In an event that will undoubtedly be as interesting to mental health professionals as it is to foreign policy wonks, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has flown directly from his Tehran cuckoo's nest to the padded cell of his partner in derangement, Hugo Chavez, for the 2012 Summit of the Nonaligned and Vaguely Unhinged. Despite Chavez' increasing irrelevance this was an act of considerable courage on Mahmoud's part both because you never know what's going to happen when you're dealing with El Loco but also because whenever a despot leaves a country as screwed up as Iran is at the moment, he can't be sure he's going to have a job when he gets back.
At the moment, given the parlous state of the Iranian economy, the likelihood of its further decline later this year, the upcoming parliamentary elections in March that could be another trigger for restiveness in that country, the increasing global pressure of every type regarding Iran's rogue nuclear program, and Ahmadinejad's profusion of enemies among Tehran's empowered classes, he can't be too comfortable, even when he is at home. The statement over the weekend by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that America simply will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons and our tough response to Iran's saber rattling in the Gulf of Hormuz can't make things any easier.
So, what's a would-be world leader -- who is increasingly isolated -- to do? Well, turn to someone who understands his problems. Other than Kim Jong-un and Ron Paul, there are few people on the world stage who understand better than Chavez the plight of being seen as a member of the lunatic fringe of the global elite. (Sorry, Ron, you're a member of the global elite whether your tin-foil hat wearing contingent of conspiracy theorist supporters are willing to accept it or not.) Indeed, like Chavez and Kim, Ahmadinejad's claim on world attention is based as much or more on his potential for irrationality as it is on any particular resource or capability of the country he represents. Oh sure, Iran and Venezuela have oil, and North Korea and perhaps soon Iran may have nukes. But the point is these are otherwise marginal countries with the capability of being little more than regional trouble makers, who have tried like recalcitrant sixth graders to get more attention than they deserve through acting up.
The only difference between Ahmadinejad -- whose Venezuela stop is the first on a trip through Latin America in search of Sofia Vergara, er, that famous Latin warmth and hospitality -- and Chavez and Kim is that if anything, his grip on power is more tenuous. Which is saying something, given that Chavez is battling cancer and faces what may be his first real electoral challenge in years, and Kim is an untested newcomer, the neophyte Pillsbury doughboy of rogue nations. Come to think of it, the one thing that all three of these guys have in common is that all three must worry that the day may soon come when their grip on power is actually weaker than their grasp of reality.
For the rest of us, we can only hope that day comes soon.
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A staple in each of the various invisible man movies is the scene in which our phantom hero pokes and smacks and hurls things at a bewildered bad guy. The confused target of his attack ends up being humiliated even as he helplessly lashes out and is then defeated. Recalling this, you can probably understand how the Iranian government feels these days.
Steadily, insistently, and with devastating effectiveness over the course of the past couple years, Iran has seen nuclear scientists blown up, explosions at key research facilities, and cyberattacks that set back their efforts to develop nuclear weapons. It is impossible for anyone to publicly assert or prove that each and every one of these incidents has been part of an orchestrated covert campaign to slow Iran's progress toward an atom bomb. But there are two things we can say. The cumulative effect of these incidents has been much as one might hope to achieve with such a covert campaign. And the Iranians thus far have proven powerless to stop the attacks.
The government in Tehran has responded in much the same way the befuddled victim of the invisible man inevitably does. They have lashed out in all directions, looking ever more confused and helpless. They deny the attacks are happening. They say they are accidents, coincidences. They step up their rhetoric against those who they feel may be behind the efforts. They offer blustering speeches. As of today, they direct their rent-a-thug squads at the British Embassy (pictured above), offering chants and vandalism as the latest sure signs of their impotence.
