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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Dear Democracy Advocates and Freedom Fighters Everywhere,
We know it is hard enough to battle autocrats, daubing the tear gas out of your eyes, spending your nights in jail cells or your days dodging errant NATO bombs without having the thing you are fighting for debased and devalued by its supposed champions. We apologize.
We know what is happening in the one-time capital of the Free World now is ugly and demoralizing and no doubt has many of your supporters wondering if democracy is really worth its costs. Are you fighting for freedom of speech and assembly and representative government, those supporters must be asking, or is it inadvertently a fight that will ultimately bring you your own versions of Tea-Partiers and gridlock and the complete sacrifice of national interests on the altar of cheap political showmanship?
We are sorry our display of the spineless, visionless, shrill, embarrassing debasement of our political system is so ill-timed given your purposes ... but by now you must realize that while we are pretty good at giving speeches about democracy promotion, we've never been so great at following through with support for your efforts.
Ok, maybe that's not really the best apology ... suggesting you are to blame for believing too much in a country that almost always brings down that which it lifts up. Let me try another tack: Perhaps you can turn all this to your benefit if you simply change your perspective.
Perhaps the trick is in not looking at America as a beacon of democracy anymore but rather as a kind of a lighthouse perched up on the rocks of where not to go, of what not to be, warning you to avoid our example.
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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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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.
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Foreign Affairs is currently running an article called "Egypt's Democratic Mirage" which begins with the following statement: "Despite the tenacity, optimism, and blood of the protesters massed in Tahrir Square, Egypt's democratic window has probably already closed." The piece, by a professor named Joshua Stacher, then goes on to explain how the Cairo regime has maneuvered in ways likely to ensure its survival and the disappointment of the hopes of Egypt's protesters.
Nearing his conclusion, Stacher says, "When the uprising began in Egypt, many linked the events in Tunis and Cairo and declared that 2011 might be the Arab world's 1989. Instead, 2011 is showing just how durable and adaptable the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world truly are." He then punctuates his argument with the following: "In this latest rendering, with Suleiman at the helm, the state's objective of restoring a structure of rule by military managers is not even concealed. This sort of 'orderly transition' in post-Mubarak Egypt is more likely to usher in a return to the repressive status quo than an era of widening popular participation."
While Stacher's analysis of the behind-the-scenes handling of the situation by Egypt's ruling elite raises important points, especially about the role of Vice President Omar Suleiman and some in the military, the piece suffers from a fatal defect. It is yet another effort to draw sweeping and concrete conclusions from too little data about a fluid and complex situation. Didn't any of the other analysts out there take those same standardized tests to which I was subjected as a student in which not infrequently the right answer was that there was insufficient information with which to answer the question? Or, in this particular case, did Professor Stacher's history textbooks begin with the year 1989?
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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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Meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the face of engagement. Even during the presidential campaign, when talk of engagement arose, Iran was the poster child. If we could only hold our noses long enough to talk with them, America would gain an advantage. Engagement would elevate enmity into something more constructive, even if that was only debate.
But of course, engagement has a downside, the power to drag us down as well as lift our relationships up. No one seems so eager to demonstrate this or test the tolerances of this new policy than Ahmadinejad. Whether it is crushing democracy in his country, actively seeking nuclear weapons, threatening to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, seeking to extend his influence to the Western Hemisphere through his alliance with Hugo Chavez, continuing to sponsor Hezbollah or, as he did again today, calling the Holocaust a lie, he has done everything possible not only to raise tension with the United States but to serve as an affront to the most basic values and interests of the international community at large.
As a consequence of his actions, Ahmadinejad actually has claimed a new title for himself: co-author of America's policy of engagement. Once, many years ago, thoughtful security analyst Ed Luttwak said to me, "the dirtiest fighter sets the rules of a conflict." The same holds true for a policy like engagement ... especially during its early, developmental days. Obama may be the driving force behind it, but the individual or country with whom we continue to engage who offers the most extreme threats to our interests or our values will be the one who defines the limits of the policy.
