Obama. Alternately, of course, it could produce a second Excedrin headache. If reports in advance are at all accurate, the two men will avoid serious discussions of the serious differences between them, leaving the meeting little more than a photo opportunity wherein the two leaders circle and assess one another in the shallow end of the pool, treading water.

There are two enormous issues dividing the two countries and on which the two leaders have taken diametrically opposing positions. The major, enduring difference, of course, is the fate of Palestine. Obama has taken the strong position that a two-state solution (separate Israeli and Palestinian states) is the only outcome that satisfies the United States; Netanyahou’s whole political life has been dedicated to the creation of Greater Israel, an Israeli state that encompasses the West Bank that is the location of the Palestinian state. These are mutually exclusive visions, and the resolutions are zero-sum (one side loses what the other side loses). One can argue that meaningful compromise is possible in this situation only at considerable ignorance of the facts. The result of discussions about this tomorrow will be a loud, clear mumble.

The other issue, of course, is the Iranian nuclear problem. Here, the goals of both states are the same: no Iranian nukes. The problem is how to maintain that position. The United States wants to negotiate with the Iranians, while the Israelis threaten them with military action the United States opposes. Once again, the positions are hardly reconcilable, even if the end result is the same. Expect there to be a statement that deplores the the prospect of Iran getting nuclear weapons followed by another loud, clear mumble about how to insure that outcome.

This new American-Israeli discord is one of the major changes in foreign policy from the Bush to the Obama incumbencies. Under Bush, U.S. policy was pretty much whatever the Israelis wanted, and Netanyahou must be looking back with some nostalgia at the halycon days. It is not so much that the Obama team is anti-Israeli as it is not uncritically pro-Likud, which Bush was. Netanyahou apparently understands this, which is why he has been notably quiet recently on the issues that divide the two countries. Israel, after all, needs the United States a whole lot more than the United States needs Israel, and that provides some leverage for the Obama team, which has added reconciliation with the Islamic Middle East to its goals in the region. Some see this as anti-Israeli. I do not. Rather, it reflects a different approach to and vision of how Israel and its neighbors can learn to coexist. It is the basis for a healthier debate than is generally held in this country.

Most of these basic fissures will apparently not be raised, certainly not in public. What goes on behind closed doors may be more frank, but in a manner certainlt unusual for contemporary Washington politics, “what is said in the Oval Office stays in the Oval Office.” For the public, the meeting will be two leaders bobbing around in the White House pool, treading water.

The Asymmetrical AFPAK Summit

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Pakistan with tags , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2009 by whatafteriraq

President Obama met in Washington met this past week in Washington with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan to discuss their common interests in suppressing the insurgency along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and, more specifically, aimed at eliminating either or both of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The meeting ended with a pronouncement by Obama that the three had reached common agreement on the need to deal with their common menace and to devise and implement that common accord. In a scene reminiscent of of Yasirt Arafat and Menachim Begin in the Rose Garden in the 1990s, the two foreign leaders exited the new conference virtually arm-in-arm. It was lovely theater.

It was not, however, such lovely geopolitics. While there was a great show of comity and common cause evinced in the atmospherics surrounding the AFPAK Summit (the term AFPAK appears to have originated with General David Petraeus to describe his regional strategy for dealing with the region), there is much more tension and disagreement there than met the eye. The basic source of that asymmetry is between the dictates of American interests and those of the other two countries, layered upon Afghan-Pakistani long-time rivalry, suspicion, and even hatred. Turning the summit into a successful action plan may, in fact, resemble efforts forty years ago in Southeast Asia, where a similar asymmetry of objectives existed.