Meanwhile, in the West, pundits argue that you can't attack Iran, can't make it harder for them to develop a nuclear program without an impossibly costly war. While it may ultimately be impossible to stop Iran using the current combination of diplomatic initiatives and covert missions alone, it is also undeniable that to the extent that at least some of the incidents in Iran (such as Stuxnet, for example) are certainly the work of Western intelligence services, the current mix is having an effect -- without actually being a big-time, Hollywood production, name-above-the-title, shock-and-awe invasion or protracted bombing campaign. And if, as it appears, that effect is at least to squeeze the Ahmadinejad regime and impede its progress while all the while making it look bad in the eyes of both its restive populace and its friends and enemies throughout the region, then credit must go to those behind the efforts.
We who observe are left in much the same position as a bystander witnessing an attack by the Invisible Man on some villain. We're not quite sure what we're seeing or why it is happening but we can't help but cheer the results so far and hope that in the end stealth triumphs (or stealth, plus diplomacy, plus a clear understanding that President Obama means it when he says that the United States and our allies will not allow Iran to successfully develop a nuclear weapons program).
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The Phantom War will be different from all the others that came before it. There will be no triggering incidents, no frantic diplomatic efforts to stave off conflict, no declaration of war, no battles, and there will be no end to it. It will certainly, however, take a huge toll, destroy lives, shake great nations, and, ultimately, almost certainly result in death and mayhem. It may even result in more traditional forms of conflict.
And make no mistake about it, the Phantom War will touch you personally and, in all likelihood, it will rock your world ... and I don' t mean that in a good way.
Indeed, you will understand just how different Phantom warfare from the fact that it has already begun and most people don't even know it.
Some dimensions of the war have made headlines, such as the successful Stuxnet attack on Iran's nuclear program. Others are hinted at in reports, such as the just released report from the U.S. Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (ONCIX). The 2011 report, produced in compliance with an act of Congress, details the degree to which foreign powers are actively invading U.S. cyberspace and conducting thousands upon thousands of operations that in a more traditional sense might be called reconnaissance, spying or sabotage.
The report is particularly striking in that it calls out Russia and China as particularly egregious violators who pose "significant and growing threats" to America's security and economic vitality. Calling them "the most aggressive collectors of U.S. economic information and technology," the ONCIX report goes on to predict that the two rival powers "will almost certainly continue to deploy significant resources and a wide array of tactics" in support of their efforts to level the playing field between themselves and the United States. But of course, the implication is clear, particularly in the wake of Stuxnet, cyber-reconnaissance and spying are just the tip of the iceberg. They test our defenses, test our borders and prepare for the days ahead of deeper engagement.
Said one experienced U.S. diplomat with whom I spoke this week, "the war is already under way and we are ill prepared for it. We know it is going to happen but we don't have the doctrines or the strategic awareness we need to manage the growing threat." Said one investor with whom I spoke this week, "This is the black swan I worry about. One day...one day soon, in the next couple of years...I expect a power grid to go down or a stock market to be penetrated in a way that will cause a massive disruption, even a panic."
There are signs everywhere that the issue is growing in importance and being viewed with a sense of urgency by those who are aware of it. Take this week's cybersecurity forum in London designed to address a problem that Britain alone estimates already costs it 27 billion pounds per year. Or look to the story that stirred some notoriety earlier this week when it was revealed the international group of online hackers known as Anonymous were challenging Mexico's brutal Zetas, a cartel that has been reaping havoc near the U.S. border for years. (See the New York Times: "After a Kidnapping, Hackers Take On a Ruthless Mexican Crime Syndicate.") The latter story indicates that just as modern conflicts are often between state and non-state actors, so too will this new form of conflict involve a plethora of groups all with very different objectives, often very difficult to trace or tell apart.
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While Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Captain Louis Renault issued an official statement saying that his government is "shocked, shocked" at allegations that they were behind an assassination plot to kill Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir, the incident raises many important questions.
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If Iraq and Afghanistan ... not to mention Vietnam ... are any indication, it'll soon be time to declare victory in Libya and head home. But we don't have to wait for that to produce a list of the big winners so far in the non-war-no-fly-zone-not-regime-change-undeclared-police-action that is currently reminding the world that diplomacy is harder than community organizing in Chicago.