If we can engage with a man like Ahmadinejad and make progress, then the power of a very tolerant form of engagement will be proven. If we let him prove that engagement is blind to all behaviors and over time that it has no influence over those behaviors, then he will undercut the theory ... or at the very least not only define the extent of what is acceptable to us but also define the limits of where engagement ought to be applied or be effective.
It was inevitable that someone play this role. In retrospect, it was also probably inevitable that it would be the Iranian president.
What was not so predictable was the courage of the Iranian people who once again, at great personal risk, gathered again in the streets today to shout "death to the tyrant" and to call for the end to Ahmadinejad's stolen presidency. It adds a complication as it poses the question: Does engaging with the regime undercut the movement to oust it or would we help them more by actively seeking ways to isolate Ahmadinejad and deny him the legitimacy of a place in the international community.
While the Russias and Venezuelas of this world might support him, we might well be able to put together a pretty strong coalition of actors who would not. Clearly, by any reasonable standards, a man like Ahmadinejad has no place at a UN General Assembly meeting. Through his undermining of democracy or his support of terror he is probably a criminal in terms of the letter of the law of most legal systems. Through his pursuit of his country's nuclear weapons program, his denials of his true intention and his history of lying he is flaunting international law. Through his denial of the Holocaust, he offends the very spirit that led to the creation of the United Nations in the first place. Finally, if there are no penalties, there are no disincentives to bad behavior.
The point is that for engagement to be effective -- and I still believe it can be -- we must reclaim the initiative to ensure that in the long run it is us, and not guys like Ahmadinejad, who must be the ones defining its limits and the consequences for exceeding them. (In a hint that they understand this point, UN Ambassador Susan Rice indicated that Obama did not expect to meet with Ahmadinejad in New York next week.)
We owe it to ourselves and also to those who share our interests ... at least some of them ... like the courageous people in the streets of Tehran.
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Whereas during the early stages of the upheaval in Iran, the United States seemed to be practicing a new form of tantric foreign policy, come Honduras what we saw from the Obama administration was more a page out of the Kama Sutra for Teenage Boys. It was emphatic, fast, and we bent over backwards to demonstrate that neither were we involved nor were we still caught up in the reflexive left vs. right tug-of-war of the Cold War days. It won Obama big points with regional leaders reaffirming his status as the most innovative new yanqui leader since Joe Torre.
Of course, another reason for the swift action on Honduras is that old faithful of U.S. foreign policy: the law of the prior incident. This law states that whatever we did wrong (or took heat for) during a preceding event we will try to correct in the next one ... regardless of whether or not the correction is appropriate. A particularly infamous instance of this was trying to avoid the on-the-ground disasters of the Somalia campaign by deciding not to intervene in Rwanda. Often this can mean tough with China on pirated t-shirts today, easy with them on WMD proliferation tomorrow, which is not a good thing. In any event, in this instance it produced: too slow on Iran yesterday, hair-trigger on Honduras today. No wonder the State Department's official mascot is the pushmi-pullyu.
And while it may well be that someday U.S. actions with regard to the situations in Iran and Honduras will someday be viewed as absolutely appropriate, questions remain. Does the fact that Iran conducted an election legitimize their government, whether or not that election was fair or other fundamental rights of the Iranian people were denied? Will we treat them as though nothing has happened, as though Neda were still alive, the next time we sit down to negotiate with them? And in the case of Honduras, we now must wonder what we should do if the missteps of President Zelaya's opponents (well described in an op-ed by Alvaro Vargas Llosa in today's New York Times) will empower him on his almost inevitable return to that country, making it easier still for him to follow through on his ambition to rewrite the constitution so he can serve beyond current limits. This may look and feel fair and even democratic, but using the power of the majority (or of office) to lock into place the power of a single individual or political group is actually neither.
You don't have to look too far way, of course, to see the potential damage such an approach can cause. In fact, it is clear that Zelaya, a charter member of the Hugo Chávez fan club, was contemplating the kind of political sleight of hand that rewrote the rules in Venezuela.
