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.
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Once the heartfelt emotion unleashed by the death of Osama bin Laden and the deserved appreciation for the accomplishment of the U.S. military, intelligence community, and Obama and Bush Administration officials who made this possible passes, what will we be left with?
First, we will be left with the uncomfortable realization that what has happened is the most important event of 2001. It changes almost nothing about today's world. That which was a threat, remains a threat. The risks we faced in the Middle East and elsewhere remain roughly as they were. We are still leaving Iraq, still edging to the exit in Afghanistan (albeit with a clearer "mission accomplished" sense about us...even if the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other new extremist threats remain in the region). Countries rocked by unrest such as Libya and Yemen, still contain threats from al Qaeda cells within and near to their borders. And the biggest most important national security concerns we have are totally unrelated to al Qaeda in whatever form it exists today.
Second, I said it changes almost nothing. One thing that has clearly changed, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, is our relationship with Pakistan. Given the location in which bin Laden was found, literally right under the noses of the Pakistani military and the government, in a large, suspicious facility not an hour away from the capital, our already dwindling trust for the Pakistanis, and in particular for their intelligence service must now be acknowledged to have evaporated altogether. While no doubt a number of heroic and dependable true friends in Pakistan helped with this operation, clearly others in very high places were behind protecting bin Laden for years and years.
Further, the fact that we struck independently deep into the heart of Pakistan will not sit well with many in that country, further worsening the relationship.
Given that during the past few years Pakistan has reportedly very dramatically increased their nuclear weapons arsenal, and that at best, they are a schizophrenic ally -- and it is very hard to use that word without gagging on it, we must today acknowledge that the greatest threat to U.S. security was not killed yesterday but instead remains as it was, the country in which he died. That's not to say that it is the government of Pakistan per se or even the majority of the Pakistani people, but rather the threat lies with the tens of millions who are deeply hostile to us, the extremists they cultivate, shelter, fund, and facilitate, and the elements within the government who are perilously close to weapons that, should they ever fall into the wrong hands, would pose a threat that will make us forget today's celebrations very quickly.
The killing of Osama bin Laden, like the 9/11 attacks, is both deeply important and of such symbolic resonance that it invites misinterpretation.
The operation that ended the life of this century's most prominent mass murderer was an undeniable and satisfying success for the United States military and for all those who have worked through two administrations to achieve it. It appears to have been executed with precision and daring and to be managed by the Obama national security team with great professionalism.
It brings a degree of closure to a particularly dark chapter in recent history and, one hopes, a degree of justice for the many who have been caused so much pain by this vile man.
I will admit though that I am made uncomfortable by jingoistic celebrations that broke out when the news of the successful operation in Abbotabbad was announced last night by the president. First, my thoughts went to the families of those who lost loved ones on 9/11, for whom this must trigger feelings much deeper and more complex than mere hoopla. One of those, a guy I can only think of as a the kid who lived across the street from me when I was growing up, a laughing, energetic, dependable participant in neighborhood softball and football games, lost their son, brother and husband ten years ago. Osama may be dead, but it doesn't fill the void created when Todd's offices at the World Trade Center collapsed amid fire and ashes. Another good friend has channeled her feelings of immeasurable sadness into the building of the Pentagon memorial. Osama is gone and she and her family are left with a small stark public shrine and memories that will ache long after this moment passes.
It's a moment of satisfaction, of justice, of military and intelligence success, even one that sends a message about America's relentless determination to avenge a brutal crime. But there is little to be dancing in the streets about here. Leave that to others -- to those who danced in the streets when they saw the twin towers fall -- who have been dehumanized and permanently shamed by their loss of perspective.
Dignity alone does not suggest we should be circumspect in our appreciation for this achievement. America lashed out in the wake of 9/11 in ways that were so excessive and ill considered that it will be decades before we fully recover from the dishonor we brought upon ourselves. That we did played into Osama's hands. In fact, our invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the compromising of our fundamental values were all even more important signs of the success of his plan than the acres of destruction in lower Manhattan or the blackened hole in the side of the Pentagon.
Bin Laden was as low as they come, a twisted perverter of the values of the society and culture he asserted he was championing. He was not even a master terrorist, having far more failed plans than successes to his name. But he did possess a keen understanding of the power of symbolism as the ultimate force-multiplier at any terrorist's disposal. He knew that to strike at American icons would compound the impact of the slaughter he wrought. He wanted to illustrate national vulnerability and to incite national over-reaction. And unsurprisingly, he succeeded and for a decade America redirected the might of the most powerful nation the world has ever known not to contain an existential threat but to hunt down a criminal.
The imagery and emotional power of the losses of 9/11 led us not only to overstate the power of the man who gave the order to unleash them but to spend trillions, sacrifice thousands more American lives, trigger the deaths of hundreds of thousands of others and carve a deep wound into the psyche of the planet. We called it a "war on terror" but it went beyond a measured reaction and was bloated and misdirected by a form of grief and anger-fed national dementia. Hopefully, with this well-executed Navy Seal operation deep into the heart of the country that coddled, protected and hid bin Laden, Pakistan, some of the demons may be released and we may regain some of the perspective that we have lost.
(We can only imagine what the intelligence from this attack an hour north of Pakistan's capital in a city with a very active Pakistani military and government presence will ultimately tell us about the undoubted complicity of the Pakistani intelligence service in protecting the world's public enemy number one.)
