Archive for the Middle East and US Election Category

If Israel Attacks Iran, Options Get Worse!

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Peace, Obama foreign policy with tags , , , on February 10, 2012 by whatafteriraq

Scenarios about the growing possibility that Israel will attack Iran in was would very likely be a feckless attempt to destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons program and more or less permanently to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability were discussed in this space earlier this week (“Israel, Iran, and the United States”) and generally concluded both that such anattack was becoming increasingly likely and that it does not serve U.S. interests. This column takes the analysis a step forward, with the purpose of trying to answer the hypothetical (at least for the moment) question of what happens after such an Israeli strike occurs. As the title suggests, the attractiveness of post-attack options for the United States are unpromising.

The heart of the speculation that follows is what does Iran do in response to an attack? In a literal sense, of course, we do not and cannot know in advance, and neither do the Iranians or the Israelis, which is why it is an exercise in speculation. The reader can disagree with the premises here, and I cannot refute them with facts not in hand; the same is true for my arguments against counter scenarios.

Two things seem safe to presume, however. First, if Israel attacks Iran, the Iranians will respond, almost certainly violently. They will have no choice for both domestic and international political reasons, and whatever they do will receive less criticism than their policy actions before such an attack occurs. Second, the nature, severity, and reactions to an Iranian counterattack will depend on the nature, extent, and effects of an Israeli raid. The more extensive and, presumably, effective an Israeli attack is, the larger the probable responses by the Iranians will likely be.

If it cannot restrain the Israelis in the first place (the fairly clear intent of the Obama administration), the United States will not have many options in dealing with Iranian responses. There will be international sympathy for the Iranians that does not exist now, because they will have been the victim of aggression under the provisions of the UN Charter, and the more dead Iranians (especially civilians) the raid produces, the more widespread sympathy will be, even among Arabs who the Israelis maintain actually approve of the general idea of punishing the Iranians and defanging their nuclear potential. The American post-attack position is thus conmpromised in that support for Israel in effect sanctions an illegal act of aggression that results in the deaths of innocent Iranians. The degree to which the United States will further be compromised depends on how complicit this country was in the attack in the first place: the more we were involved, the more we will fall within the blanket of condemnation. Possibly the most we can do is to warn eveyone–especially Iran–quietly that their retaliation cannot threaten Israeli existence. Doing so will not, of course, please either the Israelis or their more dogmatic supporters in the United States.

If an attack occurs, the Iranians will have several response options, depending on how extensive the attack was. The sronger the response, of course, the less it serves U.S. interests.

1. If the attack is small and the effects minor (in other words, if it fails from an Israeli viewpoint), they can simply complain about the act of aggression and use it as leverage to lift international sanctions against it. In the process, they will almost certainly blame the United States for helping to plan and execute the raid, with reminders of U.S. perfidy toward Iran in cases like Operation Ajax (the 1953 CIA operation that overthrew Iran’s only popularly elected government) and the shoot down of an unarmed Iranian commercial airliner in the late 1980s.

2. Since the Israeli attack is likely to be more successful than that (or the Israelis wouldn’t do it), then the responses begin to escalate. At a minimum, they would include additional resources to Hezballah in the form of additional rockets that will coming raining down on Israel. The Israelis will complain that these are unprovoked, and hardly anyone will believe them internationally (escept the political right in the U.S.). An Israeli raid equals more “terrorist” attacks against Israel.

3. Depending on the level of success the Israeli attack achieves, there are two additional actions the Iranians can contemplate. The first would be retaliatory air strikes against the Israelis. Such a response would possess symmetry to the Israeli raid, and given that they were responses to the original Israeli action, regimes that normally do not support Iran (such as Jordan) would likely not object to Iranian overflight to reach Israeli targets. The Israelis would, of course, object loudly both to the provisions of those rights and the attacks, raising the prospects of escalation to a broader conflict that could involve the region.

4. Ultimately, Iran could begin a retaliatory campaign intended or with the side effect of causing an escalation to general war in the Middle East against Israel. Hardly anyone wants to see this or argues it is very probable, but once the dogs of war are unleashed, they are sometimes hard to control.

