Archive for President Obama

Winding Down in Afghanistan?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2011 by whatafteriraq

With the deficit ceiling crisis dominating the headlines (copmpeting with the Anthony murder trial and Murdoch family travails), events in Afghanistan have taken on a diminished level of public attention. Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, the poster child of corruption in the country, is murdered with scarcely a ripple, an apparent business-as-usual occurrence in the war (and country) that the United States has chosen to forget. But change may finally be in the wind, a breeze that will, with some luck, fill the sails for the American desert schooner to make its way out of that country’s morass.

The symbol of that change in the past week has been the changing of the guard at the Interntional Security Assistance Force/US Forces in Afghanistan (ISAF/USFOR-A) from General David Petraeus to Marine General John R. Allen. The move has enormous potential symbolic value. Petraeus has been the symbol of the American commitment to graft an apparently successful (apparently because the success will only be determined sometime in the future) counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy from Iraq to Afghanistan. For a variety of reasons, that application has been less than a total success; if anything, it more closely resembles the path to total failure. By hanging up his uniform and hopping aboard the plane for Washington and the directorship of the CIA, Petraeus has successfully extricated himself from the apparent impossibility to succeeding in Afghanistan, and the United States government can now quietly shelve the entire facade of COIN there and concentrate on the more pressing and realistic task of sneaking out of that country with minimal loss of face. General Allen has been given the unenviable task of overseeing this operation. He must have wanted the work pretty badly to have taken it.

Allen arrives with only a little COIN baggage, having served in Anbar Province in Iraq as part of the Sunni Awakening project that converted (or bought off) Sunni rebels who had been fighting the United States to fight Al Qaeda instead. Otherwise, he has held a variety of posts in the field, in Washington, and at Special Forces Command in Tampa. One of the most interesting notes on his resume is that he was the first Marine officer to command the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, a rare honor given the Navy’s proprietary attitude toward its academy. Accepting his new command, he has shown no illusions about the difficulty he faces which, in essence, is to try to preserve the illusion of progress with diminished resources as the American government quietly folds its tent and writesd off this particular quixotic adventure.

The official position of the Obama administration is that the United States will retain forces in Afghanistan through 2014, but don’t count on it, for several reasons. First, by now virtually everyone knows that Afghanistan is a mission impossible and that any real “victory” there is impossible regardless of how long we stay. Secretary Gates’ warning about abandoning the effort when we are “on the two-yard line” and ready to punch the ball in for the touchdown has virtually no resonance anymore; there is no indication gthat successor Leon Panetta has any particular passion for the Afghan task. Instead, the pressure, largely driven by negative public opinion fueled partially by wanting to get rid of the expense of Afghanistan (and Iraq) militates toward a faster withdrawal as long as the economy suffers. The last ditch of rationale for staying is that if we were to bring all the veterans home tomorrow, we would have no jobs for them, and they would contribute to the unemployment crisis. That is true, but unemployment benefits are cheaper than combat pay and support if we choose to extend any benefits to them (not to be taken as a given).

Given the polar positions of the parties on the deficit and debt, the only way to continue supporting the war is to find new money to pay for it. Paul Ryan and his hardy little band of libertarian fanatics, is not going to allow added taxation for such purposes, and AARP would have something to say about raiding entitlement programs to pay to kill Afghans. No new money in this case probably means the war effort is the victim. RIP.

Moreover, next year is–gasp!–an election year. It is hardly prescient to argue that the economic mess will dominate that event, and the war will only enter into it in small ways. For one thing, virtually everybody will argue that winding it down will save money that can be invested better domestically. Unfortunately, think of the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War. For another, the country is turning inward, and overseas involvements–especially expensive ones where Americans get killed for dubious gain–are not high on the agenda any candidate is likely to want to defend. Obama is stuck with the war because he escalated it (a decision I suspect he would like to have back), and thus must put on the brave face that we are actually accomplishing enough so that we can withdraw without abandoning our goals and admitting we have done all this essentially for nothing (which, arguably, we have). Even very conservative, pro-defense Republicans are not going to tie their fate to the war. The war has become a political pariah, and will likely be so treated in the 2012 campaign.

