Your humble blogger is a busy man. There are books to write, referee reports to complete, committee meetings to attend, grant proposals to craft,
silver prices to fix at the behest of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweets to tweet, witty blog posts to devise, and petty acts of professorial revenge to enact. He doesn't have time to revisit an ongoing international crisis with no changes in the dynamic.
So, after reading Thomas Erdbrink and David Sanger's front-pager in the New York Times and Jason Rezaian's story in the Washington Post, I think we're at the stage where it's possible to automate any blog post on the Iran crisis. Here are the seven key points to make in any \post of this nature going forward, with quotes from one of these two stories as evidence:
1) There is a deal on the nuclear issue that can be agreed upon any time both sides are interested in an agreement. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
The outlines of a nuclear deal have been clear for months: an Iranian agreement to limit the number of centrifuges that produce uranium, a cap on the amount of fuel in Iranian hands, and an agreement to ship its most potent stockpiles — the stuff that can be quickly converted to bomb fuel — out of the country. It would also have to agree to expose its history of nuclear work, including any on weapons technology, which it has refused to show international inspectors. In return, Iran would get an acknowledgment that it has a right to peaceful nuclear enrichment, and a gradual lifting of the sanctions.
2) The sanctions against Iran will be tightened until there is a nuclear deal. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
The existing sanctions on financial transactions have also forced Iran to engage in unfavorable oil-for-goods barter trade with its biggest customers, China and India. Chinese goods and medicine from India are prominently featured in stores and pharmacies across the country.
And now Iranian economic ingenuity will be tested again. Under the new crackdown, the United States is tightening the rules governing countries it has allowed to keep buying Iranian oil, as long as they show they are weaning themselves of it. From now on, when China, Japan, South Korea and India, among others, pay for oil deliveries, they will be required to put that money into a local bank account, which Iran can use only to buy goods within that country.
It is a way of keeping the money from ever being repatriated to Iran, even through third parties.
3) Iran will reject any linkage between negotiation and coercion, even though any final deal will be a function of both factors. From Rezaian:
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that will not solve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
"I’m not a diplomat, I’m a revolutionary, and speak frankly and directly,” said Khamenei, according to a report by Iran's Mehr News agency. “You Americans have pointed guns toward Iran, but at the same time you want to negotiate. The Iranian nation will not be intimidated by these actions."
4) American officials will express concerns in public about the rationality of the Iranian leadership. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
Obama administration officials were disturbed by a new analysis, prepared for the president and his staff, that paints a picture of the supreme leader as so walled off from what is happening with his country’s oil revenues that he is telling visitors that the sanctions are hurting the United States more than they are hurting Iran.
“The people may be suffering in Iran,” one senior official involved in Iran strategy said last week, “but the supreme leader isn’t, and he’s the only one who counts.”
5) The sanctions will continue to inflict serious damage on the Iranian economy without beinging the regime to its knees. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
The Iranian economy’s resiliency could surprise Westerners. The way Iran’s economy is structured, with strong links between state bodies and semiofficial and private businesses, helps shield the country, said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and columnist for the Sharq newspaper, which is critical of the government....
Others are more pessimistic, saying the effects of the sanctions have still not been fully felt.
“If the sanctions, government mismanagement and inflation continue naturally in the future, we will encounter serious difficulties,” said Mohsen Farshad Yekta, a professor of economics at the University of Economic Sciences in Tehran.
6) Force will be brandished as an option but not used against Iran. Nick Burns is not known for being a terribly militaristic diplomat, but here's what he told Erdbrink and Sanger about how to deal with Iran:
[T]he U.S. must remain patient and commit to direct talks at the highest levels. But, ultimately both Obama and Netanyahu also need to make the threat of force more credible to Tehran. Combined with sanctions, this may be the most effective way to convince Iran to agree to a peaceful, negotiated settlement.
Chuck Hagel said similar things during his confirmation hearing. No U.S. official is gonna take force off the table -- but short of a deliberate Iranian provocation in the region, it's not gonna be used.
7) And the last, most important point: everyone involved -- with the possible exception of Israel -- is pretty comfortable with the status quo. The U.S. is delighted to keep Iran contained. The Iranian leadership is content to blame the U.S. for all of its woes and possess a nuclear breakout capacity, without actually having nuclear weapons. Iran's economic elites are delighted to engage in sanctions-busting -- more profit for them. And Iran's neighbors are happy to see Iran contained and not actually develop a nuclear weapon. I think even Israel would be copacetic with the current arrangement if they knew that the Iranian regime had no intention of crafting an actual weapon unless it felt an existential threat.
So... unless and until there's a change in the status quo -- and there hasn't been for some time -- I'll just link back to this post when I need to post my quarterly musings on What to Do About Iran. Or I'll program a bot to cull the updated version of the quotes above to point out that nothing fundamental has changed.
Despite the fact that the administration appears to have the votes to confirm Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, activist groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) continue to pound away
at a brick wall at Hagel's dovishness towards Iran. In essence, ECI's ads and rhetoric argue forcefully that both Hagel and Obama are not fully committed to defending Israel by revving up for an attack on Iran now.
Don't take my word for it, though -- here's one of ECI's ads:
Now, as I've blogged before, this kind of interest group campaign is a waste of money if the goal is a partisan effort to weaken Obama and bolster the GOP. What if the effort is sincere, however? In other words, if groups like ECI care only about eliminating the Iranian threat as soon as possible, is this their best expenditure of resources?
Based on Sheera Frakel's McClatchy story from yesterday, I'd say the answer is no. Clearly, the greatest threat to a softening Western posture towards Iran comes from... dare I say it... Israel itself!!!
Israeli intelligence officials now estimate that Iran won’t be able to build a nuclear weapon before 2015 or 2016, pushing back by several years previous assessments of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Intelligence briefings given to McClatchy over the last two months have confirmed that various officials across Israel’s military and political echelons now think it’s unrealistic that Iran could develop a nuclear weapons arsenal before 2015. Others pushed the date back even further, to the winter of 2016.
"Previous assessments were built on a set of data that has since shifted," said one Israeli intelligence officer, who spoke to McClatchy only on the condition that he not be identified. He said that in addition to a series of "mishaps" that interrupted work at Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iranian officials appeared to have slowed the program on their own.
Oh. My. God. We already knew that there was a fifth column of Israelis who were pooh-poohing the notion of a pre-emptive strike on Iran. Now, with this intelligence walkback, the credibility of the Israeli national security establishment has taken a pretty serious hit.
If ECI and like-minded groups really think that Iran poses an existential threat and that the time to act is now, then I think they're targeting their resources at the wrong country. Trying to convert Rand Paul to their point of view isn't enough, and opposing Hagel is fruitless at this point. No, only a full-throated ECI campaign in Israel itself will be sufficient to prevent Jerusalem from falling into the appeasement camp. And if they fail to redirect their activities, then I have no choice but to conclude that ECI has gone soft on Iran as well.
Am I missing anything?
Roger Cohen has a column modestly titled "Diplomacy Is Dead." Let's see what he's talking about:
Diplomacy is dead.
Effective diplomacy — the kind that produced Nixon’s breakthrough with China, an end to the Cold War on American terms, or the Dayton peace accord in Bosnia — requires patience, persistence, empathy, discretion, boldness and a willingness to talk to the enemy.
This is an age of impatience, changeableness, palaver, small-mindedness and an unwillingness to talk to bad guys. Human rights are in fashion, a good thing of course, but the space for realist statesmanship of the kind that produced the Bosnian peace in 1995 has diminished. The late Richard Holbrooke’s realpolitik was not for the squeamish.
There are other reasons for diplomacy’s demise. The United States has lost its dominant position without any other nation rising to take its place. The result is nobody’s world. It is a place where America acts as a cautious boss, alternately encouraging others to take the lead and worrying about loss of authority. Syria has been an unedifying lesson in the course of crisis when diplomacy is dead. Algeria shows how the dead pile up when talking is dismissed as a waste of time....
Indeed the very word “diplomacy” has become unfashionable on Capitol Hill, where its wimpy associations — trade-offs, compromise, pliancy, concessions and the like — are shunned by representatives who these days prefer beating the post-9/11 drums of confrontation, toughness and inflexibility: All of which may sound good but often get you nowhere (or into long, intractable wars) at great cost.
Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, wrote in an e-mail that, “When domestic politics devolve into polarization and paralysis the impact on diplomatic possibility becomes inordinately constraining.” He cited Cuba and Iran as examples of this; I would add Israel-Palestine. These critical foreign policy issues are viewed less as diplomatic challenges than potential sources of domestic political capital....
Obama has not had a big breakthrough. America’s diplomatic doldrums are approaching their 20th year.
Narrow-minded domestic politics.... check... Web 2.0 short-termism... check... yes, this is indeed the exemplar of the Grumpy Old Diplomatic Hand column. So as a Grumpy Middle-Aged Academic, I'd like to grouse a bit on these alleged truisms.
Now on the one hand, Cohen has a point that the optics of patient diplomacy can be more politically challenging than military statecraft. The use of force tends to arouse domestic suipport; diplomacy can be painted as an act of weakness or appeasement. And one can certainly think of Cuba, Iran or even Israel/Palestine as places where diplomacy has not achieved liftoff capacity. And, yes, Web 2.0 technologies do make things like "backchannel diplomacy" that much more difficult to keep under wraps.
All that said.... give me a f**king break.
First of all, there's a logical tension hidden within Cohen's narrative. He laments the disappearance of patient diplomacy in one breath and then observes the relative decline in U.S. power in the next. Maybe it's not that U.S. patience has withered, but that a hegemon with less weight to throw around requires even greater levels of patience to achieve the same tasks. In the case of Syria, for example, it's kinda hard to see how more realpolitik would have gotten states with fundamentally divergent national interests to agree on a manageable solution. Indeed, one could argue that the tropuble with America's Syria diplomacy has been too much realpolitik, not too little.
Second of all, Cohen is glossing over some examples of patient diplomatic successes. Even in Syria, there have been examples of successful "concert" diplomacy. The U.S. opening to Myanmar would be another example [UPDATE: Cohen tweets in response that he did in fact mention Myanmar. He's right, and I apologize for not noting that fact.]. This is a case where the Burmese themselves have done a lot of the heavy lifting, but it's to the Obama administration's credit that it nimbly seized on the opportunity. Indeed, this has been part of an overall Asia/Pacific strategy that would appear to epitomize the kind of hard-headed diplomacy that Cohen does. Even the Sino-American handling of the Chen Guangcheng case represents an example of deft diplomacy in response to Web 2.0 technology.
Third -- and most important -- diplomacy is a two-player game. There have been cases where the Obama administration has reached out to leaders with a different worldview in an effort to normalize relations -- think about the "reset" with Russia. It would be safe to describe that effort as "fraught with complications." Most of the friction in the Russia reset has nothing to do with the domestic American causess Cohen highlights, however, and everything to do with Russian policymakers
feeling their relative power wane being extremely wary of the outreach effort. Similarly, Iran's domestic politics during the Obama years have been... complicated. It's not clear whether the most generous U.S. offer would actually be accepted by Iran's current political establishment.
One could argue that Cohen's logic, extended globally, does have some heft. It's not just the rise of domestic impediments in the United States -- it's the increased importance of domestic politics in diplomacy in other countries that makes realpolitik statecraft so hard to execute in the 21st century. But let's be clear -- this phenomenon has little to do with the Internet age, the decline in American power, or even the rise of single-issue interest groups. Ironically, it has more to do with the effect a successful American grand strategy -- the promotion of open polyarchic politics in the rest of the world. Even authoritarian countries like China, or quasi-authoritarian countries like Russia have domestic interests and bases to sate. The domestic politics in these countries is far more open than it was during the heyday of realpolitik diplomacy.