Immediate policy responses aside, what the juxtaposition of the Iranian and Honduran examples clearly illustrates is the ongoing set of problems associated with a too simplistic view of democracy and its role as a key metric in determining U.S. policy.
Our embrace of such a view over the past few years has sent the message that the mere act of publicly conducting a vote is seen as a shield behind which all manner of misdeeds can be undertaken with impunity. In Iran's case the illusion of democracy is used to excuse, forgive and enable fraud and repression. For Hugo and those seeking to emulate him, it is used to cloak the undermining of important elements of the rule of law.
The technique has been used with ever-growing chutzpah from Moscow to Zimbabwe. It is the blending of hypocrisy and democracy into a cocktail that could be known as "democrisy." And that cocktail is a particular weakness of U.S. foreign policy at the moment. This is in part our own doing. We're the ones who elevated the unidimensional, ballot-box-centric definition of democracy to a near-theological concept. But as we have seen again in recent weeks, a society that votes but has no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, no freedom of religion, no free press, no provisions to protect minorities from tyranny of the majority, and/or a disregard for the rule of law is no more a democracy than a dog that walks on his hind legs is a principal ballerina for the Bolshoi.
We knew it all along, of course. But we were so eager to salute the spread of democracy as an American triumph that we started taking credit for a bunch of lowest common denominator democratic revolutions and the rise of tinpot Jeffersons when we should have been more circumspect and demanding. Voting without the intent to honor basic rights is no more a sure step on the road to real democracy than making out in the back seat of your car is a step on the road to marriage.
Ten years after Fareed Zakaria's introduction of the idea of "illiberal democracy" and 220 years after the Federalist Papers, we ought to know better. Of course, a cynic might argue that we do. It often suits us to use a minimalist definition of democracy and we do so as manipulatively as any of the populists or authoritarians we decry. We use it to justify inaction against regimes when we simply don't want to get involved for one reason or another -- because in Iran we have other fish to fry, because we want to feel like things are going better than they are in Afghanistan or, similarly, because we want to feel ok about getting the heck out of Dodge (Baghdad and Fallujah) in an Iraq where the government can hardly be said to be sufficiently transparent or effectively representative of the views of the Iraqi people.
Such an approach is convenient for us. But we can hope it will evolve. Just as it is reasonable to decry the coup in Honduras as a throwback to the days when Woody Allen's Bananas looked like a documentary, so too might we hope for a time when the hemisphere and the world might move beyond acceptance of the edition of "Democracy for Dummies" that has become the standard textbook for demagogues and start embracing and demanding higher standards from its elected leaders.
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Two men were overheard chatting at a Cosi restaurant in DC this weekend. One said, "You know, with the death of Ed McMahon, Farrah, and Michael Jackson, I think the 70s also died. They're over with once and for all." The other guy said, without hesitation, "I'd believe that if Jimmy Carter weren't still president."
Hey, don't shoot the messenger. I just overheard the conversation. (Please read on for my rather different view.)
Personally, I found the obsessive retrospectives about Michael Jackson a little disgusting. His commercial success for a few years as a pop singer seemed to trump the dark and unsavory aspects of his life. But he was no hero. He was certainly no one to be celebrating. Unless of course, you were an ayatollah. Because one of the truly transcendental ironies of recent history has to be the fact that a symbol of the worst sort of Western spiritual and social corruption...celebrity worship, drug culture, financial excess, debauchery...ended up providing just the distraction that the keepers of the Islamic Revolution's flame in Tehran needed to direct the world's attention away from their abuses of their own people.
