Archive for Iran

The Iran-Israel Bottom Line

Posted in Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict with tags , , on February 12, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The news that Israel may conduct a Spring attack on Iran to cripple its nuclear weapons program is a matter of considerable public policy debate, largely because of the consequences such an attack could have not only for the Israelis and Iranians, but for everyone else as well, including Americans. As the discussions in the last two postings here have suggested, the prospects and options that surround them are problematical, to say the least. Amidst this controversy, planning apparently goes on in Israel, where it has been a priority issue for some time now.

The b0ttom line question about this whole issue area is what the Iranians will do if they achieve nuclear weapons status. The basic contention of those in Israel (by no means all Israelis) is that the Iranians will use those weapons against the Israeli state with the express intention of destroying the Jewish state. The primary public evidence they cite for this contention is the continuing string of vitriolic, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic rhetoric of the president of Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; presumably they also have clandestine intelligence reports that reinforce this contention.  Others are not so certain this evidence is compelling, either dismissing it as rhetoric that is intended for creating internal support for the regime or as “brave talk” that would dissipate should the Iranians actually get the capability.

The answer to the question is absolutely critical to the decision the Israelis ultimately make and to whether the world–and especially the United States–should endorse and support their decision and action. If the contention is true, the Israelis have a strong existential basis for their proposed action–preventing an Iranian nuclear capability is a literal matter of national life or death. In that circumstance, extraordinary action, quite apart from whether anyone else accepts it, can certainly be justified, and it is abundantly clear that those Israelis who have crafted and who support the decision believe that it is. The problem is that they cannot prove their contention.

The difficulty that surrounds the Israeli plan and that causes a lively, often rancorous debate is whether the Iranian threat to Israel is what the Israelis say it is or not. The heart of the problem is that the truth cannot be be demonstrated, since the events it seeks to avoid have not occurred. At heart, it is a matter of speculation, and it is a basic truth that nobody–not the Israelis, not the Iranians, or anybody else–does or can know that truth. The only empirical test is to allow the Iranians to get nuclear weapons and see what happens next.

This, of course, is a gamble the Israelis are unwilling to take, since the worst case prospect is the endangerment of their national existence. It is the nature of national security planning everywhere to try to glean and prepare to prevent the worst case threat to the country, and a threat to national existence is the worst possible case. That the Israelis would take this possibility seriously and try to prevent it is entirely reasonable.

The degree of sympathy and support for the Israeli decision depends critically on how likely others see the Israeli worst case and thus whether they are willing to accept the second-order consequences of an Israeli action. While Iranian rhetoric creates an argument for the plausibilityof an Iranian nuclear intention, there is, after all, contrary evidence. Nuclear proliferation is, after all, not a new phenomenon: since the United States first obtained nuclear weapons, eight others have joined, not including Israel, which does not publicly acknowledge its nuclear arsenal. All these acts of proliferation have been decried at one level or another on grounds that the new member would act irresponsibly (which generally means actually using their bombs), and to date, none have. Why is Iran an exception? Once again, from an Iaraeli viewpoint, it only takes one contrary action.

No one outside Iran wants Iran to get nuclear weapons, but there can be reasons other than destroying Israel that are driving their program. One is simple prestige and national pride: great powers have nukes, and Iran wants to be thought of as a great power. Another is to deter an attack against them. There has been a fair amount of opinion that the real motivation of the Iranians has been to avoid an American attack against them, and many argue that if Saddam Hussein had not suspended his program, the United States would never have invaded Iraq. The deterrence argument, ironically enough, has been redoubled in the face of the Israeli threat. Would Israel be talking about attacking a nuclear-armed Iran? Almost certainly not. The irony is that threatening to attack Iran may actually stimulate the clandestine program so that Iran can announce before such an attack that they now have the bomb and that Israel had better think twice. This is a most unsettling and destabilizing prospect, since it also gives the Israelis an incentive to attack before it is too late. As any student of nuclear weapons from the American-Soviet nuclear competition can attest, the idea is to reduce (preferably to zero) the incentives for nuclear actions, not to increase them.

