First day back at work in the New Year. Blearily open eyes on computer screen. First story I see: Muslim Brotherhood says they won't recognize Israel. Second story: Muslim Brotherhood closer to running lower house in Egyptian parliament. Third story: Islamists form government in Morocco. Next story: Israelis, prepare for peace talks by announcing new construction beyond Green Line in Jerusalem. Next story: Iranian rattling sabers in the Gulf. Next story: Taliban setting up shop in Qatar thanks to rapprochement with government. Next story: Arab League sham intervention in Syria going nowhere fast.
Seriously. That's how 2012 started for me. So, the question is: what's a guy supposed to think? Is it that 2011 was the year of giddy -- and utterly unfounded -- optimism about the Middle East?
The only person who could possibly read all those stories and be happy is Bibi Netanyahu. With elections expected in Israel this year, nothing could do more for his election chances than to have all his worst predictions about the aftermath of Arab Spring and the increasing Iranian threat appear to be coming true. All the intolerance, abuse, violence, and exacerbation of the country's problems associated with the Israeli far right and all the missteps of the Israeli Prime Minister himself may seem small price to pay if the country feels a vice grip of insecurity tightening around it throughout the year.
That's not to say I actually think that Netanyahu's combativeness and pedantry actually helps anything. I don't. It's actually more a way of saying that as bad as I think this morning's first news dump was for me, I can't help but feel worse is in store.
Beyond the problems that seem certain to deepen between Israel and the Palestinians, within Syria, with the rise of intransigent Islamic political parties, and with Iran, we also have Iraq seemingly heading straight back to the emergency room of geopolitics and, if anything, the deal the U.S. seems likely to cut with the devils we know in Afghanistan promises even less satisfactory outcomes.
Furthermore, none of these pessimistic analyzes actually have to pan out in the long run to actually have really negative consequences. For example, one of the more positive stories of the morning was the announcement that U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta was preparing a plan to cut $450 billion in U.S. defense spending over the next decade. This is in line with the very modest 8 percent cuts the administration had planned. And it's an important step in the right direction.
Almost certainly the greatest, most damaging strategic error the U.S. has made during the past couple decades is continuing our over-the-top defense spending. We have spent at many times the level we need to protect ourselves -- indeed, we have spent at a level at which the economic damage we have done the country (both in terms of deficits created and in terms of the opportunity cost of investing in our military rather than in more productive segments of the economy) vastly outstrips any potential security benefits that may have been derived. Certainly, that's been true since the fall of the USSR. In all likelihood it was true long before that.
We could cut the budget five times the level proposed and still be outspending our nearest rival many times over. But, if the Middle East -- which I would argue is not and should not be our primary security focus -- festers and boils this year as today's headlines suggest it might, then it is easy to imagine a central debate of this year's elections in the U.S. being about whether or not we should cut defense spending at all. A President with an exemplary record in terms of combating terror and getting the U.S. out of costly conflicts will suddenly find that Republicans will be able to open a different front on the national security debate where he may appear vulnerable. They will say the world is more dangerous and this is no time to be cutting defense.
And my guess is that means that when the time comes to really cut the budget nothing like these cuts will be made...and the U.S. will continue to pose the greatest danger to itself by over-spending on wasteful, bloated, duplicative defense systems it can't and shouldn't attempt to afford. The Panetta $450 billion plan will be seen as the high bid in terms of cuts and we will negotiate downward from there. The changes will be incremental and we will continue down the path to great power decline long ago limned by Paul Kennedy.
Take that and the real threats posed by the ever changing landscape in the Middle East -- uncertainty in North Korea, the rise of ever more important security challenges in Asia, the problems in the Eurozone, and bird flu (I saw "Contagion"...I know what we're up against! I saw Gwyneth Paltrow's brain!) -- and my newest New Year's resolution is to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head and wait for 2013.
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A staple in each of the various invisible man movies is the scene in which our phantom hero pokes and smacks and hurls things at a bewildered bad guy. The confused target of his attack ends up being humiliated even as he helplessly lashes out and is then defeated. Recalling this, you can probably understand how the Iranian government feels these days.
Steadily, insistently, and with devastating effectiveness over the course of the past couple years, Iran has seen nuclear scientists blown up, explosions at key research facilities, and cyberattacks that set back their efforts to develop nuclear weapons. It is impossible for anyone to publicly assert or prove that each and every one of these incidents has been part of an orchestrated covert campaign to slow Iran's progress toward an atom bomb. But there are two things we can say. The cumulative effect of these incidents has been much as one might hope to achieve with such a covert campaign. And the Iranians thus far have proven powerless to stop the attacks.
The government in Tehran has responded in much the same way the befuddled victim of the invisible man inevitably does. They have lashed out in all directions, looking ever more confused and helpless. They deny the attacks are happening. They say they are accidents, coincidences. They step up their rhetoric against those who they feel may be behind the efforts. They offer blustering speeches. As of today, they direct their rent-a-thug squads at the British Embassy (pictured above), offering chants and vandalism as the latest sure signs of their impotence.
Meanwhile, in the West, pundits argue that you can't attack Iran, can't make it harder for them to develop a nuclear program without an impossibly costly war. While it may ultimately be impossible to stop Iran using the current combination of diplomatic initiatives and covert missions alone, it is also undeniable that to the extent that at least some of the incidents in Iran (such as Stuxnet, for example) are certainly the work of Western intelligence services, the current mix is having an effect -- without actually being a big-time, Hollywood production, name-above-the-title, shock-and-awe invasion or protracted bombing campaign. And if, as it appears, that effect is at least to squeeze the Ahmadinejad regime and impede its progress while all the while making it look bad in the eyes of both its restive populace and its friends and enemies throughout the region, then credit must go to those behind the efforts.
We who observe are left in much the same position as a bystander witnessing an attack by the Invisible Man on some villain. We're not quite sure what we're seeing or why it is happening but we can't help but cheer the results so far and hope that in the end stealth triumphs (or stealth, plus diplomacy, plus a clear understanding that President Obama means it when he says that the United States and our allies will not allow Iran to successfully develop a nuclear weapons program).
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The government of Iran, much like many across the Middle East, believes that the Obama administration is so consumed with a desire to undo the wrongs of the Bush era and get out from under the costs of two difficult, hard-to-justify wars in the region that it would never intervene against them militarily. Iranian leaders seem to believe that the United States would not risk another war in the region just to stop their development of nuclear weapons.
The government of Israel, also worried that its number one ally has lost its appetite for complex entanglements in the region, seems to think that by playing the Iran card it can goad the U.S. into action that will restore the bonds between the two nations. Israeli leaders believe that they can translate their perception of Iran as an existential threat against them and a brazen, rising regional hegemon into a new renewed U.S. commitment to the region and closer ties with Israel.
Both are wrong.
According to the U.K. newspaper the Guardian, which has an extraordinary package of stories on the growing Iran risk and the escalation of that risk associated with an upcoming International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that will reveal game-changing progress by Iran in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons capabilities, even America's closest allies in Britain believe "President Obama has a big decision to make in the coming months because he won't want to do anything just before an election." Wrong.
Here in the U.S., analysts believe that Obama would not risk being drawn into a war in the region or the upheaval a series of attacks might cause. Even though tensions are definitely rising and those familiar with the IAEA report that will be circulated next week say, "It is going to be hard for even Moscow or Beijing to downplay its significance," there is a sense that Obama won't pull the trigger. Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour was quoted by the Guardian as saying, "A U.S. military attack on Iran is not going to happen during Obama's presidency. If you're Obama, and your priority is to resuscitate the American economy and decrease the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, bombing Iran would defeat those two objectives. Oil prices would skyrocket." While an attack is no sure thing yet, the analysis is wrong.
Certainly no one in the Obama Administration is eager to launch an attack on Iran. Taking steps that would risk being drawn into another war or that might damage the global economy further or could distract from the world at home would be vigorously opposed by several of the President's most senior advisors, and he undoubtedly would be deeply divided on the issue himself.
But in the end, as dangerous as an attack might be militarily and politically, if the President believes there is no other alternative to stopping Iran from gaining the ability to produce highly enriched uranium and thus manufacture nuclear weapons, he will seriously consider military action and it is hardly a certainty he won't take it. From a domestic political perspective, right now Obama's strong suit is his national security performance. For the first time in years, he has taken the issue away from the Republicans. Right now they simply cannot attack him as being weak or assert they understand defense better. That is why they are so silent on the issue. Obama has only four real areas of vulnerability on this front. First, if he pushes too hard for defense budget cuts before the election, the Republicans will go after him. He won't. He will seek cuts but will be comparatively cautious. Next, if there were a terrorist attack of some sort and the administration seemed unprepared or responded weakly, that would create a problem. But that is a perennial wild card. Third, if he distances himself from Israel, the Republicans will seek to capitalize on the sense some supporters of that country have that Obama is not a committed friend. There is already plenty of activity in that area ... and the Israelis are eager to take advantage of their perceived election year leverage. And finally, if Iran were to detonate a nuclear bomb, Obama would be blamed and fiercely attacked for a policy of engagement that ultimately proved to be toothless.