For one thing, the players do have distinctly different interests in what happens in the tribal regions on both sides of the border. For the United States, the interest is in depriving Al Qaeda of its current sanctuary inside Pakistan in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area), and in an extension familiar from 2001, the prerequisite seems to be breaking Taliban control, since Al Qaeda in imbedded in the Pashtun regions which are also the breeding grounds of the Taliban. Since the Taliban (and other Pashtuns) ignore the Durand Line that is the boundary between the two countries, this can only be accomplished by simultaneously defeating the Taliban on both sides of the border (attack them on one side, and they simply move to the other). This translates into an overriding desire for a coordinated strategy whereby both Pakistan and Afghanistan move against the Taliban–with American assistance–preferably squeezing them along the border area in a kind of anvil and hammer strategem. It is such a commitment that the U.S. sought from Karzai and Zardari and what they at least rhetorically commited themselves to doing.

It is not as easy as that in fact for either country. The Afghan government would like to eliminate the Taliban, of course, since they are the major threat to their existence, but they face two problems. One is that they lack the military muscle to do so, and thus must rely on the Americans for that (which, of course, demonstrates their weakness and makes them appear American puppets to many Afghans). Second, they can only succeed by separating the Taliban from the rest of their Pashtun base, since the Pashtun are a near-majority in Afghanistan. The effort, in other words, must be viewed by Pashtuns as anti-Taliban but not anti-Pashtun if it is to succeed, and the Afghans have no real clue how to do that (neither do the Americans).

The Pakistani problem is somewhat more complicated. The Taliban,whom Zardari now says must be eliminated were, after all, basically created by the Pakistanis to cause trouble for the Afghans, and now their proteges have turned on them. The Pashtun are the largest minority in Pakistan at about 15 percent of the population, and their relationship with the central, Punjabi-based government has always been based on essential autonomy within their tribal regions: they do not bother the government, and it leaves them alone. What has changed is the increased militancy of the Taliban (trying to institute sharia law, for instance) and the demands of the Americans to root out Al Qaeda. The recent attacks in the Swat Valley by the Taliban simply amplify this problem but also demonstrate the other part of the Pakistani dilemma.

The other problem is military. Although Pakistan has the world’s seventh largest army, it is one designed to fight a conventional war against India on the plains, not a counter-insurgent war in trhe rough mountains of the tribal region. The Pakistanis have historically proven themselves inept at insurgency warfare, and they are likely to do so again in the current counter-offensive. This campaign, which pleases the Americans, of course, is likely to be embarassing to the Pakistani army, and given the penchant of the Pakistani military to involve itself in politics, that is not good news for Zardari.In this case, U.S. interests work at cross-purposes: the U.S. wants democracy to take hold in Pakistan, which would seem to dictate making nice to the military (which means not forcing them into more insurgent warfare), but it also wants increased military pressure put on the Taliban, which means antagonizing the Pakistani military, which is already none too fond of Zardari. Something has to give here.

All this drama takes place with a backdrop of long-standing tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan that is part of the historical accident that those two political entities occupy the territory between Russia and India. Both are artificial states that, if allowed self-determination, would almost certainly crumble into a number of smaller “Stans”, and they continue to exist partly by trying to weaken the other as part of their strategy of survival. Moreover, both are terribly poor and corrupt, making reform efforts problematical at best.

This analysis does not resemble the smiley faced photo op at the White House last week. But the simple fact is this may be a mission impossible. The memlory of Laos and Cambodia in 1970 keeps drifting into my mind: in that case, U.S. policy dictated changing the status quo in those countries to keep them from being launching pads by the North Vietnamese into South Vietnam. Actualizing that policy created dynamics in both country that were disastrous both for those countries (the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and a communist dictatorship in Laos) and for U.S. policy: the result was the worst of all possible worlds. Are we doing that again in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Maybe/hopefully not, but the possibility is there and cannot be ignored!

Israel and the Iranian Nuclear Threat

Posted in Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , on May 2, 2009 by whatafteriraq

I attended a panel discussion yesterday in which the topic of Iran’s nuclear program came up. The two principal commentators on the subject were the dean emeritus of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies (Dr. Robert S. Wood) and a retired U.S. Navy admiral, William Pendley, who has had direct experience by virtue of being a participant in talks with North Korea in the 1990s. They both agreed in essence on four points, as I took it (I apologize to Bob and Bill if I have distorted their views).