None of these options, and counter responses to them, serve any visible U.S. interests. The cessation of the Iranian nuclear program would serve such an interest, but it is one of the most unlikely outcomes, and only becomes less implausible as the scale of the Israeli attack and thus the likely virulence of the Iranian response expands. The larger that response becomes, the more difficult the problem of U.S. responses becomes. Success on one objective makes other objectives (e.g. regional stability) more problematical.

Israel and many of its supporters seek to deny what Iran will (or may) do in reaction to an Israeli attack, and they may be right. No one can know for sure, but it is counterintuitive to believe that a chauvinistic, paranoid, authoritarian Iran will take an attack lying down. They will respond somehow, and one or more of the options suggested here seems reasonable. Each option puts the United States in an increasingly untenable position of defending Israel from a retaliation many around the world (including many who dislike Iran and oppose their nuclear weapons effort) will feel is either justified or understandable. In these circumstances, the U.S. can shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, or it can side with the rest of the world. It is not a happy set of options.

The only way to avoid something like these dynamics is to avoid and, to the extent possible, prevent an Israeli attack in the first place. That is what the Obama administration is doing, and the radical right is condemning this as limp-wristed and inadequately supportive of our ally Israel. They are wrong!

U.S. Humanitarian Activism: Libya and Syria

Posted in Middle East and US Election, Middle East Conflict, Obama foreign policy, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The remaining hot spots from the Arab Spring are in Libya and Syria. In both cases, popular uprisings erupted against tyrannical governments inspired at least patrially by the Arab Spring events that began in Tunisia and moved quickly to Egypt and elsewhere. Distinguishing characteristics of these two cases, however, have been the continuing brutality of the regime against its dissidents and the dogged organized resistance to the regime’s actions by those seeking change. This level of resistance and the need for continued bloody suppression distinguishes Libya and Syria from places like Bahrain and Yemen, where dissidence was fairly quickly suppressed and things returned to fairly quickly to whatever passes for normalcy.

Libya and Syria are different from one another and from the others. Their duration sets them aside from other Arab Spring events. Libya has produced a full-scale revolutionary movement that, with the considerable assistance of NATO air forces, may be closing in on the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime; the effort in Syria has been less organized and militarized, but worldwide publicity has resulted in a steady drum beat of international demands for the resignation of Syrian president Bashir al-Assad that are increasingly difficult for him to resist.

The level of violence, even savagery, of government oppression of resisters in both countries has raised both to the level of international humanitarian disasters or crises–situations where there is widespread atrocity against or abuse of a country’s citizens by its government. One response to such a situation is humanitarian activism, which I define as intervention (including military force as its most dramatic manifestation) in humanitarian crises by other countries to end the conditions defining the disaster. The United States has a long, if uneven, record of action or inaction in such situations; in both Libya and Syria, however, the United States has adopted a fairly passive form of opposition to the disasters, preferring to defer leadership to others. Why?

It seems to me that to understand when the United States does and does not become personally invested in these kinds of situations requires looking at three variables. The first is American mood at the time. Is the United States feeling especially optimistic about its internal situation and place in the world, in which case it is likely to become internally activist, seeking to spread its own message and gospel to others? Or is the United States feeling insecure and recessive, turning inward and evincing a sense of isolation from world events that is part of the U.S. historical DNA?

Second is the nature of the international environment in which any proposed action might occur. Partly, this assessment reflects Americans’ self-assessment and confidence in themselves, their ability to shape the world, and their confidence in their world role. At the same time, this assessment includes the competing demands on American national security resources elsewhere in the world: can the United States afford to divert scarce resources (especially military) to humanitarian missions that can or might be needed elsewhere?

The third variable is geopolitics, and it also has at least two facets. One is the American relationship with the country in which the disaster is occurring. There were, for instance, no shortage of what now are called humanitarian crises in countries with which the United States was allied dring the Cold War (Central Africa and Central America offer fine examples) where the Unied States did not condemn the harsh treatment of populations by “friendly” rulers; given the dangers of Cold War escalation, however, all we did with similar events in the communist world (e.g. Cambodia) was condemn them. Context may be everything. At the same time, the attitude and willingness of friends and allies is also a geopolitical factor: the United States almost certainly would not have dispatched and kept force in the Balkans in the 1990s and beyond were it not for the insistence of NATO allies.