As International Relations 101 will say, adding domestic constraints narrows the possibility of any international agreement. I agree with Cohen that this is happening. I disagree with Cohen as to the reasons why. It has very little to do with the United States, and an awful lot to do with the rest of the world.
So, to sum up: diplomacy's death has been greatly exaggerated, and a lot of what ails it has very little to do with the United States.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger was innocently surfing the web yesterday when someone linked to Niall Ferguson's latest Newsweek column. Now even though I've warned everyone -- repeatedly -- not to go to there, I made the mistake of clicking. And this is what I saw:
Everyone knows there could be a surprise before Nov. 6—a news story that finally makes up the minds of those undecided voters in the swing states and settles the presidential election.
[T]he only kind of surprise I can envisage is a foreign-policy surprise. And if the polls get any scarier for the incumbent, we might just have one.
Recently The New York Times--increasingly the official organ of the Obama administration—offered a tease. “U.S. Officials Say Iran Has Agreed to Nuclear Talks” ran the headline. In the story, the Times quoted unnamed officials as saying that one-on-one talks with Iran had been agreed to in “a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.”....
Not only that. If the White House could announce a historic deal with Iran—lifting increasingly painful economic sanctions in return for an Iranian pledge to stop enriching uranium—Mitt Romney would vanish as if by magic from the front pages and TV news shows. The oxygen of publicity—those coveted minutes of airtime that campaigns don’t have to pay for—would be sucked out of his lungs....
[There is] an alternative surprise—the one I have long expected the president to pull if he finds himself slipping behind in the polls. With a single phone call to Jerusalem, he can end all talk of his being Jimmy Carter to Mitt Romney’s Reagan: by supporting an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
A few things:
1) Here's a pro tip: if your foreign affairs observations represent a reprise of wacky Donald Trump musings, maybe it's best to take your ball and go home.
2) It's really kind of adorable that Ferguson thinks a foreign policy surprise would move that many voters. Sorry, Niall, while presidents eventually pivot to foreign policy, it's not going to matter that much to undecideds right now.
3) If you want a foreign policy "tell" that Obama is in such serious straits that he's willing to gamble on a foreign policy initiative, there's a smaller-bore policy that would work better: an opening to Cuba. If Obama suggests that in the remaining week, it's a sign that: a) he thinks Florida is a lost cause; and b) he is trying to shore up support in the midwest with agricultural concerns that would love a new export market.
4) The laziness involved in Ferguson's essay got me to thinking.... could this be the worst international affairs column of 2012? How can we be sure? I mean, to be fair, Ferguson cited a real New York Times story in the column -- that indicated an actual modicum of effort. As I suggested last night, it might be an interesting exercise to create an NCAA-style bracket competition to determine the Worst International Affairs Essay of 2012. Why shouldn't the foreign policy community have it's own version of the Razzies?
To that end, I hereby ask commeters and the foreign affairs blogosphere to suggest candidate entries and possible rules for this contest, as well as possible judges. We'll see if there's enough momentum to add this contest to the coveted Albies.
Last night your humble blogger went to see Argo, which Ben Affleck directs and stars in. Here's a trailer:
Now, those readers who care about things like "cinematography" or "editing" will love this film, but let's face it, if you're reading this blog, it means you're really interested in foreign policy and international relations. And let's face it again -- with a few noteworthy exceptions, the film industry has not done world politics proud. So, from that perspective, how does Argo hold up?
With some mild spoilers below, I'm happy to report that the film is pleasantly savvy in the ways of the wonk, and even the ways in which it's not savvy can be productive.
First, the film nails both the stakes and the awful policy choices faced by Americans during the hostage crisis. The prologue -- a clever and brief history of U.S. involvement in Iran prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution -- concisely explains exactly why that country might have been juuuuuust a wee bit angry at the U.S. government in 1979. The film starts on Nov. 4, the day the embassy was seized. The entire opening sequence is well done, but the thing it captures perfectly is the stone-cold realization by the embassy staff that once the compound is breached, there's no escape and no cavalry riding to the rescue. At one point, the head of the security staff explains patiently that their job is simply to buy time for the rest of the embassy personnel to burn/shred all the classified documents. The character also states -- correctly -- that if anyone kills any Iranian, there will be a bloodbath.
Once the hostages are seized -- and six manage to surreptitiously flee to the Canadian ambassador's compound -- Argo is straightforward on both the bureaucratic politics of trying to spirit them out and the bad odds that any exfiltration plan will have in getting them out of Tehran. At one point CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (played by Afflek) and his superior pitch their plan to the Secretary of State. In that scene, they state the obvious, which is rarely stated in films of this kind: there are no good options, and their plan of having the six be part of a film crew scouting a sci-fi movie location in Tehran is simply the "best bad idea" that they have. Welcome to foreign policymaking -- trying to figure out the best bad idea around. Argo doubles down on this sentiment in a quiet but effective scene at Dulles airport, when Mendez and his superior discuss who in his family should be notified if things go south.
Now, as it turns out, in real life, Mendez was driven to Dulles by his wife. This is just one of many Hollywoodizations that occur, particularly in the second half of the film. Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio take some liberties with what went down in Tehran and Washington as Mendez tries to spirit out the six Americans.
Oddly enough, this is unintentionally constructive for anyone interested in becoming a true foreign policy wonk. Here's a fun test:
1) Go see Argo;
2) Try to figure out which parts of the narrative's second half are fiction and which are fact;
3) Go read the Wired story by Joshuah Bearman that partially inspired the movie and the Slate explainer by David Haglund. If you didn't detect at least one of the Really Big Whoppers in the second half of the film, well, then you should probably find a career other than becoming a foreign policy wonk. Because there is some serious fictionalizing going on. If you're buying it as fact, then you either lack the instincts or the strategic chops necessary to operate in the world of statecraft.
It appears that I owe Mitt Romney a partial apology. In yesterday's blog post I quoted from a video procured by Mother Jones' David Corn regarding Romney's perspective on the peace process between Israel and Palestine. The tape suggested that Romney had zero hope for peace. As Politico's Dylan Byers notes, however, the unedited version of the tape contained the following passage right after Romney had said that an ex-Secretary of State had told him that there was a prospect for a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis after the Palestinian elections. After Romney said he didn't "delve" into it, he then added the following:
But I always keep open: the idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world. We have done that time and time and time again. It does not work. So the only answer is show them strength. American strength, American resolve, and the Palestinians will some day reach the point where they want peace more than we’re trying to force peace on them. Then it’s worth having the discussion. So until then, it’s just wishful thinking (emphasis added).
OK, so it would appear that Romney does proffer a way of getting the two sides to talk. My deepest apologies to Governor Romney for only printing the part of the statement that Mother Jones initially released.
And yet... I have anothert question now. I fear that Romney's "more resolve" strategy -- a theme he's echoed since making these comments in May -- raises more questions than answers.
For exhibit A, let's go to the Financial Times' Najmeh Bozorgmehr, who interviewed Speaker of the Iranian Parliament (and possible future PM) Ali Larijani. Here's what he had to say to Bozorgmehr about Mitt Romney:
Military action against Iran would be “highly costly” for the US and threats issued by Mitt Romney as he tries to become the next American president are campaign rhetoric only and can be largely ignored, Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Iranian parliament, has told the FT.
Mr Romney has sought to portray himself as much tougher on Iran than President Barack Obama and more sympathetic to Israel’s concerns. But Mr Larijani is unimpressed, saying the Republican candidate has the “little bit of wisdom” needed to understand the consequences of waging war on the Islamic Republic.
So it would seem that Mr. Larijani doubts Romney's strength and resolve. This is a problem. Romney's Theory of Statecraft seems to be that all U.S. problems in the world can be soled with Extra-Strength Resolve and Strength. Now, even one accepts this premise, the failure of adversaries to believe Romney's promises means he's gonna have to display even more Extra-Strength Resolve and Strength to convince people that he is being strong... and resolute.
The thing is, though, even Romney's allies doubt his strength and resolve... at least, they doubt his strength and resolve with respect to his China policy:
Mitt Romney is hoping his tough talk on China policy will win him votes — but few of his big business donors or fellow Republicans support what he’s saying or believe he’d follow through if elected.
And if he did, many analysts say, he’d likely spark a disastrous and counter-productive trade war that would hurt both American consumers and the workers he says he’s trying to protect....
An actual Romney policy, many corporate executives believe, would have the same kind of focus on bringing cases before the World Trade Organization and negotiating behind closed doors — the same approach of Obama and George W. Bush.
“On his first day on the job, Romney is not going to put himself on the immediate defensive with the world’s second largest economy,” said one top financial industry executive who strongly supports Romney....
Romney hopes his tougher words will make Obama look weak. But the question remains whether Romney’s tough talk is just that: talk.
“It’s kind of a head scratcher,” said the senior financial services executive who supports Romney but questions his China policy. “Is this just rhetoric or is this really the view of the candidate?”
Now, to be fair, it's not just Romney supporters who don't believe Romney's resolve on China. A Bloomberg Global Poll of 847 "decision makers in finance, markets and economics" showed that 82% of respondents were skeptical that Romney would designate China as a currency manipulator, for example.
So we have a presidential candidate who thinks the way to get things done is to show resolve -- but neither his allies nor his adversaries believe Romney's own resolve. Which leads to the following question: is it possible that there is simply no amount of Extra-Strength Resolve and Strength that will allow Romney to bend the rest of the world to his will? And if that's the case, what's his fallback option?
Back in the days when the Doha round was being negotiated, and it was dragging along interminably, inevitably some columnist would trot out a cliche like "time is running out" or "we're in the red part of the red zone" or "the edge of the cliff" or some such line of alarmist rhetoric. It got to the point where the rhetoric itself invited mockery.
I think the new "Doha" is Iran's nuclear program. I don't mean to trivialize the concerns about that nuclear program, but it seems that every month like clockwork some Israeli official
tells Jeffrey Goldberg writes or says something to the effect of "time is running out" for negotiations with Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu in particular likes to say this again and again and again and again. Today Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren joins in the rhetoric.
Israel does itself no favors with this gambit. Constantly warning that a window is closing and not having it close degrades the signal-to-noise ratio of the warnings. This is particularly problematic if the Iranian threat actually is getting worse. Haaretz's Barak Ravid reports that Western intelligence agencies have grown more concerned in recent months (hat tip Micah Zenko):
New intelligence information obtained by Israel and four Western countries indicates that Iran has made greater progress on developing components for its nuclear weapons program than the West had previously realized, according to Western diplomats and Israeli officials who are closely involved in efforts to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb.
A Western diplomat who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss intelligence information said the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Israel agree on that assessment.
Not good -- but here the history of Western intelligence agency estimates of Middle East WMD programs also undercuts the signal juuuuust a wee bit. The Haaretz story also cites as evidence a Daily Telegraph report based on the information of "the Iranian opposition group Mujahideen al-Khalq." Well, that's one way to describe that group, although the U.S. State Department has a different designation.
There's something else in the Haaretz story that is worth discussing:
Netanyahu told U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that an Israeli or American military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities was likely to help topple the ayatollah regime, just as the 1976 Entebbe raid led to the defeat of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, according to a senior Israeli official.
The comment came when Romney asked Netanyahu during their July 29 meeting in Jerusalem whether he thinks an Israeli attack on the nuclear facilities would unite Iranians, ultimately strengthening the regime, the official said.