Perspective however, requires not only that we struggle not to conflate the enormity of our sense of loss over what happened on 9/11 with our sense of the size of the enemy we faced. It also requires not overstate the impact of the death of bin Laden on the real, measurable and enduring terrorist threats we do face. While al Qaeda may have lost its leader, the organization has morphed over the years into a very real if fragmented threat that will not go away in the wake of this American victory. It is a threat that we and our allies must monitor and contain via every means at our disposal even as we come to recognize that there are far greater threats to our national security -- some economic and of our own making, some slowly building on the international scene with a rapidly shifting global power structure and clouds gathering over critical major power relationships.
9/11 was not Pearl Harbor. Al Qaeda was not and is not a historic enemy like World War II's Axis powers. Bin Laden is not Hitler. We are not in a global war against an equal nor with one with any real capability of displacing us. But we have just buried an enemy who cannily recognized that the only power right now capable of bringing down America is America. He sought to successfully use us against us and he was for too long successful to too great a degree. That is why, for this success to be truly worthy of celebration, we must bury with him the confusion and disorienting anger that has distorted our world view for a decade. We must recast the real terrorist threat in proper size -- eliminate it wherever we can -- and remember that what's greatest about America can't be brought down by bombs or hijacked aircraft or by an amoral hate-monger furtively holed up in a walled compound in North Central Pakistan. It is within us and up to us alone to grow or diminish.
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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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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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Scrooge. The Grinch. Critics calling out the cinematic deficiencies of "Love Actually." Christmas humbuggery is a cliché.
I however, am a New Year's curmudgeon. The holiday is a fraud celebrated by idiots. Our arbitrary slicing of time into comprehension-sized chunks and then celebrating the false distinctions between December 31 and the first of January is a big honking nonsense.
The fact that this ersatz holiday then motivates people to put on silly hats and drink to excess to celebrate the non-event event compounds the ridiculousness of it all and makes it dangerous to leave the safety of your couch. The only thing that adds any gravity to the activity at all is America's tradition of spending part of the evening watching Dick Clark slowly losing body functions on live national television. (I sympathize with the man and admire his courage. But he seems to be crowning a lifetime of cashing in on his bad taste with an ultimate grotesqueness: a multi-year, hard-to-watch reality show about his own demise.)
That said, you don't have to be a drunken lunatic who spends 10 hours trapped in the freezing cold in Times Square waiting for Snooki to be dropped in a glass hamster ball to add to the absurdity of this annual ritual about nothing. No, even very serious types like commentators and still grave but less credible types like bloggers regularly mark the holiday in ways that make them bigger laughingstocks than the insurance salesmen with lampshades on their heads who made the holiday famous: They make predictions.
Invariably the predictions do not come true. There is a charming irony in this: celebrating a non-event through the ritual listing of other soon-to-be non-events. (The New York Times has even run an entertaining discussion forum this week on why we seem to need predictions and how hard they are to make.) It is all a cousin to our penchant for marking the "new" year with resolutions to distinguish the year from that which came before it -- and which are all soon forgotten in ways that should remind us of the falseness of such distinctions.
But while I may condemn the holiday -- which is why on New Year's Eve I will sit here in Paris in our rented digs in the Sixth Arrondissement listening to the nearby revelry on the Boulevard Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail while quietly sipping Diet Coke and irritating my very patient wife just as I do each and every other night -- I am not so egotistical as to think my protests can undo the culturally embedded traditions of the season. I also don't think I can ignore the requests of the editors at FP any longer. So I too will now offer some New Year's predictions.
However, in an effort to avoid the kind of pitfalls of which I am critical, I will skip right over the dubious maybes of most pundits and cut right to what you want to know the most: I will list only those things that are absolutely certain to happen in 2011.
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WikiLeaks provides few revelations but many resonant reminders. The reminders put into language stark enough to reawaken the senses information that we long ago knew but had repressed. For example, take today's multiple reminders that so-called "friendly" governments in the Persian Gulf remain cash machines for the worst people on earth, terrorist groups dedicated to the slaughter of innocents.
"More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups," declared a document that went out a year ago under Hillary Clinton's signature, "Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide."
Other cables describe how the group responsible for the Mumbai bombings, Lashkar-e-Taiba, raise cash through Saudi front businesses, and how the Taliban and their allies work through networks in the United Arab Emirates. They report fitful progress in reducing these cash flows, the use of religious pilgrimages as cover for illicit cash transfers from the Gulf to militants and the quiet if pointed methods the United States uses to press our so-called friends for assistance.
Here we are coming up on a decade since 9/11, two years since Mumbai, bogged down in horrifyingly costly conflicts against these terrorists and the stark, perverse reality remains that the countries of the Gulf are getting rich selling us oil and then passing part of the proceeds on to bands of murderers who have sworn to attack us and our allies. They are worse than drug dealers who kill only through the deadly addiction they promote. These terror bankers and their fat, arrogant, callous royal protectors have for years placed us in double jeopardy by both promoting a different kind of dangerous addiction and then using the proceeds from that to fund efforts to kill us.
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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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Think tanks being what they are -- large meat lockers in which future government bureaucrats are stored until needed -- the reports they produce tend to be little more than exercises in reputation management. They state the obvious, then slather it in a bland, nutrient-free sauce of quasi-academic qualifications that seek to explain why they are really not saying anything new or practical. The best of them offer course corrections that are minuscule at best, and new ideas are as hard to find as honest politicians in the Karzai administration.