Different periods of recent history can be gauged in these terms. During the Cold War, there was basically no such thing as humanitarian activism, because geopolitical, Cold War considerations precluded it. The term entered the lexicon after the Cold War ended, and there was a spate of such activism by the United States in the 1990s, when all the variables aligned favorably: the American mood was confident and expansive, the rest of the environment was fairly placid and undemanding, and there were few geopolitical inhibitions to preclude identifying and stomping on the bad guys who abused and denied the rights of their citizens.

And then there is now. The United States has not acted decisively in either the Libyan and Syrian cases. In Libya, we play a very limited supporting role (that has had opposition anyway), and beyond leading the verbal condemnation of Assad, have done very little in Syria. Admittedly, these are two countries where the U.S. has few interests and even fewer levers of influence it can apply, but it has clearly not been an instance of any kind of humanitarian activism by any measure.

The three variable help explain this. Two of them are negative. In the current economic climate, the United States is not feeling good and positive about itself, and were the Obama administration to propose any more than what it is doing, it would be accused of taking its “eye off the ball” of our real priorities, of trying to divert attention away from its internal problems, or both (most likely both). At the same time, the United States is still heavily invested in military adventures elsewhere in the region that strain resources; the American people would hardly embrace a new Middle Eastern military adventure. The only positive variable is international support for activism. Europe, after all, is devoting resources to Libya (which it arguably cannot afford), and even other Middle Eastern countries have condemned the Syrians. In a sense, this willingness of others to take the lead relieves the United States of any pressure it might otherwise feel to get out front on either crisis.

Libya and Syria may or may not represent the long-term future of American humanitarian activism, but they are likely to be models for the next few years, until American prosperity and self-confidence reappears and we are looking at the world differently than we are today. If one is against such interventions anyway, then “let the bad times roll,” since they are keeping us from doing what we have no business doing anyway, as Ron Paul would argue. If the United States is the shining city on the hill (Reagan’s typification) and should be ready and willing to help transform the world, wait for a better day.

Politics and Policy in the Middle East Debate

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Peace, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , on May 29, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The visit by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington this past week and the firestorm that surrounded it pointed, among other things, to a fundamental if largely underpublicized distinction mostly of interest to political scientists but occasionally to wider audiences. That distinction was the difference between politics and public policy, including their interaction and the junction between them. Usually, debate about this distinction does not make much difference to citizen observers of the political process; last week it did.

The distinction is reasonably straightforward; political scientists disagree about some of it in detail, but political scientists disagree about just about everything. Politics is generally concerned with the political process: who is part of it, how people gain access to and control of it, and how they use their access to affect the actual policies of the government on various issues. Policy, on the other hand, deal with so-called outcomes of the process–the decisions that are made by political authority concerning how political issues will be determined, e.g. what will be the American position on global warming, or immigration, or Israel, or whatever.

The two concerns are obviously related to one another. Politics affects, even determines, policy, and vice versa. The heart of the realm of politics is who has political power, and in democratic systems, that means who wins elections. The heart of American politics is who gains control of the electoral process and gets elected and thus who can seek to implement different policy choices. At the same time, the policy positions that elected officials and aspirants espouse are basic data on which aspirants and office holders campaign for sontinuing support.

Both aspects have become intensely controversial. Particularly in the realm of foreign policy, there used to be an unwritten rule that political disagreements should be muted in public so that the country maintained a single, united face toward foreign governments. The basic statement of this philosophy was that “politics ends at the water’s edge.” At the same time, the historical ideal has been one wherein politics was conducted with a certain level of decorum, civility, and restraint, particularly in terms of partisan invective. These conventions have not, of course, always been honored in American history, and they certainly are not today: there is no apparent effort to assume a common face toward the world, and common restraint and good manners are almost archaic concepts.