In an instant, the really important story of tens of millions struggling to be heard in Iran was swept off the air by the death of a 50 year old accused pedophile in America. CNN, which had been congratulating itself daily for bringing the "green revolution" in Iran to the world as only it could in an instant tossed its news judgment out the window and started offering 24/7 retrospectives on how Michael Jackson chose the red leather jacket he wore in the "Thriller" video. It was an appalling, cheap and cynical programming choice made worse by the fact that other major stories...from the Congress passing the landmark Waxman-Markey climate legislation to the coup in Honduras...were left to play the role only of journalistic spackle, filling in the cracks between paeans to a man who spent the last twenty years shocking the world with his unhinged depravity.
The sad reality is that none of the celebrities who died in the past week say much good about American culture or the state of hero worship in America.
Which brings us back to Obama and the overheard Carter crack. Because one way that Obama is clearly unlike Carter is that he has already achieved something momentous and, occasional cigarette aside, he actually does offer Americans a leader whose story is legitimately inspiring. It is far too early to tell whether he will be able to add to a legacy that has already been assured by the fact of his election...but Friday's passage of the Waxman-Markey legislation and the administration's vigorous defense of the bill is a sign that it just might.
The change in the America's stance on the issue of global warming is one of the most dramatic and meaningful of the Obama era. (Don't believe me? See Angela Merkel's recent comments on the subject.) It will not be easy to get Senate passage of similar legislation. Insiders on the Hill with whom I have spoken suggest that in all likelihood the Senate bill will be sidetracked by the healthcare debate and may not be even voted until after the Copenhagen climate summit. This in turn will mean the United States goes in saying "we can go this far if China and India commit to reductions" which is perhaps not optimal, but may well be a good negotiating position.
And if China and India and the other developing countries do commit to meaningful emissions reductions within a reasonable period, then early in 2010 Senate passage and a final bill going to the President seems likely. (One senator told me that the key to selling the bill is letting Americans know they won't be the only ones sacrificing and that for him, the Chinese are the lynchpin. In fact, he said the issue of coal-burning Midwestern states vs. the alternative energy loving coasts is overstated and that it will be fairly easily settled via "the usual horse trading that goes on up here.")
The United States has never been closer to meaningful action on combating climate change and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. It would be a simultaneous breakthrough in climate security, energy security and economic security. The opposition's antics on the legislation (including Representative Boehner's reference to the just passed legislation as a piece of shit) well illustrated their desperation and cluelessness. In fact, the people on the wrong side of this legislation once it passes will be seen as being on the wrong side of history and will be very vulnerable to election challenges on those grounds. Especially since recent estimates, like those of the Congressional Budget Office, underscore how minimal the financial impact of the cap and trade provisions of the bill will be on the average family.
I wish CNN and others in the broadcast media had covered this story as they should have and given the president the great credit he deserves for fighting for it. (A nuanced stance which, over the weekend included the airing of the president's principled objections to provisions in Waxman-Markey requiring tariffs be levied against nations that don't commit themselves to emissions reductions.) The well being of millions and perhaps the fate of the planet hangs in the balance and as a consequence, I think a fair case can be made that we could have cut back on the interviews with Lisa Marie and Dame Elizabeth long enough to let the news creep through the maudlin aggrandizement of a featherweight, self-inflicted, altogether tawdry American tragedy.
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Too much voting, not enough free press. As we have seen in Iran, that's the problem bedeviling many would-be democracies worldwide. The people vote with their ballots, the governments vote when the tallies are taking place or later in the streets, and throughout the open flow of information is impeded or neglected as a priority. It's also the problem with many of the democracy promotion programs that have been offered up by the United States and the international community during the recent past. It's the formula for what Fareed Zakaria has dubbed "illiberal democracy" and for what citizens in ill-served countries know is sham.
From Russia to China to Venezuela, you have voting and claims that some form of democracy is operating. But in each case, as in Iran, such claims are undercut by the reality that free speech is being quashed. In just the past few days alone we have seen stories of the Chinese government's regulations requiring that computers sold in that country contain software enabling the government to censor Internet access. The alleged target is pornography but the software also enables the government to block access to sites they deem politically objectionable. Also, today's Wall Street Journal contained a story talking about the sophistication of the Iranian government when it comes to the tools it uses to control Internet access in that country. And we have seen that they are equally comfortable with the blunt instruments of press suppression from expelling journalists to floating bogus stories to beating the opposition to death.