As a consequence, the President and his advisors are acutely aware of the Iran issue. But their concerns go much deeper. The President and his national security leadership are deeply worried about the potential consequences associated with an Iranian nuclear breakthrough. It would likely trigger an arms race in the region at a time of considerable instability. It would immediately ratchet up tensions between Iran and Israel ... but also between Iran and its historic enemies in the Gulf. It would both raise Iran's perceived clout and underscore the absence of a counterweight either from the U.S., the West, or the international community at large.
While an attack on Iran's nuclear weapons facilities almost certainly would produce a spike in oil prices, those prices would stabilize if the attacks were successful and did not produce a protracted war. Further, with the world economy in a slump, prices are feeling less upward pressure anyway these days. However, if Iran gained nuclear weapons, it might trigger a kind of uncertainty that would be protracted and would have a longer-term effect on oil prices.
The British assumption that the President would not take this action close to the election is mistaken on two levels. First, from the most cynical perspective possible, a strong action right before the election in response to a genuine threat after an extended effort to pursue more peaceful options to resolving the issue might well work very well for the President politically. The American people's reaction to an attack at any time is likely to give the President the benefit of the doubt. That said, it would be a mistake to think this President would make such a cynical analysis. Should he act on an issue like this, he will do so without making any political calculus. He's a politician to be sure. But on national security matters he has grown both increasingly self-confident and proven himself to be exceptionally disciplined. Indeed, the calculus as to what he might do needs to factor in that he has achieved some success taken strong military actions of a focused nature. The "no more Middle East wars" notion went out the window with Libya. The "Obama is timid on these matters" thesis was actually silently put to an early death when the President, just in office, ordered the ultimately successful effort to eliminate Osama bin Laden.
Finally, the Israelis are wrong if they think that U.S. cooperation on this issue will restore the bond between the two nations. They may work side-by-side on this as they did on the Stuxnet intervention. They share close ties. But so long as Israel pursues settlements and other policies that inflame the Palestinian situation and make a solution less likely, this administration will be more divided internally in its views on Israel than its public statements may suggest. Further, the reality is that history is moving against the Israelis. Not only are America's strategic priorities shifting -- the end of the Cold War and the War on Terror were both blows to the "indispensability" of Israel to the U.S. -- but other countries, like China and India, are gaining more influence in the region as they become more important consumers of the region's oil. And they view the Israeli-Palestinian issue as an irritant, a risk to their interests and a matter that needs to be disposed of, one way or another, whichever serves their ultimate goal of stable, cheap supplies of energy. In fact, paradoxically, it is probably a nuclear Iran that stands the best chance of keeping Israel more relevant to America.
None of this means America will act. But it would be a mistake to bet against it or to consider U.S. threats to be mere posturing.
New York at U.N. General Assembly meeting time operates with the kind of fevered intensity of a B movie with just about as much artificial drama. Layers upon layers of security guards and police and blockades and magnetometers stir up congestion and resentment and tension even before you enter the rooms full of government officials and the coteries of aides who follow them around like the cloud of dust at Pigpen's feet.
This year, of course, the central drama centered on the Palestinian bid for statehood and how, if at all, it could be managed so it was not a huge setback to Israel and a huge embarrassment to the United States. In the hotel in which I am staying, some of the principals in this drama were camped out buzzing about the latest rumors and fretting that events were spinning out of their control.
Thus far the drama is unresolved. President Obama gave a speech that managed to thread the needle offering a string of formulations designed to resonate well in Israeli ears, Palestinian ears, and, most importantly, in the ears of those (comparatively few) American voters who really cared enough to be following this particular episode of the Real Diplomats of New York City. The Palestinians appeared unmoved. The Israelis seemed pleased. Obama went on to his next event, at the Clinton Global Initiative.
Yet for all the familiarity of the arguments that both separate and bind together the Israelis and the Palestinians, there was something different about the feel of this particular minuet.
The Palestinians had clearly taken the initiative and set the statehood vote drama in motion. The Israelis, knocked back on their heels at first by the Palestinian move, regrouped and launched a political offensive in the United States (as well as around the world) to seek support. As the New York Times reported yesterday in its on target story "Netanyahu's Ties to G.O.P. Grow Stronger", the Israelis deftly reached out to key U.S. Republicans to win support and succeeded in generating enough that the President felt the pressure. If he did not line up with Israel in the clearest possible way, he might well lose a key part of his base in swing states like New York or Florida. At the same time, Europeans and major emerging powers all staked out their positions, most in direct or indirect opposition to the United States and the Israelis.
America, once the orchestrator of Middle East peace talks, always until now a prime driver behind the scenes, had assumed a new, much more reactive role. While the Obama team worked furiously behind the scenes, at every turn, it was responding to someone else's moves. It's own initiatives largely seemed to fall flat or come a little late.
The Obama Administration has been dramatically more engaged in the peace process than was the first term Bush Administration. So this may be part of a longer term trend. But in any event, America now seems to be a less influential actor than it has been for most of the modern history of the Arab-Israeli relationship.
That doesn't mean President Obama's remarks struck a wrong note or that U.S. diplomats don't have an important role to play in this process as it moves forward. It is just that amid the frenzy of this U.N. General Assembly week, one gets the impression that much of the most important work is getting done in rooms where the Americans are not present.
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Sept. 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a decade in which the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy was "the war on terror." As we approach Sept. 11, 2011, it is clear that America's foreign policy priorities have changed.
Not only has the United States achieved our principle goal of decapitating al Qaeda and degrading its capabilities, we have hardened our assets, enhanced our intelligence capabilities, developed better networks of international cooperation and, above all, recognized that there are other issues of far greater importance to our national interests that should take precedence. Even the term "war on terror" has thankfully fallen into disuse, a sign that while combatting threats from extremists remains an important element of our national security mission, we no longer seek to equate tactical responses to isolated threats with past conflicts in which our strategic interests were at stake. Instead, we are now appropriately addressing such broader strategic questions such as the rise of new powers like China, India, and Brazil, collaborating to manage the global economy, and containing important regional threats that include but are far from limited to the risks associated with terror.
Nowhere is this shift more striking than in the Greater Middle East, the source of not only the 9/11 attacks but of many of the most serious terror threats of recent memory. Recent events in Libya only underscore that America's number one issue in the region is now supporting the transition of a large number of important regional governments from autocracy to more inclusive forms of government and from top-down, crony states to more open, opportunity-rich economies. In the Middle East we have gone from the war on terror to a new campaign focused not on destruction but on building, not on sidestepping our ideals in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo but on promoting them consistent with the spirit of places like Tahrir Square.
In Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, while the individual situations are different as is our involvement, our missions are consistent and mutually reinforcing. In the near future, it is to be hoped that similar missions will exist in Syria and in Palestine. Related reforms in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and even Jordan -- no one like the other, but all sharing a need to evolve to reflect new economic, political, social, and technological realities -- are also likely to grow ever more important to our overall goals in the Middle East.
Of course, the initiatives we support -- those that enfranchise citizens and create opportunities for self-sufficiency and advancement -- are also far more effective tools to combat the spread of terror than have been many of our military and political initiatives of the recent past. That's not to say that there is not an important dimension to that on-going fight that will require swift, decisive use of force -- sometimes even unilateral use of force. But among the best elements of this new approach in the region is that it can only be done through effective multilateral cooperation in conjunction with a broad array of other supporters and international institutions.
Anniversaries like 9/11 are important because they help us remember. But they are also important because they provide needed punctuation marks, allowing us to bring to an end dark chapters like the "war on terror."
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Enough is enough. After remaining divided on this issue for too long, it is time to take a stand regardless of the political consequences.
It is time to join with those who have already had the courage to weather the inevitable criticism from a biased, bought, and paid for press corps that is part of the greater problem we face.
It is time to end the double standard that for far too long has guided and distorted America's policies in the Middle East.
You all know the story: For decades, special interest-driven ties have enabled a small lobby in Washington to embrace policies that have cost America dearly and today, increasingly put our national security and national prestige at risk. We have for too long supported Middle Eastern political leaders who themselves represent comparatively small populations with dubious historical claims on the land they control and extreme religious agendas. These so-called allies have not only implemented unfair policies that have earned criticism around the world, they have actually implemented apartheid-like segregation of the people they govern. Minority interlopers have unjustly appropriated power, held it by force, and often brutally oppressed majorities that deserve better.
While this is our policy for a subset of the Middle East, for others in the region we are much less accommodating. We are constantly haranguing them, criticizing, demanding that they achieve an ever-higher standard of behavior … even though their historical claims on the region are every bit as great as those we coddle, even though in many ways they have served America more reliably than those we prop up with our military aid, even though they are in many ways the source of the region's vitality and have the clearest vision as to how it might break out of the economic and political crises that torment it.
The cost of this double standard is painfully apparent today. Just look at the headlines. In Syria, all America can do is make earnest but impotent shows of solidarity with opposition leaders and search for new adjectives to add to our denunciations of the illegitimate Assad regime. But because of our double standard, because of the fact that we dare not call out the Arab nations we have supported for so long at such a high cost, because we can't count on them as our allies to do the right thing and add pressure on Assad to go, we are forced to treat this grave humanitarian crisis as though it were happening on the moon, far from any real ability of us to influence it.