These dynamics suggest to me that the “schedule” for drawing down the American commitment will be accelerated between now and November 2012. The war, quite frankly, has no voting constituency and can be abandoned without short-term political consequences (the only kind that are really important in an election year). By election day, look for an American troop commitment about half what is projected today and an Obama pledge (which the GOP nominee, whoever that may be, will not publicly contravene) to get it down to zero combat troops sometime in 2013.

General Allen, of course, gets to oversee all this, while David Petraeus hunkers down in his Washington lawyer pin-striped suit at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Wish Allen well; he’s going to need all the help he can get.

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Afghanistan: An Intermestic Moment

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , on June 26, 2011 by whatafteriraq

President Obama’s long anticipated announcement of a schedule for removing American fighting forces in Afghanistan last week elicited the familiar and predictable howls that seem to follow anything that this chief executive does. Some thought he proposed too much, some not enough, and hardly anybody thought he had it just right. What’s new?

The president’s action and reaction to it almost perfectly exemplified what some political scientists (including this one) refer to as “intermestic policy.” The term refers to policy issues that have both an INTERnational and a domESTIC component, hence the name. Most foreign policies have some intermestic aspect to them: there is hardly any issue in the foreign policy realm that does not have some domestic impact, and vice versa. The impact is that it reduces the boundary between foreign and domestic politics, a boundary that used to be sancrosanct. An old saw has it that “politics ends at the water’s edge,” the implication being that purely political concerns should not extend into America’s relations with other countries, toward whom it is only right and patriotic to maintain a common face.

In today’s environment where absolutely everything is political and highly partisan (what Pat Haney and I refer to as “hyper-partisanship in our new foreign policy text), the boudary represented by the water’s edge has been swamped; it is literally under water itself. In the most prominent issue areas with an intermestic cast, the domestic and international elements of policy intermix, confuse one another, and make sensible policy more difficult to maintain. The United States policy toward the war in Afghanistan is a classic example of this phenomenon run amok.

Look at the war through the dual lenses of international and domestic politics. The international (foreign policy) concern is with the effect of various endings of the war on the international environment and America’s place in it. Clearly, the major concern is the status of a post-war Afghanistan in relation to international religious terrorism, most obviously associated with Al Qaeda. There are two basic arguments to be made about this aspect. One is that without a “victory” in Afghanistan, the country will likely revert to being a haven for terrorists (as it was during the latter 1990s), meaning that continuing the war until a satisfactory outcome is achieved (and however that is measured) is vital. From that vantage point, and given the assessment of the situation on the ground (we are not yet winning), the president’s decision is premature and damaging to efforts to reach a satisfactory ending, and thus the withdrawal is too much. The other side is that the outcome is excessive to the cost, that it is unlikely to be achieved by outside military force and that, since the successful decapitation of Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is not worth the effort because the threat has been sufficiently reduced to allow a successful effort with far fewer forces. From this vantage point, the withdrawal is not nearly enough.

The domestic side has two different aspects that are not necessarily connected intimately to the international dimension. One is that public opinion has turned decisively against the war, with those who want out altogether becoming a progressively larger part of majority which dislikes the war. Clearly this majority thinks the president did not go far enough. Among those who support the war, most wrap themselves tightly in the flag and argue that to do anything but continue would dishonor those who have sacrificed (an honor presumably served by sacrificing more Americans). The other argument is economic: at a little over $100 billion a year (and I personally suspect that is a “low ball” estimate), the United States simply cannot afford to continue the war. This justification has little to do directly with the international worth of the effort, and more to do with deficit reduction.

When one stacks up the pro and con arguments, the negative arguments are most strongly represented in domestic concerns–and especially the affordability argument in the current economy–whereas the more muted arguments in favor of staying in tend to be more international, associated with the military’s reluctance to abandon an enterprise in which they are heavily invested. The “inter” and the “mestic” thus come into conflict and, most tellingly, result in a debate where one side simply does not address the other. Those who want the U.S. to leave on economic grounds make an after-the-fact defense of the lack of need to continue, but they don’t really address systematically nor refute those who maintain our interests will be weakened if we do. Similarly, those who believe we should stay admit the war is expensive but that the outcome overrides the negative economic impact. Neither side refutes the other position convincingly.

