I've read and blogged a bit on conspiracy theories, and the basic conclusion I've come to is that they are like weeds in a garden. Without careful tending and ample sunlight in the public sphere, they are all too easy to sprout up -- and next to impossible to eliminate once rooted in the soil.
They're really hard to eliminate if they turn out to contain a nugget of truth, however:
For more on how this particular scandal is not limited to an Internal Revenue Service field office, click here.
Nor does it address the fact that the same IRS office that inquired into Tea Party organizations also apparently investigated groups with ties to Israel:
The same Internal Revenue Service office that singled out Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny also challenged Israel-related organizations, at least one of which filed suit over the agency’s handling of its application for tax-exempt status.
The trouble for the Israel-focused groups seems to have had different origins than that experienced by conservative groups, but at times the effort seems to have been equally ham-handed.
Look, there's no easy way to say this: The U.S. government has just given intellectual cover for every paranoid group in the country to articulate why their conspiracy theory has been validated. The thing is, now everyone else must give some patina of plausibility to those beliefs, no matter how bats**t crazy they sound at first glance.
As Politico reports, the Obama administration's political levers at the IRS are near infinitesimal. That really doesn't matter, however. This is now a political problem. Unless the White House finds a way to indicate that it's taking these scandals seriously and fixing the problems, this will be the defining meme for Barack Obama's second term.
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?
Your humble blogger has been pretty quiet about this week's Israeli/Hamas conflict. That's for a bunch of reasons:
1) I've had a few day job papers to bang out;
3) My bar to blogging about Israel and Palestine is whether I can offer anything more insightful than The Onion. It's a disturbingly high bar.
That said, I do think there are a few interesting political science questions that are worth asking after the past week. After all, we've just had an election in this country where it turns out that political science explained an awful goddamned lot. I wonder if some of that knowledge is being imbibed -- in uneven amounts -- in the Middle East.
In particular, I have three questions:
1) Has Bibi Netanyahu been reading Romer and Rosenthal? One of the landmark articles in political science is Thomas Romer and Howard Rosenthal's paper on the effect of the status quo on political positioning. One of the key takeaways is that in a two candidate race, if Candidate A takes an extreme position on the central policy issue, it allows Candidate B to adopt a policy position that is further away from the median voter and still win.
After reading Ethan Bronner's story in the New York Times on how the Gaza conflict is radicalizing the West Bank away from Fatah and towards Hamas (see also Haaretz), I wonder if Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu has figured out the following political jujitsu:
STEP 1: Take actions that radicalize the Palestinian population -- particularly in the West Bank;
STEP 2: Have Fatah look less and less like a credible negotiating partner, have the world acknowledge that Hamas now represents the median Palestinian preference on peace talks;
STEP 3: Have Likus win Israeli election without changing its policy position, which suddenly doesn't look so bad to Israeli voters.
Actually, I'd posit that there's an element of this in the Israeli's right's strategy of the past decade, but it seems to be particularly blatant this time around.
2) Has Hamas been reading Stephen Walt? And if so, which Stephen Walt? No, I don't mean that Stephen Walt. I mean the author of The Origins of Alliances and Revolution and War. I bring this up cause those books would offer contrasting takes on what Hamas would expect the rest of the Middle East to do. It seems pretty clear from the press reportage that Hamas believed that This Time Was Different: the Arab Spring had eliminated authoritarian despots who had used the Palestinian issue as a useful vent for domestic unrest. Newly democratic regimes would -- according to Walt's Revolution and War -- be more likely to identify with Hamas' cause, thereby taking more aggressive action to undermine and isolate Israel. And, indeed, at the rhetorical and symbolic level, this has happened. Libya is sending a "solidarity delegation" to Gaza, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled Israel a "terrorist state," and Egypt's Morsi governmment has been pretty plain in blaming Israel for the latest hostilities.
The thing is, my bet would be on Walt's Origins of Alliances playing the larger role here. What's interesting about Arab government's reactions to this Operation Pillar of Defense is that they seem.... an awful lot like how Mubarak et al would have reacted. It would seem that once Islamic movements are charged with running a government, they suddenly start to care about things other than the occupied territories (this appears to be Dennis Ross' take as well, by the way). For example, I'd argue that these negotiations matter far more to the Morsi government than brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
3) Does the Israeli right really want to make U.S. Middle East policy a partisan football? CNN polled Americans on the conflict in Gaza, and just like every other poll on this question, Americans backed Israel pretty strongly. 57% of American sympathize with the Israelis; only 13% side with the Palestinians. But as The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper notes, there's a catch:
CNN's poll director, Keating Holland, finds that there is a great discrepancy in which Americans think the action is justified, however. Of particular note is that only about 40 percent of Democrats believe the self-defense measures are "justified."
"Although most Americans think the Israeli actions are justified, there are key segments of the public who don't necessarily feel that way," Holland tells CNN. "Only four in ten Democrats think the Israeli actions in Gaza are justified, compared to 74% of Republicans and 59% of independents. Support for Israel's military action is 13 points higher among men than among women, and 15 points higher among older Americans than among younger Americans."
Now, you can speculate all you want about the source of this partisan divergence -- *COUGH* Netanyahu gambled on Obama being a one-termer and lost *COUGH* -- but friends of Israel should be disturbed by this growing split. If Israel becomes a partisan issue, it's not really going to help Republicans all that much, because all it will do is mobilize the evangelical vote -- which they've already pocketed. And eventually, Israel will have to face a Democratic president with a base that no longer cares about Israel's security. That's not going to be a good day for Israel.
[Yeah, we still liked the Onion story better--ed. Yeah, me too.]
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?
So yesterday David Corn at Mother Jones made some waves when he released a video of Mitt Romney loc
king up the Ayn Rand Institute's vote explaining that he had no chance of winning the "47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government."
Well, this morning, the foreign policy shoe dropped from the Romney video. Here's the excerpt of Romney musing about the two-state situation for Israel and Palestine:
I'm torn by two perspectives in this regard. One is the one which I've had for some time, which is that the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish. Now why do I say that? Some might say, well, let's let the Palestinians have the West Bank, and have security, and set up a separate nation for the Palestinians. And then come a couple of thorny questions. And I don't have a map here to look at the geography, but the border between Israel and the West Bank is obviously right there, right next to Tel Aviv, which is the financial capital, the industrial capital of Israel, the center of Israel. It's—what the border would be? Maybe seven miles from Tel Aviv to what would be the West Bank…The other side of the West Bank, the other side of what would be this new Palestinian state would either be Syria at one point, or Jordan. And of course the Iranians would want to do through the West Bank exactly what they did through Lebanon, what they did near Gaza. Which is that the Iranians would want to bring missiles and armament into the West Bank and potentially threaten Israel. So Israel of course would have to say, "That can't happen. We've got to keep the Iranians from bringing weaponry into the West Bank." Well, that means that—who? The Israelis are going to patrol the border between Jordan, Syria, and this new Palestinian nation? Well, the Palestinians would say, "Uh, no way! We're an independent country. You can't, you know, guard our border with other Arab nations." And now how about the airport? How about flying into this Palestinian nation? Are we gonna allow military aircraft to come in and weaponry to come in? And if not, who's going to keep it from coming in? Well, the Israelis. Well, the Palestinians are gonna say, "We're not an independent nation if Israel is able to come in and tell us what can land in our airport." These are problems—these are very hard to solve, all right? And I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say, "There's just no way." And so what you do is you say, "You move things along the best way you can." You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem. We live with that in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it. We don't go to war to try and resolve it imminently. On the other hand, I got a call from a former secretary of state. I won't mention which one it was, but this individual said to me, you know, I think there's a prospect for a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis after the Palestinian elections. I said, "Really?" And, you know, his answer was, "Yes, I think there's some prospect." And I didn't delve into it (emphasis added).