Which brings us to the latest such report to be issued, one that proves to be the exception to the rule. That report is "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan" from the New America Foundation. It is one of the very few such documents that I have recently read and found myself nodding at almost every turn of the page. It is so good that it almost restores my youthful belief in the potential benefits of putting smart people around a table and letting them cogitate and argue and bullshit and grapple with tough problems. Produced by a glittering group of wonks, it contains real thoughtful insights into America's situation in Afghanistan and comes to sound, generally implementable conclusions about what the United States should do to avoid making a very bad situation even worse.
The report is well summarized in an article by Steve Clemons, one of its architects, that appears in Politico. In short, it makes the case that spending $100 billion a year to fight a war we can't win in Afghanistan is just one of several reasons that America's policies are misguided and demand immediate correction. He writes, "Though Obama is more likeable, and often more inspiring, than the fictional captain in the Melville novel, Afghanistan has now become the Moby Dick to Obama's Ahab."
The report begins by revisiting the forgotten territory of America's initial reasons to be involved in the region in the first place. It correctly notes there are only two: preventing Afghanistan from being a staging ground for further terrorist attacks against the United States, and doing what we can to reduce the threat that Pakistani weapons of mass destruction might fall into the wrong hands. It argues correctly that if we focus on these two goals, then our mission, military and diplomatic presence in the region would and should look very different.
It makes five key recommendations. The first is promoting power sharing and political inclusion in a more decentralized Afghanistan: In other words, trying to work with rather than against the historical and cultural tides in the country. Second is downsizing and ending military operations in southern Afghanistan and reducing the military presence there. Third is focusing the military's attention on Al Qaeda, which is no longer really present in Afghanistan but remains an issue in Pakistan. (Notably, the New America group suggests using the cost-savings the drawdown would produce to bolster U.S. domestic security and contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction worldwide.) Fourth is encouraging the promotion of economic development, while emphasizing that this should be an internationally rather than U.S. led effort. (Hallelujah to that.) Finally, it recommends collaborating with influential states in the region to ensure Afghanistan is not dominated by "any single power or being permanently a failed state that exports instability." The report notes that those states -- Pakistan, India, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- aren't the best of pals, but suggests correctly that there are ways to work with each or even small clusters of them to promote these outcomes that are, for the most part, in their interests.
Point five is a bit of a stretch. Point four is more or less boilerplate, though worthy of emphasizing. The reality is that Afghanistan will become a strongman dominated quasi-failed state, but that as long as our core goals in the region -- the two mentioned above -- are met, then we should be less concerned with whatever structure produces an outcome supportive of them.
Personally, I think the international community needs to be involved actively in ensuring that whatever successor state emerges, the rights of all Afghans -- and notably women and tribal minorities -- are respected and protected. It is also true that Pakistan is the real problem and appropriate subject of U.S. attention in this region, and that this requires forthrightly addressing what diplomatic and force structure is required to promote stability and contain threats within that country.
But this report is clear-eyed, direct, well-argued and in its tone even more than its substance sends a message that the only door we should head for in that country is the one with the exit sign over it. In Clemons article he notes that the United States spends seven times Afghanistan's own GDP on our involvement there -- an amount equal to the cost of the recent U.S. health care legislation, and one that if saved could pay down the U.S. deficit in 14 years. The recklessness and irresponsibility of such a costly involvement, given America's other urgent priorities and the true nature of the threats within Afghanistan, makes the blood boil.
It does no dishonor to our military to wish their lives and services were available for other missions. Reports like this raise the hope that opinion is shifting in ways that may lead us to just such a desirable outcome.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
Remember the scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are talking and there are sub-titles indicating what they really were thinking? I regularly wish such a thing were available when listening to politicians speak. Not always, because frankly most of the time that politicians speak the best filter is ignoring them altogether. But Barack Obama is the president of the United States, the country is ass deep in alligators and so his State of the Union address takes on special importance.
We know he and his team have worked for weeks on the address. They have spent the past few days pre-gaming the press hoping to get the "Obama Does It Again: America Starts Believing in Change They Can Believe In ... Again!" story they really want. And we also know that every single phrase in the speech has been viewed through multiple lenses-impact on the media, impact on the left, impact on the right, impact on the center, impact on donors, impact on November 2010 election prospects ... well, you get the idea. With the pros in the White House you often get the sense they're looking at dozens of angles associated with any phrase or idea. It's not triangulation. That's so 1990s. It reeks of Dick Morris'a mouth full of toenail polish. Today we're dealing with polygonulation of a much richer sort. With three political factions, U.S. and foreign media, 50 states, the G20, Michelle, Malia, Sasha, the White House dog and the Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol, and Oprah that would make it octacontakaihenagonulation. (There's a change you can believe in.)
Anyway, to help cut through it all, we watched carefully as the president delivered his address and have selected ten key phrases in which the president said one thing but actually meant something else. Then, we added the real or alternative meaning. So now, you can truly understand.
And as for knowing what you yourself were really thinking while you watched, perhaps it's best to return to Annie Hall in which Annie says "Well, to me, I mean it's all instinctive. You know, I mean, I just try to feel it. You know, I try to get a sense of it and not think about it so much." But while she says it, the subtitles let us know what she (and you) are really thinking: "God, I hope he doesn't turn out to be a schmuck like all the others."
The following are not necessarily offered in the order they came in the speech:
1. "Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit."
This actually means: "Holy crap, what a mess. But let's not panic. Please do not give up on me. Please do not quit on me now. It's early yet...and look at this way, you could have elected John Edwards. Imagine where we'd all be then with the economy in the tank, the First Lady moving out and him having to turn the Situation Room into a nursery."