Will Iran use nuclear weapons against Israel if it gets them? I don’t know, and neither to those on each side predicting the outcome. Probably the Iranians themselves do not know: they may think they have the answer, but it is within a far different context than that of actual possession. I also understand, and think everyone else should as well, why the Israelis are as obsessed as they are on the subject; unlike the rest of us, their national lives are on the line if the answer is negative. The question for those of us who are not so potentially directly under the Iranian nuclear gun is how far we are willing to go to support the actions justified by Israeli concern. Since that support has negative consequences for everyone (admittedly not as dire as those facing Israel), the answer is neither simple nor straightforward.

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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!

Israel, Iran and the United States: All Options Are Bad!

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , on February 7, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The growing confrontation between Israel and Iran over the Iranian nuclear weapons program is spinning perilously out of hand, and it has within it the seeds of the most potentially dangerous threat to international peace since the Cold War ended over 20 years ago. What we are witnessing is a verbal ran-up to a military conflict between the Middle East’s only nuclear power (Israel) and its most militant, populous state (Iran). It is a conflict that would serve no one’s interests, would only result in a worse situation–possibly catastrophically so–for all parties, and in which the extremely emotional basis of the conflict is driving all sides, including the United States, to consider essentially irresponsible acts that endanger the country’s national security interests in dangerous way. All of this is occurring in a presidential election year (probably no coincidence) in which cool analysis and action is undermined by hot electoral rhetoric aimed at grabbing votes at the possible endangerment of this country’s interests and safety. It needs to be stopped now, before it gets any worse.

Consider the situation in terms of three steps and their possible consequences. The steps are the pre-war confrontation, the Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities (an event which, if it happens at all, will almost surely occur before the November election in the United States), and the Iranian response. All put the United States in an untenable, negative sum situation where, regardless of what we do, we will come out on the short end of the stick.

Start with the pre-war present. There are two salient features to consider. The first are Israeli threats that demand, in essence, that Iran stop and reverse its alleged weapons program (which, of course, the Iranians deny exists) before it proceeds any closer to a weapons outcome. The Israelis argue that if the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, they will use it against Israel, making the threat a truly existential one against them. Their assessment may be right or wrong, but there can be no doubt that the Neyanyahu government believes this scenario to be the case and from that perspective, a preemptive strike against Iran can make sense. That its consequences could be dire to Israel matters less from this perspective because Israel will suffer in either case. An attack is essentially taking an eye for an expected eye, and national existence is the stake. No Masada this time; the Israelis will go down swinging, if they go down.

This puts the United States, as the protector and guarantor of Israel, in a terrible position that the campaign rhetoric is only making worse. The Obama administration says it is “working” with Israel to defuse the crisis, which effectively means they are trying everything they can think of to try to keep the attack from occurring, at least partly because they recognize that if the Israelis launch a raid, all regional bets are off and that the worst case is a general Middle Eastern war that serves no one’s interests, and especially not the interests of the United States. GOP presidential contenders, on the other hand, are falling all over themselves and one another courting the Jewish vote in the United States by favoring unrestricted support for whatever Israel  decides to do. The most extreme view is held by Newt Gingrich, who summons the Holocaust to argue that anything less would be immoral.

The U.S. has essentially three options if an Israeli attack decision is unavoidable. None of them is especially good. They are:

 1. Full support for any attack the Israelis carry out, which can include actions of differing severity. The U.S. can participate in the raid in varying ways, such as providing air cover for the Israeli bombers heading for Iranian nuclear sites; we can provide satellite reconnaisance (which we undoubtedly already do) for the Israelis, including warnings of Iranian countermeasures; we can supply special ordnance (deep penetrating bombs) to the Israelis to penetrate underground facilities (the Israelis do not themselves have such a capability); or, at the greatest extreme, we can participate with U.S. bombers dropping bombs. The more involved we are, of course, the more we will be caught up in the wake of international reactions to the attack.

2. We can acknowledge Israeli plans, say we understand but don’t fully support their actions on any of a variety of grounds, BUT warn sternly that we will not allow a response by Iran that would endanger Israeli existence. We would still be blamed for not preventing the attacks, but the criticism would be more muted, and we would uphold our pledge to guarantee Israeli existence. Critics, however, would argue that is not enough.