Well, I'm tired of Mother Jones having all of the video exclusives!! Here's my exclusive of how one Middle East expert responded to Romney's explanation:
So I'm not a Middle East expert, but I do know a few things:
1) Neither all Palestinians not their leaders in the West Bank are committed to the destruction of Israael;
2) Whatever contours a possible Palestinian state would have, it won't border Syria
3) One of the best critiques that a GOP challenger can make of Barack Obama's administration is that he's made a hash of the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. In this video, Romney pretty much revealed that he wouldn't be changing that policy anytime soon.
David Brooks, in responding to the first part of the Romney video, concluded that Romney "really doesn't know much about the country he inhabits." Unfortunately, with this video, Romney has demonstrated that the doesn't know that much about the world he inhabits either.
We've had a week where riots in the Middle East have raged against the United States, NATO's Afghanistan policy seems to be falling apart, and China seems bound and determined to foment crises in the Pacific Rim. A smart presidential candidate could find a lot of material to criticize the Obama administration on foreign policy. Instead we have a GOP nominee that can't manage his own campaign, much less deep thoughts on geopolitics.
So if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna be doing a double face-palm for the rest of today.
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.
The Romney campaign has come in for a fair amount of criticism in the past week or so. Most of this is fairly typical summer doldrums stuff, but some of it has to do with Romney's foreign-policy musings -- or lack thereof. On this issue in particular, William Kristol, Gerry Seib, Fred Kaplan, and, er, your humble blogger have been pillorying the campaign for a near-complete lack of substance.
According to Politico's Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, the Romney campaign seems to have been listening:
Mitt Romney’s campaign is considering a major foreign policy offensive at the end of the month that would take him to five countries over three continents and mark his first move away from a campaign message devoted almost singularly to criticizing President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy, sources tell POLITICO.
The tentative plan being discussed internally would have Romney begin his roll-out with a news-making address at the VFW convention later this month in Reno, Nev. The presumptive GOP nominee then is slated to travel to London for the start of the Olympics and to give a speech in Great Britain on U.S. foreign policy.
Romney next would fly to Israel for a series of meetings and appearances with key Israeli and Palestinian officials. Then, under the plan being considered, he would return to Europe for a stop in Germany and a public address in Poland, a steadfast American ally during the Bush years and a country that shares Romney’s wariness toward Russia. Romney officials had considered a stop in Afghanistan on the journey, but that’s now unlikely.
Sources stressed that the trip was still being planned but will be finalized internally this week, and some of the details are subject to change. While Romney is likely to lash Obama in his VFW speech, he’s expected to restrain his remarks about the president when speaking abroad.
Huh. Now, obviously, I can't comment on the content of any of these speeches. Still, the country selections are themselves revealing, as Burns & Haberman elaborate on in their Politico story. How do those choices stack up? Laura Rozen was a bit skeptical, tweeting that "his reported itinerary only seems 25 yrs out of date." Kristol responded in the Politico story by urging Romney to go to Afghanistan.
My initial response falls more into the Larry David camp on this one. The goal of a trip like this is twofold: to try to demonstrate some kind of foreign-policy gravitas, and to draw a distinction between one's foreign-policy views and that of the opponents. The second part is really tricky to do overseas, because one of the few norms of comity left in Washington is that public officials aren't supposed to criticize a sitting president's foreign policy in foreign lands. Romney can finesse this by going to countries where he thinks he can foster a stronger bilateral relationship, in contrast to Obama (it would be more awkward for him to go to countries where he thinks the U.S. should be less friendly, so I think we can rule out stops in Moscow and Beijing).
By that standard, this is a decent list. The stops in Israel and Poland highlight the frictions the Obama administration's rebalancing and reset strategies have created in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Going to Germany allows Romney to ding Obama on economic policy, as Romney is clearly more sympatico with Angela Merkel's austerity strategy.
If I were planning the itinerary, however, I'd suggest two additional stops. First, India. That's another country where bilateral relations have cooled off a bit during the Obama years. It's also one of the BRIC economies, which would allow Romney to disprove Laura Rozen's charge of being out-of-touch with current geopolitical realities. Second, Seoul. This would allow Romney to blast North Korea with invective while talking about his vision for the Pacific Rim.
What do you think? Where would you have Romney go visit?
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.
Your humble blogger is busy
going into carbohydrate withdrawal celebrating Passover this week. I blogged about the international relations implications of this holiday a few years ago -- but that was pre-Arab Spring. This (and a few glasses of kosher wine) got me to thinking: what would happen if the event that inspires the Passover holiday -- the Exodus -- were to happen today?
With apologies to Colum Lynch, I suspect the reportage would be something like this:
U.N. SECURITY COUNCIL MEETING ON JEWISH EXODUS ENDS IN CHAOS: Permanent Five split on who to sanction for loss of life
Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy
NEW YORK: Attempts by the U.N. Security Council to reach consensus on an approach to the situation in Egypt came to naught earlier today, as different members of the Security Council blamed different actors in the region for the growing human rights and humanitarian disaster.
U.S. Ambassdor to the United Natuons Susan Rice, addressing the Council, blasted China and Russia for their "addiction to obduracy." She concluded, "Over the past decade we have continually raised the repeated human rights abuses and acts of genocide committed by the Phaaroh's regime against the Jewish population in Egypt. Each time, China and Russia have vetoed even the mildest of condemnations, arguing that it was a matter of Egyptian sovereignty. Only now, with the desperate escape of that minority from the Phaaroh's clutches, do the governments of Russia and China take such an acute interest in the welfare of the Egyptian people. "
The United States, France, and United Kingdom have indeed introduced thirteen separate resolutions on human rights abuses in Egypt since the advent of the Phaaroh who knew not Joseph.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin delivered a blistering response, arguing that it was the radical Jewsish leaders who had escalated the situation by resorting to weapons of mass destruction and demanding that Moses be indicted by the International Criminal Court as a war criminal: "It was not the Phaaroh who imposed unspeakable sanctions against the Egyptian people. It was not the Phaaroh who slaughtered every first-born male child in Egypt -- except the Jews -- in a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions. Surely, not a house in Egypt was spared from this , this plague. It was not the Phaaroh who resorted to trickery in the Red Sea, luring innocent Egyptian troops into the kill zone before massacring them. Both sides are equally guilty in the bloodshed, and until both sides renounce violence, a peaceful solution will be nothing but a mirage of the desert."