Policy disagreements have become an inflamed part of the hyper-partisan environment in which politics is played out. This is most clearly evident in the childish, superheated debate about medical care, and it extends to foreign policy as well. Historically, once again, foreign policies (the policies of the U.S. government toward different places and over different issues) were normally debated quietly within policy elites and among decision-makers, who might disagree, sometimes vehemently and fundamentally, about these matters, but generally confined their disagreements to debates among themselves. That is also clearly not the case today.

The Netanyahu visit flap exemplifies the system tun amok. It began with a policy address by President Obama at the State Department in which he enunciated as U.S. policy one of the two basic policy positions that policy advocates who study the region put forward. Substantively, it was a position with which one could disagree, but it was certainly nothing radical or unusual. The fact that Obama made the address on live television just before the arrival of Netanyahu in the country politicized it, however, especially since Netanyahu is the champion of the alternative policy within those same debates. The hinge of that disagreement is whether the pre-1967 West Bank boundary should be the basis for negotiations between Israel and Palestine; Netanyahu voiced his side (also for TV) in his address to Congress. The two men pouted their way through a final press conference and publicly maintained that there was no fundamental difference between them and that they remained respectful friends. Hardly anyone believed that.

This whole circus mashed politics and policy together. Beyond simple policy preference, it is unclear why the president made such a public show of highlighting what had been U.S. policy for three administrations (at least), but the effect was a political more than a policy firestorm. Republicans leaped at the opportunity to attack a president whom they want desperately to defeat in next year’s election (a process that is not going well, to put it mildly). Former Governor Mitt Romney declared the president had thrown Israel “under the bus”, an open pander to sympathetic Jews and their social conservative supporters in the United States, and the Netanyahu speech before Congress–complete with standing ovations–was orchestrated as much to embarass Obama as it was to support the Netanyahu hard line (which he tried, unconvincingly, to argue is actually conciliatory) on peace negotiations. The political debate was not so much about policy as it was about 2012 election-year politics, pure and simple.

Policy, and particularly calm debate about it, of course, was the (intended?) victim of all the politics. Obama insisted the Israelis must offer conciliatory concessions to get talks started again, with the 1967 borders as a starting point. The Israelis (the Netanyahu government, that is) is absolutely opposed to that position, and fied back that it is willing to make many concessions, but it is the Palestinians who refuse to negotiate. Lost in Netanyahu’s profession was an arguable unwillingness to make concessions to which the Palestinians might agree. In all his visit, it seemed to me that the most telling statement he made (in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer) was that a sine qua non for any final agreement establishing a Palestinian state must include provision for a permanent Israeli military presence along the west bank of the Jordan River. Regardless of whether that it is good Israeli security policy, it is an absolute deal breaker in terms of peace negotiations.

The politics and the policy intertwined. The politics replaced a dialogue on policy with an attempt to gain political advantage from the policy disagreement. In the end, both sides slinked away from the political interchange with the sides of the debate intact and no progress made on resolving the policy issue. Politics, as is so often the case, trumped policy–probably to the detriment of both.

Netanyahu’s Speech and the U.S. Congress

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Prime Miniaster Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a combined session of the U.S. Congress yesterday was a thoroughly surreal experience. In the speech, Netanyahu pretended to be putting forth major concessions toward Palestine that could lead to the resumption of peace talks between the two parties, but the speech in fact was nothing more than standard Likud boiler plate that broke no new ground and was–as Netanyahu knew as he delivered it–totally unacceptable to the Palestinians (who promptly rejected it as “disappointing”). Everyone in the room or watching on television should have known that th speech was simply Bibi’s standard stump speech, but the U.S. Congress, interrupting him two dozen times with standing ovations, seemed to respond as if they were listening to a Churchillian oration. It was not, and the Congressional response was, in a word, unseemly.