These may not be the only winners, but so far they're doing pretty well...
5. The People of Libya
There's no way this war is going to end with Qaddafi still in power. That's the good news and why the people of Libya make this list. The bad news is that we don't know who is going to come out on top once a new government is in place and that some of the people actively supporting the opposition are not very nice. Don't take my word for it. According to a CNN report, Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan-born al Qaeda leader recently said, "ousting these regimes is not the end in making a change." In the same article, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is quoted as offering a statement saying, "We will be side by side with you, Allah willing."
4. The Blissfully
The cynic-realist in me thinks the Arab League backed the intervention in Libya because it was in the interest of so many in the Arab world to focus attention elsewhere. How happy are the Saudis, that they can stomp their boot on rebellion in Bahrain with cameras trained elsewhere? The Syrians? The UAE that they can support the Saudis in Bahrain but also appear to support the west in Libya? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the world is distracted from his little science experiments in his basement (see below)? Not to mention everyone from the North Koreans to the finance ministers of places like Portugal and Spain who are happy to let Muammar & Co. take the heat for a while.
3. Greater Persia
Tehran, of course, is not just happy because the world is distracted ... they're happy because so far the uprisings have benefitted them in countless ways. Enemies in Egypt and Libya have been deposed or soon will be, Shiites are rising up in Bahrain, the moderate Jordanians and the Saudis are nervous and the Israelis are perhaps most nervous of all as to what is happening. Further, America is going to come out of the Libya adventure even less inclined to devote time and resources to Iraq and Afghanistan thus creating voids the Iranians are already filling. We may call it the Arab Spring, but it doesn't translate that way in Farsi.
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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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From its start, I have viewed the Iran sanctions regime the Obama administration has helped devise with great skepticism. However, if recent reports are to be believed, the sanctions may someday be seen in retrospect as a vital element of an effective strategy to curtail the Iranian nuclear program. In fact, the possibility is beginning to emerge that they could be seen as part of what may someday be seen as one of the signal triumphs of Obama-Clinton foreign policy.
My initial concerns about the sanctions program were several. First, it was my sense that such sanctions programs tend not to be terribly effective where authoritarian regimes are concerned. Next, sanctions tend not to be effective if they do not are not supported globally by all the economies interacting with the country facing sanctions. Third, in the case of these sanctions, the Russians and the Chinese carved out elements that protected important components of their own trade with Iran. Fourth, my sense is that the Iranians are engaged in a cat and mouse game with the international community in which they make a few seemingly constructive moves, even appear to make concessions, and then continue on with their nuclear development work behind the scenes.
My sense was also that international diplomatic and economic pressure would simply not be enough to really impede their program -- especially if the threat of the use of force to punish them if they did not back down was not credible. And the message from the administration was not tough enough on that last point.
However, when last week, the departing boss of Israel's intelligence service, Meir Dagan, stated that in his view the Iranian program had in fact been set back to the point that it would not be able to develop nuclear weapons until 2015 at the earliest, it suggested that whatever was being done was working. No one, for obvious reasons, takes the Iranian threat more seriously than the Israelis (although WikiLeaks confirmed for all how worried the Iranians make all their neighbors). If they who had been saying two years ago that the Iranian threat would reach a critical level within a matter of a year or so were now saying it has been pushed out several years, it was more than just an interesting sound bite.
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While we Americans contribute to global warming with overheated rhetoric (and little else) about 21st century competitiveness, our enemies around the world are employing a different strategy. Being sensible arch-villains, they know that the future is uncertain. (Just what exactly are all those green jobs anyway? And weren't we all supposed to have flying cars by now?)
So, they have concluded, "Why fool around with tomorrow when yesterday is a sure thing?"
That is the only way to explain the most recent move by Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Daniel Ortega -- yesterday's men, each and every one of them -- that proclaims loudly that those who repeat the past may not be doomed to be forgotten.