No agreement on any resolutions were reached. British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant flatly rejected many of the Russian assertions, arguing that only soldiers were afffected by the Red Sea disaster, and that it was not immediately obvious whether the Jews were actually responsible for the harsh sanctions that befell Egypt prior to the Jewish Exodus.
Doctors Without Borders upped the number of Egyptian dead into the five figures, but those figures could not be independently confirmed. The Phaaroh's government again rejected the entry of the U.N. Secretary-General's fact-finding mission on the grounds that it represented an intrusion of sovereignty. Russian and Chinese officials blamed this inflexible position on the civil society campaign to label the Egyptian Pyramids the "Slavery Pyramids."
Humanitarian officials are not sure about the current status of the Jewish refugees. According to unconfirmed reports from Egypt, the Jews left in such a hurry that they lacked basic provisions like bread or yeast, carrying only crude rations into the desert. The disputed status of the Sinai makes drone overflights impossible in that area. The "final status" of the Jews is also unclear, as the Assyrians, Moabites, and Philistines all declared the refugees to be persona non grata in their jurisdictions.
Outside the UN building, the NGO Inside Children annnounced that they planned to release a video entitled "LetMyPeopleGo2012," demanding that the Phaaroh release all Egyptian Jews immediately. The group rebuffed criticisms that this problem had been overtaken by events, saying that calling attention to the cruel despotism in Egypt was still "a worthwhile and noble cause."
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.
Barack Obama addressed AIPAC yesterday in anticipation of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington, which has led to some interesting responses. There's something in Carol Lee and Jay Solomon's Wall Street Journal write-up that is worth considering in more detail, however:
Mr. Obama's efforts to recalibrate the administration's position—cooling talk of war while nodding to the concerns of hawks such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—won some applause, including from the Israeli leader. Some of Israel's strongest backers on Capitol Hill weren't appeased, however.
"I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say," Mr. Obama said Sunday at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Washington's most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group....
By clarifying the administration's willingness to use force, the White House also hopes to lessen the chance Mr. Netanyahu will order a unilateral strike.
Mr. Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington on Sunday, praised Mr. Obama's speech and said it was an important step in unifying the U.S. and Israeli positions on Iran. "I appreciated the fact that he said that Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat," he said in a written statement.
Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives, said the speech was "a step in the right direction," but that "we need to make sure that this president is also going to stand by Israel and not allow his administration to somehow speak contrary to what our ally thinks is in its best interest." (emphasis added)
Now, this bolded part of the quote is quite extraordinary, if you think about it. Apparently, Cantor's standard with respect to American policy towards Israel is that the U.S. government cannot and should not contradict anything that Israel's government says. What's good for Israel's national interests -- as defined solely by Israel -- serves American interests as well.
Step back for a second and ask yourself if this is true of any other U.S. ally. A NATO member? Nah, we disagree with them all the time. Japan? Nope, there was a pretty bruising fight with that country's government on Okinawa bases just a few years ago. Canada? Hell, Mitt Romney pretty much made it clear that the U.S. is gonna get Canada's oil and I heard nary a peep of criticism from the GOP foreign policy establishment. I can't think of a Latin American, Pacific Rim or Central Asian ally that meets this criteria.
A few months ago, I asked whether, in the eyes of some, Israel was now the most super-special ally we have. I think statements like Cantor's are an excellent signal that the answer appears to be yes. So I hereby propose the following definition: if a prominent U.S. official or foreign policy commentator proposes a standard for U.S. policy towards Israel that would never be used for any other U.S. ally or treaty partner, then they have gone the full Cantor.
With the AIPAC conference going on this week, I hereby summon my readers to alert me to any further statements or criticisms that suggest the U.S. alliance with Israel is in a super-special, unique category that No Other Allies can join.
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."
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
Ben Smith's story in Politico today focuses on the emergence of a more critical stance on Israel from Media Matters and the Center for American Progress. Or, as neoconservatve Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin interprets it, Smith "blows the cover off the anti-Israel left and the Democrats’ favorite think tank, the Center for American Progress, which harbors many of its shrillest voices."
What's interesting about Smith's story is his evidence for this tonal shift at CAP and Media Matters -- namely, tweets and blog posts.
The daily battle is waged in Media Matters’ emails, on CAP’s blogs, Middle East Progress and ThinkProgress and most of all on Twitter, where a Media Mattters official, MJ Rosenberg, regularly heaps vitriol on those who disagree as “Iraq war neocon liar” (the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg) or having “dual loyalties” to the U.S. and Israel (the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin). And while the Center for American Progress tends to walk a more careful line, warm words for Israel can be hard to find on its blogs....
CAP officials have told angry allies that the bloggers don’t speak for the organization, and senior fellow Brian Katulis – whose work is more standard Clinton-Democrat fare – stressed that in an email.
“I think there are different voices on the Think Progress blog and some individual analysts - and some of that work, especially the blog, is I think aimed at reporting on and reflecting one aspect of the diversity of the views among the broad progressive community,” he said. “But what one blogger or analyst may write isn’t necessarily indicative of what our policy recommendations are for the administration or Congress when I’m doing meetings with our friends in government.”
The director of CAP’s national security program, Ken Gude, also drew a distinction between the blog, which is CAP’s loudest megaphone, and its less confrontational policy work.
“There’s a distinction here that we have between the policy work that we do and the blogging work that we do,” he said. Middle East Progress “is clearly a progressive blog and it does respond to arguments that are made most forcefully by conservatives and it responds in that way.”....
But the fact remains that the Center’s most audible voices on the Middle East aren’t the former Clinton staffers who populate much of the organization, and they come from different foreign policy traditions. Duss, a confrontational presence on Twitter but typically a more careful blogger, places himself in what’s sometimes called the “realist” stream of American foreign policy (emphasis added).
So, to sum up Smith's observations, what's driving this story is that when it comes to Israel, some of CAP and Media Matters analysts are really harsh on Twitter and pretty harsh on the blogs -- but the more substantive, traditional policy work doesn't look like that at all, so it's being overblown.
Rubin is having none of that:
[T]he scandal here is that CAP houses and provides a blog for such sentiments....
CAP is promoting this and is responsible for the venomous output on its blogs.
The excuse that these voices don’t represent CAP’s views and aren’t attributable to CAP is ludicrous....
Imagine if the bloggers were writing about the inferiority of a racial group. They’d be gone in a nanosecond. In fact, those who fancy themselves as respectable think tankers and loyal Democrats are enablers of the scourge of anti-Semitic filth that flows through the hard left. CAP has a choice: Clean out the sewer or be prepared to take the approbation that goes with the association with Israel haters and those who peddle in anti-Semitic tripe.
I don't agree with Rubin's characterizations of the content -- the material in question is not anti-Semitic (though it's problematic and borderline offensive) and CAP ain't "hard left." That said, she raises an interesting and valid point about what, exactly, is the output of a think tank. Is it the more traditional policy analysis? The blogs? The individual Twitter feeds of its denizens? In a Web 2.0 world, I have to wonder if the latter matters at least as much as the former (of course, the significance of tweets, etc., would have to apply to Rubin as well. Her own ombudsman, for example, blasted her for re-tweeing a link to "reprehensible" blog post containing "incendiary rhetoric").