Netanyau wasted no time demonstrating that he was not carrying an olive branch. Citing standard right-wing Israeli talking points, he reiterated that Judea and Samaria (J&S), as the Israelis like to refer to what the Arabs (and most of the rest of the world) refer to as the West Bank, was Israel’s, given to them by God in the Old Testament, and that the Israelis, despite this proper ownership, would be generous in making concession to carve out a Palestinian state somewhere on this piece of disputed ground that would include the abandonment of some of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank (oops, J&S). Those concession would not, however, include any part of Jerusalem, which he declared was the sole possession of Israel and its capital in perpetuity.

These two provisions alone gave away the seriousness of any peaceful intent that Netanyahu brought to the forum. Haaretz, the Israeli paper that opposes the Netanyahu regime across the board, referred to the speech as the “same old messages”  that included endless conditions that have no relation to reality.” If reality entails meaningful concessions that will reactivate the peace process, their assessment is exactly correct, since the Netanyahu conditions leave very little territory to be negotiated as the basis of Palestine and set the context that any concessions will be the result of Israeli largesse.  The speech effectively slammed the door not only on President Obama’s proposals of last week; they effectively end any prospects of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for as long as Netanyahu is in office. Haaretz concludes that Netanyahu “is leading Israel and the Palestinians into a new round of violence, along with Israel’s isolation and deep disagreement with the American administration.” I find it hard to argue with that conclusion.

Then there was the Congressional response. The assembled Senators and Representatives hung on and cheered every hard-line word that Netanyahu spoke, and one can assums that there will be lots of Israeli TV commercials documenting that support when the next Israeli election is held. Did they know what they were cheering? Does the United States Congress reject the idea of meaningful dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, which is the inevitable result of Netanyahu’s speech? Or were the collected members, ever vigilant to instant polls, election prospects in 2012 and how full their reelection coffers would be, simply pandering to what they assume was American opinion on this subject?

It is incoceivable to me that the 500+ rpresentatives and others in attendance did not recognize Netanyahu’s speech for what it was: a basic, if nicely presented, reiteration of the standard right-wing, pro-settler Israeli position that broke no new ground and was not intended to be a diplomatic outreach but a simple statement of political position. Recognizing that politics no longer ends at the water’s edge, the speech was also a condemnation of the position of the government of the United States, and like that position or not, those Congressional “spring butts” (a term I learned at the US Aifr Force Command and Staff College as the reflexive response of some officer “brown nosers”) were cheering against their own government. Where was the “America, Love It or Leave It” crowd on that part). If you are a Palestinian today, you can only conclude, rightly or wrongly, that the Congress of the United States is your enemy. Is that what the members sought to convey?

Those who support the Netanyahu position, both here and in Israel, will no doubt respond negatively to these words. That is fine: the heart of dialogue is accepting contrary views and working from them. Having said that, I find it shocking, and yes, surreal, that this event occurred the way it did. To put it simply, a foreign official was invited to speak to the legislative branch of another country, where he berated and openly opposed the foreign policy of his closest ally to the cheers of that legislative body. Simply unbelievable!

“Unsustainable” versus “Indefensible” over Israel

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Peace, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , on May 22, 2011 by whatafteriraq

President Obama created a major brouhaha in U.S.-Israeli relations Thursday with his speech at the State Department on the Middle East in which he called for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace discussions (which have been suspended since 2009) aimed at creating a spearate Palestinian state (the long-familiar two-state solution). Hardly anyone publicly decries the idea of separate Israeli and Palestinian states in principle, but there is disagreement about implementing that principle based on questions about where a border should be and exactly what kind of Palestinian state should be created.

The President argued that the frame of reference for the two new states should be a modified version of the pre-June 4, 1967 border between Israel and what was then the Jordanian West Bank. The modification would, as he said Thursday and reiterated in his Sunday, May 21 speech before the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), would be based on appropriate land “swaps” to reflect demographic realities (i.e. to accommodate at least some of the Israeli settlements that now increasingly dot the West Bank). This basis of an agreement, as he said again on Sunday, is nothing novel or revolutionary and has been the dominant assumption among analysts privately and certainly within academic circles for some time. It is not, however, a position embraced (to put it mildly), by the current Israeli governing coalition, and Obama’s speech was given the day before the chief opponent of a 1967-based solution, Benjamin Netanyahu, was scheduled to arrive in Washington and meet with the President at the White House. Thus the fun began!