2. "We have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust -- deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years."
This actually means: "We've got a gigantic deficit of dollars right now, but let's change the subject. Let's blame it on the past. I sure hope that you don't notice that throughout this speech I blamed problems on the past like 9 or 10 times. Christ, I hope some nutjob pundit doesn't dub this the "Blame It On the Past" speech tomorrow."
3. "To close that credibility gap we must take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -- to end the outsized influence of lobbyists, to do our work openly and to give our people the government they deserve."
This actually means: "By both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, I mean in Congress. As for the ending the outsized influence of big money I sure do hope people weren't watching Tim Geithner's mugging on the Hill earlier today for being too cozy with Wall Street. No seriously, I hate lobbyists. The guys that fund them, the donations they give, the issues they advance, those things I'm ok with. But lobbyists, I wouldn't bend over to scrape them from my shoe."
4. "Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't."
This actually means: "Anything that pisses Rachel Maddow off this much has got to make centrists a little happier, right? And where's she going to go? Who's she going to vote for? Mitt Romney? Ahahahahahahhaha... I could appoint Bill O'Reilly Secretary of Banning Abortions and Distributing Assault Rifles to Schoolchildren and she would still have to vote for me. As far as the families on a budget line goes, I hope no one does the math. We're freezing 18 percent of the budget. And the rest we're not touching. That's like a family trying to balance its budget by cutting back on what it pays the paperboy."
5. "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are."
This actually means: "See my little liberal friends, there's something for you in here too. Oh sure, I know this reeks of Clinton era small ball and a kind of something-for-everyone approach. But hey, gay people, enjoy it ... because in terms of my list of priorities going forward, you're way behind big things like health care and fighting global warming and cutting the deficit and defeating terrorism and winning in Afghanistan and virtually none of those things are actually going to happen either."
6. "Now, the price of college tuition is just one of the burdens facing the middle-class. That's why last year I asked Vice President Biden to chair a task force on Middle-Class Families."
This actually means: "So, ok, here's the one area we are going to spend. Jobs for the middle class. Tax breaks for the middle class. We can't afford anything. Except for programs for the people who will determine whether we get to keep our jobs. Ha...we're part of our own jobs program."
7. "Now let's be clear -- I did not choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics."
This actually means: "Let's be clear, while I did take this on because I wanted a big legislative victory and because I thought it was good politics, this dog is clearly not going to hunt. So let's just walk it back. Did I say I wanted this done by the State of the Union? What I meant was the first bill I want on my desk this year is a jobs bill."
8. "Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that's why I'm urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong."
This actually means: "Geesh, this is a bit awkward. They're sitting right there. And they don't look happy. The reason I'm all for separation of powers is that if they were any closer they'd bite me on the leg. And frankly Alito looks like he has rabies."
9. "Throughout our history, no issue has united this country more than our security."
This actually means: "Ok, I have to get to national security for a few minutes. Admittedly, I am going to do about 8 minutes out of a 75 minute speech on foreign policy tonight. Pity because I really am getting us out of Iraq, that's a pretty big deal. I wish I could talk more about this stuff ... but right now, America seems to want a time out from the planet earth."
10."Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation. But I also know this: if people had made that decision fifty years ago or one hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, we wouldn't be here tonight."
That meant: "Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation. But I also know this: if people had made that decision fifty years ago or one hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, we wouldn't be here tonight."
But as I said, all politicians have multiple meanings with their speeches. Overall, the speech was not bad. No grand new ideas. But overall ... not a bad domestic stump speech that was particularly effective when it turned to condemning the dysfunctional mood of Washington at the moment. Admittedly, if you're a foreign policy fan, there really wasn't much here ... but Bush was all national security all the time and that didn't turn out so well for anyone. Grade: B.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. national security is too important to be left to foreign policy specialists, the media or politicians. These are the clear lessons of the Post-Underpants Bomber Era.
Before Christmas and the disturbing revelations of a man setting his balls on fire on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit (rendering himself only slightly more uncomfortable than those flying economy class), there was at least a feeling that America was regaining her senses following the 8 hysterical years of the so-called War on Terror.
But within hours of the bungled terror attempt, we saw once again America's true vulnerabilities. And while they are linked to intelligence failures, it is not the ones on which the media and the president's political opponents have focused that are most salient.
Obama's reaction to the junkbomber incident was precisely right and just what you want from a leader: Dispassionate, thoughtful, and calculated. He gave his team the time to assess the threat, the breaches and the right next steps to take. At least one person in the United States, Barack Obama, seemed to recognize that the objective of terrorism is to promote terror and sought to defuse that effort by handling the threat with the proportionality and common sense that has long been missing from U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
But almost immediately, the foreign policy establishment -- acting with the acuity and purity of motives of Tila Tequila squeezing a few extra minutes of undeserved fame out of the untimely death of her "fiancé" Casey Johnson -- whipped itself up into a critical lather. Why? Because it was good for America or because it was in their own self-interest?