The U.S. State Department made a demarche to the Chinese protesting the censorship. That's an encouraging and important step. But we need to go further. Not only do governments need to ratchet up their emphasis on the centrality of a free press to any democracy -- and take a stronger stand against those who pretend at representative government -- they also need to find a better way to collaborate with and if necessary regulate or impede those companies who provide Internet and other media censors with the technologies and tools they need to do their jobs. It is absolutely appalling that supposedly "enlightened" companies like Google trumpet their saintly behavior on the environment and other PC issues and then work behind the scenes to enable censorship and thus the evisceration of the fundamental human right to access to the truth about their lives.
Outreach and achieving common standards and an agreement to adhere to them would be a good first step. But because ultimately, some businesses will need stronger disincentives not to do business with government censors, we should reflect the centrality of a free press in programs that deny U.S. government contracts to technology, software or consulting companies that enable such suppression. In fact, better still would be an agreement among all democracies to do so. We can start with Europe and NATO and work out from there. Perhaps other forms of international agreements may also be possible. Certainly, we should attempt to advance the idea of the Internet as a free global commons. For those with concerns about pornography, let families rather than governments wield the tools to make those value judgments about content.
What is clear is that while modern technologies make it much harder for authoritarian regimes control access to information as they once did, they also provide new tools which can corrode and choke off important avenues of expression and information flows. With its diplomatic challenge to China, the Obama administration has indicated a willingness to grapple with this problem. But they and all governments who are supposedly committed to free societies can go much further.
For over two centuries we have believed that the legitimacy of governments derived from the consent of the governed. But, of course, that famous concept does not go far enough. The legitimacy can only be derived from informed consent. Anything less is less than true democracy.
From May 4th through the 6th 1989, the Asian Development Bank held its 22d Annual Meeting at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing. Just over two weeks earlier, on April 15, former Communist Party Secretary General Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack. He had been a symbol to reformers in China who had appreciated his willingness to challenge the party old guard and his courageous calls for rapid change. When, in the wake of student protests in 1986 and 1987, he was made a scapegoat by party hardliners and forced to resign, he became an icon of a democracy movement that sometimes appeared dormant in China but periodically, and fairly persistently, would produce energetic protests both large and small.
For these reasons, within hours of Hu's death, students began to gather in Tiananmen Square. A few days later, as the size of the crowds grew, I arrived in Beijing with my colleagues for the Asian Development Bank meeting. My company published daily newspapers at all the meetings of the world's development banks and were scheduled to be in Beijing for several weeks, a band of 20 or so writers, editors, photographers, and designers. Most of us were in our 20s. I was the grey-beard at 33.
Our own venture was on the cutting edge of what new technologies were making possible. Thanks to our ability to scrape together a substantial percentage of the few Macintosh computers available for rent in the Chinese capital, we were able to parachute in a newspaper team and put out a full-fledged English language daily with a circulation of several thousand, distributed each morning to 30 or 40 hotels throughout Beijing. Of course, we needed the government's assistance and our local partner became the Xinhua News Agency. We were given space in the cramped, rather dreary offices of China Daily, the main official English language paper in China. And we printed at what was then the country's largest economic daily, regularly referred to by our hosts as the Chinese equivalent of the Wall Street Journal. While our sponsors provided us with great latitude, they did read the paper before it was printed, never seeking to censor but on one or two occasions suggesting we refer to Taiwan as Taipei, China. It stuck in the craw but seemed small price to pay, especially given the freedom we had which seemed pretty remarkable at the time.