President Obama is caught in the middle of this. As president, he is both chief executive in all the domestic senses of that term and commander-in-chief, with overriding foreign policy responsibilities. He (like any president) can avoid neither the “inter” or the “mestic,” and thus ends up sitting on the fence. Critics–on both sides–generally have the luxury of avoiding these distinctions, since they bear no direct responsibility for outcomes. The view may be better from the top of the fence, which is higher than the ground below, but it also makes whoever sits there a better target for the shoes hurled whenever the incumbent opines from the fence top.

There is nothing that can be done to remove the intermestic element from foreign policy decisions in an increasingly interdependent world, and the system simply needs to find a better way to conduct its foreign policy when it knows that whatever it does will affect American citizens directly and thus become political, because some will benefit and others will not in any circumstance. The grease that could make that process smoother and ultimately more productive is a less partisan, super-charged political atmosphere, one that is less hyper-partisan. No one should hold their breath for that to happen anytime soon.

Is the Two-State Solution in Palestine Dead?

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 5, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Washington last week with a tremendous tactical victory. By skillfully marshalling sympathetic Americans through AIPAC, he managed to deflect the speech by President Obama two days before he arrived that had argued for–even demanded–the resumption of Israeli-Palestine peace talks aimed at creating separate Jewish and Arab states (the 1948 UN mandate for the area) based on the pre-1967 boundaries (nowhere addressed in 1948) in the area as a starting point. “Indefensible,” Bibi roared, and the U.S. Congress dutifully rose from their seats at his address and cheered. Obama was left out on a ledge by himself politically, and Bibi flew out of town a hero to the political right in Israel. In the process, Bibi even appeared to capture the high road of being conciliatory and convincing the political right in the United States that his government indeed did favor peace–just not the one the President proposed. Neat trick, that. Score one for Natanyahu.

The Israeli tactical victory does, however, come with a price. In all likelihood, the real result of Bibi’s tour de force was  to drive the last nail into the coffin of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Neither the Palestinians or the Israelis, much less the Americans (who seem more enthused about the prospect than either of the principals), are publicly admitting this consequence, but it looms nonetheless.

Why such a gloomy prognosis? Let’s start by stripping away a bit of the generally pious rhetoric on both sides of the dispute. Both sides argue publicly that they want peace based on “two state for two peoples,” but it is by no means clear that either in fact do. Each begins by saying it is the side that truly wants peace but that the other side does not. It then issues what it argues are not preconditions for successful negotiations but which are in fact deal-breaking conditions it absolutely knows the other side wil not accept (which is the real reason for proposing them in the first place). This allows the other both sides to argue, fingers probably crossed behind their backs, that they want peace but the other side does not. Neither side is exactly lying, but neither side is exactly telling the truth either.

This works out in the current environment. Bibi proclaimed that Israel was willing, even anxious, to see peace, and had made numerous proposals without preconditions on which to proceed. Well, not quite. Netanyahu prefaced this apparent generosity by saying that, of course, the Israelis could not be expected to negotiate with terrorists intent on the destruction of the state of Israel (Hamas) and that Israeli security must be honored in any agreement. Those sound like reasonable positions (members of Congress certainly seemed to think so), but they are also effective deal-breaking preconditions that insure no Palestinian government can possibly enter into negotiations on their basis. Why? The exclusion of Hamas (with which the Abbas government has now entered into a working agreement with) means the Palestinian Authority must turn its back on a political body that has considerable support in the Palestinian population. Fatah might want to do that (just as the Obama administration might like to exclude the TEA Party from negotiations on the deficit), but they cannot. The guarantee of Israeli security operationally translates into a permanent Israeli military presence on the West Bank (Bibi admitted that in an interview with Wolf Blitzer, as reported here last week), which is roughly like saying Mexico will agree on a border security arrangement with the United States as long as it can maintain permanent security forces in Dallas. Palestinian demands regarding the disposition of Israeli settlements on the West Bank offer a parallel.