I'll leave you to work that out on your own, but here are a few clues:
First, we have seen very few such attempted attacks carried to the stage of that of the underpants bomber in the last decade. Second, we have been successful in foiling many such attacks -- successes for which those responsible get little credit. Third, the attempt revealed as much about the genuine and enduring weaknesses of even terrorists affiliated with major league terror operations like al Qaeda as it did about our own counter-terror efforts. Fourth, terrorism by definition is only successful if it produces "terror" -- the kind of hysterical over-reaction we are once again seeing -- yet this fact does not seem to have resulted in very many critics toning down their hysteria or shrillness. (The Republican Party has the collective cool on these matters of Prissy helping to birth Melanie's baby in Gone With the Wind. As for the media, given that the "news" networks probably devoted more live news coverage to the balloon boy hoax than were devoted to say, the invasion of Normandy, you recognize that they are actually in the business of emotional over-reaction. In fact, their constant refrain that every event is an earth-shattering pinnacle of human experience that could well be the biggest thing they have ever seen suggests they have more in common with folks in say, Ashley Dupre's line of work than that of, say, a journalist.)
Most important, however, is that within days of what may go down on record as the world's first and last attempt at plastic explosive-assisted self-circumcision, news stories kept popping up that underscored the fact that the terror attack paled in significance for those concerned with America's future to other concurrent global developments. To begin with, the intelligence failures involved were not even the biggest problem of the week for the intelligence community given the devastating blow to some of our most senior field operatives in Afghanistan.
But the biggest threats to U.S. leadership and security ... to our very ability to protect ourselves at home and abroad ... manifested themselves in other stories that have simply not gotten sufficient attention among the accusations and inflammations of the holiday season terror frenzy. Like unemployment staying at 10 percent. Or, over the weekend, like China passing Germany as the world's largest exporter. Or like the fact that our impending health care bill will still not actually fix the financial threats to our system posed by grotesquely under-funded health care liabilities. Or like the fact that the world is far away from solving the biggest security problems it faces from stabilizing Pakistan to stopping Iran's nuclear program (and thus the WMD proliferation that poses the one great terror threat) to reversing climate change or addressing resource disparities that will trigger many of the wars of the century ahead. (It is worth noting that for America today ... the greatest threats to the nation's future well-being don't involve things that explode ... always the favored topic of foreign policy elites ... but rather things that are imploding ... like our economy, about which most big time foreign policy specialists haven't a clue.)
If one terrorist can in one failed attempt distract America from addressing priorities and will almost certainly lead to further billions and billions being misdirected to the global whackamole game of trying to snuff out the geopolitical pipsqueaks who lead international terror networks it explains more about why terrorists will keep trying than any in-depth analysis of the conditions on the ground in terror-prone regions.
Thus, what this incident really reminds us is, terrorists only have the power we give them. And that the emotional, the shrill, the over-the-top, the self-promoters, the hyper-political, and the other tummlers responsible for the inside-the-beltway mob mentality are as complicit in the spread of terror as those who are too soft on it. If the president's rhetoric was slightly too weak for some tastes, he erred in the direction that also weakens our enemies rather than, as did his most vocal critics, the direction that turns operational failures like the one on Christmas Day into strategic successes for the bad guys.
P.S. I'd like to add that not only is the over-the-top nature of the terrorism debate of late done damage to U.S. interests, the appropriate response is not only not more spending, more programs, more rules ... but that complimenting the moderate response would actually be improvements to our anti-terror efforts all of which would actually be in the direction of narrowing, focusing and spending less. For example, want to improve Intel sharing? Let's start with getting rid of the Directorate of National Intelligence, a legacy of Bush's big government response to 9/11, that amounts to precisely the opposite of what we need: an additional layer of thousands of bureaucrats who actually do not enhance (apparently) our analytical capacity and undoubtedly reduce communications efficiency. The Central Intelligence Agency was created to do all the coordinating the DNI does and easily could do it again if sufficiently empowered? Want another step to improve our intel sharing? How about reducing and eliminating many of the unnecessary levels of information classification that make it impossible for policy makers to actually have access to all the information they need to make decisions? Want another? Heed the advice of former advisor to Dwight Eisenhower General Andrew Goodpaster, who laughed to me during our last intel "crisis" after 9/11 that Eisenhower would have had no patience with it because he knew -- from bitter experience during World War II -- that intelligence can be useful but expectations must be set at the right level. It was always an imperfect tool and one that could not be perfected. Want another? Let's get out of the unwinnable mess in Afghanistan and focus some of those resources on directly targeting terrorists, some on better tools for early warning and the rest on the domestic needs that are actually essential to maintaining long-term U.S. strength. I could go on. But it is clear ... when it comes to responding to terror, the lesson of the past decade is that we need to think a lot harder about proportionality and the unintended consequences of our understandable horror and outrage.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
So, here we are at last, the big ones, my choices for winners and losers of the decade on the global stage.
While these selections are slightly less subjective than, say, the Golden Globe nominations (which are, I believe, selected by three drunken expat Latvian critics in a bar in West Hollywood), they do represent just the views of one man. If you agree with those views, please post your congratulations below ... or go ahead and add a few other names. If you disagree, just remember, there will be other lists -- only I decide whether to include you among the global losers of tomorrow (alongside, say, the Tiger Woods of 10 years from now when he is running Tiger's "Just Do It" Mini-Golf Course in Melanoma City, Florida) or the global winners of the future (alongside, say, President Timberlake in 2030 or so).
The People of Iraq: George W. Bush was our Washington loser of the decade, but all he lost was his reputation such as it was. He's still rich and will probably never pay for a round of golf again. But somewhere between 100,000 and 800,000 Iraqis are dead as a consequence of the war, the country is shattered, its government held together with chewing gum and bailing wire and the random killing continues. Oh, and there was absolutely no justification for going in and breaking up the place from the get-go. This isn't a tragedy ... it's a crime, as I suspect international courts will conclude in the years to come.