In explaining why he thinks that would not happen, Netanyahu recounted what he said was Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's statement to him that the raid ultimately led to Amin's downfall three years later.
"Ugandan President Museveni told me the Entebbe raid was a turning point in the effort to topple Idi Amin," the Israeli official quoted Netanyahu as saying. "He said the operation strengthened Amin's rivals because it revealed how vulnerable his regime was."
Now I've seen bad analogies used on Iran before, but this is definitely a new one.
Look, let's put it this way -- despite all of the factionalism within the Iranian regime, it's still a hell of a lot stronger and more institutionalized than Idi Amin's government was in Uganda. Furthermore, the only way military action would cause the Iranian people to rise up against the current regime would be if the regime, after enduring years of crippling sanctions as well military attacks, turned around and acquiesced to the world's demands. That reversal would likely prompt the Iranian people to say, "That's it?! Then why the f**k did you put us through years of pain?"
So, to sum up: I don't know what to believe anymore when Israelis talk about Iran -- except that Iran is not Uganda.
Friend of Mitt Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin blogged yesterday about the ten things she thinks Romney needs to talk about with respect to American foreign policy. Now, some of them are pretty anodyne ("Explain why America has to be involved in the world on both practical and philosophic grounds"), and some of them are fair shots at the Obama administration ("Obama dragged his heels for years on three free-trade agreements"). One of them, however, epitomizes a certain kind of right-wing revisionism that needs to be quashed immediately:
Obama made an error of historic proportion in failing to back the Green Movement in 2009 and to adopt regime change as the policy of the U.S. thereafter. His determination to engage a regime that had no intention of being engaged led to muteness when support was most needed by the Greens. Ever since we have failed to hold the regime accountable (for the assassination attempt on a Saudi diplomat, for example) for its actions. Obama has dragged his feet and engaged in self-delusion with regard to his Iran sanctions policy. It hasn’t slowed Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In talking down the military option he’s made the threat of force less credible, and shifted the burden to Israel to take care of a threat to the West (emphasis in original).
Now, there are many, many things wrong with this paragraph: Iran is not really a strategic threat to the West outside of Israel, and the Obama administration clearly hopes that the current sanctions regime could destabilize the Iranian regime. But let's focus on the 2009 moment.
I expect this talking point to pop up again and again among Romney foreign policy flacks, and if I were advising the campaign I'd probably recommend it as a sound political tactic. The beauty of this criticism is that it rests on a magical counter-factual that will never be tested: according to this narrative, if only Barack Obama had been more forceful in June 2009, then the Iranian regime would have crumbled and sweetness and light would have prevailed in the Middle East. It's a great campaign argument, because we'll never know what would have happened if Obama had acted as Rubin, Romney et al would have liked him to act. Romney can pledge that he would have acted differently in the summer of 2009, and he'll never, ever have to flip-flop on it.
The thing is, this argument that Obama could have tipped the scales in 2009 is utter horses**t. Recall that, during the uprising, the leaders of the Green Movement wanted nothing to do with more sanctions against Iran or with military action -- it took them six months of brutal repression for them to even toy with embracing targeted sanctions. Indeed, the reason the administration tiptoed around the Green Movement was that they did not want the Khamenei regime to taint the resistance as a Western-inspired creation. If Obama had been more vocal during the initial stages of the movement, it likely would have accelerated the timetable of the crackdown. And no U.S. action short of a full-scale ground assault could have stopped that.
Let's get rid of the fantasy counter-factual in which U.S. measures short of a ground campaign would have ejected the current Iranian regime. Let's also dismiss the idea that the Green Movement would have welcomed greater U.S. support.
Rubin, Romney et al want the Obama administration to be blunt about its desire to depose the current Iranian regime. This kind of policy statement does have the virtue of simplicity: it ends the negotiation track and leaves only military force as a viable option. Of course, such an approach would also spur Tehran into accelerating its nuclear program as a means of guaranteeing its own survival (which is, by the way, the one constant of Iranian foreign policy). And, again -- short of a ground campaign -- Iran's regime ain't going anywhere.
GOP foreign policy advocates want to argue that Obama screwed up in 2009. Understand, however, that when they argue that the United States should have taken more forceful action three years ago, the only forceful action that would have mattered was another ground war.
Am I missing anything?
Because Iran's economy was already badly mismanaged, it's been tough at times to discern when Tehran is suffering because of the "crippling" economic sanctions or just rank stupidity. The New York Times' Thomas Erdbrink has been reporting the hell out of the Iranian economy, however, and so we can be pretty sure that the combined effect of the sanctions -- with the EU oil embargo kicking in the first of this month -- are really starting to bite. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad goes from mocking the sanctions to stating publicly that, "the sanctions imposed on our country are the most severe and strictest sanctions ever imposed on a country," yeah, things have changed.
How bad is the current situation for Iran? They are literally running out of places to store their crude oil:
Iran, faced with increasingly stringent economic sanctions imposed by the international community to force it to abandon any ambitions to develop nuclear weapons, has been reluctant to reduce its oil production, fearing that doing so could damage its wells. But Iran has insufficient space to store the crude it cannot sell. So while it furiously works to build storage capacity on shore, it has turned to mothballing at sea....
International oil experts say Iranian exports have already been cut by at least a quarter since the beginning of the year, costing Iran roughly $10 billion so far in forgone revenues. Many experts say the pain is only beginning, since oil prices have been falling and Iran’s sales should drop even more with the European embargo that went into effect on Sunday....
The drop in crude sales has hit Tehran with multiple challenges. Besides the financial impact, Iran has to figure out what to do with all the oil it continues to produce. Iran is pumping about 2.8 million barrels a day — already down about one million barrels daily since the start of the year. But it is exporting only an estimated 1.6 to 1.8 million barrels a day.
The unsold crude is being stored in what has been estimated to be two-thirds of the Iranian tanker fleet. Most of the ships are sailing in circles around the Persian Gulf as Iran tries to sell the mostly heavy crude at bargain-basement prices.
International oil experts estimate that Iran is now warehousing as much as 40 million barrels — roughly two weeks of production — on the tankers. An additional 10 million barrels are in storage on shore.
So, even if Iran is somehow able to sell its oil, it will take a huge hit in expected revenue. Clearly, these sanctions are pretty crippling.
I bring this up because, as I've written here, I'm somewhat dubious about whether any sanctions against Iran will work in the sense of "change Iran's mind about its nuclear program." Even though there is room for a deal, the expectations of future conflict between the current Iranian regime and the West are so high that getting to that deal is going to involve significant amounts of labor.
These sanctions are sufficiently punishing, however, that they suggest a new status quo, which is to keep them in place as a containment shell while the Iranian economy slowly implodes. Unless the global economy experiences a significant rebound -- hah! -- there is no reason why all non-Iranian parties can't continue with the status quo for quite some time. Even if the Iranian regime persists, its power and influence in the region will continue to wane.
The obvious objection to this is that Iran develops a nuclear weapon and then uses it, but for a regime that wants to survive above all else, I seriously doubt the "use" part kicks in.
This leads to my question to readers: Is the status quo sustainable?
It's been half a year since I did a bloggingheads, so Heather Hurlburt and I donned our headsets to gab away on Mitt Romney's foreign policy travails, the negotiations with Iran, and Egypt's elections. It's the perfect way to while away your Friday morning. The bonus comes when I utter the words "Bolton-curious":
Buried within James Risen's interesting New York Times front-pager about the easing of Iran tensions is an even more interesting story about the deep weirdness that is going on within Israel's national security establishment on Iran:
At the same time in Israel, the conservative government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been rocked by a series of public comments from current and former Israeli military and intelligence officials questioning the wisdom of attacking Iran.
The latest comments came from Yuval Diskin, the former chief of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, who on Friday said Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak should not be trusted to determine policy on Iran. He said the judgments of both men have been clouded by “messianic feelings.” Mr. Diskin, who was chief of Shin Bet until last year, said an attack against Iran might cause it to speed up its nuclear program.
Just days before, Israel’s army chief of staff suggested in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the the Iranian threat was not quite as imminent as Mr. Netanyahu has portrayed it. In his comments, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz suggested that he agreed with the intelligence assessments of the United States that Iran has not yet decided whether to build a nuclear bomb.
Iran “is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile,” General Gantz told Haaretz. He suggested that the crisis may not come to a head this year. But he said, “Clearly, the more the Iranians progress, the worse the situation is.”
Last month, Meir Dagan, the former chief of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, said he did not advocate a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program anytime soon. In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Mr. Dagan said the Iranian government was “a very rational one,” and that Iranian officials were “considering all the implications of their actions.”
As someone who thought the Iran rhetoric coming from Jerusalem was decidedly overheated, I nevertheless have more mixed feelings about these developments than, say, Peter Beinart. What's disturbing is that even though Israel's actual opposition party is evincing many of the same sentiments as the former military officers quoted above, they are not the ones moving the policy debate -- it's the ex-military/intel guys.
That's a problem. As much as candidates for higher office like to talk about "consulting the commanders on the ground" and the like, big decisions about national security policy should be the province of elected leaders. Civilians need to be in control of these decisions -- the moment that elected leaders give up this control, then the voters have forfeited the most vital decisions of a republic. This is why, in the United States, one of the rare sources of continuing bipartisan agreement is that when military commanders voice their policy opinions to the press in a way that contradicts the President, they need to be canned.
Now, recently retired military and intelligence officials are in a slightly different category, but there's still a danger here. I respect that these ;people should have a voice, particularly if they feel their country is on the precipice of a policy disaster -- but should their voice be louder than that of the main opposition party? I don't think so, and it's a sign that there's a problem with Israeli democracy if that's the case. I don't think this is entirely the fault of ex-IDF and Shin Bet leaders, mind you -- Netanyahu and Barak are part of the problem as well. Still, at least the latter people won elections and must go back to the voters again.
Developing... in a very problematic manner.
So it turned out that this was the week that both the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign decided that foreign policy was an important thing to talk about during election season. Speaking personally, this is great!! I seem to have moved up in the Rolodex of those covering the campaign. Expect lots of juicy quotes in the months to come, and readers are warmly encouraged to proffer useful metaphors that I can provide in soundbite fashion over the next six months.
Unfortunately for the Romney campaign, this was not a great week to ramp up attacks along this line. The reasons is that, all told, the Obama administration had a pretty good foreign policy week. Not all, or even most of this, was of its own doing, but consider the following:
1) Iran has signaled a genuine willingness to talk compromise on its nuclear program in order to avoid the EU oil embargo kicking in. That might just be rhetoric, but it's interesting to note that even senior Israeli officials are starting to talk down the Iranian threat. The less Iran becomes a thing, the
lower gas prices can fall better for the administration.
2) The United States has maybe, just maybe, eliminated a major thorn in bilateral relations with Japan by finally reaching agreement on moving U.S. troops from Okinawa. We'll see if this holds -- everyone assumed that a 2006 agreement had put this problem to rest before successive Japanese governments
shot themselves in the foot raised it again, but this is the thing on this list for which the administration deserves the most credit. As an added bonus, the administration actually got some nice words from John McCain on comity with the Senate.
3) For some reason China seems to be in a more productive mood in their dealings with the United States, and Mark Landsler and Steven Lee Myers have taken notice in the New York Times:
For years, China stymied efforts to pressure Iran. Now, in addition to throwing its weight behind the sanctions effort, officials say, Beijing is also playing a more active role in the recently revived nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers — the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany. While in past negotiations, Beijing has followed in lockstep the positions taken by Russia, this time Chinese diplomats are offering their own proposals.
“One of the key elements of making this work is unity among the major powers,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic exchanges. “The Chinese have been very good partners in this regard.”