3. We can tell the Israelis, very publicly, that they are on their own if they attack, although we will protect them from an existential response. This option, regardless of its merits, would be political suicide in an election year (part of why the Israelis, who realize this, will probably act before the November election).

Options 1 and 2 are the only really domestically viable options, but both of them tie the U.S. to the Israeli attack, and that has consequences. Rationalizations notwithstanding, an Israeli strike would be an act of military aggression–an act of aggressive war–that is illegal under international law and the UN Charter, which Israel signed, making the action illegal under Israeli law as well. Calling it “preemptive” does not aid legality, because acts of preemption are only justifiable under IL when a hostile act that they prevent is imminent (e.g.an enemy’s army massing on your border); the Israeli attack does not rise to that level. Thus, the United States indirectly supports violating international law by supporting the Israelis. The U.S, has, of course, done so in the past–the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for instance–but the world will at least rhetorically line up against an aggression. Moreover, the Russians and Chinese will undoubtedly co-sponsor at Security Council condemnation of the aggression, and the U.S. will be left with the unpleasant choices of supporting Israel in the face of overwhelming global disapproval or, as it did in 1956 at the time of the Suez War, of condemning the action of a close ally. Once again, electoral politics may require thumbing our noses at the world. Moreover, if the Israelis do attack, they will not be able to take out the Iranian program entirely, instead only setting it back, while Israeli attacks will take its toll in civilian casualties (collateral damage) that will only add to condemnation of the attacks. Anyone who can see some good in this for United States interests beyond some votes in the presidential election, is seeing something this observer does not.

As if that was not enough, an Israeli attack will trigger some very violent form of Iranian counterattack with equally or even more dangeous potential consequences for the U.S. and the region. Those possibilities, none of which are desirable from a U.S. viewpoint, will be the subject of the next column. All the options are bad!

The GOP Candidates and Iraq

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Diplomacy, Getting out of Iraq, Iran and Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq and Troop Levels, Iraq War, Leaving Iraq with tags , , , , , on October 23, 2011 by whatafteriraq

If ignorance is indeed bliss, the GOP candidates for president in 2012 demonstrated that they must be the most contented lot in the world after their pronouncements about President Obama’s announcement this past week that the United States would end all military operations in Iraq by the end of the year. The stupendous ignorance of the facts demonstrated by the GOP field regarding how and why this ending will occur is breathtaking; it is also a sobering reminder of what foreign policy might look like should one of them somehow become commander-in-chief. Of that latter prospect, only the most ardent neo-conservative could possibly take take solace in the prospect.

What was the collective accusation? It was that somehow Obama had acted in a way that somehow would cause the United States to quit the field in Iraq, thereby submitting the United States and the region and world to great potential peril, since we will no longer be able to maintain some semblance of control there when all our troops (other than the Marines guarding the embassy) are gone–in time for the holidays, according to the administration.

That statement, which is of course a composite, has four distinct parts, two of which are clearly false or misleading, and two of which are arguable. Let’s look at each.

1. It was an action by Obama that has caused this situation. This assertion is, of course, necessary to blame the White House for something–which of course is the partisan putpose anyway–and it is patently false. The reason the U.S. will leave Iraq at the end of the year is because the Iraqis want us out. This is hardly a revelation, and it has been enshrined in an agreement signed by President Bush with the Iraqi government in December 2008 that called for withdrawal by the end of this year. The al-Malaki government views this requirement as a bedrock of their mandate, and it has been a condition and date that has existed–and been publicly known–for over three years.