Yes, the Syria crisis does, as is often noted, illustrate the greatest of the many follies associated with the frustrating saga of Western intervention in Libya. That is, of course, that by intervening in Libya ineffectively, we have now made it impossible for anyone to believe we will intervene anywhere else, even when, as in Syria's case, more credible threats of punishing Assad would have been helpful arrows to have in our quiver.
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It is not the narrative we had hoped for. It is certainly not the story line that would have been most uplifting. It is not even the scenario that seems most consistent with the course of centuries of human progress. But it is one we have to consider because with every passing day, it does seem the direction events are now headed.
Judging from developments throughout the Middle East, it seems quite possible that the primary outcome of the "Arab Spring" may be the reinforcing of the power of the old guard.
In Egypt, recent reports such as David Kirkpatrick's in the New York Times this weekend suggest that the military is working tirelessly to retain its traditionally dominant behind-the-scenes role in that country's political life even after any further reforms are implemented. In addition, political candidates -- like former foreign minister Amr Moussa -- with close ties to Hosni Mubarak's regime may fare well in upcoming elections.
In Jordan, Yemen, and Tunisia, promises of reform have thus far outnumbered any substantial steps in that direction. (See, for a thoughtful analysis, my Carnegie colleague Marina Ottaway's "Tunisia: The Revolution Is Over, Can Reform Continue?")
In Syria, while Bashar al-Assad regime has been weakened by protests, even weaker has been the international response to its brutality. The regime could well survive. Perhaps more importantly vis-à-vis the region at large, take how it has thus far faired compared with toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, and the message to autocrats threatened in the future may be: strike hard, strike without mercy, the worst you will have to contend with from the rest of the planet is a flurry of diplomatic wrist-slaps. The fact that similar crackdowns in Iran and Bahrain were also effective only underscores the point.
In Bahrain, the formula is a little more pernicious. It suggests for regimes lucky enough to be located in the Gulf -- because of the oil, because of America's desire to contain Iran, because of old friendships -- you can get away with virtually anything. See today's article in the Independent titled "Poet jailed in protests claims she was beaten by Bahraini royal." It is a credible account of just one more ugly dimension of a protracted repressive episode that the United States and the rest of the world effectively chose to ignore … which in such cases is much the same thing as complicity.
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The Greek parliament's austerity vote accomplished one thing. It advanced the possibility of a deal that will pump enough cash in the direction of Athens for the country to pay off its creditors. Here's what it will not do:
It also won't reduce Europe's vulnerability to upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa, address the problems caused by growing dependence on Russian gas that is the direct implication of Germany's decision to shut down its nuclear power generating capacity, address the deep flaws in its common foreign policy mechanisms that have been revealed by the seemingly endless war of "days not weeks or months" in Libya, or somehow address Europe's inability to produce decent pop music.
In short, yesterday's Greek vote may have soothed markets temporarily ... but it is nothing more than the latest effort to treat the symptoms of Europe's ills while steadfastly ignoring the underlying disease.
Imagine being Muammar al-Qaddafi. There you are, struggling with the day-to-day challenges of trying to get a decent colorist and botox doc to come to your bunker, and the International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant for you for crimes against humanity. You're thinking, "crimes against fashion" sure, I would understand that. People are jealous they can't rock the gold epaulets like I do. But crimes against humanity? I'm just following the job description to which every other leader in my region adheres. Sure, I'm trying to put down a rebellion. Abraham Lincoln did the same thing, it resulted in way more killing and mayhem than has happened here, and he's on the five dollar bill.
"What about Assad?" he must be asking any remaining Ukrainian nurse practitioners as he is shuttled from one hiding place to another?
"What about the Bahrainis? What about Ahmadinejad? What about every one of my local colleagues who have dropped the hammer on the people trying to push us from office?"
"Heck, what about the NATO powers that were supposedly not authorized to pursue regime change here who keep "accidentally" bombing every place in town where I have stopped to take a nap?"
"What about George W.T.F. Bush?" he must be asking aloud while daubing shoe polish on his moustache and wondering silently who does Tom Selleck's? "He and Cheney violated every international law on the books, invaded a country, hundreds of thousands of innocent people died, and what do they get? Presidential libraries! Book contracts! State of the art pacemakers!"
Of course, Qaddafi has every reason to be bitter. The international community singled him out and has starkly and apparently unabashedly ignored far worse violations by Bashir al Assad, to pick just the most egregious case of a double standard. Not that Qaddafi doesn't deserve the arrest warrant issued by the ICC on Monday. Not that the world won't be a better place when he is out of office or better, behind bars paying for his brutality, his sponsorship for terror and his myriad abuses against his own people. But, if ever a guy was having a "why me" moment, it must be him as he reads about Syrian crackdowns, recalls the Iranian crackdown, watches as leaders from North Korea to China to Myanmar to Russia to Zimbabwe to Sudan to the Congo to Venezuela order their opponents locked up or worse.
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On Friday, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article in the Washington Post titled, "Why Europe No Longer Matters." Today, Monday, the headline in the Wall Street Journal was "Europe Wrangles Over Greece," the top two headlines in the Financial Times were "Medvedev rules out poll tussle with Putin" and "Greek PM's plea for unity to tackle crisis," the top headline in the Washington Post was a story about NATO entitled "Misfire in Libya kills civilians" and the lead story in the New York Times was entitled "Companies Push for a Tax Break on Foreign Cash" which dealt with a key challenge in the age of global companies.
Haass, one of the canniest and most thoughtful U.S. foreign policy analysts around, was responding to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates's valedictory jabs at Europe concerning pulling their weight within NATO. The point of the Haass article was that Gates's comments were not just a coda on his time in office, but the end of a "time-honored tradition" which involves Americans tweaking our allies for shirking their global responsibilities. The piece made all the usual points: Europe's influence beyond its borders will decline, Asia is rising, the threats NATO was established to address have vanished to be replaced by new ones it is not very well-suited to meeting, etc.
The problem with the piece is that while Haass is right in terms of each of these points, I think he comes to the wrong conclusion.
The headlines in this morning's papers attest to the fact that Europe still very much matters today. In a tightly integrated global economy, Europe's economic fate impacts ours dramatically. An economic meltdown there around Greece or Spain could easily create a global economic crisis and send the United States into a precipitous and uncomfortable double dip.
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While President Obama's Middle East address is likely to cover many of the core issues confronting the United States in the region, there is one absolutely central theme that will remain unspoken but that will influence future policy more than any other. America's influence in the region is fading fast and will soon be at its lowest ebb since the Second World War.
The president will seek to lay out a vision for America's policies in the region. He has already tipped his hand as to where he stands on several respects. He is offering the speech -- long discussed and in the minds of many, too long delayed -- at the U.S. State Department, about as safe a venue as one can imagine. He has timed it to precede by a week a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, thus making it appear a trifle reactive and a bit defensive. And he today announced targeted sanctions against Syria, thus trying to set the stage for the speech with a posture of toughness and to inoculate himself against criticisms that he has done too little to counter the barbarity of the Syrian regime. He will still buoyed by the success of the bin Laden raid, but these other factors hint at some of the unease found in private exchanges with U.S. policymakers.
In his speech, the president and his speechwriters will also be confounded by the fact that there are so many issues linked together in the region that it would literally be impossible for anyone to describe a coherent policy. The Arab Spring alone has set Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories side by side to demonstrate that the United States can ill afford, and Obama is disinclined to pursue, cookie-cutter approaches to situations that are radically different in terms of players, stakes, historical context, and governing dynamics. Add to this mix the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Iranian nuclear program, the efforts to contain the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction more broadly, the transition out of Iraq, the transition out of Afghanistan, the problems with the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, Kurdish aspirations for independence, the efforts by Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas to orchestrate a growing web of influence throughout the region from Syria to Lebanon to the West Bank and now to Egypt and beyond, the global aspirations of Turkey, the growing influence of China, energy politics and economics, rising food prices, massive unemployment, terrorism, tribal divisions, economic stagnation, and a social fabric being rapidly rewoven thanks to new technologies, and you have a bit of a sense of the brain-numbing nature of trying to create something called "Middle East Policy."
Instead of such a grand plan, what Obama will offer are sketches and snippets illustrating how his policy is different from that of past presidents and where it is consistent with America's historical posture. Expect a hint of a more sympathetic stance toward moderates, an echo of the Cairo speech, a dollop of incentive toward political and economic reform, a dose of anti-terrorist toughness, a modicum of multilateralism, a shot of unilateralist willingness to defend ourselves, and an utz or an utz and a half of a willingness to embrace and encourage social transformation throughout the region.
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The Osama bin Laden mission has generated something approaching national euphoria in the U.S. for a number of reasons. Foremost among these are, of course, a sense of justice, of closure and satisfaction with a well-executed national success. But close behind there is the fact that to many average Americans and to many top policymakers and influencers, catching and dispatching a man responsible for the death of thousands was satisfyingly, even refreshingly, clear-cut ... a comparatively black and white chapter in the morally fog-bound landscape of the Middle East.
While admittedly there are inevitable criticisms from a few at home and abroad about some elements of the U.S. raid and how the final confrontation with the terrorist unfolded, in the end, it was a very bad man dying a long-overdue and well-deserved death.
But part of the resonance of the event was not due simply to closing the decade-long cycle of a story of epic proportions. It was a consequence of what we have learned during that decade and in the past few months in particular.