There's a lot to consider here -- how a think tank brands itself, whether policy analysts can freely express themselves without being associated with their day job, and exactly how policy analysis is crafted. If, for example, someone develops a policy position in a path-dependent manner from instant tweet to somewhat-less-instant blog post to a memo/testimony that reifies those original statements, then Web 2.0 really matters. If, however, time leads one to modify or recalibrate the initial response -- as the statement of Duss suggests -- then Web 2.0 still matters, but in a different way. It matters only insomuch as the foreign policy community thinks that tweets and blog posts capture more attention and bandwidth than more conventional forms of policy analysis.
What do you think?
Many of my posts from the past week are about just who is an ally and who is an adversary. This is a nice (albeit belated) segue into the G-20 open mic flap, in which French president Nicolas Sarkozy said what he really thought about Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- and Barack Obama didn't disagree.
There's obviously going to be much gnashing of teeth about this from the usual suspects, and much caterwauling about said gnashing of teeth from the other usual suspects. So perhaps it's worth stepping back for a second to appreciate the fact that, contra realism, most alliances in recent history are far more long-lasting than a particular leader's term of office. Obviously, certain leaders -- see: Castro, Fidel -- can realign a country from one great power to another. Geopolitical pressures can cause other countries -- see: India -- to realign during critical junctures. Still, these have been the exceptions rather than the rule since 1945.
The Netanyahu/Obama flap is clearly one of clashing ideologies and clashing personalities, but it doesn't really change all that much in the way of the US-Israeli alliance. The defense cooperation between United States and Israel is stronger and larger than ever before, for example. The fundamentals of the alliance remain unchanged. As Robert Blackwill and Walter Slocombe recently pointed out in their WINEP paper:
[T]he United States and Israel have an impressive list of common national interests; that Israeli actions make substantial direct contributions to these U.S. interests; and that wise policymakers and people concerned with U.S. foreign policy, while never forgetting the irreplaceable values and moral responsibility dimensions of the bilateral relationship, should recognize the benefits Israel provides for U.S. national interests
This argument has drawn criticism from the usual suspects, but it reaffirms my point that alliances rarely rise and fall due to individual leaders.
So think of dust-ups like the open mic gaffe as mild ripples in the flow of friendship between the two countries, while the stock of the alliance remains fundamentally constant.
The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper reads through the fine print of a G-20 pool report:
President Obama] entered the room at 1:15 and took to his left, heading to Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. They chatted for a few seconds before British Prime minister David Cameron joined them. Hard to understand what they were saying amid the cameras noise. POTUS then took a stroll to Australian Premier Julia Gillard who got a hug as European president Herman van Rompuy, European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso and Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan were watching. Eventually the Europeans got a handshake but Erdogan got the hug treatment....
Isn't this whole scene pretty standard for President Obama? The Europeans get a handshake and the Islamist Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gets a hug (emphasis by Halper).
-- Halper's colleague at the Weekly Standard -- goes further, tweeting this anecdote as an example of Obama "hugging enemies, abandoning allies."
Yeah, I can't believe that Obama is hugging the personification of an America enemy like, like... a NATO treaty ally's head of government. The same country that helped to bankroll the Libya anti-Gadhafi movement and is now creating an enclave for the Free Syrian Army.
Yes, Erdogan has clearly made life difficult for another ally -- Israel. On the other hand, lots of America's allies make life difficult for other American allies (see: Gibraltar). That doesn't mean Turkey automatically gets its ally label revoked. If you look at the larger balance sheet of American interests, Turkey under Erdogan has been neither an enemy like Iran nor a frenemy like Pakistan. It's been occasonally aggravating, but really, when it comes to the global political economy, western European leaders like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have been way more aggravatiing.
So, yes, Michael Goldfarb has clearly gone Vizzini on the word "enemy."
To take a step back here, however, Goldfarb's language raises an some interesting observations. first, there's an awful lot of "friend/enemy" distinctions being made among GOP foreign policy commentators. That's the one takeaway from Herman Cain's foreign policy statements to date. The distinction sometimes useful -- from an American perspective, India is a friend but not an ally, while Pakistan is the reverse. Still, by and large, friends and allies do overlap a lot. Does this kind if language indicate a new GOP embrace of Carl Schmitt's worldview?
Second, to be blunt about it, is Israel now America's ally uber alles? If other countries disagree with Israel, does that mean, in Goldfarb's eyes, that they no longer qualify as either friend or ally? Are there any other of America's friends that fall into this super-special status? I really want to know.
Congratulations to Reuters' Douglas Hamilton for winning this week's Vizzini Award. The award, for new readers of the blog, goes to someone who uses a term of phrase that clearly does not mean what they think it means.
If Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is toppled, Israel will lose one of its very few friends in a hostile neighborhood and President Barack Obama will bear a large share of the blame, Israeli pundits said on Monday.
Political commentators expressed shock at how the United States as well as its major European allies appeared to be ready to dump a staunch strategic ally of three decades, simply to conform to the current ideology of political correctness. (emphasis added)
Now, there is a purely
short-sighted short-term geopolitical logic out there to justify a stalwart defense of Hosni Mubarak. Claiming that support for legitimate Egyptian demands is an example of "political correctness" seems, well, completely and totally wrong-headed. The most one could say that the United States is now in the semi-awkward position of honoring its own high-powered rhetoric on democracy in the Middle East.
Even from a strictly realpolitik perspective, however, I'm not sure exactly what Israeli pundits think could be gained from backing Mubarak to the hilt. Before his Friday speech, most Obama administration statements were at least mildly supportive, calling the Egyptian government "stable" and denying that Mubarak was a "dictator." Mubarak's disastrous Friday address, however, dramatically raised the policy costs of backing a crackdown (not to mention that I'm not sure the Egyptian army could have pulled it off anyway). As Steve Walt notes on his blog:
To maximize their own security, states want allies that are strong, stable, and that do not cause major strategic problems for them (i.e., by getting into counterproductive quarrels with others). Other things being equal, states are better off if they don't have to worry about their allies' internal stability, and if an allied government enjoys considerable support among its population. An ally that is internally divided, whose government is corrupt or illegitimate, or that is disliked by lots of other countries is ipso facto less valuable than one whose population is unified, whose government is legitimate, and that enjoys lots of international support. For this reason, even a staunch realist would prefer allies that were neither internally fragile nor international pariahs, while recognizing that sometimes you have to work with what you have.
Or, to quote Michael Clayton, "there's no play here."
This story is still interesting, however, because it certainly represents a data point against the Israel Lobby argument for American foreign policy. Scanning this good Washington Post write-up from Karen DeYoung, what's interesing is the dog that isn't barking -- namely, not one mention of Israel.
I suspect this is partly because the prospect of Arab democracy causes a serioius split between Israeli strategists and neoconservative supporters in the United States. Or it could be because, you know, the explanatory power of the Israel Lobby thesis has been vastly exaggerated.
UPDATE: I see that Geneive Abdo argues over at the Middle East Channel that Egypt 2011 is not like Iran 1978/79. Meanwhile, for another data point that neoconservatives are splitting from Israeli strategists, consider this Max Boot post:
I am hardly one to romanticize ElBaradei or to underestimate the difficulties of dealing with him. But what do his critics propose we do anyway?