When we started work, we viewed the demonstrations in Tiananmen as interesting, a source perhaps of local color and traffic congestion. By the time we left, we viewed them as extraordinarily important and our interaction with the student leaders and frankly with every Chinese person who came in contact with them as not less than life-changing. Today, we look back on the June 4th crackdown that brought an end to the protests and death to thousands (credible estimates range from a few hundred to perhaps 3,000) as the defining moment of six weeks of protests. But 20 years later, I am left with something else, my enduring sense of the energy and even the joy surrounding the protests in the weeks leading up to their tragic end. It was unlike anything I have seen before or since and it infused everyone from the young protestors to the grizzled old Chinese communist party hands who we worked with regularly in our offices at China Daily.
There is no room here for a lengthy memoir. Pity too, because it would be an entertaining one full of stories of getting lost in the hutongs (back alleys) of Beijing, marveling at the lines of people outside the Kentucky Fried Chicken, lamenting the absence of good Chinese take-out food (there were clearly not enough Jews in China to ensure that industry would flourish to American standards), surviving on jars of peanut butter late in to the night, negotiating logistically challenging hole-in-the-floor rest room facilities, meeting warm, fascinating people, seeing remarkable sights, and getting the clear sense that there in 1989, somehow, we were getting a sneak preview of the forces that would ultimately drive the 21st Century.
Nonetheless, I simply wanted to take a moment to mark the 20th anniversary of the brutality in Tiananmen with a word or two about what led those protestors who died to show up in the first place, to put themselves at risk because they were in fact, putting the entire Chinese political structure at risk. And for me, the essence of that is captured in a conversation I had with a fairly senior guy at China Daily, a longtime party member, as he left the office one day to go and view the growing throngs outside the gates of the Forbidden City. "Are you going to report?" I asked. "No," he said, smiling, "I am going to join in. All my friends are...reporters, editors, old Party members, pretty senior government people. I was there yesterday. They were all there too. It is like a celebration, a parade."
Talking to him at greater length and then talking to others at the time from all walks of life in China including the most prominent of the protest leaders, like Wuer Kaixi and Wang Dan, the impression one had at the height of the Tiananmen euphoria was of a society in which everyone had the same secret and somehow it became acceptable to share it and all were relieved and excited to discover what they shared. The famous "Statue of Liberty" and flags and other decorations went up. There was a sense that major change, progress toward democracy, was imminent.
Of course, the power of the moment and the enormous social energy behind it unsettled those in the leadership who were steeped in a Chinese political philosophy where it is stability rather than any ideology that is prized above all else. The constant enemy was and remains the possibility of unrest leading to conflict or worse, anarchy...which is the core risk in a nation as full of complex countervailing forces as China. The result was the massacre.
But the spirit of the six weeks leading up the crackdown has not, in my estimation, died even though recent press reports show the youth of China see the 1989 uprising as remote, its memory faded. China, of course, has grown at a stunning pace in the past 20 years, ascending economically and in international political clout in ways that would have then been unimaginable. Whether this would have happened as fast had democratic reform come sooner is a useless, abstract debate. What is clear is that thanks to the economic growth in the country and concurrent revolutions in information technology, individual Chinese are better informed. Further, thanks to the rise of the country's private sector, its growing integration with the global economy and the personal growth of the average citizen, the Chinese people are today part of a rapidly changing political fabric. Whether that fabric must be rent in order to fulfill the dreams that were articulated by those students in that square two decades ago is unclear. But what is absolutely certain is that during the intervening years, that shared secret has not died. In fact, it is no longer a very well kept secret. But because it is so widely shared, it remains one that is so powerful that it is almost certainly of greater significance to China's future than it is to its past.
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David Broder today writes of Barack Obama's coming into his own as commander in chief. Obama has been helped immeasurably in this respect by his simultaneous emergence as the country's lawyer in chief. Never have those skills been so well displayed as during today's speech delivered at the National Archives in defense of his decision to close Guantanamo.
Obama's arguments today were methodical, rigorous, substantiated by facts and guided both by logic and principle. They stand in stark contrast to those of the one man who doesn't seem to realize the Bush administration is over, the modern equivalent of one of those Japanese soldiers wandering an atol in the Pacific long after the end of World War II, continuing to fight for ideas and goals that have long since been discredited and defeated. That would be, of course, Dick Cheney, who at best is merely shrill, bitter, and hysterical and at worst is the unrepentant architect of policies and programs that willfully violated and offended the spirit of the constitution of the United States. (More on this last point shortly.)