During the past decade, we have seen America brutally wronged and seen ourselves seek justice ... and then go too far allegedly in the name of the pursuit of that reasonable goal. At first, in the days after the 9/11 attacks, we were profoundly hurt but the world was with us. Then we went through Iraq and Abu Ghraib and the Patriot Act and Guantanamo and extraordinary renditions and waterboarding and the collateral deaths of hundreds of thousands and the squandering of trillions that could never be used to help the needy in America or anywhere else. The "wave" election of 2008 was a desire to purge ourselves of the moral ambiguity that had come to define the times and had led us to come to question ourselves and our national identity.
The self-doubt was the greatest the United States had felt since the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, oil shocked, hostage crisis, malaise-ridden nation of the 70s. And washing that away was the majority hoped would come of the last election. That slogan "change we can believe in" was not about a candidate, it was about returning to being a country we could once again have faith in, be proud of without the lurking, taunting "yes, but..." of the past decade.
But as murky as were the images we saw in our own mirrors, immersing ourselves in the Middle East for the past decade we have come to recognize the degree to which it is a region in which good and evil are conjoined twins, go by each other's names, are often utterly indistinguishable. Allies and enemies behave just the same.
As a consequence, achieving the kind of victories Americans want, victories in which good guys beat bad guys and justice is advanced, has proven agonizingly difficult. Indeed, there is no place in the Middle East for idealists...and by idealists, I mean not just those who are self-defined but others with simplistic, misleading clear-cut views of a bafflingly, ceaselessly, confounding social and political landscape including self-identified "realists."
For many Americans, raised on Hollywood banalities about our roles in Vietnam (bad) or World War II (good) without being burdened with questions about the morality of Hiroshima or Dresden or turning our backs on the victims of the Holocaust or our war crimes, we want our wins neat and to leave moral ambiguity to films with subtitles. That our wins against the Germans and the Japanese were undeniably justified and to the good enabled us to form a national legend for ourselves that blotted out the genocide and slavery that were as responsible for America's early successful conquest of the continent as were our democratic values or our industry.
SHWAN MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images
It would be too easy to say that Barack Obama has been a big loser so far since the onset of operations against the Qaddafi regime in Libya. It would also be wrong. The Obama administration has mishandled many elements of the crisis, but nothing they have done wrong thus far is irreversible and in terms of the simple objectives of imposing a no-fly zone and containing Qaddafi, the effort has been effective.
Further, whatever the criticism of Obama may be, his intentions have been both defensible and sound: The desire to forestall a humanitarian disaster and to do so through multilateral mechanisms were worthy and responsible goals. The challenge thus far has been in the execution ... although clearly, the risks going forward remain high and were this to result in a protracted U.S. involvement, unacceptable costs, a stalemate on the ground that left Qaddafi in power or the installation of a new government that ultimately proved to be as bad or worse for U.S. interests than its predecessors, then we would have to revisit our list.
Meanwhile, at this stage of the game, the five biggest losers associate with the whadeveryacallit (see Jay Carney's convolocution above) are:
Much as the Libyan people were only the number five beneficiary of events so far in our winners list because the outcome is so uncertain, Qaddafi is only the number five loser of the major international military onslaught targeting his regime because it is not certain how this will all end up for him. With the UN's promise not to put boots on the ground, Qaddafi's tenure in office could be a long one and absent a "lucky" missile strike or a major increase in the effectiveness of opposition forces, a stalemate in which he retains considerable power over important chunks of Libya seems a strong possibility. Another alternative which might not be so bad is exile and the prospect of living with billions of dollars and all the Ukrainian nurses that can buy (which is a lot). So, while the most advanced military forces in the world are working against him, right now Muammar still is clinging to hope of a better tomorrow ... or any tomorrow ... which could prove to be a very unsatisfactory outcome from the political perspective of some of his leading international adversaries. That said, my money is on him not surviving as Libya's leader and in any event all his attempts at remaking his image over the past half decade have been undone and he has been permanently restored to his much deserved lunatic pariah status.
While the forces in the field have been performing admirably, the early days of this operation in terms of the alliance's political operations haven't been pretty. The world's most important, powerful, experienced, best-equipped military alliance has all the toys a middle-aged coalition could want but someone seems to have misplaced the instruction manual for smooth establishment of a command structure. From the minute they committed to this there have been arguments about who is in charge, about goals, about tactics, about basing, about burden-sharing, about virtually everything that alleged friends could possibly fight about. While the attacks NATO has carried out have apparently been effective, it is still unclear whether in the long-term they will be making the region any safer. Further, and more damagingly, they have revealed real problems in the ability of the alliance to work together on the kinds of conflicts with which they are most likely to be confronted in the near future. The apparent decision, a week into the crisis, to put a clear NATO command structure to be in charge helps matters considerably ... but the delays in getting there also underscore the kind of fault-line issues bedeviling the participating countries. This will all be papered over once this draws to a close but going forward, resistance of countries like Germany and Turkey to participation in undertakings like this could remain high for some time to come.
3. Arab League
Not that they had much credibility to begin with and not that many people expected much of them when it came to championing either democracy or even the basic human rights of the people of their region, but the Arab League at least during the early days of this operation did the near impossible and reduced the value of their role as a force of good within their region by their inability to follow up on their welcome promise of playing a key role in containing Qaddafi. Again, it's possible that they could undo the damage that has been done by stepping up their commitment of men and materiel to the mission -- and today's welcome announcement of substantial air support from the UAE buttresses the commitment of the Qataris in important ways -- but there are plenty in the coalition who acted in response to their promises who are absolutely furious at how so many members of the League have proven to be all keffiyeh and no camel on this issue. (A reference to the old Texas slam about posturing would-be ranchers who were "all hat and no cattle" for those of you wondering where I was going with that.)
Viewing points 3 and 4 above, one can't help but worry that at the dawn of what could be a new era in international affairs, an essential idea has been set back by messy execution. In the wake of the Iraq debacle, America and the world both were motivated to move away from the ugly inequities of a one superpower world dominated by a we-can-do-it-all-ourselves USA. The only alternative was better sharing of responsibilities for decision-making and problem-solving when it came to global problems. Barack Obama's willingness to embrace that new approach in the face of this first real 3 a.m. phone call type crisis of his presidency was welcome and the right thing to do but it could produce more damage than good if critics ultimately feel we did the right thing in the wrong way. If the message about multilateralism is that it is slow or messy or costly or politically damaging, it will not only become harder to rally allies in the future but in the U.S. unilateralists will have a case in point to use when next they want to drop the hammer on someone without benefit of the blessing of the international community.
It is a good thing that William Safire, the New York Times redoubtable lover of words and their meanings is dead because if he weren't the White House press statements on this crisis would have killed him. We don't have to start with the good and capable Jay Carney's ill-considered coherence-limited characterization of the Libya conflict cited in the title of this post. We can turn to Ben Rhodes' clarity-challenged clarification of whether or not the U.S. was seeking regime change cited in an earlier post this week. Or we can go to Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough's appearance on the PBS NewsHour which was described by the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin as "He was asked questions. He answered them. And in the end you had no idea what he said." (For our international readers let me note that the Washington Post is not seen as a crazy right wing mouthpiece of the Republican Party.) Speaking however of crazy Republicans, they are not immune from the disease currently affecting Washington, either. Take Newt Gingrich who may have finally stuck a stake through the heart of his already slim chances of being a credible candidate for president when he offered two completely contradictory positions on intervention in Libya within the course of a couple of weeks. (Although his creative "patriotism excuses infidelity" stance -- also known as the flag-made-me-do-it excuse for cheating on your cancer-stricken wife -- is likely to ensure him a few male votes should he ever run.) It is almost as if the underlying foundation of the United States's current foreign policy is Newton's Third Law of Motion, paraphrased to suggest that for each guiding principle of our actions there is an equal and opposite principle to which we also adhere. We're leading and we're not. We're for regime change and we're against. We're for democracy in some places but not in others. For those seeking comfort, there are always the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." For those worried by the trend outbreak of double-talk there is however the fact that Fitzgerald offered that observation in an essay called "The Crack-Up."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Late Thursday the U.N. Security Council voted on how the world would ultimately view Barack Obama. Yes, the vote came in the guise of a decision about whether or not to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. But every aspect of the decision from the process leading up to the vote to the eventual effectiveness of the actions it triggers will weigh heavily on how the American president is ultimately viewed.
This is not because Libya is such a vital issue. It's significant to be sure and certainly the plight of the rebels combating Muammar Qaddafi warranted strong action. But the Libya vote may someday be seen as especially important to perceptions of Obama and his effectiveness as an international leader because it is so emblematic of how he would like to handle world affairs. This was Obama the multilateralist, willing to trade fast, decisive action for the support and legitimacy of working within the U.N. system. This was Obama the president of a nation fighting too many wars and with limited means seeking to let others lead, take risks and share in the burdens of keeping the world safe. This was Obama, the un-Bush, out from under the complications of inherited wars that frankly have made him sometimes look like W 2.0, showing in effect, how he personally would like to handle the use of force going forward.