Encourage Mubarak to kill lots of demonstrators to stay in power? Because at this point, that is probably what it would take for Mubarak to remain as president. Yet it is not even clear at this juncture that he could employ violence to save himself, given the fact that the Egyptian army has announced it will not fire on the demonstrators.
So what should the U.S. do? Demand that ElBaradei step down as the leader of the protest movement? Any such demand would be laughed off by the demonstrators, who are certainly not going to let their tune be called by Washington. Whom, at any rate, would we want to replace ElBaradei? There is not exactly a surfeit of well-respected liberal leaders, which is why ElBaradei was able to become the leader of the anti-Mubarak movement after having spent decades away from Egypt.
Perhaps we should demand that ElBaradei disassociate himself from the Muslim Brotherhood? Again, such a demand would be ignored, and probably rightly so. It is hard to see how any figure can claim to represent all the protesters without also speaking on behalf of the Brotherhood, which is the country’s largest and best-organized nongovernmental organization.
The Days of Rage seem to be persisting in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak is gunning for 2011's Marie Antoinette Award for Most Clueless Political Response By a Leader, and Egyptian protestors have completely and repeatedly ignored the 4 PM curfew announced on Friday. The police have withdrawn, the armed forces are out but not exactly stopping the protestors, and anyone vaguely related to Hosni Mubarak appears to have decided this was a swell time to shop at Harrod's. The official U.S. take on the situation is to
tap-dance as fast as humanly possible not say all that much.
So.... what now? What's going to happen? Like I said last week -- and like Paul Krugman -- I don't know. But having spent the morning watching the Sunday talk shows and the afternoon feverishly updating my Twitter feed, let me take this opportunity to ask as many provocative questions as I can:
1) Why is Mubarak toast? Everyone assumes that the Egyptian leader is a dead man walking, and given his speech on Friday, I can understand that sentiment. There are, however, remaining options for Mubarak to pursue, ranging from a full-blown 1989 Tiananmen square crackdown to a slow-motion 2009 Tehran-style crackdown.
Obviously, these aren't remotely good options for anyone involved. The first rule in political science, however, is that leaders want to stay in power, and Mubarak has given no indication that he wants to leave. He could be packing up as I type this -- but 80-year old strongmen don't tend to faint at the first spot of trouble.
The Days of Rage have clearly altered the future of Egypt -- Gamel Mubarak is not going to succeed his father. How much additional change will take place is unclear.
2) Could the army crack down if it wanted to? Contradicting my first question, the one thing I wonder is whether the Egyptian state has the capacity to crack down any more. Egypt's internal security forces have failed miserably. This leaves the army, an institution that has, to date, commanded respect across all walks of life in Egypt and refrained from direct internal coercion activities .
The fact that jets buzzed Tahrir Dquare suggests two things. First, the military is trying to signal to protestors to, you know, go home. Second, the military might not have the available tools to make this point more effectively, and might not be able to efficiently dispatch protestors if so desired. If this cable is accurate, the Egyptian military has long-focused on developing its conventional warfare capabilities, which is great for an armored attack in the desert and lousy for subduing a restive civilian population.
I'm sure the military could restore order if necessary, but it would be a hugely inefficient enterprise. The hit to their reputation would be massive.
3) Has U.S. influence over the situation increased and not decreased? Again, lots of talk today about how U.S. can't really shape the outcome. OK, except that I don't think the following statements add up:
a) The Egyptian armed forces are now the central pillar propping up the Egyptian state;
b) The Egyptian and American defense establishments have strong ties;
c) U.S. aide to Egypt is roughly $3 billion a year;
d) U.S. influence over the situation has waned.
As the Obama administration's rhetoric shifts -- going from calling on Mubarak to take action to talk about "transition" -- I wonder whether the U.S. is simply following the situation on the ground, or whether the situation on the ground has allowed the administration to start exerting more leverage.
4) After Egypt, which country in the region is the most nervous? This ain't Tunisia, it's the heart of the Arab Middle East. Regime chage in Egypt will send shockwaves across Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Libya and Syria.
That said, I suspect the most nervous country in the region will be Israel. When I was there this summer listening to their top security experts, Egypt was barely mentioned. The cornerstone of Israel's security was the notion that Egypt was a partner and not a threat. A region in which Iran, Turkey and Egypt all adopt hostile attitudes towards the State of Israel is, let's say, not an ideal situation. If both Turkey and Egypt look like democracies a year from now, that makes things even worse.
5) Is the Muslim Brotherhood really all that and a bag of chips? The MB wasn't behind the latest protests, and it's not entirely clear how much support they actually command in Egypt. This hasn't stopped speculation about what an MB-led Egypt would look like. While everyone is evoking what happened in Iran in 1979, I keep thinking that the Egyptian military is a lot more robust now than the Iranian military was back then. Stratfor speculates otherwise, but they don't have much data to back up their claim. I find it interesting that the MB threat has not deterred neoconservatives from supporting, at a minimum, regime change in Egypt.
[So do you have any answers?--ed. The U.S. should be pursuing a broad-spectrum policy of engaging any and every actor in Egypt right now, but the key is the military. All available pressure -- including an aid cutoff -- should be put on that institution to not intervene and not attack civilians. If that happens, I think that all the other dominoes fall.]
[NOTE: This was written on Thursday, but I foolishly forgot to 'publish" it. It's still relevant, however -- ed.]
Longtime readers know I'm fond of the phrase "going Vizzini" when policymakers or reporters keep using a word incorrectly.
Today, I'm adding "going Goodman" in honor of The Simpson's Brad Goodman. In the episode Bart's Inner Child, he said, "There's no trick to it, it's just a simple trick!" I hereby award the Goodman to anyone who says something to the effect of, "We're not asking that you do A, just do A instead!"
For today's Goodman, let's go to the New York Times and Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren's op-ed explaining Netanyahu's latest offer to the Palestinians:
Benjamin Netanyahu, for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, enabling his government to consider extending the moratorium on West Bank construction. "Such a step by the Palestinian Authority would be a confidence-building measure," Mr. Netanyahu explained, noting that Israel was not demanding recognition as a prerequisite for direct talks. It would "open a new horizon of hope as well as trust among broad parts of the Israeli public."…
For Palestinians, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state... means accepting that the millions of them residing in Arab countries would be resettled within a future Palestinian state and not within Israel, which their numbers would transform into a Palestinian state in all but name. Reconciling with the Jewish state means that the two-state solution is not a two-stage solution leading, as many Palestinians hope, to Israel’s dissolution.
While the cliché is that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, that's not what Oren and Netanyahu are offering. They're offering two months of doing nothing on settlements in return for Palestinians giving up the right of return, which is one of the core bargaining issues in any final settlement negotiations.
This might have the distinction of being one of the worst bargains ever offered in the history of Israeli/Palestinian negotiations. True, everyone knows that, eventually, the Palestinians will have to give up the right of return for there to be a final peace. Everyone also knows, however, that the only way that happens in a politically viable manner is if it's part of a package deal on the final status of the occupied territories.