The People of Afghanistan and Pakistan: These countries are no playgrounds, they are home to plenty of bad actors and, as Barack Obama has demonstrated, no U.S. president, regardless of party, could stay disengaged from the festering political sore on the planet that is AfPak. But while the pursuit of al Qaeda and the Taliban is justified, the wars that continue to percolate here will kill countless thousands, impoverish hundreds of thousands more and at the same time, support for terrorists and other enemies of civilization will grow. That there are no good choices here is a cliché ... that there are going to be no winners is a related tragic reality.
The British Government (Lifetime Achievement Award): Well, let's book at the worst problems the world has faced during the past decade -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine...what do these diverse countries have in common? They were all cooked up or stirred up by those fertile minds at the British Foreign Office and their colleagues elsewhere up and down Whitehall, either as they were dismantling their empire or fiddling with the region after one war or another. Thanks guys for your creativity...and for the foresight you showed by actually bequeathing your handwork to yet another remnant of your empire as you shuffled off the world stage so you could focus on counterbalancing your past contributions to global culture by producing Simon Cowell and the likes of Susan Boyle.
The U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Dollar, and American Capitalism: It was a tough decade for the pillars of U.S. society. We should have seen it coming when the decade began with the Supreme Court fiddling with an election and when a central theme of the Bush years became undercutting the Constitution. Thanks to the U.S. government's similar callous disregard for the laws of economics and fiscal responsibility the dollar began a downward spiral that many experts see as a semi-permanent feature of our future.
Democracy: Oh, yes, we know that Churchill called it the "worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried"... but as my grandma would have said, "there's democracy and then there's democracy." In other words, some forms of democracy are worse than others, and among those that that have flourished during the past decade are Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Zimbabwe, and, yes folks, Honduras -- where leaders took advantage of the common misperception that voting equals democracy.
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)
Frankly, on those few occasions when I imagine Osama bin Laden I prefer to envision him wasting away from some bat-borne illness he picked up in the caves he frequents. That's why thinking of him sitting there flipping through his well-thumbed copy of Walt and Mearsheimer's tedious tome is almost satisfying. Really, who knew there was a Death-to-Israel Book Club? But even more satisfying than thinking of Bin Laden drifting off somewhere between The Israel Lobby's recitation of the obvious and its misreading of America's challenges in the Middle East, was Walt's exquisite response on the FP site.
While I'm tempted to leave well enough alone, it's hard to ignore the significance of Osama embracing Walt and Mearsheimer's theories. What could better illustrate that the book possesses all the internal logic of an al Qaeda press release than the mere fact of this intellectual love connection?
And what could I write about this development that would be more of a revealing indictment of the Walt-Mearsheimer approach than Walt's own efforts to fend off a big wet one from al Qaeda's head maniac? Watch him twist slowly in a noose of his own manufacture as he begins his response with a brief disavowal and then uses his Osama Moment to move quickly into a reassertion of his own theory. Once again, he recites the list of others who have mentioned that there was an Israel lobby without yet noting that this is simply evidence that his principal conclusion offered nothing new.
Walt's response gets really good when he then goes so far as to suggest that Osama's embrace of his book only proves his point that the Israel lobby (or is it The Israel Lobby?) is used as a justification by terrorists. Blind to the irony all his book did was weave precisely the kind of fabric of partial truths and old biases that are used to dress up the hatreds of demagogues everywhere, Walt actually has the chutzpah to try use the news that the most evil man in the world is reading his work as a soap box from which to once again sell his argument (and books).
Of course, even more disturbing to me than the fact that Bin Laden has now been given the opportunity to suggest that he has found support for his arguments from "prestigious academics" is of course, that not just terrorists are reading this book or buying its conclusions. The cold hard fact is that Walt and Mearsheimer have won the moment here in Washington. The United States is getting tougher with Israel and more open to Hamas and their supporters in the Arab world. We are seeking "balance" in the name of "realism." There are two prevailing groups who are driving the argument at the moment: those who see moral equivalency between the Israelis and the Palestinians (see yesterday's "war crimes" report) and those who think the Israelis are worse.
Walt and Mearsheimer have achieved a near miracle, creating one thing on which both the current Washington establishment and Bin Laden can agree on. Bad as that may sound, at worst I think that is a mixed blessing. Because in the end there's only one sure way to undercut such theories, and that's to try to put them into action.
Fortunately for all of us, the ultimate antidote to "realism" is reality.
Which is why I am advising my Israeli and pro-Israel friends to put the Jew back into Jiu Jitsu. (We talk that way to each other at World Jewish Conspiracy meetings.) Let's see what happens when the United States distances itself further from Israel, when we beat up on them and embrace the Palestinians and their "allies" elsewhere in the region ... soon enough we will see that we ended up in support of Israel not because of the power of the Israel lobby or America's deep love of the Jews (hold on while I choke back my own laughter at that idea), but because they were the only country in the region that actually was a suitable and dependable ally and that as big a problem as the Israelis may have been for the long-suffering Palestinians, the Arabs have been as bad or worse. All that's even more true today. So, Israel should go along with the new approach (careful to defend itself against imminent threats, of course) and let Hamas and Ahmadinejad do the heavy lifting when it comes to disproving the whimsy of the realists that all it will take is for us to make nice with the Arab world and all will be well. And at the same time, by losing this argument big time, those who are supporters of Israel will (once again) prove their own weakness in the U.S. political process.
In other words, go on, try "realism." Make my day. It's the best possible way to discredit Osama, Hamas, Ahmadinejad, Walt and Mearsheimer all at once.