If the intervention is seen as timely, the rebels are effectively supported and Qaddafi's gains of the past few days are reversed, it will be hailed as successfully demonstrating that there is an alternative to unilateralism and that there may be an alternative to America playing the role the Council on Foreign Relations' Richard Haass described as being that of "the reluctant sheriff." If it works, the fact that the U.S. and its allies managed to turn five likely "no" votes into abstentions thus clearing the way for action will be seen as masterful diplomacy and a feather in the cap of Hillary Clinton who faced down considerable head-winds not just overseas but within in the Administration to make it happen.
However, if the action is seen as too little too late and Qaddafi is able to consolidate his victories and remain in power, then Obama strategy and tactics will certainly be questioned and characterized as too deferential, hesitant and a signal to brutal governments that getting tough on opponents pays off. The American declinists will have a field day as will both international bad guys and Obama's political opponents back home.
In either case, with America and its president less inclined to act alone and ever seeking ways to shift the job of keeping the peace globally to others, this Libya case should be viewed both in terms of what it means to the situation on the ground in that warn torn country and as a possible test-case of a new approach to world affairs, one that Barack Obama would ultimately like to be able to take credit for leading.
The greater good is the bitch-goddess of foreign policy. It provides at once both the inspiration to elevate society and the temptation to debase it. I'm sure one of the reasons that the study of foreign policy draws in so many passive-aggressive poindexters is because they get a cheap thrill from entering a fraternity in which the only admissions requirement is checking your conscience at the door.
In the first international affairs class one attends or the first serious discussion of foreign policy in which one participates, sooner or later the focus turns to the tough choices that must be made in the name of the Shiva of Foggy Bottom.
It is easy to understand this impulse when one watches scenes as in Libya in which a corrupt despot seeks to maintain his illegitimate chokehold on a society through the slaughter of those who only seek the rights due all men and women. Using force and taking life to stop evil and to protect those who cannot defend themselves is certainly justifiable albeit fraught with moral complexities that we too often too easily set aside.
That said however, we have to acknowledge that the natural habitat of this particular bitch-goddess is the slipperiest of slopes. It is worth remembering that most of the world's greatest sins have been committed in the service of someone's definition of the greater good. It is a point the Obama administration ought to take to heart as recent headlines suggest that we are crossing to the wrong side of the world's most dangerous border, the one that divides "realism" from "evil."
Not surprisingly, no place illustrates this danger like the region we call AfPak. And as a consequence no place more emphatically shouts out the question: "Have we no decency? Are there no limits to what we are willing to accept in the pursuit of our allegedly high-minded goals?"
We accept Hamid Karzai and elements of the Pakistani government although we know them to be corrupt and very likely supporting or enabling our enemies. We do this despite the lesson being chanted in public squares across the Middle East -- not to mention most of the history of modern U.S. foreign policy -- is that this approach inevitably comes back to bite us in the most sensitive parts of our national interests. We are seen as the co-authors of the wrongs our chosen despots commit or tolerate because ... well, because we are. That we are doing this in Afghanistan even as we are seemingly preparing to embrace a bigger role for the Taliban in the government only compounds the wrong -- the only justification for supporting Karzai is that he is better than the alternative but we don't seem to think that's necessarily the case anymore. Whatever your view of the issue, you have to admit it's a treacherously morally ambiguous place to venture to reclaim the national standing the Obama team correctly feels the United States lost during the Bush years.
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They are still there in Tahrir Square. Not as many as before. The energy has ebbed away. The television cameras have long-since shifted their focus elsewhere. To the fighting in Libya. To the water cannons being used against protestors by the U.S.-backed government in Iraq.
But the protestors remain where Egypt's Jasmine Revolution made its great stand against Mubarak's thugs. They are still connected with the world via Twitter and Facebook. They are not yet ready to leave and in that there is an important lesson that may offer more hope than even the jubilation that seemed to emanate from the protestors to every corner of the world when Hosni the Dinosaur finally agreed to lumber out of town.
They understand that contrary to the generally accepted understanding of the term, revolutions do not happen quickly nor do they end when the initial battles associated with them cease. Revolutions unfold slowly. Successful revolutions inevitably take years, decades or sometimes longer. Revolutions do not just require courage they require tenacity and watchfulness.
In Tahrir Square, they are watching. They are there to hold the Egyptian provisional government to their word. They were there this week to demand that Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak hold-over, resign. If he did not, they would call their brethren back to the square. Shafiq and the leaders of the military who have been entrusted with the transition understood what that meant. For the protestors, it was another step forward but it was still an early one in what they know will be a long journey.
Even should democracy arrive later this year, they know that is not enough. From Mubarak to free and fair elections is great progress, a kind of political miracle, but it is not what the revolution was about. The revolution was about what happens between elections, what leads from election to election, about a culture of transparency, fairness and opportunity. It is about being a democratic society which is very different from sporting a few of the accoutrements of democratic behavior ... like elections.
They don't have to look too far to see that elections alone do not a functioning democratic society make. They can look to Iraq, where despite elections cronyism, corruption, and ethnic and social divisions still rule. They see a country in which the United States spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives to defeat a despot and install democracy with its people in the street, demanding change, confronted by "security forces in black uniforms, track-suits and T-shirts" who, according to the Washington Post, "attacked protesters, rounded up others from cafes and homes and hauled them off, blindfolded to army detention centers."
The Post story quoted a human rights activist as saying, "Maliki is starting to act like Saddam Hussein, to use the same fear, to plant it inside Iraqis who criticize him. ... The U.S. must feel embarrassed right now -- it is they who promised a modern state, a democratic state."
While they may not know that Merriam-Webster defines revolution as "a sudden, radical or complete change" they understand that "sudden" and even "radical" are not enough. "Complete" is the operative word and that takes time and vigilance and the spirit of a marathon runner as opposed to a sprinter.
It's why, despite the fact that few of them may ever have heard of Benjamin Franklin, they seem to understand what he meant when, asked about what was being produced by America's revolution and the subsequent drafting of its constitution, he said, "a republic, if we can keep it."
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This morning's New York Times contains an article quoting various "regional experts" as saying that the current upheaval in the region is playing into the hands of Iran. This is a flawed analysis on several levels.
First, we are so early in this process that it is premature to say who will benefit from or be damaged by it. It is still too early to know how many states will be affected or what the effects of the revolutions will be. Several scenarios are plausible. In one, prolonged upheaval, Iran may benefit as the alliance that existed against it is compromised. In another, a shift to democracy, Iran may or may not benefit depending on the orientation of the government, but in all likelihood it would be damaged as more democratic governments are likely to be both more open to the rest of the world and an inspiration to the repressed people of Iran. In a third, a new generation of strongmen emerges, you could theoretically have pro-Iranian Islamic states take hold, but the reality is, given the long-term history of Iran within the region, old anti-Iranian alliances would recoalesce. This is especially true because new regimes would likely have large military components comprising experienced officers who have been in anti-Iranian stance throughout their careers.
Iran is certainly working to take advantage of the current uncertainty, using Hezbollah, Hamas, and related networks to promote both the instability it seeks and voices that it considers friendly. But Iran is not, and cannot ever be, "of" the Arab world. The cultural and historic barriers are too great. And therefore, the notion of it somehow creating an enduring network of states aligned to it is far-fetched.
This point about Iran however, does bring into focus a bigger point about the nature and future of the remarkable wave of revolutions currently sweeping across the region. Just as Iran is in the Middle East without being, in the minds of its Arab neighbors, a real part of their world, so too has the great problem of the Middle East at large been that for a variety of historical, political, and cultural reasons it has been in the world without having been of it.
The cultural disposition of the region has been to set itself apart, to create barriers to integration to the rest of the world, and in fact, to view integration with the rest of the world as a threat. This is a generalization, of course. There are hugely sophisticated global business leaders from the region, and there are cosmopolitan pockets within each of the countries of the Middle East. But for intentional and unintentional reasons -- education, religious views, political ideologies, social stratification, deliberate policy choices made by ruling regimes -- the benefits of integrating into the global economy have not been as available to people from the region as they have been to others in the Americas, Europe, or Asia.
The regional experts assessing the situation in the New York Times article are viewing what is happening purely in terms of old paradigms and politics. But one of the most important questions raised by the current situation is whether we are not seeing merely the latest round of political musical chairs, but rather we are seeing something deeper and more profound that could alter historical patterns. This is not, by the way, just an abstract question. It has very practical strategic implications for how the world outside the region handles the remainder of this period of change.
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When I read the Washington Post's story "Palestinians Seek Recognition through South America" this morning, all I could think of was Sarah Palin. Now, some might think that is a kind of a disorder that calls for therapy more than it does another blog post. But I suspect you are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion about what I think about either issue.
In defense of my mental health (which needs all the defending it can get), one reason I thought of Palin was that as I was reading the article, she appeared on the television. She was being asked what she thought about birther claims that President Obama was not born in the United States. Without the hesitation or weasel words that have made recent statements on this subject by Michele Bachmann and John Boehner such indictments of their ability to lead, Palin said that it wasn't an issue for her and that we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy. In this instance, she got it precisely right.
But the Palin comment and the birther debate also resonated with the story of the eight Latin American governments that in December and January recognized Palestinian statehood. representatives of the Netanyahu government including the prime minister himself apparently vigorously tried to persuade the region's leaders not to join the almost 100 nations that have also acknowledged the legitimacy of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.