Regardless of what Oren is writing in his op-ed, this offer amounts to the following: "We're happy to enter into final status negotiations, just as soon as you throw in your biggest bargaining chip to get what you want in final status negotiations."
If Oren and Netanyahu think they can cadge it from the Palestinians in return for a two-month moratorium on settlements, well, then they win this week's Brad Goodman Award.
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
In a desperate, last-ditch effort to keep up with the President's pace of summer vacations, your humble blogger will be at an undisclosed locale and blogging at a more leisurely pace than normal (though I do hope to get to the Goldberg essay on Israel/US/Iran soon).
I confess to being not much of a fiction reader in general, and I've already read my novel for the summer. But I am looking forward to my non-fiction reading on this trip - it‘s a balanced mix of something old, something new, and a few things to think about in the wake of my Israel trip:
1) Harold James, The End of Globalization: Lessons From the Great Depression. As the economy starts heading into its second dip since the fall of 2008, it's worth contemplating whether the globalized economy we've taken for granted the past thirty years could really disintegrate. It's certainly true that, to date, the Great Recession has not really upended the open rules of the global game. A few more dips, however, and anything is possible. James wrote this short book about a decade ago, using prior historical eras in which globalization has collapsed to ask whether it could happen again. This, plus another look at Barry Eichengreen's Golden Fetters when I get back, should serve me well for the next month or so.
2) Jerry Z. Muller, Capitalism and the Jews. To put it bluntly, why are the Jews so damn good at commerce? How have philosophers explained this stereotype-that-contains-some-element-of-truth? Why have some Jews rebelled against the market? This interconnected collection of essays proffers some tentative answers to these questions.
3) Albert Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. If this summer's political to-dos have been about anything, they've been about how conservatives reactionaries have skillfully and not-so-skillfully used their rhetoric to push the public discourse in a direction that favors their arguments. In this kind of environment, Hirschman's book seems especially trenchant. Besides, in my humble opinion, every social scientist should read or re-read one of Albert Hirschman's books every year. Hmmm.... question to readers: which author do you think social scientists should read at least once a year?
4) Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle. While I was in Israel, everyone and their Jewish mother kept telling me to read this book, which proffers to explain why Israel has transformed itself from socialist basketcase to entrepreneurial exemplar. So, I'll take a look. I've heard Singer's spiel on this, which among other things argues that Israeli entrepreneurs have a comparative advantage because of their esprit de corps that builds from their army experience. This echoes some of Avner Greif's work about the Maghrebi traders. That said, Greif's hypothesis is now open to question, and I'm not completely convinced about Senor and Singer's argument.
5) Peter Andreas and Kelly Greenhill, eds., Sex, Drugs and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict. Having worked a bit on money laundering, I'm keenly aware of the ways in which bulls**t statistics become accepted as fact. If some authoritative figure pulls a number out of thin air, the media will often repeat it to the point where it becomes gospel. Andreas and Greenhill's edited volume takes a hard look at how some of these figures affect public policy debates. Slate's Jack Shafer has already penned a paean to the book that I could never match, so just check out his praiseworthy review.
Readers are encouraged to proffer their own nonfiction book recommendations in the comments.
A few days ago my group went to Ramallah to meet with some leading figures in Fatah and the Palestinian Authority - including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Here are my impressions from that seven-hour visit:
1) As much as the Israeli economy is booming, Ramallah is in the middle of the mother of all construction booms. Practically every block has a crane with construction going on - and not an empt6y crane either, but one with actual work going on. While the city is poorer than a comparable Israeli village, I should note that an awful lot of those new buildings look like the Palestinian version of McMansions.
2) For all the talk about Fatah being a secular movement, most of the people we saw outside of the Palestinian Authority (PA) buildings looked a bit more religious. Except for those women working for the PA, every woman I saw on the street was wearing the hijab.
3) The one Palestinian all of our Israeli interlocutors praised was Fayyad, so it was quite interesting to meet him. He's not a Fatah member, and has all the charisma of an economist. That said, he has one thing that few people on either side possessed - a healthy dollop of optimism. Fayyad has been hard at work trying to build the Palestinian state from the ground up, focusing on both the mundane (garbage collection) and the not-so-mundane (security). The general consensus is that the West Bank is far safer and far better run than it was five years ago. Fayyad's goal seems to be to get the Israelis to realize that the Palestinians are competent at statebuilding. So far, the Israelis appear to concede that progress has been made. That said, both the PA and the Israelis fear a reversal if further progress is not made during the peace talks.
4) There is a wide disagreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians about the explanation behind the disappearance of terrorist attacks emanating from the West Bank - and, more generally, the lack of violence during Operation Cast Lead or even the recent flotilla incident. The Israelis credit Operation Defensive Shield, the security barrier, and the Israeli Defense Forces (a joke repeated by many Israelis we met was that Abu Mazen has the best security force in the word - the IDF). PA officials credited improved Palestinian security forces and the conscious self-restraint of the Palestinian people. One PA official claimed - and an former Israeli official confirmed - that 25,000 Palestinians cross the barrier undetected for economic reasons, and should the PA want to cause trouble, the barrier would be only a minor impediment. This official later claimed that the PA could launch missiles onto Tel Aviv if they so decided.
5) There is also a wide divergence of preferences about the status quo. As noted previously, the Israelis are pretty happy. Fatah is less happy - they feel like they're doing the dirty work to enhance Israeli security without realizing any benefits in terms of peace negotiations. They worry that unless progress is made on final status negotiation soon, they will lose power to Hamas. I have every confidence that fair-minded FP readers can evaluate these claims.
6) About the border crossing and the security barrier. Getting into Ramallah was pretty easy - the Israelis don't care who goes through, and the PA had no checkpoints. Once inside, it's impossible to look at the concrete barrier and not think of the Berlin Wall. Same concrete, same distribution of graffiti (no graffiti on the Israeli side, plenty on the Palestinian) and similar message content (though an awful lot of it was in English, which I found convenient ). Getting back into Israel was much more onerous. The lines were long, and the wait was interminable. The Palestinians were pretty unfazed by the wait - for them, this was standard operating procedure. On the other hand, Dalia Rabin, the head of the Rabin Institute and daughter of the late prime minister, had to be detained because she couldn't walk through the metal detector for health reasons.
7) I have something very controversial to say, so let's just get this out in the open: the hummus at the Mirador Hotel in Ramallah is better than the hummus at the King David in Jerusalem [Way to inflame tensions!!-ed. I call them as I see them.]
UPDATE: Yes, I meant seven thoughts, not six. My counting skills are the first thing to go when I'm jet-lagged.
Tel Aviv is a charming, modern, cosmopolitan city with a thriving high-tech sector, powder-sand beaches and the most temperate of seas. Apparently, it is also the most insidious threat to the state of Israel.
You might think that Hamas or Hezbollah want to take out Tel Aviv. Well, maybe, but right now it's the Israelis who have a beef with the lovely city on the Mediterranean Sea. Simply put, the problem with Tel Aviv is that it's sucking up all of the young, secular Israelis from across the country. As well it should - it offers good jobs and an easygoing lifestyle, like the Bay Area in the U.S.