Obama may be the best lawyer to occupy the U.S. presidency since William Howard Taft went from the White House to being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In fact, he is likely better than the affable and ginormous Taft and, who knows, may someday follow in the (deep) footsteps of the man who was also famous for having gotten stuck in the nation's First Bathtub. Standing in front of the documents that serve as the legal and moral foundations of American society, Obama offered a plain-spoken but powerful argument: Rather than "strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear too many of us -- Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens -- fell silent. In other words, we went off course."
He effectively made his case that due process and a respect for our system of law would do more to protect us than would the Bush approach which might be characterized, to paraphrase Clare Boothe Luce, as cutting the constitution to suit the fashions of the times. Laying out category after category of detainee and explaining how they should be treated consistent with both our national interests and the prevailing views of the U.S. judiciary, he described an approach so logical and consistent with American concepts of fairness, that it not only makes the fringe-dwelling Cheney sound out of touch, it makes the entire U.S. Senate (or the 90 who voted yesterday against appropriating funds to shut down Guantanamo) seem to be petty, political panderers. How ludicrous they seem fearing to locate terrorists from Guantanamo alongside the hundreds of terrorists already in America's network of impregnable Supermax and similar facilities. How responsible and constructive comments from Dianne Feinstein and Lindsay Graham have therefore been in noting the absurdity of the self-interested NIMBYism of their colleagues.
Cheney, who offered a set of counter-point remarks, was legally, morally, and intellectually out-gunned by the president. Nowhere was this clearer than in the description of his speech by an aide in which he described it as arguing ""our values are not abrogated by prioritizing security for innocents over rights for terrorists." It is a powerful statement that captures everything that is wrong with their view. It is precisely the idea that we can suspend the rights of suspected wrong-doers in order to "protect" the rest of society that undercuts our entire system of law. That system specifically enshrines rights for the worst of criminals to ensure that it is not fear nor political sentiment nor the view of any individual or even the majority that drives the legal process but that instead all of us are equal under the law.
Or as Cheney said during his speech, "There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance." Exactly. It is precisely at such moments that our convictions and values are tested and we reveal the character of our leadership and our country.
Which gets us to the one thing that Obama asserted today that I questioned while hearing his remarks...in part because the rest of his statement was so compelling. He remarked that he did not want to dwell on rearguing the debates of the Bush years but would rather move forward to focus on the challenges of today. Fair enough. But, I wonder if he does not misread the historical significance of the missteps of the Bush era, particularly those associated with Guantanamo, torture, and Abu Ghraib. More than the bungling in Iraq, more even than the lies associated with getting into that war, it was these moral failures that damaged the United States and the Bush administration, did more damage by far than any the terrorists could inflict. In fact, what we did played directly into the plans of the terrorists themselves, casting us in a light that served their objectives.
Which is why I am starting to think that this is not like Watergate, a domestic political wound Gerald Ford was right to cauterize with his pardon. Domestic and international laws were broken by the last administration beginning with president and vice president's deliberate decision not to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States. I am not for prosecuting lawyers who interpreted the law to meet the requirements of their bosses. But I do think that leaders in any nation need to be held accountable for any crimes they may have committed or ordered. If the United States does not choose to identify and prosecute even those in high positions who violate the law we set a dangerous precedent...regardless of whether or not the incidents in question are so distasteful we want to move past them.
Further, if we don't, I feel it's a pretty fair bet that sometime soon a prosecutor beyond our borders will seek to prosecute Bush or Cheney for what they did. (Compare their actions to others whose prosecutions we have supported...in terms of values, casualties, costs, laws broken.) It may not be an outcome Obama seeks...but it may be the one called for by the values and laws he so eloquently defended today.
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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.