Once again, the issue seems like a distraction to me. The response of Israel ought to be like the response of Palin, "Of course, the Palestinian people have a right to a state." In fact, it's only a bit of an over-simplification to say, the right response ought to be literally what Palin's was: That it's not an issue for them and we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy -- that is we ought to be focused on how you go from the indisputable right of the Palestinians to have their own state to working together to create one that is self-sustaining and can do a better job creating opportunities for the Palestinian people than neighboring states (other than Israel) have done for their citizens. That's the critical challenge for both Israelis and Palestinians together.
That of course, also requires that the Palestinian leadership actually get serious about both negotiating a deal and providing fundamental services to the Palestinian people. An honest debate about this subject, stripped of the distractions upon which both sides have depended on as cover for so long, would turn more to such practical issues.
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While it is too early to assess the long-term outcomes of the uprising in Egypt, there are nonetheless a number of important conclusions to which we can reasonably come.
First, something profound has changed. It did not change because of the uprising in Tahrir Square. It changed and the uprising was the result; the power has shifted in the region. We have passed a generational and technological tipping point. While the dinosaurs cling to the levers of power in virtually every country in the greater Middle East, the under 30 majority is now the great force to be reckoned with. While the establishment has done almost everything conceivable to keep them down from denying them education to curtailing the spread of information technologies to gutting the economies, nonetheless, new information sources and technologies and ways of connecting and collaborating seeped in to these societies through every one of the cracks spreading across the Ozymandian edifices of the elite.
These changes are irreversible. They are seen in the cell phones that even the poorest carry with them, in the broadcasts of Al Jazeera, in the burgeoning Twitter feeds, the apps young Arabs create to provide work-arounds every time a government tries to curtail Internet access, and even in the technological use of some of the region's worst players.
These changes have remade the social and political fabric of the region. What they have yet to do is what they have done everywhere else in the world and that is to fuel economic change.
That is the second inescapable conclusion we need to consider. The great challenges before this under-30 majority are economic, they are about opportunity. They are not about Israel or battles between Shiites and Sunnis or tribal divisions. Those problems still fester, but the unifying challenge for this generation is even more basic: They need jobs. They crave opportunity. And the failure of their leaders to provide them with these basic sources of sustenance and dignity is what has fueled the revolutions of 2011.
A corollary to this conclusion is that we in the United States have been sending the wrong people with the wrong approaches to solve the wrong problems in this region for decades. The problems of this region will not be solved by negotiators or generals. They require investors and entrepreneurs and educators. To the extent that we can contribute, we must do so by supporting the creation of economic opportunity. It is a massive undertaking but it is the only true peacemaker.
A third conclusion is related to the second, however. The role for the U.S. government in all this is very, very limited. We would do well to redirect what aid we provide to address this core challenge of creating jobs for the under-30s. We would do well to put our best economic minds in charge, perhaps even appointing a special economic envoy of real stature. But the only people who can ultimately solve this problem are in the Middle East. In fact, in the hierarchy of those who can help, if the people of the Middle East are first and by far foremost, it is the people of Europe, not the United States who must be second. They are the natural economic neighbors of the region and they must answer the question whether they want those under-30s employed in the Middle East or seeking employment in Europe. After the Europeans, it may even be the Chinese or Indians and others dependent on oil in the region and closer to its problems who should take more prominent roles in helping to solve the problem than the United States, which is a lightening rod and has problems of our own at home.
A fourth conclusion is that the hardest part is clearly still ahead of us. Egypt must make the transition to democracy and that means the military must really step aside after six months. Friends of mine who have met with them believe they understand the implications of the political earthquake that has taken place during the past month and that they will do so. But there are dinosaurs among their leaders so it is by no means a sure thing. Even beyond establishing a democracy is actually keeping one, and beyond that is addressing successfully the economic challenges alluded to above. Further, there are the problems of all the other countries of the region. They will be difficult to handle but we in the United States need to be confident enough in our core beliefs to let them work them out among themselves. There will be fights and setbacks and people we don't like will periodically gain the upper hand. But give me a duel between two guys armed with the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter feeds and let one offer the people the 11th Century and another offer the 21th and I know who I will bet on.
Finally, my fifth conclusion is that of all the big challenges ahead for U.S. foreign policy associated with this period of upheaval, the greatest by far lies with Israel and the Palestinians. Personally, I am not sure why the Palestinians have not yet unilaterally declared independence. The world would surely support them. But imagine what would happen if, perhaps on the road to such a declaration perhaps following it, a hundred thousand Palestinians took to the streets peacefully demanding real self-determination. With memories of Tahrir Square fresh in the minds of the world, how could the Israelis respond as they might have in the past? On what side of history would they appear to be as President Obama might put it? And in that vein, on what side of that history would President Obama and the United States want to be?
Until now, the fact that Israel was the region's only democracy was its "get out of jail free" card. It was used to excuse ... or attempt to excuse ... a multitude of sins. For this reason, no Arab military offensive could be as effective in undermining Israel's strategic advantages as real democracy taking root elsewhere in the region. The Netanyahu administration would be flummoxed if people power came to the West Bank and Gaza. They would be cast involuntarily with the dinosaurs. They would have no pages in their playbook indicating how to handle this. They would have very few good choices.
Actually, they would have only one. They would have to get out of the way. They would have to do what Mubarak did. They would have to step within the 1967 borders and let the Palestinians begin the job of building Palestine. And they would have to hope that the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world helped the Palestinians do it because once that happens, it will be of the utmost importance for Israel that its new neighbor produce real opportunity for its people ... because we have seen the alternative and it, for this generation who have both nothing and nothing to lose will not be contained by the tactics or the rhetoric of the past.
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The problem with experience is that it doesn't prepare you for what you have never seen before. This is also a challenge for experts, for whom their knowledge of the past is usually an advantage, but sometimes can be their worst limitation.
This has certainly been the case in the past several weeks with the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Old Middle East hands approached the matter with great caution, fearing instability, because if it followed past patterns, it would most likely end in unhappiness. The most likely outcomes they could foresee were either: the further cementing of the status quo or an invitation to something much worse.
History taught them that popular uprisings in the region typically led either to replacing one despot with another or perhaps to trading the evils of autocracy for the evils of theocracy.
And we would do well to consider the fact that even now, as Egypt is awash in euphoria, that the experts may be right. And they would do well to consider that perhaps what has happened in Egypt is something entirely new.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
First, congratulations on having been selected by the
Foreign Press Assocation Michael Leiter, head of the U.S. National
Counterterrorism Center as "the most significant risk to the U.S.
homeland." Given your U.S. roots, this
must be particularly gratifying. Your
family must be very proud. I'm sure that
the U.S. institutions of higher learning you attended-Colorado State, San Diego
State and George Washington University-are all updating their websites right
now. While you have achieved many such
accolades in the past-from sources as diverse as soon-to-be-ex Congresswoman
Jane Harman to "Investor's Daily"-this most recent acknowledgement of your
achievements as the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula must be
Having said that, despite having spent your formative years in the American heartland (thus confirming my worst fears about the effects of extended exposure to country music), may I take this opportunity to point out to you that you guys have picked the wrong great Satan.
Have you seen what's been going on in Europe lately. Over the weekend, David Cameron gave an address in Munich in which he decried the failures of British multiculturalism. In the audience listening to him was Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who had made similar remarks herself. Shortly after he spoke, his remarks were embraced by Marine Le Pen, Princess of France's ultra-right wing National Front Party that her father founded. Le Pen said "It is exactly this type of statement that has barred us from public life [in France] for 30 years. I sense an evolution at European level, even in classic governments. I can only congratulate him."
Now in my family we have a rule. If you receive a thank you note with a return address from the Le Pen family, don't even open it. It can only be bad news. And since Le Pen's warm French smooch on both of Cameron's rosy British cheeks, the Prime Minister's people have been taking pains to say that she misinterpreted him.
But Anwar, it's really pretty hard to misinterpret what he said. On the eve of a major anti-Islamic rally in the United Kingdom, that country's chosen political leader decided it was the right moment to suggest that "passive tolerance" had only served to encourage Islamic extremism. The Prime Minister was clearly attempting to have it both ways-playing the populist game of pandering to nationalist fears while also mouthing words about liberalism and implying that the alienation that produced radicalization was due to separatist policies within the Islamic community. In short, he was essentially saying "we're to blame for our policies allowing them to be themselves."
But the bigger point isn't whether Cameron made a rhetorical and political blunder but that his remarks echoed Merkel's crowd-pleasing speech on the same topic in Potsdam days before. The Chancellor said, "(In) the beginning of the 1960s our country called the foreign workers to come to Germany and now they live in our country. We kidded ourselves a while. We said: 'They won't stay, [after some time] they will be gone,' but this isn't reality. And of course, the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side by side and to enjoy each other ... has failed, utterly failed."
She got a standing ovation. In Germany. Attacking foreigners. What a shocker, right?
And that's my message to you. Why do you think America is your primary enemy when there is probably no non-Islamic country in the world in which the Islamic population lives with as much freedom and tolerance as in the United States? Why do you think America is your primary target when the inflammatory, insensitive and disturbing views expressed by European leaders are not a departure but are really European standards, old favorites that are played on the radio from generation to generation? Look at European attitudes toward immigrants from the Islamic world? Toward letting Turkey into the EU? Who's doing the anti-Mohammed cartoons? Who did the crusades?