This migration within Israel creates a number of long-term policy headaches. First, residents of Tel Aviv simply don't care that much about making peace with the Palestinian Authority, Syria, or the rest of the Arab world. Tel Aviv is almost exclusively Jewish, it's too far south for Hezbollah to hit and too far north for Hamas to hit. You can live in Tel Aviv and not think about long-term security concerns - which is exactly what most Israelis do. This is the majority of the population, and they're politically apathetic.
This leaves other parts of the country - most obviously Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements - to the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox and those Israeli nationalists who believe in Greater Israel. These are the people driving the Israeli government to expand settlement construction in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. The short-term political logic is to appease the settler and ultra-Orthodox movements. Both IDF officials and Israeli politicians know that at some point Israel will have to let go of most of this territory. The demographics are already getting ugly. One negotiator quoted Thomas Jefferson on this: "We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."
Finally, because of the rush to Tel Aviv, Israel isn't populating more strategic parts of its country, like the Negev or the Galilee. Instead, they're expanding into the West Bank, which is pretty stupid because most (though not all) of that territory will be ceded to Palestine at some point. Officials kept talking about creating a high-speed rail network to encourage more population spread away from Tel Aviv, but that's a ways off. As the Palestinian population outpaces the growth of the Jewish population, there's going to be incentives to move to those areas. One demographer worries about an expanding, J-shaped mass of Palestinians that shrinks Israel down to Tel Aviv and its environs. That fear might be exaggerated, but it's similar to the Russian fear of Chinese expansion into Siberia.
The longer this trend continues, the more the cosmopolitans of Tel Aviv will cede power to the ultra-orthodox and the ultra-nationalists. That augurs badly for Israel's strategic situation.
So what do the Palestinians think about all of this? That will be the subject of my next post.
Halfway through my Israel vist, I've heard from a lot of high-ranking officials, strategists and academics about how they see Israel's security situation. It would be safe to say that there are a few paradoxes.
On the one hand, there are ways in which Israel's security situation has been better over the past 18 months than it has been for a long time. The rocket attack in Ashkelon was striking because it was the first one since Operation Cast Lead. Rocket fire from Gaza went from 20-30 a day to one every other week or so. Hamas is running Gaza, but Israel has enough reconnaissance equipment overhead and along the border to, as one IDF soldier put it, "know enough to know the brand of olive oil they put on their hummus."
Similarly, in the north, there has been no rocket fire since the 2006 Lebanon war. As for the West Bank, suicide terrorism has disappeared from Israel proper, and the Israelis sound confident that terrorist networks are pretty much nonexistent. The Israeli officials believe that the Palestinian Authority under
Salid Fayyam Salam Fayyad are slowly and steadily developing administrative competencies, which help to ease the likelihood of Hamas developing a foothold.
Why are things so good right now? The Israelis believe it's because Hezbollah and Hamas now control territory, which means that they can be deterred. As one official put it, both Hezbollah and Hamas have transformed themselves from strong terrorist networks to weak armies. Israel fought bitterly against these outcomes, but they're comfortable with the status quo.
Actually, most Israelis are too comfortable with the status quo. The bad news is that Israeli security experts also recognize that all of the long-term trends are working against them. As military forces, both Hamas and Hezbollah are only getting stronger, with rockets that can hit further into Israel proper. Iran is developing its nuclear capabilities and supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. The demographics are such that, unless Israel lets go of the West Bank very soon, Jews will become a distinct minority. The window for a viable two-state solution is closing fast.
So, what should be done? Israelis don't have a great answer to this question, beyond "let the status quo continue." They think containment can work in Gaza, and that engagement can work in the West Bank. The wishful thinking that regime change will solve Israel's problem runs strong and deep within Israeli security circles (coincidentally, this is the only issue on which Israelis sound more optimistic than their America counterparts). Mostly, however, Israeli officials are concerned that the attractiveness of the status quo will lull the population into inaction. At a time when Israel could exploit its temporary advantages into the best deal possible, there isn't a lot of forward progress on any of Israel's security issues. And normal Israeli citizens just want to go to the beach - which creates a problem that I'll discuss in my next post.
Earlier today, we were given a tour of the Green Line and the physical barrier that separates Isreal proper from the West Bank (note -- the Green Line and the location of the barrier are not the same thing, which is a source of furious and intractable debate some mild contestation among the interested parties.)
We were driven to an overlook that contrasted a small Israeli settlement with the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. The settlement looks like a leafy exurb in the middle of a lot of brown, dilapidated neighborhoods. In case you were wondering, the material incentive for settlement housing is that it's 40 percent cheaper than living in Tel Aviv, the climate is more temperate, and it's still close to the city.
Our tour guide was a former IDF brigadier general, and without getting into specifics let's just say that he knew an awful lot about the West Bank. He gave us a brief lecture explaining the humanitarian issues that arose with the creation of the barrier, the security gains that came from it, the economic disparity between the Palestinian cities and the settlements, and so forth.
As he was talking, a second tour group showed up and the other tour guide started talking, also in English. I sidled up to the edge of that group to listen. The second guide's spiel was rather different. He talked about the dangers of disengaging from the West Bank, because of the possibility of a takeover by either Hamas of Hezbollah. Instability in Iraq and Jordan were also mentioned as possibilities.
Now this was a curious statement, given that Hezbollah is Shiite and based in Lebanon -- they have a tacit alliance with Hamas, but would be unlikely to find hospitable ground in the West Bank under any contingency.
It turns out that this tour was run by -- wait for it -- AIPAC. The guide was shepherding a group of Hispanic politicians around the country.
Take from this what you will.
I'll be blogging more on the particulars of what I'm learning just as soon as I sort out the on-the-record/off-the-record rules here. However, as I see the U.S. trying to jawbone the Israelis and Palestinians into direct negotiations, I will point out one thing I've learned so far: Israelis are not really in the mood to listen to American advice on how to deal with their security threats.
Readers might find this puzzling, given the political fallout from the 2002 West Bank incursions of Operation Defensive Shield, the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and the recent flotilla flare-up. The Israeli response to this is multifaceted, but a big part of it can be distilled to the following:
Let me see if I've got this straight. Your country has been fighting two wars for the past seven years at a horrible cost to the local populations and with over 4,000 Americans dead. At present, one of them is going very badly and one of them is going slightly less badly. No matter how harshly you judge the past decade of our military operations, our longest military operation lasted little more than a month. Do you really think you're in a position to offer us strategic and/or tactical advice?
Readers are warmly encouraged to think up a snappy comeback to that talking point -- because I had nothing.
The United States might be able to pressure Israel into changing its policies. The power of United States persuasion, however, is pretty much nil.
Israel is a special country, and getting there is part of its special nature. If you choose to come, here are some useful travel tips that might make your voyage a more pleasant one:
Get to your gate on the early side. All trips to Israel involve a second - and to my eyes, at least - completely superfluous security check at the gate. I say superfluous because it seemed to be an exact duplicate of the security screening required to get to the gate in the first place. So, just to be clear, this is bad redundancy, not good redundancy.