The President argued that a resumption of the peace talks was necessary, because, as he said, “The status quo is unsustainable,” and that talks aimed toward producing a peace agreement must start with the pre-1967 borders as their refderence point in order to have a chance of attaining peace. Although the predictable, ritual knee-jerk anti-Obamaites wailed the President was giving away Israel’s security (for instance, Senator Linday Graham of South Carolina, one of the “three amigos” from an earlier column on Libya in this space) by insisting that Israel retreat to these borders. Among those who most forcefully rejected this idea was, of course, Netanyahu, who argued that the pre-1967 borders were “indefensible” for Israel and did not reflect “demographic realities” on the West Bank (the proliferation of settlements literally all over the West Bank). The unsustainable met the indefensible on Friday at the White House, and post-meeting photo-op session did not, to put it mildly, exude warmth.

Obama was quickly pilloried by the political right in both Israel and the United States for proposing to sell out Israeli security and for being “anti-Israeli.” Much of this, of course, was pure rhetorical bombast: in the United States, it reflected the inability of his partisan opponents to accept anything Obama does as correct (killing bin Laden is a partial exception) and the implicit fear that any admission of Obama competence might hurt their chances in the 2012 election. In Israel, the Netanyahu coalition, which would fall instantly if it lost the support of West Bank settlers in whom the concept of a 1967 border solution in any form justifiably evokes fear of losing their homes, predictably leaped forward in very loud opposition. Netanyahu’s objection tapped this sentiment as well as his personal commitment to a “Greater Israel”;  Israeli indefinite retention of the West Bank helps insure military security, allows greater settlement, and fulfills his dream of an historical Israel that incorporates Judea and Sumaria (both on the West Bank).

In his Sunday speech, Obama sought to explain his objectives. He began by reiterating (and he did say the same things on Thursday) the absolute commitment of the United States to Israel’s existence and security and to “maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge” in the region. That this commitment was even questioned reflected the sheer hysteria with which the Israeli right both in Israel and the United States responds to any suggestion of changing the status quo.

The heart of Obama’s position, shared by a large portion of the international community, is that Israeli (and Palestinian) obstinence in the stalled peace process in unsustainable. On Sunday, Obama argued that continuing the status quo simply made matters worse in the long run, for four reasons. First, he argued that the only way to sustain the goal of a democratic Jewish state was a peace process based on permanent borders that reflect an adjusted 1967 border, and the demographics of the region support this contention. Second, he argued that the status quo leaves Israel increasingly vulnerable because weapons technologies (rocketry, drones, etc.) becoming available mean that Israeli security (and everybody elses’s) require a durable peace in which those who have those weapons have no incentive to use them. Third, he argued that Arab opposition to the status quo is likely to increase because a “new generation” of Arabs, rather than a few isolated Arab leaders–a direct reference to Egypt–who will increasingly demand change. Fourth, he argued that the international consensus that continuing occupation of what Israel calls the “disputed” or “administered” but the rest of the world calls “occupied” territories will bring the increasing isolation of Israel.

It is also briefly worth mentioning what Obama did not advocate but which has been attributed to him by political opponents. He did not argue that the acceptance of the 1967 borders and withdrawal to them by Israel was a precondition of peace (an action that would endanger Israeli security). Rather, he said that talks should begin with those borders as the long-term reference and a physical reality only to be achieved as the outcome of the peace process. Moreover, no boundary imposition is involved; he repeated on Sunday that the final border would be whatever the Israelis and Palestinians agreed to mutually. Period. Moreover, he did not argue that Israel should be forced into negotiations with Palestinian groups (Hamas) that refused to accept Israeli existence. Rather, the precondition on which he insisted was that Hamas (and anybody else of a similar philosophy) must renounce the destruction of Israel before talks could begin. In both speeches, he was quite explicit on both points, although, predictably (and somewhat pathetically) not everyone wanted to hear all of the truth.