It is the Europeans (and their Eurasian cousins in Russia) that have a longer, more hostile history? Do you think any major country in Europe could elect a leader today whose middle name is Hussein? Do you think any major American political leader could survive five minutes in the media after spewing the veiled and not-so-veiled anti-Islamic, intolerant messages that are so popular in Europe today?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you should direct your anger at Europe. The real work for Islamic leaders like yourself is fixing the Islamic world first-because the only places where there is less tolerance and where Islamic groups are more viciously targeted is in the Middle East. And the real need of the people for whom you are allegedly fighting is for real opportunity, education, economic growth and responsive, representative government at home.
But still, if there is an East-West faultline that is growing more tense, you can look for it a lot closer to home. Back where it has been for a couple thousand years. Back where it once made famous the Siege of Vienna and the Moorish conquest of Spain. Back in Europe where intolerance, nationalism and social polarization have given us many of the darkest stains on the pages of world history.
While it is often ruefully noted that you can't pick your relatives, there is an expectation in life that you can pick your partners. Barack Obama is discovering that when you are president of the United States, that's just not the case.
In fact, if there is one theme that runs through every corner of the Obama presidency it is that he has been forced into partnerships that are so complex, difficult, and undependable that it must leave him yearning for the relative simplicity of good old fashioned enmities. This was illustrated yesterday as the president made the short walk across Lafayette Park to visit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, symbolic headquarters of the U.S. business community, a group with which the president has come to realize he must work more closely going forward.
But in and amid all those complicated relationships, which are the most difficult? Naturally, there are many ways to measure this but we'll stick with one: Which among the most difficult are most likely to blow up in his face during the next two years?
Here's the verdict:
This, the most important international bilateral relationship, is both difficult and likely to be relatively stable because it is so complex. There is so much economic co-dependency here that the political issues are likely to work themselves out. Over the next two years trade and currency tensions may grow, but it is unlikely that either side will flirt with a big blow up prior to the 2012 leadership change in China or the presidential elections that same year in the U.S.
China is likely to be the U.S. most important international counterpart in the decade ahead but Russia remains the wildcard among the major powers. Stephen Cohen summed it up well on "Morning Joe" this morning: Russia's the biggest country in landmass, the leader in energy output and it has all those nuclear weapons. It also has a massive Muslim population, related challenges in its near abroad, memories of empire and what might politely be called a mischievous streak when it comes to international challenges. Oh, and it is undergoing a demographic meltdown and it is suffering from a divided less-than-dependably friendly political leadership. It's at the bottom of this list primarily because of the "next two years" focus of our metric.
Israel is the United States' most dependable friend in the Middle East and a vital ally. That said it is also facing massively unsettling changes from within and without that are creating enormous pressures on its political leaders. The Bibi-Barack marriage was never exactly made in Heaven but as the Israelis face demographic pressures at home, the Hezbollah take-over of Lebanon, instability in Jordan and Egypt, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, growing international pressure to cut a deal with the Palestinians and seeming growing inability of the Palestinians to cut a deal due to their own internal divisions ... what was difficult is going to get any easier. While many expect Netanyahu to offer his own concessions and a roadmap to progress sometime soon, there is real concern even among his supporters whether he can go far enough to break the logjam in the peace process. If he can't, pressure will build in this already fraught partnership.
Egypt nudges out Israel only because it is so volatile right now and we don't know where the current unrest now heading into its third week is likely to head. One thing we do know, there are almost no circumstances in which the relationship will be easier for the United States. If there are massive reforms, a more pluralistic Egypt will be harder to deal with than an autocracy with a fairly dependable ally at the helm. If the current regime holds, they will never trust the U.S. in the same way as they did prior to this crisis.
6. Democrats in the Congress
Will Rogers said, "I'm not a member of any organized party, I'm a Democrat!" And as far as we know he never sat at a cocktail party between bickering leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer or Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer. (Although, Pelosi clearly had a little celebratory sip of champagne last night to celebrate the departure of Jane Harmon, a longtime thorn in her side.) Pick an issue from fighting the deficit to rationalizing our regulatory framework to investing in energy infrastructure, you'll find both Obama's biggest supporters and some of his most difficult opponents in his own party.
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President Hosni Mubarak's speech to the Egyptian people in the wake of days of rioting was a masterpiece of insensitivity. With his citizens in the street expressing their needs, he addressed his own. He spoke of poverty and concern for his people, but his message was something far darker. He was making a stand for the status quo.
Watching him, ghostly in the stark podium lighting designed to hide what hints of his age his hairdresser and doctors could not, it was clear that this was an old man comfortable in the old ways of the Middle East. As such he was as much a remnant of Egypt's past leadership as any mummy in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, just as brittle, frail, and ready to turn to dust.
His sacrifice of his cabinet also evoked ancient practices, as well as the last ditch measures of autocrats throughout history. His ministers -- many of whom were not objects of the people's anger -- were used as cannon fodder, a way to test whether the old president's position would hold. The hours and days ahead will determine whether it was enough: whether there are real reforms he might actually entrust his new government with or whether he is betting that his lifelong ties to the military will protect him in ways that his political savvy no longer can.
He is a man out of touch with his people and his times. Like Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, he is a symptom of the greatest problem the region has faced over the past several decades: its self-absorbed, corrupt leadership. From Algiers to Kabul, an arc of autocracy extends across nearly all of the greater Middle East, denying citizens the right of self-determination, buying international favor with oil or political deals, ignoring educational needs, the rights of women, and the investments needed to compete in the global economy.
But with each starkly out-of-touch pronouncement like that from Mubarak today, the arc trembles a bit. Certainly, the fall of Ben Ali started it quivering. In Yemen and in Jordan, demonstrators tested the waters to see if progress might be made there. We have already seen the potency of the Green Revolution in Iran and recognize that even when the autocrats seem to win the day, they only postpone the inevitable. You can't keep the cell phones and the Internet and Twitter accounts off indefinitely and compete in the modern world. You can't deny a future to populations dominated by the young and expect enduring stability.
In Israel, leaders are deeply ambivalent, fearful of instability in a country that has been vitally important to the region's stability -- and even more fearful that what they perceive as an even weaker, minority regime in Jordan might totter. At the same time, on some level they cannot help but note that not only do these uprisings underscore their nearly unique role as a democracy in the region (we will see what reform in Iraq brings) but even more importantly, they illustrate clearly that Israel is far from the biggest problem the region faces.
It is tempting for "realists" everywhere to cling to stability over the questions that opening these countries to self-determination might raise. But we should all have long since passed that point of hesitation. Either we are for the principle or we are not. Either all people deserve these freedoms or they do not. Someday historians may draw a direct connection between President Barack Obama's call for reforms and a new relationship between the United States and the people of the Islamic world in his Cairo speech and the events of this winter. We can only hope that it is connection marked by U.S. actions that are consistent with the high ideals espoused by the president.
In the words of Secretary Clinton today, we have hope that will be the case. In the "Made in the U.S.A." marking on the tear gas canisters being used against the Egyptian protestors we see the potential ugliness that can come from that old-fashioned form of flawed pragmatism that is a hallmark of US foreign policy -- the form in which we make a deal for today's stability that puts us on the wrong side of tomorrow's revolution.
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The Obama administration has thus far been pitch perfect in its public statements regarding the unrest in Egypt. Learning from its ill-considered silence in the early days of the Iranian protests, it has offered a balanced message. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got it exactly right with "the Egyptian government has an important opportunity … to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." And Robert Gibbs's deft "Egypt is a strong ally" sent the unmistakable message that our long-term interests lie with the Egyptian people and not with any particular individual or leadership group … while at the same time reflecting an appreciation for embattled, aging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's past cooperation with the United States.
That said, the uprisings in Egypt also signal a new period in the administration's foreign policy that will pose conundrums that make the riddle of the Sphinx look like a snap in comparison.
The complex challenges are, of course, hinted at in the choice the United States faces with regard to the Egyptian turmoil. The student uprisings raise the prospect of a more representative government in the country … and also the possibility that the uprisings we saw in Iran and then in Tunisia that preceded the Egyptian events might signal a moment of generational transition that could remake the region's politics. But they also raise the possibility of instability and of the uprisings being co-opted either by hard-liners who use them as an excuse to clamp down or by other even more radical, fundamentalist elements who seize on the upheaval to make their own moves.
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There is an old joke that states a genius is an average student with a Jewish mother. And that may explain in part why Sarah Palin has just announced she is planning to visit Israel. Perhaps just what the average student turned presidential candidate needs is the love and protection of a bunch of Jewish Mama Grizzlies.
Of course, Palin's announcement … and the similar announcement by Mike Huckabee … is evidence of something else. It is a clear sign that the Republican right thinks Barack Obama is vulnerable on Israel policy. In the same way that you already see potential Republican presidential candidates combing over the wreckage of Obama's past bastion of support on Wall Street, this gravitation to the Holy Land is less spiritual and more calculatedly opportunistic.
Not only have the administration's efforts to restart the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians been fitful and recently, embarrassingly confused, but behind the scenes Israelis are yearning for the good old days of Bush and the neocons. Or of Clinton and Rabin. Or of Bush, Reagan, Carter, Nixon, or, in fact, virtually anyone else. The reasons for these feelings are manifold. But even those who wanted to give Obama the benefit of the doubt are themselves now doubters.