The only way that treaty obligation could have been modified or moderated was through the negotiation of a new agreement with the Iraqis to allow some number of Americans to stay after the end of the year. The U.S. has indeed been trying to do so to allow a token force to stay behind, but those negotiations foundered on a critical provision of the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) that would have been necessary to extend the American presence: a provision that American forces be exempted from prosecution of alleged offenses under Iraqi law (a standard item of SOFAs the U.S. has with foreign governments). THE IRAQIS REFUSED TO ACCEPT THIS STIPULATION, and this is why the U.S. is leaving. There were probably two reasons for the Iraqi position: 1) they wanted us to leave, and knew this would force us out, and 2) given the track record of some Americans on the scene, they did not trust us enough to make the concession (think Abu Ghraib). We are leaving because we could not conclude a successful SOFA, and there is no SOFA because the Iraqis refused to negotiated one. Period. End of story.

If one wants to blame the president for this, all one can argue (much too subtle for the current GOP field) is that the Obama administration, which also wants out of Iraq, did not try as hard as they might have to force the Iraqis to relent. That is at least arguable, although to be accepted, two additional elements are needed: proof the Obama people dragged their feet and evidence that a more assertive advocacy would have made a difference. The first is possible; the latter fantasy.

2. The U.S. action will leave American interests at peril. Specifically, the argument goes that an Iraq without an American presence will be subject to pressure from Iran and will be driven into the arms of Iran. This outcome is at least arguable on a number of grounds, and one can accept the notion that the postwar environment will leave Iran the clear winner in the American war against Iraq. What is very misleading about this assertion, however, is the idea that the U.S. decision to honor its treaty promises is the cause of this outcome. Iranian increased influence was probably the inevitable outcome of overthrowing Iran’s greatest single obstacles in the region, Saddam Hussein, and was cemented by by our eight year occupation. Iran is equally likely to benefit regardless of when the U.S. leaves; to blame it on honoring Bush’s commitment is pure demagogery.

3.  A continuing American presence would help stabilize the situation in Iraq, and their removal reduces the U.S. ability to influence the situation. Exactly how the retention of 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is supposed to stabilize anything is not clear,except in the symbolism of their presence and the implied threat (a very hollow one) that they could be reinforced if need be by sending more back. It is true that American influence will wane somewhat with all our presence there, but it is pretty hard to contend that we have much influence there anymore anyway. For a sliver of evidence, how successful were we in keeping al-Maliki from endorsing the continuing rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria?

4. If we are gone, who will protect the American contractors and aid workers left behind? This is a serious question, because the answer is the Iraqis will have to do so. If they want whatever goodies we are dispensing, they will do so; if getting rid of all the Americans is what they really want, they will not. One can only hope all the remaining Americans in the country are keeping packed bags under their beds. Having said that, 5,000 Americans in garrison are probably not much better equipped to protect and extract those Americans from danger than Marines or special forces on duty on ships in the Persian Gulf.

One need not be a particular supporter on Obama foreign policy to see that the withering criticism of his Iraq announcement was uncalled for, unfair, and displayed considerable ignorance on the part of those who made it. Up until now, the GOP  field has been remarkably quiet on foreign policy matters, and one can certainly see why in this cacophony of ignorance. If there is a bottom line to this sorry episode, it is a question: would anyone really like turning over America’s relations with the world to any of these bozos?  

 

Headless, Bottom-Up Revolution

Posted in Egypt, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , on February 13, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Now that Hosni Mubarak has finally ceded power and the demonstrators are filtering out of Tahrir Square (ready at an instant to return if they think the situation warrants it), there are more questions than answered about wht what happened occurred, and what all this means for the future of Egypt, and American interests in the Middle East. What happens now?

Anyone who thinks they can answer that question today with any certitude is kidding himself or herself. The quest for understanding what all this means for the future lies in the dynamics of what has just occurred, for at least two reasons. The first is that the underlying dynamics of the Egyptian uprising probably have within them somewhere the kernel of where the situation will head next. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure at this point. Second, the dynamics will also offer some as yet unknown guidance about how much the dynamics of Egypt are idiosyncratic or generalizble to other places. Still don’t know that either.

What is fairly clear (if not all that illuminating for either question) is that this was very much a bottom-up uprising that was started and proceeded without any obvious leadership. Its motive force was decidely populist–aimed at overthrowing an octogenarian dictator and replacing him with a people-run democracy. The first part of the goal was easy to articulate–it was a succinct, bumper-sticker kind of appeal. It was also a message of the kind and length that fits very well into the method by which it was spread, electronic social media. Moreover, its achievement was a discreet, measurable thing–the demonstrators stayed until Mubarak was gone. Game, set, but not yet match!