There are also signs of new cooperation on Syria. Only weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called China’s veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution “despicable,” China is supporting Kofi Annan’s peace plan for the strife-torn country and is deploying monitors to help oversee it. Even on North Korea, which China has long sheltered from tougher international action, the Chinese government quickly signed on to a United Nations statement condemning the North’s recent attempt to launch a satellite.
And there is progress on the economic front: American officials said China recently loosened trading on its currency, the remninbi, which could help close a valuation gap with the dollar that has stoked trade tensions between China and the United States during an election year.
To some seasoned observers of China, these developments are less a harbinger of a new era of cooperation between Beijing and Washington than evidence that, at least for now, the interests of the two countries coincide in some important areas.
The administration will nevertheless be happy to pocket the policy dividends.
4) Staying in Northeast Asia, it turns out that the big bad North Korean ICBMs are little more than a pipe dream -- and western analysts are starting to say that Kim Jong Un is naked in the public square:
North Korea tried to flex its military might with an extravagant parade on April 15, just three days after it admitted that its missile test had been a failure, but analysts now say that the new intercontinental ballistic missiles on display in the meticulously choreographed parade were nothing more than props.
The analysts studied photos of the six missiles and came to their conclusion for three primary reasons: 1. The missiles did not fit the launchers that carried them. 2. The missiles appear to be made out of both liquid-fuel and solid-fuel components that are unable to fly together. 3. The casings on the missiles undulate which suggests the metal is not thick enough to hold up during flight.
"There is no doubt that these missiles were mock-ups," Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker, of Germany's Schmucker Technologie , wrote in a paper recently posted on Armscontrolwonk.com. "It remains unknown if they were designed this way to confuse foreign analysts, or if the designers simply did some sloppy work."
If the U.S. government can claim progress on Iran, China, North Korea, and Japan in one week, that's a good foreign policy week. Of course, for a lot of these issues, the administration is the beneficieary of circumstances rather that pro-active policies. Still, the administration deserves some credit for some of these development.
It's just one week, though. And I fear the most memorable statement about American foreign policy is this rather unfortunate choice of words:
NOTE TO WHITE HOUSE/CAMPAIGN SPEECHWRITERS: In the future, avoid having Biden utter any of the following: "big stick", "hard power", "pounding the enemy", "won't take no for an answer", and "smooth-talking his adversaries".
Am I missing anything?
It's the last day of the International Studies Association annual meetings. I'm sleep-deprived, hung over, moderately sunburned, and pretty sick of international relations theory. While this throwback to my college days is moderately nostalgic, it is usually not a good state for blogging. Trying to tackle or critique the finer points of a nuanced argument takes energy and analytic skills, and after losing Twitter Fight Club 2012, I'm feeling wanting in both.
But, just when it seems like there's nothing I'm capable of blogging about in such a state, along comes Donald Trump.
When we last left The Donald in the world of foreign policy, he was uttering such inane, ignorant statements that I even invented an award in his honor. Today, Politico reports that Trump offered the following opinion on Laura Ingraham's radio show:
I happen to think that the President is going to start a war with Iran. I think it will be a short-term popular thing to do, and I think he’s going to do that for political reasons, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know if anyone says this as openly, but I think he’s going to start a war with Iran. And, that will be short-term popular. If you remember Bush, Bush was unbeatable for about two months, and then all of the sudden the world set in when he attacked Iraq. And he went from very popular to not popular at all. But I think that Obama will start in some form a war with Iran, and I think that will make him very popular for a short period of time. That will make him hard to beat also.
Now I could go on a long-winded rant about Trump's stupidity, but I think it's more fun to treat this as a challenge to my readers. See, it's not just that Trump makes a few errors in that paragraph, it's that with one partial exception, every single statement he just said was factually wrong.
So, rather than ask my readers to point out the myriad ways in which Donald Trump is in error, here's my challenge -- what sentence in the above paragraph contains the most truth value?
Get to it, dear readers -- while I go search for Advil.
UPDATE: So I see that Trump has said other controversial things today. I will leave it to readers to judge whether the veracity of his later comments are greater than his foreign-policy musings.
With all the "loose talk" involving Iran and Israel the past week, it seems like an excellent time to discuss the role of nationalist domestic audiences in exacerbating conflict. Now, there is a large literature on this topic in international relations: how audience costs can be used to make costly signals in crisis bargaining, how audience costs increase as crises escalate, how a world in which all countries have nationalist audiences creates an environment in which crises can spiral out of control, and how, in the information age, it has become increasingly difficult for foreign policy leaders to placate their domestic audiences without creating problems abroad.
Sure, I could do all of that in a very long-winded and tedious way. Or I can just embed Jon Stewart's opening bit from last night's Daily Show:
Thanks, Jon -- you saved me a good hour or two today.
In the Boston Review, Natasha Bahrami and Trita Parsi take a long look at the economic sanctions literature and conclude that the ever-more-stringent sanctions regime won't lead to a democratic transition in Iran. One can quibble with their review (they don't cite Nikolai Marinov's work, for example), but they do state the current state of play on Iran rather cleanly:
The official objective of the sanctions is to compel Iran to negotiate with the West toward the implementation of existing U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. Unofficially, there are hints that the sanctions are aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime and bringing about democratic change.
That sums up the situation rather neatly -- the problem is that these goals are somewhat incompatible. If the aim if to negotiate a deal on the nuclear program, then Iran's regime has to be persuaded that the United States is not trying to topple the regime. If the administration keeps up the ambiguity regarding the purpose of sanctions, then Iran's current regime has zero incentive to negotiate. In that case, the only way sanctions work is via regime collapse.
Based on Robert Worth's front-pager in the New York Times on the effect of sanctions in Tehran, however, it looks like the negotiation option might already be closed off. The effect of the sanctions put in place (and the ones that will kick in over the summer) are, well, a mixed bag:
Already, the last round of sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank has begun inflicting unprecedented damage on Iran’s private sector, traders and analysts say, making it so hard to transfer money abroad that even affluent businessmen are sometimes forced to board planes carrying suitcases full of American dollars.
Yet this economic burden is falling largely on the middle class, raising the prospect of more resentment against the West and complicating the effort to deter Iran’s nuclear program -- a central priority for the Obama administration in this election year…
The rising economic panic has illustrated -- and possibly intensified -- the bitter divisions within Iran’s political elite. A number of insiders, including members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, have begun openly criticizing Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in recent weeks. One of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aides indirectly accused Ayatollah Khamenei of needlessly antagonizing the West in ways that pushed down the rial’s value, the latest sign of a rift between the president and the supreme leader that is helping to define the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for March 2.
“They criticize Ahmadinejad and even the supreme leader by name now; it’s not like before,” said Javad, the 45-year-old manager of a travel agency in north Tehran…
Ordinary Iranians complain that the sanctions are hurting them, while those at the top are unscathed, or even benefit. Many wealthy Iranians made huge profits in recent weeks by buying dollars at the government rate (available to insiders) and then selling them for almost twice as many rials on the soaring black market. Some analysts and opposition political figures contend that Mr. Ahmadinejad deliberately worsened the currency crisis so that his cronies could generate profits this way…
Many Iranians are also skeptical about the Western preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear program. “The economic pressure will not push Iran to a nuclear settlement,” said Kayhan Barzegar, the director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, who has taught in the United States. “The nuclear file is a nationalistic issue; it’s too late for Iran to backtrack. Domestic politics will react negatively to any negotiation — candidates in the elections will say: you sold the nuclear program!”…
[T]he businessman also noted that when Iran last suffered similar privations, in the 1980s, the economy was far smaller, and the revolutionary zeal for self-sacrifice far greater. Iran’s leadership was also far more unified than it is today.
“The question is, when this panic translates into a real diminution in the living standard, will Iranians be willing to take it?” the businessman said. “That’s when these guys will really be in trouble.”
The above report suggests that the sanctions themselves have effectively eliminated the more modest goal of negotiating on the nuclear program. The primary effect of the sanctions to date has been to exacerbated divisions within Iran's regime. Because of these divisons, there's no point to negotiation -- at this point, the United States could ever be sure that the entire Iranian state could credibly commit to any bargain (for advocates of negotiation, it should be noted that this was already a problem; the sanctions just bring it into high relief). The economic effect of the sanctions has also accentuated Iran's nationalist pride in the nuclear program among the middle class.
It's still possible for the sanctions to work. Those that are imposed multilaterally tend to take a longer time to have a policy effect. The target state will first try to break the multilateral coalition apart -- and only after that policy fails will they consider concessions. Recent reportage suggest that Iran was not expecting this kind of multilateral pressure -- and so it's possible that Tehran will reconsider.
That said, the sanctions policy is pushing the United States into a policy cul-de-sac where the only way out is through regime change. In the abstract, that might sound great, but in reality, pushing for that option could be both messy and expensive.
Based on his prior scholarly and advocacy work, it's safe to say that Bob Pape has not been a huge fan of U.S. military interventions. In Bombing to Win, he argued that the coercive effect of air power had been wildly overstated. In Dying to Win, he argued that the presence of foreign troops and bases are most likely to inspire suicide terrorism. Pape was a foreign policy advisor to Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, which evinced a foreign policy based on non-interventionism. There's been some more-than-mild disagreements with Pape's scholarly conclusions, but to date he's articulated a very clear and consistent message warning about the risks of foreign interventions.
Which is why his New York Times op-ed today is so damn surprising. His basic argument:
A new standard for humanitarian intervention is needed. If a continuing government-sponsored campaign of mass homicide — in which thousands have died and many thousands more are likely to die — is occurring, a coalition of countries, sanctioned by major international and regional institutions, should intervene to stop it, as long as they have a viable plan, with minimal risk of casualties for the interveners....
Limited military force to stop campaigns of state-sanctioned homicide is more pragmatic than waiting for irrefutable evidence of “genocide.” It will not work in every case, but it will save large numbers of lives. It also promotes restraint in cases where humanitarian intervention would be high-risk or used as a pretext for imperial designs.
As the world’s sole military superpower, the United States will be at the center of many future debates over humanitarian action. Rather than hewing to the old standard of intervening only after genocide has been proved, the emerging new standard would allow for meaningful and low-risk military action before the killing gets out of control.
This is quite the conclusion coming from Pape, and, at a minimum, is hard to square with some of his prior work (though, it should be noted, it is consistent with what he wrote in April 2011). I wonder how it applies to Syria.... oh, here's the relevant paragraphs:
Syria is, I admit, a tough case. It is a borderline example of a government’s engaging in mass killings of its citizens. The main obstacle to intervention is the absence of a viable, low-casualty military solution. Unlike Libya, where much of the coastal core of the population lived under rebel control, the opposition to Syria’s dictatorial president Bashar al-Assad, has not achieved sustained control of any major population area. So air power alone would probably not be sufficient to blunt the Assad loyalists entrenched in cities, and a heavy ground campaign would probably face stiff and bloody resistance.
If a large region broke away from the regime en masse, international humanitarian intervention could well become viable. Until then, sadly, Syria is not another Libya. A mass-homicide campaign is under way there, but a means to stop it without unacceptable loss of life is not yet available.
I'm not sure how keen I am on military intervention into Syria right now, but if one employs Pape's own criteria, then these paragraphs seem like some serious hand-waving. First, it's not a "borderline example" of atrocities. The UN estimated more than 5000 dead back in December -- that meets the "thousands have died" criteria, and if the status quo persists, thousands more are going to die.