According to a story in Ha'aretz, Venezuela, Iran, and Nicaragua are quietly hatching a plan to build a competitor to the Panama Canal along an alternative route that was considered and dismissed roughly a century ago -- back when canals were the "plastics" of their era.
Given the megalomania of this trio, one can only imagine that they will soon join with like-minded maniacs elsewhere on the planet to boldly go where everyone has been before.
Among their likely next initiatives:
Fortunately, we have little to worry about. Because we are protected against the plans of this Axis of Nostalgia by our own advanced defenses and worldview, which, although firmly rooted in the last century, still place us decades and in some cases millennia ahead of our potential opponents.
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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triumphantly tours southern Lebanon and says to cheering crowds of thousands, "The occupying Zionists today have no choice but to accept reality and go back to their countries of origin." He predicts Israel will disappear. Not too far away, families enjoy the happy diversions of the latest tourist attraction, the Magic Kingdom of sectarian warfare called, "Tourist Landmark of the Resistance" in South Lebanon. There they play on captured Israeli weapons and buy souvenir caps and T-shirts.
Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a column by Roger Cohen, in which he asserted that however odious Ahmadinejad may seem, he's really nothing to worry about. Why? Because Cohen doesn't think he is, that's why. Surely, one must conclude, he would dismiss these Lebanon antics -- rabble-rousing at one of the world's most dangerous frontiers -- as more showboating from his favorite "all hat and no cattle" "paper tiger." Pshaw. Silly frivolous Hezbollah-sponsoring Mahmoud.
And then, in the midst of this, comes a rather different New York Times op-ed, this one from Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, who offers a calm, well-reasoned, and compelling argument as to why the Palestinians should recognize Israel's identity as a Jewish state. But for all Oren's heartfelt and coolly-argued reason, even coupled with his exceptionally well-turned phrases, nothing he writes makes his case as persuasively as the combination of the provocations of the president of Israel's most dangerous enemy and the efforts by glib U.S. elites to shrug him off.
As unproductive as the Israeli stance on settlements has been the Palestinian stance on the nature of the Israeli state, and its ability to continue operations as conceived and sanctioned by the United Nations nearly six and a half decades into its modern existence is just as unconstructive and indefensible. The core concept of the existence of two states, central to any real and lasting solution of the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, requires acceptance of the sovereignty and self-determination of those states. Neither side can expect a hand in the shaping of the societies within their neighbor's borders.
Indeed, the concept of accepting Israel involves accepting its Jewishness or, as Oren points out, it invites the demographic negation of virtually everything associated with Israel's own concept of itself thanks to Israel's commitment to democracy. To fail to acknowledge this would be the same as accepting the idea of a Palestinian state, but then imposing upon it borders that made its economic self-sufficiency impossible.
Peace requires moving past such destructive argumentative approaches. Clearly, we are not near to that point. Which is why Mr. Ahmadinejad is hardly "all hat and no cattle." His grandstanding and inflaming crowds on Israel's borders with the language of obliteration is not just rhetoric. It is part of a systematic and thus far effective effort to exacerbate dangers and, not secondarily, to prolong the misery of the Palestinian people whose right to a free, independent state created in their own image is, of course, every bit as great as that of the Israelis.
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It can be argued that one of the several ways in which most states have lost power during the past several decades is associated with the declining inclination and ability of most to go to war. Hard as this may be to accept in a world in which wars dominate the headlines, it is a fact and it has several origins.
First, fewer than 20 countries really possess the power to project force beyond their borders in any meaningful way. Further, only about a dozen have nuclear capability, and fewer still have any long-distance missile capability. And only one really has the capability to wage global war from space, land, sea, and air. (And that one seems stretched waging two regional conflicts in the Middle East.)
Further the costs associated with modern warfare are too high. The 20th Century delivered this message in devastatingly clear human terms and the economic costs were also proven to be immense. War went from being an all too regularly used form of diplomacy by other means to being madness.