The problem, of course, is translating the bumper-sticker, “tweet” slogan of democracy into something meaningful. Doing so is immeasurably more difficult than the first part, for at least three reasons. One is that it is a goal not universally shared, within or outside Egypt. Does the ruling elite in Egypt really want democratization, given they benefited from and were associated with the autocracy? When the Egyptian prime minister went on state television today and said that restoring order was the first task, he was, of course, right in one sense, but is “order” a code word for returned repression? And can he be trusted, given that he was Mubarak’s prime minister? Even assuming the rank-and-file and younger officers of the Egyptian army support the popular movement, what about their leaders, who were, in many cases, cronies of the departed president? The Army is currently in charge, and they have not yet acted against the demonstrators. But can they be trusted to stay that way?

Outside Egypt, there is similar, if less overtly stated opposition. The Israelis in particular were comfortable with Mubarak because he was “the devil we know,” and they are almost certainly going to be less happy with whoever follows. The Army says it will honor the peace treaty, and there has been nothing that anyone within the “movement” has said that indicates that a democratic Egypt is violently anti-Israeli. At the same time, Israel and Mubarak are equated in many Egyptian minds. Similarly, the American government has also operated from the assumption that Mubarak was our stalwart in the region because he brought “stability.” It is not the first time we have backed a despot because of his commitment to a status quo with which we were happy; such support often turns sour, however, and we hope our long-time support for Mubarak will not translate into an anti-American successor. If it does, however, we will largely have no one to blame but ourselves.

The second reason is that since the revolution is headless, it is also in a sense mindless. What I mean by that is that there is no coherent philosophical base on which the demonstrators can base an orderly progression toward their generalized goal of democracy. The reason is, of course, the lack of revolutionary leadership, itself the large result of Mubarak’s systematic, 30-year suppression of anybody who opposed him. Somewhere out there is the next leadership, but it probably does not know who it is or what it will try to do, and neither do we. The hope is, of course, that it will be a leadership devoted to what we (and hopefully the Egyptians themselves) hope it is–movement toeard a secular democracy. But maybe it is not, which is the great fear for Egypt and its contagious potential. Third, fashioning and creating a new, democratic system is a lot more complicated and time-consuming than tearing the old one down. That takes leadership and intellectual coherence that has not yet popped to the surface.  

The Egyptian uprising stands on the cusp of Crane Brinton’s (Anatomy of Revolution) classic second step, “the reign of terror and virtue.” It is the unsettled period, when the most radical elements come out and in the struggle for power various groups emerge and vie for defining what is virtue. Every real revolution has such a period, which will eventually be followed by a cooling off period in which the winners consolidate the outcome (Brinton’s thermidor). The question is whether this stage becomes radicalized or not: in the American Revolution, it did not (although the British of the time would not have agreed); in Russia and France (two of Brinton’s other case studies) it did. Which way will Egypt go?

One can become too readily apocalytical about the prospects. Egypt is, happily, not Iran, which makes its headlessness a virtue of sorts: in radical fundamentalist Iran and its spokesman Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranians had a charismatic leader who defined virtue and commissioned the terror to implement it; Egypt does not. Whether the Egyptian movement will follow a path toward the kind of democracy–secular sounds nice to us, but probably not so much to Muslim Egyptians–that would be a beacon to the region is still an open question the answer which will depend on what Egyptians and outsiders (but especially Egyptians) do in the months that follow. Sitting and waiting for what happens next is hard for activist Americans to do, but it is probably the best we can do.

Think Again: Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Like many other people who are opposed to the current waqr in Afghanistan, I am constantly amazed at some of the arguments used to justify our continued futility there. To try to reconcile these, I have decided to borrow the “Think Again” format from Foreign Policy to answer a few of the arguments supporters make. This material, I should add, was previewed during a talk I gave last week to the “Hilton Head for Peace” group on Hilton Head Island, SC.