Second, one could argue that Assad's ability to repress has been severely compromised. If it's really true that Assad's forces no longer control half the country -- and that's a big if -- then creating an enclave would be easier than Pape suggests.
Again, I'm not suggesting that the United States should do this -- there would be a lot of policy externalities and second-order effects to consider. What I'm suggesting is that Pape's sudden embrace of humanitarian intervention -- and subsequent rejection of that option in Syria -- is just damn puzzling.
What do you think?
This has been an exceedingly weird week with respect to the escalating dispute between Iran and countries not thrilled with Iran's nuclear program. On the one hand, you have the United States going to great lengths to widen and deepen the sanctions regime against Iran and deter Iran from trying to close the Straits of Hormuz. On the other hand, you have U.S. officials contradicting themselves and backtracking from statements made to the Washington Post over the precise purpose of the sanctions. On the third hand, you have signals that Turkey is brokering another round of negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1.
And then, in the last hand, you have... Israel. Some weird s**t has been going down. Following the apparent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took great pains to "categorically deny" U.S. involvment. In a New York Times front-pager, U.S. officials were even more explicit:
The assassination drew an unusually strong condemnation from the White House and the State Department, which disavowed any American complicity. The statements by the United States appeared to reflect serious concern about the growing number of lethal attacks, which some experts believe could backfire by undercutting future negotiations and prompting Iran to redouble what the West suspects is a quest for a nuclear capacity.
“The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to expand the denial beyond Wednesday’s killing, “categorically” denying “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”
“We believe that there has to be an understanding between Iran, its neighbors and the international community that finds a way forward for it to end its provocative behavior, end its search for nuclear weapons and rejoin the international community,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Also this week, FP ran a story by Mark Perry describing Israel's "false flag" operation to recruit Pakistani terrorists. In the essay, Perry gets the following quotes from retired U.S. intelligence officials:
There's no question that the U.S. has cooperated with Israel in intelligence-gathering operations against the Iranians, but this was different. No matter what anyone thinks, we're not in the business of assassinating Iranian officials or killing Iranian civilians....
We don't do bang and boom... and we don't do political assassinations.
Contrast this with the Israeli quotes in the NYT story:
The Israeli military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, writing on Facebook about the attack, said, “I don’t know who took revenge on the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding a tear,” Israeli news media reported....
A former senior Israeli security official, who would speak of the covert campaign only in general terms and on the condition of anonymity, said the uncertainty about who was responsible was useful. “It’s not enough to guess,” he said. “You can’t prove it, so you can’t retaliate. When it’s very, very clear who’s behind an attack, the world behaves differently.” (emphasis added)
I think the bolded section in the last paragraph suggests some intuition about what is happening. If it's true that ambiguity about who is responsible for covert action is useful, and the United States is categorically denying its role in the assassination part of the covert action, then the Obama administration is openly and clearly signaling to Israel to cut it out.
As to why the United States is doing this, I'd posit one or a combination of the following reasons:
1) Washington might have moral or legal qualms with the assassination dimension of these covert actions;
2) Such assasinations give the Iranian government cover to conduct its own assassinations campaign, which winnows the number of scientists the United States can recruit for its own intelligence;
3) The Obama administration thinks it can topple the regime, but these assassinations will be counterproductive;
4) The Obama administration has been trying to get Iran back to the bargaining table, and this kind of covert action stops that from happening;
5) The Obama administration is fragmented and therefore not entirely certain what it's aims are in Iran, but the policy principals know that what Israel is doing ain't helping.
I'm leaning towards (5) at this point, but I'd entertain other explanations in the comments below.
Developing... in some very bizarre ways.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has some further reporting that reveals a bit of the current uncertainty and the bureaucratic wrangling that appears to be going on. Some key parts:
U.S. defense leaders are increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to take military action against Iran, over U.S. objections, and have stepped up contingency planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region in case of a conflict.
President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials have delivered a string of private messages to Israeli leaders warning about the dire consequences of a strike. The U.S. wants Israel to give more time for the effects of sanctions and other measures intended to force Iran to abandon its perceived efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Stepping up the pressure, Mr. Obama spoke by telephone on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv next week....
Mr. Panetta and other top officials have privately sought assurances from Israeli leaders in recent weeks that they won't take military action against Iran. But the Israeli response has been noncommittal, U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials briefed on the military's planning said concern has mounted over the past two years that Israel may strike Iran. But rising tensions with Iran and recent changes at Iranian nuclear sites have ratcheted up the level of U.S. alarm.
"Our concern is heightened," a senior U.S. military official said of the probability of an Israeli strike over U.S. objections.
Tehran crossed at least one of Israel's "red lines" earlier this month when it announced it had begun enriching uranium at the Fordow underground nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom.
The planned closing of Israel's nuclear plant near Dimona this month, which was reported in Israeli media, sounded alarms in Washington, where officials feared it meant Israel was repositioning its own nuclear assets to safeguard them against a potential Iranian counterstrike.
Despite the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, U.S. officials have consistently puzzled over Israeli intentions. "It's hard to know what's bluster and what's not with the Israelis," said a former U.S. official.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Well, this is just peachy:
The IRNA state news agency said Saturday that Iran's Foreign Ministry has sent a diplomatic letter to the U.S. saying that it has "evidence and reliable information" that the CIA provided "guidance, support and planning" to assassins "directly involved" in Roshan's killing.
The U.S. has denied any role in the assassination....
In the clearest sign yet that Iran is preparing to strike back for Roshan's killing, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the spokesman for Iran's Joint Armed Forces Staff, was quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency Saturday as saying that Tehran was "reviewing the punishment" of "behind-the-scene elements" involved in the assassination.
"Iran's response will be a tormenting one for supporters of state terrorism," he said, without elaborating. "The enemies of the Iranian nation, especially the United States, Britain and the Zionist regime, or Israel, have to be held responsible for their activities."
It's been a busy week for Iran-watchers. The European Union is mulling a phased-in oil embargo, prompting Iranian officials to label the move as "an economic war" against Iran. Now Iran's Asia customers are trying to diversify away from Iranian oil. These expectations of future cutoffs, combined with pre-existing sanctions, are taking their toll on the Iranian economy in the form of dollar-hoarding and a free-falling national currency. Fareed Zakaria sums up the current state of play nicely:
[T]he real story on the ground is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed the economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting. Abroad, its closest ally and the regime of which it is almost the sole supporter -- Syria -- is itself crumbling. The Persian Gulf monarchies have banded together against Iran and shored up their relations with Washington. Last week, Saudi Arabia closed its largest-ever purchase of U.S. weaponry.…
The Obama administration has put tremendous pressure on Iran on a variety of fronts -- far more pressure than the Bush administration was ever able to muster. This is, in part, because the pressure has been brought to bear, wherever possible, with other countries. The United States does not buy oil from Iran. But European nations, Japan and South Korea do, and if they go along with a new round of sanctions, Iran faces the real prospect of an economic freefall.
Iran's response to these moves has been a mixture of tough talk, empty gestures, backtracking on threats, and an acknowledgment of economic difficulties. It's therefore no wonder that the Washington Post reports, "U.S. officials are increasingly confident that economic and political pressure alone may succeed in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions." Walter Russell Mead observes that, "public opinion in Iran does not seem to be rallying behind its unpopular government as the economic storm intensifies."
At the same time, however, Iran is trying to demonstrate that its uranium enrichment will continue unabated. Trita Parsi argues that overconfidence in the sanctions track will cause the Obama administration to rebuff any negotiated breakthrough on the nuclear issue. This leads to the obvious question: What's the endgame in Iran? Will sanctions "work"?
To get Clintonian, this depends on your definition of "work." One could argue that the current and projected actions taken by the EU and Pacific Rim might have been a wake-up call to Tehran that it's more isolated than it had previously thought. Iran is not merely facing the United States; it's facing a multilateral coalition that's growing stronger, not weaker. Unless potential benefactors like China take proactive steps to function as a "black knight," these sanctions really will cripple Iran's economy. The alienation of Iran's bazaari from the leadership in Tehran would ... let's say complicate the domestic situation in Iran.
That said, I'm skeptical that it will push the current regime toward making a substantive accommodation on its nuclear program. Based on how the leadership has treated domestic unrest, it seems clear that the top leadership is perfectly comfortable following The Dictator's Handbook approach to staying in power. More-powerful sanctions will therefore simply lead to more-powerful crackdowns. If Iranian elites view the nuclear program as the key to preventing outside attempts at forcible regime change, there's no way they'll compromise.
So would negotiation work? I'm skeptical here too. In part the problem is determining whether the Iranians are capable of negotiating in good faith. I don't mean that Tehran will act duplicitously; I mean whether the fractious regime can act in a coherent manner. Its behavior over the past week or two suggests otherwise. So does Zakaria:
The Obama administration seems to have concluded that the Iranian regime is not ready or able to make a strategic reconciliation with the West. The regime is too divided and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority, the Supreme Leader, is too ideologically rigid. So for now Washington wants to build pressure on Iran in the hopes that this will force the regime into serious negotiations at some point.
I suspect the Obama administration's hopes are more ambitious. They want the sanctions to be so crippling that Khamenei's ultimate authority comes under challenge, to the point where factional divisions open up space for a substantive change in the regime.
This might work, but I'd put the odds of this happening at less than 1 in 3. Still, this is the thing about instances in which economic sanctions are deployed. Even if their prospects don't look great, they're usually employed because the other options have even worse odds. For the next, say, six months, pursuing this course of action makes sense. It weakens Iran at a key moment in the Middle East, and it might lead to some positive developments down the road. That said, even if the sanctions work in crippling Iran's economy, they likely won't work at altering Iran's objectionable nuclear policies -- the expectations of future conflict are too great. At that point, the United States is going to need to consider whether it's prepared to pursue a longer-term containment strategy or alter course.
What do you think?
It's time to admit that I'm getting old. I feel the aches and pains from workouts a bit more keenly. I have to Google acronyms I see on Twitter all the time. No matter how hard I try, I just don't feel comfortable wearing an untucked shirt with a blazer. Only now am I discovering Alison Brie, which makes me way behind the curve. Most importantly, however, I find myself reading threat assessments made by junior international relations scholars and shaking my head at these young-security-kids-with-their-having-no-memory-of-the-Cold-War.
To explain where I'm coming from, here's what I wrote a little more than a year ago:
Terrorism and piracy are certainly security concerns -- but they don't compare to the Cold War. A nuclear Iran is a major regional headache, but it's not the Cold War. A generation from now, maybe China poses as serious a threat as the Cold War Soviet Union. Maybe. That's a generation away, however....
I'm about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don't equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
I'll stand by that statement, and I'm not the only one here at FP to believe it. Over the past week, however, I'm seeing some
young whippersnappers junior scholars evince a different estimate of threats to U.S. national security.
Over at Shadow Government, Paul Miller has a four-part series -- count 'em, one, two, three, four -- of blog posts arguing that the world is a more dangerous place now than before. He sums up his argument in this concluding section:
Essentially, the United States thus faces two great families of threats today: first, the nuclear-armed authoritarian powers, of which there are at least twice as many as there were during the Cold War; second, the aggregate consequences of state failure and the rise of non-state actors in much of the world, which is a wholly new development since the Cold War. On both counts, the world is more dangerous than it was before 1989. Essentially take the Cold War, add in several more players with nukes, and then throw in radicalized Islam, rampant state failure, and the global economic recession, and you have today.
I recognize that the world doesn't feel as dangerous as it did during the Cold War. During the Cold War we all knew about the threat and lived with a constant awareness-usually shoved to the back of ours minds to preserve our sanity-that we might die an instantaneous firey death at any moment. We no longer feel that way.