First, they agreed that Iran was likely to acquire nuclear weapons, and that there was very little the United States could do about it if the Iranians are resolute enough in their intentions. Second, they agreed that the major reason the Iranians want nukes is as a deterrent–mostly against the United States–and a matter of prestige (Bob Wood drew the analogy between Iranian weapons and the French nuclear force de frappe). Third, both asserted that Iran’s possession of a few weapons in and of itself did not matter much in the world; if there is a problem, it will be if Iran gains the capability to produce weapons grade materials–avoiding that has been a major part of North Korean negotiations. Fourth, the “major” concern that Iranian pssession could produce is the possibility that Iran might share nuclear weapons/materials/technology with terrorists, who might use those weapons.

I was amazed at these conclusions mostly because they were reasonably close to my own, as expressed in Chapter 8 of the 4th edition of Cases in International Relations, “Pivotal States.” The bottom line of this analysis is that Iranian nuclear prospects are not as dire as some have led us to believe. That is, until one enters Israel into the equation. Then things get scary.

Israel has warned repeatedly that it will not tolerate the Iranian development of nuclear weapons and has threatened to take actions to prevent or reverse that possibility. Similar Israeli warnings against Iraq in the 1980s and Syria in the 2000s that resulted in preemptive Israeli strikes that wiped out the Iraqi and Syrian programs are clear testimony that their threats are not idle. Thus, one cannot rule Israeli military actions against Iran out at some further point in the developmental cycle of the Iranian program. What actions the Israelis might take and whether they would be successful are not entirely clear, both since the Iranians have designed their nuclear program and facilities to be resistant to the kind of air attacks the Israelis made against Iraq and Syria and, possibly more importantly, because Iran is not Syria.

Iraq and Syria were both essentially powerless to do anything to prevent Israeli attacks or to retaliate against their attackers. Iran, however, is a much more formidable potential foe. It is, after all, a country of 65 million people, and it has the military capability to absorb and fight back after an Israeli attack–unless the Israeli attack is a large-scale nuclear strike, which presumably (?) it would not be.

What happens if Israel decides that the Iranian possession of nuclear weapons is intolerable, that such weapons represent a deadly threat to Israeli existence, and thus that it has no choice but to take out that threat? All three conclusions by the Israelis are certainly not impossible; whether they are even likely given the nature of the current Israeli ruling coalition is arguable.

The short answer to the question is that we don’t know. The possibilities range from limited tit-for-tat attacks between Iran and Israel to a gradually escalating regional conflict that could drag in outside powers–and notably the United States–and widen to global conflict. Efforts would certainly be made to localize and contain the violence, but if Israel’s very continued existence came into question (which is not entirely impossible to imagine), would those efforts work? Because we cannot answer any of those questions in advance, we not only do not know, we profoundly do not want to find out.

There are only two ways to avoid the possibility of an Iranian-Israeli nuclear conflict. One is to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, thereby avoiding the scenario that could set off the Israelis. If Bob and Bill are correct, there is not much we can do to prevent that from happening. Certainly, an entreaty that continuing down the nuclear path might only lead to confrontation with nuclear-armed Israel would only reinforce Iran’s perceived need for the weapons in the first place.

The other is to prevent the Israelis from attacking Iran. During the past eight years, the United States showed no particular skill at nor inclination to restrain the Israelis, and they might not be restrainable under any circumstances. However, what the United States could do is treat Israel to a little “tough love” by letting them know in no uncertain terms that if they attack Iran, they are strictly on their own and that, should the operation turn bad, they can expect no help from the United States. That might be a difficult message for the United States to deliver, but if it were accompanied by the assurance that Israeli restraint would be rewarded by American commitment should the Iranians threaten Israel, it might be more palatable.

Israel would not like this message. They would/will argue their very existence is threatened by Islamic possession of nuclear weapons capable of destroying Israel.  They are quite correct in that assessment, but then, the United States has been vulnerable to nuclear annihilation since the Soviet arsenal grew to assured destruction proportions in the 1960s. We have relied on deterrence to keep that destruction from occurring, and maybe that’s what the Israelis should do as well.