Now, before I conclude, I have to admit that at least on one level, I do have a little sympathy for Walt. My last book, Superclass, actually attracted a bunch of the same kind of folks who read his work, conspiracy theorists who, much as Walt did himself, start out with a conclusion and then look for evidence to support it (while carefully avoiding countervailing facts). It took me a long time to come to grips with the existence of this readership and realize that even though, in the end, my book disappointed them because it really sought to debunk most of their crazed theories, I played a role in attracting them to the book. I was responsible. And so it is that one can only hope that on some level, this most recent development will help Walt and Mearsheimer come to grips with one of the toughest truths any author can grapple with.
Every book gets the readers it deserves.
Today Hillary Clinton made a statement in Thailand that the United States would work to create a defensive shield to help protect Gulf allies from a potential Iranian nuclear threat. Her point is that Iran should not think creating nukes will give them a strategic advantage because we will work relentlessly to blunt any edge nukes might provide.
Seems reasonable enough. Not surprisingly though, Clinton's comments landed in Jerusalem like a dud scud. According to Agence France Presse, Israel's Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor responded:
I heard without enthusiasm the American declarations according to which the United States will defend their allies in the event that Iran uses nuclear weapons, as if they were already resigned to such a possibility. This is a mistake. We cannot act now by assuming that Iran will be able to arm itself with a nuclear weapon, but to prevent such a possibility."
I also agree with this view. That's what I like about the Middle East. It's rife with complexities and no issue has fewer than three sides. What I don't like much about the Middle East is when it becomes, as it often does, that magical fantasy land where passions can be applied to fantasies to produce facts ... or where the insupportable is often the unshakable foundation of absolute certitude. (Which explains a number of religious developments in the region ... but I will gingerly sidestep that discussion for now.)
My recent post on shifting attitudes in Israel and the United States regarding the relationship between the two countries produced among those commenting on it a host of really interesting comments from all over the spectrum ... and some of the nasty/loony stuff we could all do without.
Of course, item number one in this latter category is racism or prejudice of any sort against any group. Examples of this were visible in a number of the comments, sometimes boldly, sometimes insidiously. The big winner in the makes-ya-wanna-barf contest came from a guy named "briand" who, in reference to a rather overheated pro-Israeli post by AllanGreen, wrote, "If this is parody, kudos! I think the thing I'll miss the most about you Jews is your sense of humor. Not so much the apartheid/lebensraum mentality though." Scroll on through the comments ... there's lots of hatred there, in and among some fairly thoughtful arguments for one side or another.
Another commenting technique that drives me up a wall is imputing views to me (for whatever reason) that I don't actually hold. For example: I'm no fan of the settlements, think they ought to be dismantled, am not a Zionist, don't support the views of the Likud, and based on his track record to date am no Bibi fan. I also don't think that taking a tough stand against the Iranian nuclear program implies the need to attack and lay waste to Iran. Rather, we need an international program of inspections and enforcement that explicitly asserts the right to use force to compel compliance and offers a multilateral guarantee of providing that force. (Not just in the case of Iran, by the way, but in the case of all future signatories of the new NPT we will start negotiating next year ... an NPT that should offer the framework within which the deal with Iran ought to be included.)
Another aggravating approach which often undercuts otherwise reasonable arguments is making insupportable assertions. For example, one reader argued that Israel had Iran and Ahmadinejad all wrong, that the Iranian president's comments about destroying Israel were really a deliberate, unfair misquoting of him and that by extension; Israel had nothing to fear from Tehran. Really? Aren't we forgetting 30 years of official pronouncements or the guy who chants "death to Israel" at afternoon prayers? I think it was the same reader who argued another reason to chill out about any potential Iranian threat was that Iran has not attacked anyone in 250 years. This overlooked, as another reader pointed out, the fact that the country has for decades been the world's leading state sponsor of terror...which ought to count for something.
In this vein, one of the most popular insupportable assertions is that somehow solving the settlements problem or even the larger Israel-Palestinian problem will in turn solve or contribute greatly to solutions for all our other problems in the Middle East -- this despite the fact that many of the biggest problems in the region antedate the founding of Israel by a number of centuries.
In the interest of dispelling this misconception, here, off the top of my head, are 15 major problems in the Middle East that would not be solved by solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute:
This doesn't include related issues like the tensions between extremist or tribal Islamic groups with roots in the region and Russia, China, and other bordering countries. Perhaps you have others, feel free to add. (Just try to restrain yourself if you feel the impulse to make a comment that uses as its primary source The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)
Dismantle the settlements. Create two states. Create an internationally monitored buffer between those states. Let billions in aid flow in to help relieve the plight of the Palestinians. Please, do all these things. They are all long overdue. But know this: They may remove an irritant, they may remove an argument from extremists, they may put U.S. relations on a more even footing with other countries in the region. But they won't make the Middle East appreciably less dangerous or difficult and I guarantee you, they won't stop efforts by the countries of the region to continue to scapegoat, confront and battle Israel on countless other pretexts.
David Silverman/Getty Images
But back to skepticism, here are a few questions that linger in my mind listening to the president describe his new AfPak plan:
But, other than that, a pretty good policy launch by the Obama national security team.
After all this hoopla about a transformational election, it turns out all this country needed was a good pair of glasses. The Bush administration as it turns out had a focus issue. It wasn't that they had so much trouble focusing on things, although I always thought the president had a bit of that ADHD feel to him. It was that they tended to focus on the wrong things. It was a kind of foreign policy dyslexia that caused us to misread maps and regularly miss the things that should have been our targets by quite bit, say, a country or two.