Our feelings are wrong. The Cold War engaged our emotions more because it was simple, easily understood, and, as an ideological contest, demanded we take sides and laid claim to our loyalties. Today's environment is more complex and many-sided and so it is harder to feel the threat the same way we used to. Nonetheless, the danger is real.
Meh. Actually, meh squared.
To be fair to Miller, I do think he is getting at something that has changed over time during the post-Cold War era. First, the threat envorinment does seem higher now than twenty years ago, as the Soviet Union was about to collapse. China is more economically powerful, Russia is more revanchist, North, Korea, Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons, the barriers to entry for non-state actors to wreak havoc has gone up. The likelihood of a conventional great power war is lower, but the likelihood of a serious attack on American soil seems higher than in late 1991. So in terms of trend, it does feel like the world is less safe.
What's also changed, however, is the tight coupling of the Cold War security environment (ironically, just as the security environment has become more loosely coupled, the global political economy has become more tightly coupled). Because the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were such implacable adversaries and because they knew it, the possibility of a small dispute -- Berlin, Cuba, a downed Korean airliner -- escalating very quickly was ever-present. The possibility of an accident triggering all-out nuclear war was also higher than was realized at the time. The current threat environment is more loosely interconnected, in that a small conflict seems less likely to immediately ramp up into another Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, the events of the past year support that point. Saudi Arabia essentially invaded Bahrain, and Iran did.... very little about it. The United States deployed special forces into the heart of Pakistan's military complex. The aftermath of that is undeniably uglier, but it's not we-are-at-DEFCON-ONE kind of ugly. Miller might be more accurate in saying that there is a greater chance of a security dust-up in today's complex threat environment, but there's a much lower likelihood of those dust-ups spiraling out of control.
In Miller's calculations, it seems that any country with a nuclear weapon constitutes an equal level of threat. But that's dubious on multiple grounds. First, none of the emerging nuclear states have anywhere close to a second-strike capability. If they were to use their nukes against the United States, I think they know that there's an excellent chance that they don't survive the counterstrike. Second, the counter Miller provides is that these authoritarian leaders are extra-super-crazy. I'm not going to defend either the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Kim the Younger, but are these leaders more crazy than either Mao or Stalin or Kim Jong Il? Those are three of the worst leaders in history -- and none of them came close to using nuclear weapons. Finally, the Pakistan case is instructive -- even after getting nukes, and even after getting very cozy with radical terrorist groups, that country has refrained from escalating hostilities with India to the point of another general war.
As for the non-state threats, they are disturbing, but I'd posit that on this front the United States really is safer now than it was a decade ago. The only organization capable of launching a coordinated terrorist strike against the United States is now a husk of its former self. Indeed, I'd wager that Miller's emotions, or his memory of 9/11, are getting in the way of dispassionate analysis.
In essence, Miller conflates the number of possible threats with a greater magnitude of threats. I agree that there are more independent threats to the United States out there at present, but combined, they don't stack up to the Soviet threat. To put it another way, I prefer avoiding a swarm of mosquitoes to one really ravenous bear.
In related exaggerated threat analysis, Matthew Kroenig argues in Foreign Affairs that an airstrike on Iran might be the best of a bad set of options in dealing with Iran. This has set poor Stephen Walt around the bend in response, as op-eds advocating an attack on Iran are wont to do.
I've generally found both sides of the "attack Iran" debate to be equally dyspeptic, but in this case I do find Kroenig's logic to be a bit odd. Here's his arguments for why a nuclear Iran is bad and containment is more problematic than a military attack:
Some states in the region are doubting U.S. resolve to stop the program and are shifting their allegiances to Tehran. Others have begun to discuss launching their own nuclear initiatives to counter a possible Iranian bomb. For those nations and the United States itself, the threat will only continue to grow as Tehran moves closer to its goal. A nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East. With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war, forcing Washington to think twice before acting in the region. Iran’s regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, would likely decide to acquire their own nuclear arsenals, sparking an arms race. To constrain its geopolitical rivals, Iran could choose to spur proliferation by transferring nuclear technology to its allies -- other countries and terrorist groups alike. Having the bomb would give Iran greater cover for conventional aggression and coercive diplomacy, and the battles between its terrorist proxies and Israel, for example, could escalate. And Iran and Israel lack nearly all the safeguards that helped the United States and the Soviet Union avoid a nuclear exchange during the Cold War -- secure second-strike capabilities, clear lines of communication, long flight times for ballistic missiles from one country to the other, and experience managing nuclear arsenals. To be sure, a nuclear-armed Iran would not intentionally launch a suicidal nuclear war. But the volatile nuclear balance between Iran and Israel could easily spiral out of control as a crisis unfolds, resulting in a nuclear exchange between the two countries that could draw the United States in, as well.
These security threats would require Washington to contain Tehran. Yet deterrence would come at a heavy price. To keep the Iranian threat at bay, the United States would need to deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come. Alongside those troops, the United States would have to permanently deploy significant intelligence assets to monitor any attempts by Iran to transfer its nuclear technology. And it would also need to devote perhaps billions of dollars to improving its allies’ capability to defend themselves. This might include helping Israel construct submarine-launched ballistic missiles and hardened ballistic missile silos to ensure that it can maintain a secure second-strike capability. Most of all, to make containment credible, the United States would need to extend its nuclear umbrella to its partners in the region, pledging to defend them with military force should Iran launch an attack (emphasis added).
OK, first, exactly who is bandwagoning with Iran? Seriously, who? Kroenig provides no evidence, and I'm scratching my head to think of any data points. The SCAF regime in Egypt has been a bit more friendly, but Turkey's distancing is far more significant and debilitating for Tehran's grand strategy. Iran's sole Arab ally is in serious trouble, and its own economy is faltering badly. The notion that time is on Iran 's side seems badly off.
Second, Kroenig presume that a nuclear Iran would be more aggressive in the region and more likely to have a nuclear exchange with Iran. I will again point to India/Pakistan. Despite similar religious divides, and despite the presence of pliable non-state actors, those two countries have successfully kept a nuclear peace. Kroenig might have an argument that Israel/Iran is different, but it's not in this essay. Indeed, the bolded section contradicts Kroenig's own argument -- if Iran is not prepared to use its nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely that it will escalate crises to the point where its bluff is called. If Kroenig's own scholarship suggests that America's nuclear superiority would still be an effective deterrent, then I'm not sure why he portrays the Iran threat in such menacing terms.
There's more, but this post is long enough anyway. Both Kroenig and Miller are correct to highlight current threats. But, to put it gently, until all of these threats, combined, can cause this to happen in under an hour, I'm sleeping soundly.
Am I missing anything?
The past decade's worth of American foreign policy debacles has led to some lazy thinking on American empire. Either the United States is using force to advance rapacious economic interests, or Washington is neglecting economic diplomacy because U.S. foreign policy has become too militarized. Right, now, neither argument holds up terribly well.
For example, the Financial Times' Lina Saigol looks at postwar foreign direct investment in Iraq and notes the prominent absence of U.S. and British firms:
After almost nine years, $1tn spent and 4,487 American and 179 British lives lost, theUS is withdrawing from Iraq, leaving the country’s vast economic spoils to nations that neither supported nor participated in the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Turkey, Iran, China, South Korea and Arab states have already invested billions in Iraq, far outpacing their US and UK counterparts in every non-oil sector from transport and telecoms to housing and construction.
This is really a variation of a theme. Take a look at Afghanistan, and the same pattern plays itself out -- significant U.S. military investment, remarkably little follow-on U.S. economic investment, significant investments by others. In short, arguments that the United States uses its military power to advance its economic interests don't hold up well at all -- unless one wants to posit that U.S. elites are really an executive committee of the Chinese Communist Party's economic bourgeoisie.
The overmephasis on military force has been a long-running criticism of American foreign policy. That said, it leads to some lazy analytical habits. Consider this NYT Sunday Review essay by Stephen Glain on the U.S. "pivot" to the Pacific Rim:
With the economy in disarray, President Obama chose a costly instrument in deciding to expand the American military commitment in Asia by deploying a Marine contingent to Australia; the move will only help insulate the Pentagon from meaningful spending cuts and preserve the leading role the military has played in foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks....
Indeed, America’s top diplomat has become the chief civilian advocate for military answers to diplomatic challenges. Speaking in Honolulu last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for “a more broadly distributed military presence” in Asia. While in Manila, she appeared on an American warship and reaffirmed the nearly 60-year-old security pact between the United States and the Philippines. She also has endorsed the creation of an American-led regional trade pact that pointedly excludes China for the present, a remarkably petty snub compared to the way her legendary predecessor George C. Marshall offered (without success, in the face of Stalin’s suspicions) to include the Soviet Union in the postwar reconstruction plan that now bears Marshall’s name. And this month she visited Myanmar, where the Obama administration has assiduously worked to neutralize a corrupt and repressive government in favor of democratic reform; in the grander strategic game, this, too, could be read in Beijing as a tactic to weave the country — which has been Beijing’s ally — into an American noose around China.
OK, this argument is confusing on a number of fronts. First, how is ratifying an FTA with South Korea and negotiating a framework agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership an example of an excessive role for the military?
Second, President Obama was quite explicit in saying he would welcome Chinese participation in TPP. However -- like Marshall before him -- Obama is saying this because he's pretty sure China will be unwilling to pay the regulatory coin necessary to join.
During the 1990's, one could argue that U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific Rim was too heavily dominated by the Treasury Department. During the 2000's, one could argue that it was too heavily dominated by the Defense Department. Right now, U.S. policy in the region looks like a decent balance of security and economic diplomacy. I suspect that this balance has been so rare for so long that analysts simply aren't used to recognizing it.
Following up on Newt Gingrich and his assessment of threats, I see that the New York Times has a William J. Broad front-pager on Gingrich's obsession with the possibility of adversaries using an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) against the United States:
[I]t is to the risk of an EMP attack that Mr. Gingrich has repeatedly returned. And while the message may play well to hawkish audiences, who might warm to the candidate’s suggestion that the United States engage in pre-emptive military strikes against Iran and North Korea, many nuclear experts dismiss the threat. America’s current missile defense system would thwart such an attack, these experts say, and the nations in question are at the kindergarten stage of developing nuclear arms.
The Missile Defense Agency, an arm of the Pentagon that maintains an arsenal of ground-based interceptors ready to fly into space and smash enemy warheads, says that defeating such an attack would be as straightforward as any other defense of the continental United States.
“It doesn’t matter if the target is Chicago or 100 miles over Nebraska,” said Richard Lehner, an agency spokesman. “For the interceptor, it’s the same thing.” He called the potential damage from a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack “pretty theoretical.”
Yousaf M. Butt, a nuclear physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who last year did a lengthy analysis of EMP for The Space Review, a weekly online journal, said, “If terrorists want to do something serious, they’ll use a weapon of mass destruction — not mass disruption.” He said, “They don’t want to depend on complicated secondary effects in which the physics is not very clear.”
Mr. Gingrich’s spokesman, R. C. Hammond, did not respond to e-mails asking for comment. But the candidate, a former history professor and House speaker, has defended his characterizations as accurate. At a forum in Des Moines on Saturday for military veterans, Mr. Gingrich said an electromagnetic pulse attack was one of several pressing national security threats the United States faced. “In theory, a relatively small device over Omaha would knock out about half the electricity generated in the United States,” he told the veterans.