I am not arguing that either of these Israeli positions in unreasonable or indefensible from a strictly Israeli view–especially at the tactical level of security today for the Israeli state. Simply raising these to the public eye in the United States (although not in Israel, where such critiques are much more open) brings squeals of indignation about “pushing Israel under the bus,” in Mitt Romney’s shrill, thoroughly unimaginative term, which I suspect is the exact reaction for which Bibi hoped (and was rewarded). 

The real concern is what this kabuki by the Potomac means for an eventual peace settlement between the antagonists based on the two-state principle, and here, the landscape is bleak. There were no peace talks before the recent visit and exchange occurred, of course, and it was Obama’s state purpose to reinvigorate them. This was probably impossible under any circumstances because, as I have tried to argue here, it is not clear that either side truly wants such talks to progress to that end. The Israelis may be right that the Palestinians ultimately will agree to no outcome that does not entail the disappearance of Israel, and the Palestinians may be correct that the Israelis will never allow a fully sovereign West Bank Palestinian state. Both sides certainly act that way (pious rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding), and the Netanyahu visit was certainly congruent with the thesis that a peaceful settlement will not occur because neither side is willing to make the honest concessions and compromises to create one.

I know that partisans on both sides will heatedly dispute this assertion and pepper me with evidence of the sincerity–even magnanimity–of their efforts to move toward a peace that would be possible if only the other side was not treacherous on the subject. Such denials (since they generously include condemnations of the honor of the other) do not move the situation toward peace, and I am personally not convinced they are intended to do so. The tactical game is decidedly status quo-loaded.

So, is peace based on a two-state solution dead? For the time being and in the short run, the answer is yes. For the president to try to follow up on his initiative at this time would be an exercise in futility (which was almost certainly Bibi’s intent to demonstrate to him, at which he succeeded) meeting Einstein’ definition of insanity. The only thing that can revive peace based on a two-state formula that represents a reasonable compromise for BOTH sides is a drastic change in power on both sides: a Palestinian leadership that is strong enough to resist and reject its extremists, and an Israeli leadership that accepts the long term demographics of the region and accepts losing part of “greater Israel” as the price for a long-term peace. In the meantime, the sounds of continued construction on the West Bank narrow the possibility that any two-state solution remains physically possible.

Will time run out before the preconditions for a two-state solutions are completely dead? If peace is the patient, the prognosis is not promising, but the patient has not quite expired. If, however, the two-state solution does die, that fundamentally changes the parameters of the game in ways that could very much disfavor those Israelis who have done their level best to derail the two-state solution. Game, and maybe set, to Netanyahu. Match? Not so clear.

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.

“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.

Hyper-Partisanship, Non-Consensus, and Libya

Posted in International Terrorism, Libya, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , on April 3, 2011 by whatafteriraq

President Obama has received a great deal of criticism over the past several weeks about how his administration has handled the American reaction to the revolution in Libya. This criticism has covered the gamut of possible actions and solutions. George Bush-like, some have lambasted him for timidity, suggesting that the United States come much more forcefully to the aid of Libyan rebels in the form of a no-fly zone or more; John McCain and Joe Lieberman respresent this strand of opinion; at the other end of the GOP spectrum, Richard Lugar of Indiana has broken with Obama for getting at all involved. Within his own party, most of the criticism has come from the left, which wants no US involvement militarily in Libya (or Afghanistan or Iraq, one might add). At the same time, a few remind Obama about a potential Rwanda-style humanitarian disaster (an analogy almost certainly overblown) unless the United States does something about Colonel Qadhafi.

The merits of the situation are at best murky, thereby allowing advocacy of a broad range of options without any danger of bumping too closely into the facts. Two things, however, seem clear to me at this point. One is that the loose coalition of anti-Qadhafi factions cannot possibly win (i.e. overthrow Qadhafi) without outside assistance; indeed, it is not at all certain that this “revolution” can persist without outsiders suppressing the government’s attempts to destroy them, as events showed last week. The balance of power is not on the rebels’ side. Qadhafi has the guns, and the absence of meaningful uprisings in the western part of the country (notably Tripoli) indicates either that the rebellion lacks comprehensive support or that pro-government supporters are capable of suppressing the rebels. In either case, it looks like the only way the rebellion can succeed is with a great deal of outside help–something like a massive intervention against the Libyan government. Such an action is problematical in principle (these things often do not work at all, and even when they do, the outcomes are rarely what one hoped they might be). No one seems to be advocating such an intervention, but the logic dictates that eventually it will have to be contemplated when stalemate proves not to be enough.