Are the Obama proposals a panacea? Of course not. As he put it himself, they are not even his ideas, but are reflections of positions that some have been taken for years with which he happens to agree (truth in advertising: his Thursday speech sounded as if it had come from my lecture notes on the problem, meaning I happen to agree as well). Will they bring about peace? Nobody is foolhardy enough to predict that (particularly since this is the first day since the world was supposed to have come to an end according to a California radio preacher and his supporters), but it may offer the most promising (or least unpromising) approach available. The only visible option is the status quo, and no one of whom I am aware (including those who oppose the Obama-advocated approach) seems willing publicly to offer an intellectual defense of that prospect.

A Victory for American Likud?

Posted in Foreign policy and 2008 election, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Peace, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 15, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The Obama administration had another proposed appointee remove his name from consideration this past week. That in and of itself hardly qualifies as news, and the incident was a one-day story in the national print media. Its implications, however, are wider than that.

The appointee who withdrew his name was Charles W. Freeman Jr., and the post from which he withdrew his name was that of chairman of the National Intelligence Council, a position for which he had been nominated by Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The chief public job of the chairman of NIC is the production of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which forms the basis for the daily briefing given the president on the state of the world every day (the so-called daily intelligence brief).  

Freeman’s nomination was criticized on two levels, both of which are troubling, if for different reasons. One reason was that Freeman had vested interests that might cause him to be prejudiced in forumlating the daily NIE. He has, for instance, ties to the regime in Beijing, both from his tenure as ambassador to China from 1989 to 1992 and for membership on the board of the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation. Likewise, he has served as president of the Middle East Policy Council, a position he followed George McGovern in holding. The Council receives some of its funding from Saudi Arabia. He has also been an outspoken critic of the position of the Israeli government, adopting a stance quite similar to that taken in his space. More on that in a moment.

Freeman is both a very bright and controversial person. A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, he entered the Foreign Service in 1965 and has had a distinguished career there, the kind of career that would commend it to an Obama administration that seems to prize bright people. On the other hand, the “no drama” Obama style suggests that someone like Freeman is an odd fit for the administration. It would appear to be another case of the puritanical vetting process of the new team breaking down; at least, however, he does appear to have paid his taxes.

It is the other aspect of Freeman’s rejection that is more troubling. Freeman himself once began an October 18, 2000 New York Times op-ed column (reproduced in the March 15, 2009 edition of the paper) with the comment, “No American politician ever lost an American election by speaking too fondly of Israel or too poorly of the Palestinians.” Freeman has broken with his own observation, making the anti-Likud argument that, among other things, the Israeli settlement policy is self-defeating and destroys the prospects of peace–especially the two-state solution that is official U.S. policy–and has even been so bold as to suggest that the failure to make progress is attributable both to Palestinian and–gasp!–Israeli actions. This position, of course, is in direct opposition to Likud policy in Israel, and thus to Likud supporters in the United States. Thus, Likud-on-the-Potomac went out to get Freeman, and they succeeded.

The political ambush has familiar roots. It is based in an observation made by Robert W. Jordan, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2001-2003) quoted in the March 12, 2009 Times story on th Freeman withdrawal, “The reality of Washington is that our political landscape finds it difficult to assimilate any criticism of any segment of the Israeli leadership.” Criticism came from Congressional Democrats like Charles Schumer of New York, who accused Freeman of an “irrational hatred of Israel” that Freeman would deny, and Representative Steve Israel, also of New York.

The most interesting criticism, however, came from a private source. It is interesting because, on the other side of the ledger, the accuser is easily as controversial and, in Schumer’s description of Freeman, “over the top” as the withdrawn nominee. That comment comes from Steven J. Rosen, a former official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) who was at one point  under federal indictment for passing U.S. secrets to Israel. Rosen is also one of the charter neo-conservatives so popular in the Bush administration. He said of Freeman’s views that they are “what you would expect in the Saudi Foreign Ministry,” which means they were anti-Likud. Presumably had Freeman’s views echoed those of the Israeli Foreign Ministry–as Bush policy did–he and other American Likudniks would have found his ideas more acceptable.