I'm neither a security expert nor a rocket scientist. After reading Broad's article, the Space Review annalysis, the rebuttal to that analysis, and Sharon Winberger's excellent FP write-up from last year, however, I'm reasonably confident that the threat posed by EMP is remote for the near-to-medium future. The scenarios in which an EMP would affect the United States rely on a) rogue states making serious leaps forward in their ballistic missile technology and nuclear engineering; and b) those same actors deciding that it's in their national interest to launch a first strike against a country with a reliable second-strike nuclear deterrent.
Nevertheless, I can see why Newt Skywalker would be concerned. Most of the taking-EMP-threat seriously essays harp on the devastating effect of such an attack. Surely, Gingrich would argue, even a small possibility of this actually happening justifies at least some investment into countermeasures and preventive actions. Indeed, Gingrich has explicitly made that argument:
Without adequate preparation, its impact would be so horrifying that we would basically lose our civilization in a matter of seconds.... I think it's very important to get people to understand now, before there is a disaster, how truly grave the threat is.*
Fair enough... let's be generous and say there's a 10% chance of this being a real problem over the next two decades. If that's the case, maybe Gingrich is right to bring it up as an underestimated threat.
Here's my question, however. If we're talking about threats to civilization as we know it, isn't there another possibility that has a much higher probability of occurring -- let's say, better than 50% at least -- and a similarly lax amount of preventive action? Like, say, climate change?
As Uri Friedman and Joshua Keating have documented for FP, however, Gingrich's assessment of that threat has changed recently. Last month, on this issue, he said the following:
I actually don't know whether global warming is occurring.... The earth's temperatures go up and down over geologic times over and over again. As recently as 11,000 years ago the Gulf Stream quit for 600 years. And for 600 years you had an ice age in Europe because there was no warm water coming up. And then it started up again. Nobody knows why it quit, nobody knows why it started up. I'm agnostic.
This is fascinating. On the one hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the planet that commands the consensus of an overwhelming majority of experts in the field. On the other hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the United States that commands nowhere close to the same level of consensus. Based on his rhetoric, Gingrich wants urgent action to be taken on the latter, but not the former. Why?
I'm not bringing this up to suggest that Gingrich is a buffoon. He could plausibly argue that a lot of people are harping on climate change while only Gingrich can call attention to the EMP possibility. It's possible that the costs of preventive action on climate change are much greater than dealing with EMP (though if that includes preventive attacks on Iran and North Korea, I'm dubious).
What I'm wondering is whether there is a partisan divide in assessing threats, as there is in assessing economic principles. I wonder if conservatives are far more likely to focus on threats in which there is a clear agent with a malevolent intent, whereas liberals are more likely to focus on threats that lack agency and are more systemic in nature (climate change, pandemics, nuclear accidents, etc.)
What do you think?
*Incidentally, this is the same logic I used to justify greater research into the threat posed by the living dead. Just saying....
Foreign policy didn't play much of a role at all in last night's GOP debate, but there were a few telling moments about Newt Gingrich's foreign policy worldview -- telling in that they scared the living crap out of your humble blogger.
The foreign policy portion was devoted entirely to Newt Gingrich's description of the Palestinians an "invented people". Gingrich doubled down during the debate, labeling all Palestinians as terrorists. When pushed by Romney on the wisdom of going further rhetorically than Israel's Likud government on this point, Gingrich fell back on the "I'm speaking blunt truths like Reagan when he called the USSR an 'evil empire'" gambit.
This is pretty odd. Last I checked Israel was a democracy, had a healthy amount of free specch, and has a ruling coalition that seems pretty hardline with respect to the Palestinians. I don't think the Israelis need an American candidate to speak truths to them that their government is hiding.
To be honest, however, that wasn't the scariest part of Gingrich's rhetoric. No, the part that set my hair on edge was during the last question on the night, when the candidates were asked what they'd learned from the other candidates.
Gingrich responded by praising Rick Santorum's "consistency and courage on Iran." He then added:
If we do survive, it will be in part because of people like Rick who've had the courage to tell the truth about the Iranians for a long time. (emphasis added)
Now, this was practically a throwaway clause, but still, how can I put this clearly.... this is f***ing insane. Totally, completely, utterly f***ing insane.
Even a nuclear-armed Iran led by the current regime of nutball theocrats cannot threaten America's survival. I get why the United States is concerned about Iran going nuclear, and I get why Israel is really concerned about Iran going nuclear. The only way that developments in Iran could threaten America's survival, however, would be if the US policy response was so hyperbolic that it ignited a general Middle East war that dragged in Russia and China. Which... come to think of it, wouldn't be entirely out of the question under a President Gingrich.
Gingrich's apocalyptic rhetoric will go down well with many neoconservatives and GOP hawks, but to resuscitate a point I've made before:
I'm about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don't equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Gingrich, as he is fond of pointing out nowadays, is a 68-year old grandfather and trained as a historian. He should know better than to sound as apocalyptic in his foreign policy statements as the very mullahs he lambasts.
As Andrew Sullivan (the only other debate-watcher who picked up on this line) observed, "Wow. Does Gingrich really believe that the US faces an existential threat from Iran? Or is he running for the Likud party?"
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
A little more than a month ago I wrote the following:
The sanctions and the lack of technical competence are probably helping [slow down Iran's nuclear program], but if I had to guess, I'd wager that the covert attempts at sabotage are yielding the most promising results. The thing is, no administration can publicly say, "hey, everyone should relax about Iran's nuclear program, cause we've got covert operatives crawling all around Natanz, Bushehr, and Qom."....
Now, I don't know this to be true -- it's possible that covert action has yielded little in the way of results. Still, this might be a situation in which no news on Iran is actually good news.
I still don't know this to be true, but after reading this Financial Times story by Joseph Menn and Mary Watkins, my confidence in this assertion is rising:
A piece of highly sophisticated malicious software that has infected an unknown number of power plants, pipelines and factories over the past year is the first program designed to cause serious damage in the physical world, security experts are warning.
The Stuxnet computer worm spreads through previously unknown holes in Microsoft's Windows operating system and then looks for a type of software made by Siemens and used to control industrial components, including valves and brakes....
At a closed-door conference this week in Maryland, Ralph Langner, a German industrial controls safety expert, said Stuxnet might be targeting not a sector but perhaps only one plant, and he speculated that it could be a controversial nuclear facility in Iran.
According to Symantec, which has been investigating the virus and plans to publish details of the rogue commands on Wednesday, Iran has had far more infections than any other country.
“It is not speculation that this is the first directed cyber weapon”, or one aimed at a specific real-world process, said Joe Weiss, a US expert who has testified to Congress on technological security threats to the electric grid and other physical operations. “The only speculation is what it is being used against, and by whom.”
Experts say Stuxnet’s knowledge of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, the Siemens program and the associated hardware of the target industry make it the work of a well-financed, highly organised team.
They suggest that it is most likely associated with a national government and that terrorism, ideological motivation or even extortion cannot be ruled out.
Stuxnet began spreading more than a year ago but research has been slow because of the complexity of the software and the difficulty in getting the right industry officials talking to the right security experts.
Unless there's an Iranian John McClane running around Iran, this looks like something that could help retard Iran's nuclear program.
Now, I'm very uncomfortable with a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the notion of "cyberwarfare." It needlessly equates actions in cyberspace with real-world warfare, when I'm not at all sure that either the logic of consequences or the logic of appropriateness are the same in both spheres.
That said, I do wonder about the long-term effects of this kind of cyberattack. The very way the FT is reporting this story suggests that some kind of line has been crossed. Not to mention the fact that the news coverage itself suggests that this gambit has run its course.
Developing... in ways that I cannot begin to fathom.
My latest bloggingheads diavlog is with National Security Network's Heather Hurlburt. We talk about the Park51 controversy and its effect on national security, the prospect for direct talks between Israel and Palestine, Iran's nuclear program, and what the hell is going on at the Cato Institute:
Watch the whole thing, but my favorite clip comes at the end, in which Heather and I envisage how VH1 would make a Behind the Think Tanks program sound compelling: "Against all odds, Heather Hurlburt had achieved influence and gravitas at NSN. Unfortunately, her addiction to cable TV appearances would also cause her tragic downfall....."
The Obama administration, citing evidence of continued troubles inside Iran’s nuclear program, has persuaded Israel that it would take roughly a year — and perhaps longer — for Iran to complete what one senior official called a “dash” for a nuclear weapon, according to American officials.
Administration officials said they believe the assessment has dimmed the prospect that Israel would pre-emptively strike against the country’s nuclear facilities within the next year, as Israeli officials have suggested in thinly veiled threats.
As a general rule, a lack of bombing certainly seems like good news. The question is, why? What's slowing down the Iranians?
It is unclear whether the problems that Iran has had enriching uranium are the result of poor centrifuge design, difficulty obtaining components or accelerated Western efforts to sabotage the nuclear program....
Some of Iran’s enrichment problems appear to have external origins. Sanctions have made it more difficult for Iran to obtain precision parts and specialty metals. Moreover, the United States, Israel and Europe have for years engaged in covert attempts to disrupt the enrichment process by sabotaging the centrifuges.
The sanctions and the lack of technical competence are probably heloping, but if I had to guess, I'd wager that the covert attempts at sabotage are yielding the most promising results. The thing is, no administration can publicly say, "hey, everyone should relax about Iran's nuclear program, cause we've got covert operatives crawling all around Natanz, Bushehr, and Qom." So, the public face of U.S. foreign policy towards Iran's nuclear program remains sanctions and a willingness to negotiate. The optics of this policy posture don't look good.
Now, I don't know this to be true -- it's possible that covert action has yielded little in the way of results. Still, this might be a situation in which no news on Iran is actually good news.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
It is now standard operating procedure for commentators to observe how large the gulf of ignorance is between the United States and Iran. If any American observer tries to analyze Iranian domestic politics, there will be at least three commentators waiting to jump on that analysis as lacking in depth and nuance.
This is all well and good, but after reading Jon Lee Anderson's New Yorker story on his visit to Iran, I think it's safe to say that other countries suffer from this same problem when they try to understand the United States. Consider the following:
Soros again!! Is there any conspiracy this guy isn't a part of?
Seriously, Ledeen and Haass loathe each other, and Ledeen and Soros probably loathe each other even more. None of these guys have any direct influence over Iran policy, and I'm willing to bet that Ledeen and Soros' indirect influence is exactly nil.
Now, take a moment to imagine a world in which Ledeen, Haass and Soros are secretly meeting to overthrow the Iranian regime, and I guarantee that the color of the sky in that world is not blue.
It's incumbent upon the American foreign policy community to develop a better appreciation of the domestic politics of other countries. But, damn, it would be good if other countries could get a better working knowledge of the U.S. foreign policy community. It's not like we're all that opaque.
[Does this matter?--ed. It does if Iran develops some serious misperceptions about U.S. intentions and capabilities. Based on the article, the Iranian leadership is well on its way towards achieving that end.]
I'm behind the curve on this, but as someone who's written a bit on sanctions I feel the need to comment on the latest round of UN sanctions applied against Iran.
At FP, Christopher Wall and Kori Schake effectively douse any enthusiasm optimists like Gideon Rachman might have had about the sanctions working in an of themselves. One could argue that the true assessment depends on how much and how effectively the United States and European Union are able to leverage the sanctions resolution language into effecive action against the Iranian Central Bank and other financial entities. That said, David Sanger's NYT story suggests the gloom that pervades this foreign policy problem:
So what, exactly, does President Obama plan to do if, as everyone expects, these sanctions fail, just as the previous three did?