That leads to the second clear point: we still do not have a good handle on who exactly the rebels are. Certainly the foot soldiers are non-radical citizens who are simply sick of Qadhafi and want to see him gone. Most outsiders share that sentiment,which is why there is more support for active moves than there might otherwise be. But is that all the leadership wants? What do we know about these people–who are they? where do they come from? what is their politics? It is becoming clear that there is no single leadership cadre; that instead there are alternative aspirants to post-Qadhafi leadership. Before one becomes too involved in replacing one leadership with another, it is always nice to know what the replacement will be like. Do we know this? For that matter, do the Libyans themselves know this?

If my assessment is at all sanguine, the situation on the ground in Libya would seem to counsel a slow, measured approach to involvement on the ground, which is pretty much what the White House is pursuing. Yet, the hounds continue to bay. Why?

Let me suggest two reasons that are stated in the title of this post. The first is the hyper-partisanship that has infected all American politics and, increasingly American foreign policy. The basic dynamic is that all aspects of political life are now framed in increasingly strident ideological language, mostly along partisan party lines, and politics has become a zero-sum game in which one side succeeds at the other side’s expense. Democrats blame Republicans for everything that happens and everything the GOP does in response, and vice versa. As this phenomenon has become more pervasive, its effect has been to paralyze (or “gridlock”) the political system: the battle over keeping the government going is the most obvious example. In times past, foreign policy was exempt from much of this sniping (“politics ends at the water’s edge”). It no longer is, unfortunately. (This theme is developed more fully in a book Pat Haney and I are co-authoring, American Foreign Policy in a New Era, due out in January 2012).

The other problem is a lack of consensus on guiding first principles that inform foreign policy. If one side or another was communist (the Cold War), the response would be easy. Immediately after 9/11, the charge that one side was composed of terrorists would also serve as an activator. Col. Qadhafi has tried that one, accusing the opposition of being Al Qaeda dupes, but it has not worked. Anti-terrorism is still a theme of American policy, but it is not longer a supreme first principle. In the current situation, we have no real guiding grand strategy, and so part of our bickering reflects a disagreement on what should activate the United States in a place like Libya that is based on first premises on which there is no depth of agreement.

This leaves the president tip-toeing through a minefield, where any step he takes will set off another explosion. His response, it seems to me, has been to activate what used to be revered as a highly desirable leadership trait: pragmatism (the approach of dealing with problems on their individual merits rather than in conformance with some pre-existing ideological framework). That approach is not much in vogue today, attacked from both sides as being unprincipled–wishy-washy in Charlier Brown language. Yet, pragmatism in this situation probably argues for caution before we know the answers to the kinds of questions raised above, and it is hard for me to understand how anyone could disagree about that. But then, someone will probably disagree about when we can disagree as well.

The Search for Middle Eastern Analogies

Posted in Egypt, Libya, Middle East Conflict, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The pace of events starting a short two months ago and now lapping at the gates of Damascus has left us all breathless and even sppechless as we try to comprehend what had happened, what it means, and what it may bode for the future. One of the endeavors that inevitably follows from our intellectual disarray is the search for analogies: is what is going on in the Middle East enough like something that has happened in the past that we can draw comparisons with that past that will help us predict and possibly affect wherever these events are leading?

If such an analogy exists in any helpful way (i.e. is close enough to contemporary happenings truly to be instructive), no one has yet found it. The unfolding scene bears some resemblance to what happened two decades ago in Eastern Europe, but it is also different–different people from different cultures, the nature of who and how their oppressions had been imposed, etc. Unless one can draw an analogy with some obscure bit of Middle Eastern history (which I am certainly incapable of doing), we seem stuck. The uncomfortable result is that we do not know exactly what to do, and possibly more importantly, what the impact of whatever it is we do is on the outcome, for good or for bad. It is this uncertainty that has made our responses seem so hesitant and tentative; critics who cry for more decisive responses are either clairvoyant about the future (insights they fail to share with us) or demagogical (here’s another way to attack Obama,so let’s go for it!).