Once on the plane, immediately be prepared for a high-stress effort to get the plane out of the gate. The reason is that most planes flying to Tel Aviv have a fair number of Orthodox Jewish families on board. Given that the average size of such a family is about five kids, there are a lot of child seats that need to be installed, seat-swapping that needs to be done, and so forth. On my flight, as well as Goldie's, Marty's, and B-Woww's, the flight attendants went to 11 on the panic meter because the plane couldn't leave the gate unless everyone was sitting down, and inevitably someone wasn't sitting down. Frantic warnings about missing slot times for takeoff will ensure. In all likelihood, the plane will settle down just at the last moment possible.
Go to the bathroom about 45 minutes before landing - because you're not allowed to get out of your seat for the last thirty minutes on a flight to Israel.
Israel is a member of the OECD, which means it has OECD levels of traffic. It will take some time to get from the airport to your hotel. The traffic signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English, with many in Russian as well. Some of the English translations can be very direct. Next to one power line, it simply said, "Danger of Death."
As for Tel Aviv itself, my only useful geopolitical observation is that I've discovered the real reason that the U.S. embassy will never relocate from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Presidents repeatedly pledge to make this move, but it never happens.
Hard-bitten realpolitik types will explain that this is because of the ill will that such a move would engender within the Arab world. Ha!! The real reason is that the current U.S. embassy is located on some prime beachfront property next to the big hotels. If I was a Foreign Service Officer assigned to Tel Aviv, I'd do everything in my power to prevent moving the embassy away from a beach with powdery sand, warm Mediterranean waters, and bikinis and Speedos as far as the eye can see. It doesn't even matter if there's ever an Israeli-Palestinian peace - bureaucratic politics will keep that embassy right where it is.
Fortunately for embassy officials, and unfortunately for almost everyone else, there won't be a peace anytime soon. More on that in my next update.
Your humble blogger will be a bit more focused on the Middle East for the next ten days. That's because I'll be going on the road to Israel and the Occupied Territories as part of
IR summer camp a fact-finding trip sponsored by the good people at Academic Exchange.
I tried talking the folks at MTV into bringing along a camera crew to film a Jersey Shore-type of show:
ME: This is an awesome trip. You'll get lots of good footage!!
MTV: Who else is going?
MTV: No, no, what are their Jersey Shore monikers?
ME: Oh, well, let's see, there's LJ, Bobby, Debbie, Marty, Mad Skillz Mikey, Steph, Goldie, Work of Art, A-Down, KupKake, D-Lake, Valentino, B-Woww, and "The Drezner," among others.
MTV: Cool names!! Whatcha gonna be doing?
ME: Meeting with high-ranking Israeli, Palestinian and civil society leaders to get a nuanced sense of what's really going on.
Well, their loss.
Seriously, as embarrassing as it is for a Jewish kid raised in Connecticut to admit, this will be my first visit to Israel. The trip will hopefully afford me an opportunity to be
co-opted by the Israel Lobby get a better understanding of how Israelis and Palestinians think about the situation over there. I'm sure I will learn a lot - and I'll be sure to provide the readers of Foreignpolicy.com plenty of updates about B-Woww's binge drinking what I've learned along the way.
Ben Smith reports that China is facing mounting pressure because of its refusal to condemn North Korea for its sinking of the Cheonan:
Oh, wait, you know what? I might have mixed up some of the words in that cut and paste. Here's the original:
With roughly the population of Houston, Texas, Israel is just not large enough to withstand extended isolation, meaning this event has profound geopolitical implications.
Public opinion matters where issues are not of fundamental interest to a nation. Israel is not a fundamental interest to other nations. The ability to generate public antipathy to Israel can therefore reshape Israeli relations with countries critical to Israel. For example, a redefinition of U.S.-Israeli relations will have much less effect on the United States than on Israel. The Obama administration, already irritated by the Israelis, might now see a shift in U.S. public opinion that will open the way to a new U.S.-Israeli relationship disadvantageous to Israel.
The Israelis will argue that this is all unfair, as they were provoked... they seem to think that the issue is whose logic is correct. But the issue actually is, whose logic will be heard? As with a tank battle or an airstrike, this sort of warfare has nothing to do with fairness. It has to do with controlling public perception and using that public perception to shape foreign policy around the world. In this case, the issue will be whether the deaths were necessary. The Israeli argument of provocation will have limited traction.
Internationally, there is little doubt that the incident will generate a firestorm. Certainly, Turkey will break cooperation with Israel. Opinion in Europe will likely harden. And public opinion in the United States — by far the most important in the equation — might shift to a “plague-on-both-your-houses” position.
This is serious, because you have people like Jim Henley minimizing the threat to Israel:
Israel not only no longer faces any enemies who pose an existential threat, it doesn’t even have enemies who can thwart any strongly held Israeli policy aim. No state is going to go to war to “destroy Israel.” I doubt any state particularly wants to. Certainly no state that might want to can do so. But beyond that, no state is going to go to war on behalf of the Palestinians and the Palestinians lack the power to launch an effective war on their own behalf.
Henley is correct about the current military balance of power, but the notion that Israel has no existential threats to worry about is absurd. The people who control Gaza don't recognize Israel's right to exist, and there's a government in the region that keeps talking about wanting to wipe the country off the face of the map. They're not powerful enough at present to take action -- but that hardly means that they won't take such action in the future should they acquire greater capabilities.
This creates a vicious circle with regard to the emphasis on liberty of action, since the IDF's deterrence is no longer based on its Entebbe-era veneer of Mission Impossible-like efficiency, but rather on the knowledge that the Israeli government is willing to use overwhelming and disproportionate force against all provocations, regardless of their threat level.
In conclusion, I agree with an awful lot of what Max Boot says on this:
Israel cannot afford to become another South Africa, Burma, or North Korea. Come to think of it, even South Africa couldn’t afford to become South Africa: an international pariah regime. It was too democratic and too Western to bear such isolation indefinitely in the way that absolute dictatorships like Burma or North Korea can. The international embargo ultimately led to a crisis of confidence within Afrikaner leadership circles and to the negotiated end to the racist regime. Israel, I stress, is no South Africa: it is not an apartheid regime. It is in fact the most liberal and democratic regime in the region, offering Arabs more rights than they are offered in any of its immediate neighbors. And Israel is, mercifully, not yet subject to the kind of international opprobrium that South Africa (rightly) received. Unfortunately, it is heading in that direction....
That doesn’t mean [Israel] should refrain from legitimate acts of self-defense (such as killing Hamas big shots or retaliating for Hamas rocket strikes), but it should be ultra careful to manage public perceptions of its actions. Unfortunately, the Israeli Defense Forces have always shown more competence at tactical kinetic operations than at information operations. That deficiency was revealed during the 2006 war with Hezbollah and now more recently in the botched raid on the Gaza ships. Granted, Israel is getting better about managing the consequences of its actions; the IDF gets kudos for posting video of the raid online quickly and making some naval commandos available for interviews. But if Israel were strategically smarter, it would have avoided the raid altogether, with all the possibilities of something going wrong, and used more stealthy means to prevent the Hamas activists from reaching their objective. The IDF should be mindful of the French experience in Algeria and the American experience in Vietnam: it is possible to win every battle and still lose the war.
Developing.... in a precipitously bad way for Israel.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.