There is a Plan B — actually, a Plan B, C, and D — parts of which are already unfolding across the Persian Gulf. The administration does not talk about them much, at least publicly, but they include old-style military containment and an operation known informally at the C.I.A. as the Braindrain Project to lure away Iran’s nuclear talent. By all accounts, Mr. Obama has ramped up a Bush-era covert program to undermine Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure, and he has made quiet diplomatic use of Israel’s lurking threat to take military action if diplomacy and pressure fail.
But ask the designers and executors of these programs what they all add up to, and the answer inevitably boils down to “not enough.” Taken together, officials say, they may slow Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon, which has already run into far greater technical slowdowns than anyone expected. If the pressure builds, Iran might be driven to the negotiating table, which it has avoided since Mr. Obama came to office offering “engagement.”
But even Mr. Obama, in his more-in-sadness-than-anger description on Wednesday of why diplomacy has so far yielded nothing, conceded “we know that the Iranian government will not change its behavior overnight” and went on to describe how instead the sanctions would create “growing costs.”
So no, this ain't going to accomplish much. One thing I would like this episode to do is force a reconsideration of the whole idea of "smart sanctions." I've been reviewing the literature on this subject, and further study is clearly needed. Nevertheless, the evidence to date suggests that smart sanctions are no better at generating concessions from the target state. In many ways they are worse.
The comparative advantage of smart sanctions is that they appear to solve several political problems for sender countries. Smart sanctions really do reduce the suffering by civilian populations. Because they are billed as minimizing humanitarian and human rights concerns, they receive only muted criticism from global civil society. Because they do not impede significant trade flows, smart sanctions can be imposed indefinitely with minimal cost. They clearly solve the political problem of "doing something" in the face of target state transgressions. What they don't do is solve the policy problem of coercing the target state into changing its policies.
The comparative disadvantage of smart sanctions is their ability to lull policymakers into believing that they're doing something when they're not. Now, to be fair, sometimes that's the idea -- maybe policymakers don't want to take more aggressive or risky action against a target state. In that situation, smart sanctions are perfect. My concern, however, is that policymakers believe that another multilateral round of smart sanctions will actually force the Iranians to do what the rest of the world wants it to do -- because it won't. Short of comprehensive sanctions, nothing in the economic statecraft policy tool kit will work.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
So, in the past 36 hours there has been news about two deals involving Iran. The first one involved an arrangement brokered by Turkey and Brazil:
In what could be a stunning breakthrough in the years-long diplomatic deadlock over Iran's nuclear program, Tehran has agreed to send the bulk of its nuclear material to Turkey as part of an exchange meant to ease international concerns about the Islamic Republic's aims and provide fuel for an ailing medical reactor, the spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry told state television Monday morning.
Whether this was really a breakthrough or just a last-minute dodge by Iran to fend off sanctions, commentators mostly agreed on two things: A) This showed how Turkey and Brazil were new heavyweights in international relations; and B) This would complicate and delay a new round of United Nations sanctions.
All well and good, except that now there's another breakthrough.... on a new round of Security Council sanctions:
The United States has reached agreement with Russia and China on a strong draft resolution to impose new United Nations sanctions on Iran over its uranium-enrichment program, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Tuesday.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a scheduled hearing on a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, Clinton shrugged off a surprise deal announced Monday in which Iran would swap a portion of its low-enriched uranium for higher-grade uranium to power a research reactor that produces medical isotopes. The deal, brokered by Turkey and Brazil during a high-level visit to Tehran, was meant in part to assuage concerns over Iran's nuclear program and discourage new U.N. sanctions.
"Today I am pleased to announce to this committee we have reached agreement on a strong draft with the cooperation of both Russia and China," Clinton said in an opening statement. She said the United States has been working closely for several weeks with five other world powers on new sanctions and plans to "circulate that draft resolution to the entire Security Council today."
Well, this is an interesting development. What's going on?
I think the key is that Russia was not persuaded by the Turkey-Brazil-Iran deal:
Sergei B. Ivanov, the deputy prime minister of Russia, was similarly skeptical at a lunchtime speech in Washington. He said he expected the sanctions resolution to “be voted in the near future,” and said that the new Iranian accord should not be “closely linked” to the sanctions effort. “Iran should absolutely open up” to inspectors, he said. That statement was significant because Russia had been reluctant to join sanctions several months ago. China, which has also been hesitant, issued no statement.
With Russia firmly on board, and China apparently unwilling to ge the lone P-5 holdout, Monday's Iran deal had no effect on the calculus of the Security Council.
Why was Russia unpersuaded? To date, Russia and China have taken advantage of any Iranian feint towards conciliation as an excuse to delay sanctions. What's different now?
I'd suggest three possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive:
1) Russia is genuinely unpersuaded that Monday's deal is anything more than marginally useful;
2) Russia is just as annoyed as the United States at the
young whipperrsnapper countries rising powers of the world going rogue in their diplomacy. Russia is, in many ways, more sensitive to questions about prestige than the United States;
3) Cynically, there's little cost to going along with the United States on sanctions that will have very little impact on the Russian-Iranian economic relationship.
Commenters are encouraged to provide additional explanations below.
The story of the day, from David Sanger and Thom Shanker:
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned in a secret three-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability, according to government officials familiar with the document.
Several officials said the highly classified analysis, written in January to President' Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, came in the midst of an intensifying effort inside the Pentagon, the White House and the intelligence agencies to develop new options for Mr. Obama. They include a set of military alternatives, still under development, to be considered should diplomacy and sanctions fail to force Iran to change course....
One senior official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the memo, described the document as “a wake-up call.” But White House officials dispute that view, insisting that for 15 months they had been conducting detailed planning for many possible outcomes regarding Iran's nuclear program.
In an interview on Friday, General Jones declined to speak about the memorandum. But he said: “On Iran, we are doing what we said we were going to do. The fact that we don’t announce publicly our entire strategy for the world to see doesn’t mean we don’t have a strategy that anticipates the full range of contingencies — we do.”
But in his memo, Mr. Gates wrote of a variety of concerns, including the absence of an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many government and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon — fuel, designs and detonators — but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.
In that case, Iran could remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what strategists call a “virtual” nuclear weapons state.
Now, if one doesn't read carefully, the obvious implication to infer from this lead is that the Obama administration has been lax on both policy planning and thinking about military contingencies.
If one reads the entire story carefully, however -- something I highly recommend -- two important facts stand out. First, Gates wrote this in January, but it's being leaked now, in mid-April. As Spencer Ackerman notes, the Obama administration has geared up on a variety of fronts on both Iran and nonproliferation. You can criticize the response as inadequate or misguided -- but it's safe to say that there was a policy response.
So why leak the memo now? The Power Line's Scott Johnson asks that very question:
As always with stories like this, one wonders about the motives of the Times's sources. Why would anonymous officials leak word of a highly classified memorandum suggesting that the administration has no policy beyond what has proved to be empty talk? These apparently well-informed officials must think that we have something to worry about.
That's one possibility. Another (not mutually exclusive) possibility is that whoever leaked was on the losing side of the policy debate. The White House has been centralizing the foreign policy process, which inevitably leads to some hurt feelings. Furthermore, the bureaucratic politics on Middle East policy have become both nasty and personal. It wouldn't surprise me if someone in the administration thinks that it's payback time. Which isn't to say that the leaker is necessarily wrong, but Marc Ambinder is right -- there are multiple possible motivations for the leak in the first place.
The second useful nugget of information comes from this paragraph:
Mr. Gates’s memo appears to reflect concerns in the Pentagon and the military that the White House did not have a well prepared series of alternatives in place in case all the diplomatic steps finally failed. Separately, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a “chairman’s guidance” to his staff in December conveying a sense of urgency about contingency planning. He cautioned that a military attack would have “limited results,” but he did not convey any warnings about policy shortcomings (emphasis added).
If the senior uniformed officer is skeptical of the utility of a military attack, that strikes me as pretty important. Sure, one option could be to really ramp up the military option to include a ground assault, but even Iran hawks acknowledge that this is off the table.
So, what do I know now that I didn't know prior to reading Sanger and Shanker? I'd say the following:
1) All policy options on Iran stink.
2) The bureaucratic politics of U.S. Middle East policy are getting worse;
3) The administration has responded to the Gates memo, but not in a way that pleases all of the bureaucratic heavyweights inside the administraion.
4) January is apparently a month of foreign policy "wake-up calls" and "bombshells" in the White House.
What I don't know, after reading Sanger and Shanker, is whether someone like Gates would approve of the administration's current contingency planning on Iran.
Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Over at the Foreign Policy Association's website, Sean Goforth has ginned up a handy new acronym to describe the latest constellation of threats to U.S. national interests:
Ever since "axis of evil," broad characterizations of geopolitical threats have been considered impolitic, if not ignorant.... The hesitation to label a global threat as such is now sacrificing substance for political correctness. Venezuela, Iran, and Russia constitute a VIRUS of instability that threatens the United States and Western order. This recognition is needed, but the US should learn from past mistakes and avoid a hard-line path similar to the one that resulted from branding "axis of evil."
Clearly, there's some rhetorical tension in that paragraph. One the one hand, VIRUS is just an awesome acronym, and Goforth deserves some props for coming up with it. Seriously, it's catchy, it effectively captures the relationship between the salient actors, and it sounds quite menacing. I can already picture the cable news teasers and one-liners:
"After the break: can the Obama administration combat the VIRUS?"
"When we come back: is the VIRUS running rampant across Latin America?"
"Coming up: forget Tiger Woods, Sean Penn is in danger of spreading the VIRUS!"
The thing is, Goforth concludes with his recommended policy responses to the VIRUS coalition. And they appear to be.... pretty much what's being done right now:
[T]he VIRUS alliance is playing a sophisticated game of brinksmanship. Venezuelan government documents suggest that Chavez hopes to get the US to perceive an immediate threat and overreact, igniting a series of events that will eventually collapse "the empire." More realistically, if Colombia or Israel, key American allies, were to misstep and launch a limited-scale attack against Venezuela or Iran it would further boost anti-Americanism and add weight to claims of imperialism. A final objective appears to be presenting a dilemma that will drive a fissure between the US and Israel, a prospect that Iran's nuclear program may well realize.
Responding to the VIRUS needn't require one bold policy. Talk of regime change should be scuttled for sure-it only justifies more arms purchases and feeds anti-American rhetoric. And focusing just on Iran is feckless. Iran is embedded in an alliance that cobbles Russia's diplomatic protection with a network that spreads "business" investments across three continents to serve strategic purposes.
Instead of antagonizing the VIRUS the United States should seek inoculation through savvy diplomacy that breaks the bonds between its constituent members, which is a realistic objective because Venezuela, Russia, and Iran don't share deep-seeded cultural or economic ties. Luckily for Western security, the VIRUS' venom is being diluted by economic realities on the ground: unemployment is extremely high in all three nations, and Iran and Venezuela have the world's highest rates of inflation. If oil trades at moderate prices, Chavez and his "brother" Ahmadinejad will be left to account for their failure to bring development, though Putin's popularity seems assured no matter how badly the Russian economy sours.
So, according to Goforth, the proper U.S. response to VIRUS appears to be:
A) Don't overreact or overreach;
B) Try to split the constituent members of the VIRUS through assiduous diplomacy; and
C) Be patient and let these economies collapse under their own weight.
Is there anything different betwqeen these policy recommendations and what the Obama administration is currently doing? The only new thing here is the idea of letting oil prices stay relatively low to prevent new infusions of cash into the coffers of these regimes -- although, truth be told, this isn't really that new an idea.
I suspect, however, that Goforth's policy recommendations will not garner much attention. I expect the VIRUS acronym, on the other hand, to spread across the foreign policy community like... well, you know.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.