Let me suggest that our difficulty in deciding what to do is the result of at least five questions, the answers to which we either do not know or which we fear. Stating and looking at them will not solve the dilemma of policy understanding; but it may clarify the parameters of the discussion.

1. Who are these people? What has been common to all the uprisings is that they have apparently populist roots: people gather in the streets, the demonstrations grow when not suppressed, the government finally reacts with violence that fans the flames rather than dousing them, and at some point, either the government caves in or the guns come out. In either case, the question of leadership of the insurgents has been a mystery. Clearly, there are organizers, at a minimum people who view on the social media what has happened in neighboring countries and say, “Why not us?” The problem is that we (the U.S. and the West generally) apparently do not possess very much helpful information about who the leaders that could answer subsequent questions.

2. Where do they come from? Large parts of the Middle East are, of course, artificial states with competing ethnic and/or religious groups, but is it disenfranchised of oppressed minorities that are behind the uprisings? As best one can tell in places like Egypt or even Libya (an artificial state but one without notable ethnic rivarlies), the situation appear not to have these characteristics. Syria, on the other hand, does have these cleavages, and it would actually be  to understand what is going in if such motivations are at play.

3. What are they there for? The universal chorus coming from the various uprisings is a call for “freedom,” but what does that mean? At the most obvious level, it means freedom from whatever authoritarian ruler at whom they have directed their ire, but that does not tell one enough about what they are FOR, only what they are against. All the movements say they want democracy, but given the scant background the region has with democratic principles, is that window dressing, or something more profound? One answer may be that they are sincere in their desires but have given very little thought to their operational meaning. In other words, they have and continue to spend a lot more energy on how to overthrow the old regime than about what to do after they succeed. If they don’t know, how are we to know, or even guess intelligently?

4. What are we doing? The outside reaction has moved slowly. It began with cheerleading from the sidelines, which worked fine (at least so far) in Egypt and Tunisia, but that has clearly not been enough in places where the government has resisted, especially violently. The most extreme reaction, of course, surrounds the UN-sanctioned military effort that, at least according to reports today (Sunday) seem to be having some impact on the fighting on the ground in favor of the insurgents. The UN mandate, of course, does not extend to influencing internal politics, only to guarnateeing humanitarian rights. Once one goes beyond that, as the UN did to its chagrin aover a half-century ago in the then Belgian Congo, and the results paralyzed UN responses to these kinds of crises as a result. Do we (the West, the UN, the U.S.) really want to get back into George Bush’s “regime changing” policy mode, albeit under the cover of international action?

5. Will the outcome of these processes be an improvement, either for the countries involved or the rest of us? This is really the $64 question, and its answer would clearly help resolve our response dilemma. Unfortunately, the answer also lies in the answers to the first four questions, and we don’t know these. Also, we lack an appropriate analogy to wrap around and help guide us. So we are left with simply listing the possibilities and hoping a good one is correct.

I will not attempt to suggest all the possibilities or which may apply to individual countries (and one of the probably safe assumptions is that the outcomes will differ by country). The most optimistic outcome is for pro-Western, pro-American democratic regimes to emerge or evolve. The insurgents, by and large, express democratic desires but are a little more circumspect about us. The most unfavorable outcomes involve the emergence of new, replacement autocracies that are even more objectionable than those they replace. Imagine, for instance, a Qadhafi who is also an extreme, fundamentalist Islamist. Nobody talks that way in the region, but anything is possible. In between are a whole range of options that are more or less deomcratic and more or less anti-western. The permutations afre seemingly endless.

Since we do not know what the answers to these questions, and especially the last one, will be, we watch what is infolding with fascination but a sense of unease. If it is true that one should generally look before one leaps and that leaping in this case means knowing what one is leaping into and what the effect will be, caution would seem to be the better part of valor. Unless, of course, one has a really good analogy we can work with.