1. We had to go into Afghanistan.

Well, yes, but! It is true that it was entirely justifiable in October 2001 to attack and eradicate Al Qaeda, a task at which we failed because of the inadequate commitment of resources that were withheld to help prepare for tthe idiotic invasion of Iraq. Since the Taliban was shielding Al Qaeda, one can even justify helping tip the ongoing civil war with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban to make our assault on Al Qaeda easier. Once that mission was accomplished/failed, however, the rationale for sticking around–especially for nine years and counting–to prop up the Karzai government is not only less compelling, but basically indefensible.

2. A favorable outcome is vital to American interests in Afghanistan and the region.

Well, that depends on which interests one is discussing, and since these possible interests tend to contradict one another, some distinction is necessary. If we are talking about interests in Afghanistan itself beyond keeping it from being an Al Qaeda refuge (which, given the worldwide dispersal of Al Qaeda, is a questionable goal), what interests? We also have interests in Pakistan (the world’s sixth most populous country–with nuclear weapons), and it isn’t clear how the war is helping there. And then there is Iran, which can only benefit from America being tied down in an increasingly unpopular war in the region.

A corollary assertion here is that the failure to remain in the country and “win” (see number four) is that we make the sacrifices of those who have died in Afghanistan meaningless if we do not stay. Does anyone but me remember Richard Rovere’s Vietnam book, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” named for an old Delta work song (“Waist deep in the big muddy, and the damned fool said to go on…”)? How the meaningless sacrifice of more American lives and treasure for no discernible benefits honors those who have already been sacrificed constitutes an argument that absolutely eludes me.

3. If we don’t stop the terrorists there, we will have to stop them here.

Absolute drivel and nonsense. What is the evidence to support this contention? The simple fact is there isn’t any and that this is just part of the right-wing scare tactic to get us to support this particular paranoid belief. Rather, one can make a much stronger case that our continued actions in Afghanistan makes attacks on the U.S. more, rather than les, likely, because they are motivating Afghans (who, up to now, have noticeably absent from terrorist ranks) to seek revenge against us for the damage and suffering we are (admittedly inadvertently) wreaking on Afghan civilians. Since they cannot seek direct retribution there, the argument increasingly heard is they feel we should be forced to suffer the same wrongs. This is really an argument for leaving, not staying.

4. If we persevere, we can win.

No we can’t. First, what do proponents mean by “win”? They generally won’t say, wither because they have no idea what winning there means (John McCain), or they realize that any objective definition is unobtainable. As I have said before in this space, outsiders do not win civil wars, which is what the war in Afghanistan is about. Last week’s Nation magazine listed four conditions that made the case in Afghanistan why we can’t prevail: 1) there are complex regional and ethnic differences we can’t overcome; 2) there is a long tradition of successful resistance to occupation there; 3) there is a tradition of decentralized tribal government that we can’t supplant; and 4) the country is susceptible to outside interference (by Iran, Pakistan, and India). The best we can hope for is a return to number 3), which is hardly what most of us would consider victory.

5. It is worth the cost.

You have to be kidding. The cost is astronomical (so much so that it is generally obfuscated), but can someone measure the benefits? I have never seen a serious accounting of the benefits of this war. Is it the mineral riches recently discovered under Afghanistan? If it is in reducing terrorism, the numbers are particularly hard to compute and are almost certainly negative. Countering terrorism is never cost-effective at the margins (the costs of countering terrorist initiatives can almost always be negated by the terrorists at substantially lower costs). This does not even address the very real questions of whether we can afford this war regardless of the benefits, given the state of the U.S. economy. Government economies that do not require participation by the defense/military establishment are pure sophistry.

6. If we leave the results will be disastrous.

Poppycock. I heard David Gergen, the quintessential pundit with no obvious foreign policy credentials, make this argument recently. The heart of it, familiarly enough, is that if we were to leave precipitously, it woud indelibly harm American prestige and the willingness of others to trust us in the future, and that Afghanistan would go to hell in a haybasket if we leave. This argument seems to ignore the counterargument that our totally feckless, quixotic current efforts are at least as damaging as admitting we can’t win and cutting our losses (as the Russians and British have been telling us for years), and it is not at all clear that the Taliban are not going to “take over” a loosely governed Afghanistan in the long run, regardless of what we do.