The purpose of these comments is not to advocate Charles Freeman for the post he has been denied. Probably, his history of ties with the Saudis and Chinese raised enough concerns that he should not have been nominated, which is a question of how much dissonance the “no drama” team wants to broach. Rather, the real concern is whether American foreign policy appointments should be effectively subject to veto on the basis of conformance or divergence from the Likud Party line. Governments, of course, interfere in the operation of other governments all the time, but it is generally in subtler ways than this. Is it time to to rein in the power of Likud in American politics? At the same time, conformance to Likud implies acceptance of Likud policies. If the analysis presented in this space and by Freeman make any sense, then such compliance runs directly counter to the offocial American policy on Middle Eastern peace. Did anyone think this through?

Charles Freeman has argued consistently that Israeli policies toward the Palestinians are misguided and counterproductive. That is close to the exact argument I have made in this space. Thus, I find it troubling that its opponents are able to hammer dissent based on this position into submission. The reader may feel differently about the issues, but what about the process? Is this victory for American Likud a victory or a defeat for American democracy?

Convention Pander Bearing

Posted in Diplomacy, Georgia and NATO, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , on September 7, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Rudy Giuliani’s keynote address at the Republican convention last week in St. Paul may serve as the yardstick against which future efforts at pander bearing are measured. Pander bears, noted for their propensity for telling constituents what they want to hear rather than what they should, must have their chests inflated at Rudy’s efforts. As noted in the last entry (“Poking a Georgian Stick in Russia’s Eye”), Rudy made his appeal to the more bloody-thirsty neo-conservatives in his feckless effort to drum up military support for defending Georgia (the European members of NATO, fortunately, were having nothing of it). Because nothing will come of the “We are all Georgians” pander, it is a virtually perfect pander: those who wanted their red meat got it, but there is no lasting effect (unless, of course, one is Georgian and has now seen the prospects of ever getting into NATO dealt a severe blow).

Rudy did not, however, quit with a one-pander performance. Instead, he raised the bar with a second, blatant pander that has been discussed in earlier entries here: the status of Jerusalem. As the reader may remember (or can look up), this pander is the idea that a “unified” Jerusalem is one of the pillars of U.S. policy in the region. One Jerusalem translates into the city as a single Jerusalem under Israeli rule that also serves as the capital of the Jewish state. In June 2008, both Obama and McCain pandered to AIPAC that they supported this idea. The problem, as noted then, is that the one Jerusalem solution is an absolute deal breaker in peace negotiations for the Israelis and Palestinians, since the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their capital and are adamant that here can be no peace settlement if that demand is not met. Coming down on the Israeli side of this argument demonstrates the United States does not wish to serve as an honest broker between the sides in peace talks, but instead is a surrogate for the Israeli leadership and thus not to be trusted by the Palestinians.

Recognizing this consequence, Obama subsquently softened his stand on this issue to allow for negotiations on the Jerusalem issue. Puffing up like a peacock, Giuliani assailed this change of positions as “flip-flopping” of the worst sort and reiterated the original McCain pander. Although he did not say so, Rudy was effectively arguing that trying to set the scene so the United States might help move the peace process forward was irresponsible, whereas pandering to the Israeli right was responsible. One can only hope that American Jews who were the target of the pander are sophisticated enough to recognize Rudy’s pander or what it is. (Rudy did not, by the way, mention that the United States does not recognize any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which is why the American embassy is still in Tel Aviv.)

There is a conundrum in all this. In an intertwined world, foreign policy is too important not to be a central feature of election debates: voters do need to know how their proposed leaders will respond to foreign crises and day-to-day relations with friends and adversaries. Election campaigns, however, are about getting more votes than one’s opponent, and that means appealing to voting groups who are critical to election. As the Georgian and Jerusalem cases offer more than adequate evidence, the appeal to voters can and often does devolve into irresponsible pandering that can make situations worse for whoever is elected. If there is a silver lining in this latest episode, it may be that at least Rudy Giuliani is not a candidate whose pandering can bring him personal victory–unless he is pandering to candidates McCain and Palin for a spot in a McCain administration.