So, we went to war to stop a WMD program in Iraq and as it turned out, the program we should have been worrying about was a country away in Iran. Also, as it turns out, there was another one a country away, in Syria. We went to war in Afghanistan and it turns out the war was actually in Pakistan. In the waning months of the Bush administration, we started to worry about the situation in Mexico but as it turned out...and as in each of the cases as we should have recognized all along...the real serious problem was right here in the United States.
Say what you may about the muddled economic policies of the Obama administration, the national security team has its glasses on and the result is a president who is offering a much improved vision of what America's foreign policy priorities ought to be. Nothing illustrated this quite so well as today's presidential announcement of our new policy in "Afghanistan"-- although Hillary Clinton's acknowledgement of the drug demand factor in fueling Mexico's violence and the overall effort to wind down operations in Iraq and to initiate new diplomacy with Iran also suggest we are finally doing the obvious and attempting to deal with the real roots of the challenges we face.
What set the new Afghanistan strategy apart was that it clearly acknowledged that our real problems lie with in Pakistan and that we were dealing not so much with countries but with a wild, borderless region. The Afghan side of the strategy was focused on stabilization -- helping to substantially build Afghan army and police forces and thus their ability to manage Afghanistan's internal issues, and on deploying legions of teachers, lawyers and engineers to help them build the country. While the Pakistan side of the equation did include elements of assistance to support that country, the rational for the aid was clearly different (though this is not something the administration would ever acknowledge.) The Afghanistan money is to promote a more stable society and to make that problem go away (or at least make our exit a little easier when we ultimately pull out.) The Pakistan money -- $1.5 billion a year for 5 years -- is a bribe...or maybe a multi-stage bribe. On the one hand, it is a public display of friendship to a country whose people don't much like us and on the other it is cash for our friends in Pakistan to use (assuming they actually get their hands on it) to bid for the loyalties of other Pakistanis currently leaning toward our enemies.
Importantly, Obama was very clear that our target is still al Qaeda and he made one of his most forceful statements to date of the perceived on-going threat from that group. Beyond reiterating that we are there for the same reason we went in originally...to get the guys who did 9/11...this did two important things. First, it separated out the Taliban, consistent with the current strategy of seeking to find an in to them and peeling them off. Second, it said, the real meat of this problem is in Pakistan because the Taliban are in Pakistan.
As I have said before, I am skeptical that we can achieve much of lasting value in this part of the world as problems there are so amorphous, ingrained and have such strong regenerative features that I feel we will spend much of our effort just pushing our food around on our plates. That said, the only chance for real progress is the kind of narrowing focus, realism and intensification of pressure on the truly bad guys implied by this plan.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
So, President Obama is on the verge of making the decision to commit more troops to Afghanistan this week.
A new Pentagon report, as described at Politico.com, wisely seeks to narrow our objectives. But even if the recast goals Obama adopts are (as the new recommendations allegedly suggest) focusing on regional stability and clearing out Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan, it seems highly likely that this will largely prove to be an exercise in futility. Besides the fact that no one since Alexander the Great has won a lasting victory in that part of the world, despite whatever wisdom we may have gleaned from Rudyard Kipling and the Russians about what not to do, besides the fact that it was our own short-sighted efforts there that led to the emergence of Osama bin Laden as a threat, this is a part of the world that makes the similarly asymmetric conflicts in Vietnam and Colombia look like a piece of cake.
Do we really think we can permanently snuff out the Al Qaeda and Taliban threat in the mountains? Aren't we really signing up for a hugely costly and never ending game of whack-a-mole? Do we really think that any number of U.S. troops will be a stabilizing force in the region? And, given the challenges associated with even these narrower missions: What's the exit strategy? If the disease is chronic, are we really willing to become an extended-care stabilizer?
No, those goals aren't really achievable (which is not to say we can't achieve periodic triumphs, rather that they are likely to be short-lived). So is the real goal something different? Is it really just to send the message that as the U.S. withdraws from Iraq we are not disengaging completely and in fact, are willing to use force somewhere? Or is it that we think it's probably a good idea to keep a decent size deployment of special forces not too far from the Pakistani border for when the balloon goes up there and we are scrambling to put a lid on their nukes?
History is against us, the terrain is against us, many of the people are against us, the corruption of our local allies is against us, the constraints on our own power are against us, the likely patience of the international community is against us -- we are just being carried forward on the residual waves of anger over a terrorist attack that took place almost eight years ago. We shouldn't forget it, but unless we are willing to adopt and fully own the evolving strategy of missiles and unmanned aircraft being sent after suspected bad guys wherever we find them without regard for borders while we all the while inflame the locals, our "allied governments", and periodically produce very unfortunate collateral damage -- this will be bloody, costly and frustrating.
Oh, and while we're at it, let's stop kidding ourselves about the most basic elements of how we think about this war. We call it Afghanistan. But Afghanistan is only the front porch of this conflict. Read between the lines in the summary of the Pentagon report: The real meat of the mission -- whether it is hunting down Al Qaeda or the Taliban, combating destabilizing forces in the mission, or keeping a lid on nukes -- is in Pakistan. As we escalate, it is worth keeping in mind that what we are really doing is getting deeper and deeper into a conflict in a nuclear nation with more than 170 million inhabitants, four-fifths of whom have decidedly anti-American views and whose country is locked in a 60-year-old conflict with the billion-person nation on its other border.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
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.