One could go on, but I will close with a thought borrowed from Mark Twain/Groucho Marx, both of whom have had attributed to them the quote, “I would’t belong to any organization that would have me as a member.” In the current international environment, a useful paraphrase for the U.S. government might be, “I wouldn’t intervene in any country that would invite me.”

Iran in 1979 and 2009

Posted in Iran with tags , , on June 20, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The images coming out of Tehran the past week–and especially today–are intoxicating. What is going on? Is there a new Iranian Revolution in the making? Is George W. Bush’s policy of democracy promotion being vindicated on the streets of Iran’s capital? Is there a fundamental change about to break out in Iran? Will 2009 be a pro-democratic version of the Iranian Revolution of 1979?

Before one begins to wax too enthusiastically about the Tehran events, it is worthwhile to step back, take a deep breath, and look at what is different about now and then. The differences may well prove to be profound in determining the outcome.

Three major differences stand out to me. The first is that the demonstrations are much more physically isolated today than they were in 1979. In the year or so prior to the demonstrations that helped bring down the Shah, demonstrations occurred across the country, in cities and towns throughout the provinces that gradually became larger and moved toward the center of power in Tehran. There is little indication that the demonstrations this time are so regionally diffuse. This is important because the basis of support of the current regime is in the provinces among the rural and semi-urban lower classes, not among the urbanized middle class in Tehran.  This concentration in the capital thus raises questions about the extent of support for demonstrations against Ahmedinejad, Khamenei, and the election results.

Second (and related), there is a definite class difference in support and opposition this time. In 1979, the urbanized middle class and the rural or recently urbanized peasantry joined in protests against the Shah. It was an odd coalition at the time, since the two sides had quite different agendas: democratization, modernization, and economic and political opportunity among the middle class; Islamic purity among the masses. They could coalesce for two reasons. One was that the Shah suppressed both desires and was thus a convenient displacement object. The other was that both groups felt they could manipulate the other and provide the eventual ledarship of Iran. The middle class, of course, was wrong.

The tables are turned this time. The ruling regime is the representative of the religious right in the country, and they are supporting both Khamenei and Ahmedinejad. That means the middle class, with whom we in the West most readily identify, is pretty much on its own and is pretty much isolated. One has the feeling that reporting of events is probably making their success more likely than it in fact is–at least partially because they represent the side we–including the press–want to see win.

The third, and possibly most important, difference, is in the ability of the regime to keep itself in power. In 1979, the demonstrations that caused the Shah ultimately to flee into exile had gradually grown over time, and many in the West were amazed that the Shah had not acted decisively to crack down on the demonstrations before it became too late. In retrospect, the reasons were probably some combination of the debilitating effects of the chemotherapy the Shah was undergoing on his ability to make decisions at critical points and admonitions from the Carter administration not to act with historical regime suppressive zeal (which was more important is hard to say).

The regime in 2009 is showing no such indecisiveness. They are not acting with quite the overt violence (at least not yet) that has marked Iranian politics in the past, but they have made it quite clear who they certify as the winners and the unacceptability of dissent from that official outcome. We in the West may not like the results of the election or the honesty of election procedures, but there is not a whole lot we can do about them either. Unless the demonstrations widen noticeably (and it is hard to see how they will, given that the urban, middle class support base in Iran is limited) or the government becomes openly thuggish and brutal (always a possibility), there is little to do but sit on the sidelines and cluck disapprovingly.

It is also one of the supreme ironies of all this that the focus of so-called “moderate reform” is Mir Hussein Moussavi, who is hardly anyone’s historic vision of moderation and progress. This is, after all, a guy who made his name in the 1979 Iranian Revolution who seems moderate and progressive only when compared to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

It is the weekend, when news is typically slow, and thus the 24/7 news media are having a feeding frenzy on fragments of reports about the demonstrations. Are we taking all this too seriously? Is this the beginning of serious change in Iran? Don’t bet the farm on it.