There is an irony in this, of course. Because any clear-eyed assessment of what has gone wrong on the Israeli-Palestinian front demands the conclusion that Obama is not the problem and that changing U.S. leaders is hardly the answer. The needed political changes are not only much closer to home for the Israelis (and the Palestinians) but they are less changes about people and more about attitudes and circumstances.
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The news that Osama bin Laden is -- according to a NATO official -- in hiding in Northwest Pakistan hardly qualifies as a shock. That said, the resurfacing of rumors about the location of the greatest villain of our age reminds us just what a massive story the resurfacing of the man would be. In some respects, the fact that bin Laden is still alive, while a black eye for U.S. intelligence, provides President Obama with what has to be the greatest "Get Out of Jail Free" card in the world. Find and capture or kill Osama at any time during the next two years and Obama sails into a second term.
Oversimplification? Perhaps. But the emotional impact of writing the final chapter on the bin Laden story would be so great, and the coverage of that final chapter would be so over the top, that it's hard to imagine another single development on the positive side of the ledger that could provide greater political lift for the president.
Of course, if catching the elusive al Qaeda mastermind were so easy, it would have been done during the past 10 years. Indeed, the U.S. government has been trying to dispatch him for considerably longer than that -- since the Clinton years. That a guy the size of an NBA guard, one with supposedly complex medical needs, who happens to be the most wanted man on the planet earth, has managed to go to ground in a way that makes Saddam's trip down the spider hole seem poignantly amateurish, is really quite a remarkable achievement. Even more amazing is that despite the fact that he has been out there on the lam for a decade, virtually no one on either side in fractious, no-holds-barred world of U.S. politics is willing to suggest that not finding him is a failure. (With the exception of perhaps Joan Rivers who, as chronicled in the recent documentary about her life, A Piece of Work, suggests that as a dialysis patient he ought to have been fairly easy to find in a country like Afghanistan which, she suggested, had only one electric outlet. Just follow the cord is her recommendation.)
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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triumphantly tours southern Lebanon and says to cheering crowds of thousands, "The occupying Zionists today have no choice but to accept reality and go back to their countries of origin." He predicts Israel will disappear. Not too far away, families enjoy the happy diversions of the latest tourist attraction, the Magic Kingdom of sectarian warfare called, "Tourist Landmark of the Resistance" in South Lebanon. There they play on captured Israeli weapons and buy souvenir caps and T-shirts.
Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a column by Roger Cohen, in which he asserted that however odious Ahmadinejad may seem, he's really nothing to worry about. Why? Because Cohen doesn't think he is, that's why. Surely, one must conclude, he would dismiss these Lebanon antics -- rabble-rousing at one of the world's most dangerous frontiers -- as more showboating from his favorite "all hat and no cattle" "paper tiger." Pshaw. Silly frivolous Hezbollah-sponsoring Mahmoud.
And then, in the midst of this, comes a rather different New York Times op-ed, this one from Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, who offers a calm, well-reasoned, and compelling argument as to why the Palestinians should recognize Israel's identity as a Jewish state. But for all Oren's heartfelt and coolly-argued reason, even coupled with his exceptionally well-turned phrases, nothing he writes makes his case as persuasively as the combination of the provocations of the president of Israel's most dangerous enemy and the efforts by glib U.S. elites to shrug him off.
As unproductive as the Israeli stance on settlements has been the Palestinian stance on the nature of the Israeli state, and its ability to continue operations as conceived and sanctioned by the United Nations nearly six and a half decades into its modern existence is just as unconstructive and indefensible. The core concept of the existence of two states, central to any real and lasting solution of the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, requires acceptance of the sovereignty and self-determination of those states. Neither side can expect a hand in the shaping of the societies within their neighbor's borders.
Indeed, the concept of accepting Israel involves accepting its Jewishness or, as Oren points out, it invites the demographic negation of virtually everything associated with Israel's own concept of itself thanks to Israel's commitment to democracy. To fail to acknowledge this would be the same as accepting the idea of a Palestinian state, but then imposing upon it borders that made its economic self-sufficiency impossible.
Peace requires moving past such destructive argumentative approaches. Clearly, we are not near to that point. Which is why Mr. Ahmadinejad is hardly "all hat and no cattle." His grandstanding and inflaming crowds on Israel's borders with the language of obliteration is not just rhetoric. It is part of a systematic and thus far effective effort to exacerbate dangers and, not secondarily, to prolong the misery of the Palestinian people whose right to a free, independent state created in their own image is, of course, every bit as great as that of the Israelis.
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While it often seems like most Middle Eastern countries are bogged down solving the problems of the 20th century -- or, in some cases, those of the eighth century -- here in Abu Dhabi and the rest of the United Arab Emirates, they are grappling with the challenges of the century to come.
It has been said before, but it is hard to overstate the striking nature of the successes in this small country on the edge of the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. The UAE undoubtedly faces some growing pains and has a long list of reforms that are yet to be made. But, remarkably, in public forums like the one I've just participated in here co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and the Emirates government, UAE business and government leaders are the first to identify these and debate openly how to prioritize, what models to emulate, what country they want to be a decade from now or in a generation or two.
Here they have carefully studied whether the path to be followed is that of Singapore or of Korea, of Norway or of Ireland ... and where and how it must be unique, playing to their special and evolving comparative advantages. Even as they remain rightfully grateful for the benefits brought by the discovery of oil and gas half a century ago to what was once a desolate, desperately poor corner of the Arab world, they are working harder than any of their neighbors to be less dependent on those first economic windfalls. In their now world-renowned Masdar project, they are building a green city of tomorrow in the desert. But they are doing even more -- investing in technologies being developed in every corner of the world, not just in green energy but in satellites, semi-conductors, and a carefully selected array of other industries.
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In a world in which Tony Blair could receive an award this week for his commitment to "conflict resolution," perhaps it is not a surprise that we are moving inexorably toward approving a massive $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Memories are short, and these events are just the latest evidence that we are moving out of what might be called the "post-9/11 era" and are moving into something new.
The Blair award is just one of those preposterous things that happen to leaders when they enter the eminence grise (which is to say the rubber chicken-lecture tour) phase of their lives. He's got a big book out and after all, he did make a real contribution to peace in Northern Ireland. That he was George W. Bush's most important international enabler in conducting the most notorious, least necessary major war of the past several decades is hardly a disqualifier for a "conflict resolution" award, apparently. We have started to hit the public opinion statute of limitations for such disastrous "War on Terror" era missteps.
The United States seems on the verge of okaying the biggest arms deal in American history to the country that provided 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, much of the critical funding for al Qaeda and was home to Osama bin Laden. This is a sign of something more than just the passage of time or our acceptance of the manifold official statements that there was no linkage between the terrorists and the Saudi government. (After all, such arguments hardly seem necessary as we know that the hijackers were backed both by elements of the Pakistani secret service and the Taliban and these days we seem willing enough to cut deals with them or, the case of "good" Taliban, at least contemplate it.)
No, the reason that the U.S. government -- that would not have done a deal like this in the years right after 9/11 -- is willing and even a little eager to move ahead with the deal now is that the War on Terror is being overtaken among top U.S. concerns by the advent of a nuclear Iran.
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Update, 9/12/10: In the following post due to a mistake regarding which draft I submitted to be posted, a couple of key words were dropped that have been noted by several commenters. They refer to the paragraph regarding the mosque project in Lower Manhattan. What I intended to write (and had actually written in the draft that I mistakenly did not submit) was not "It is odious..." but instead "It may seem odious to some, but if our freedoms..." I appreciate those who noted the incongruity of the remark given that I was early and strongly on the record supporting the right of those supporting the Islamic Cultural Center to build it wherever they wanted to. As should be clear to anyone who reads this blog, I find the objections and efforts to block the cultural center to be what is really odious and that is the point that I would have made here were it not for my typo. Apologies.
A week ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled "What America Has Lost." It was subtitled "It's clear we overreacted to 9/11." As is typical for Zakaria, it is exceptionally thoughtful and well-argued. Its timely focus is on the enormous costs associated with building up the massive U.S. security apparatus that targeted a terrorist threat that was and is clearly overstated. Zakaria makes reference to the landmark Washington Post "Top Secret America" series that outlined how, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the United States has "created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent to $75 billion (and that's the public number, which is a gross underestimate.) That's more than the rest of the world spends put together."
Even today, nine years after 9/11, it took considerable courage for Zakaria to argue that we overreacted to the horrific events of that day. Given their scope and visceral impact on every American, it seemed in the days after the blows were struck that overreaction was impossible. But in the years that followed, the feelings seem hardly to have ebbed at all, and critiques of our national reaction are, with the exception of the near consensus that invading Iraq was wrong, considered almost unpatriotic -- nearly sacrilegious, in fact.
Yet I believe that Zakaria's column understates the problem. I attribute this to its appropriately limited focus rather than any narrowness of his perspective. It was, after all, just a single column in which he focused on making an important point about America's security priorities and the opportunity costs associated with our strategic overreaction. That said, the damage done by letting emotion and adrenaline get the best of us in the months and years after the attacks extends far beyond the distortion of foreign policy priorities or the impact on the U.S. federal budget.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.