Major powers were forced not by goodness but by a rational calculus to find other ways to resolve disputes. Not always...but with greater regularity than in the past. To take just one example, Europe, once addicted to war, effectively swore off the continental conflicts that defined its history. For the most part, war became an affliction of failed or failing states or a very regionalized phenomenon. The big powers for the most part took on much weaker adversaries or engaged in proxy conflicts. And even those engagements have grown intolerably costly as advanced technologies were demonstrated to combine well with unconventional tactics on the part of weaker states engaging stronger ones.
While risks still abound, long term trends have been encouraging...Until now.
Take three news stories from the past week. The first is the piece in today's Times indicating that U.S. commanders are contemplating increasing drone attacks in Pakistan due to concerns about inaction by the Pakistani military. The second concerns reports of a computer worm targeting the Iranian nuclear program. And the last is associated with the statement by Hugo Chavez that Venezuela, though sitting on an ocean of oil, needed to seriously explore "peaceful" nuclear technologies.
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In a world in which Tony Blair could receive an award this week for his commitment to "conflict resolution," perhaps it is not a surprise that we are moving inexorably toward approving a massive $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Memories are short, and these events are just the latest evidence that we are moving out of what might be called the "post-9/11 era" and are moving into something new.
The Blair award is just one of those preposterous things that happen to leaders when they enter the eminence grise (which is to say the rubber chicken-lecture tour) phase of their lives. He's got a big book out and after all, he did make a real contribution to peace in Northern Ireland. That he was George W. Bush's most important international enabler in conducting the most notorious, least necessary major war of the past several decades is hardly a disqualifier for a "conflict resolution" award, apparently. We have started to hit the public opinion statute of limitations for such disastrous "War on Terror" era missteps.
The United States seems on the verge of okaying the biggest arms deal in American history to the country that provided 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, much of the critical funding for al Qaeda and was home to Osama bin Laden. This is a sign of something more than just the passage of time or our acceptance of the manifold official statements that there was no linkage between the terrorists and the Saudi government. (After all, such arguments hardly seem necessary as we know that the hijackers were backed both by elements of the Pakistani secret service and the Taliban and these days we seem willing enough to cut deals with them or, the case of "good" Taliban, at least contemplate it.)
No, the reason that the U.S. government -- that would not have done a deal like this in the years right after 9/11 -- is willing and even a little eager to move ahead with the deal now is that the War on Terror is being overtaken among top U.S. concerns by the advent of a nuclear Iran.
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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.
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This weekend the Obama Administration will send a team to China headed by the somewhat unlikely duo of Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council, and Tom Donilon, deputy national security advisor. The purpose is to send a clear message that the U.S. is approaching its relations with China strategically, with a view that integrates the full range of economic and security concerns.
While such trips are old hat for Summers, the journey represents a bit of a change of pace for Donilon, the inside guy who is credited with having done a great job making sure the policy process trains have been running on time within the National Security Council. Some in Washington are buzzing that this is a profile- and skill-raising trip intended to make Donilon a better candidate to replace National Security Advisor James L. Jones should Jones decide to depart, as many expect he will. Others grumble that the trip represents precisely the kind of "operational" role for the NSC and NEC that many cabinet departments have long thought should be out of bounds for White House policy coordinators.
But beyond the Washington gossip the trip has caused, the juxtaposition of economic and security concerns offers an illustration of an often over-looked fact -- the centrality of economic issues to current U.S. national security concerns. In China, the tricky calculus is fostering collaboration on security issues from North Korea to Iran in the face of political pressure back home to press Beijing harder on issues like currency valuation and unfair competitive practices (especially those associated with pressuring foreign firms to transfer proprietary technologies).
The U.S. has never been especially effective at coordinating its multiple interests in China so that pressure in one policy area produces progress in another -- or even simply avoids causing setbacks. So this trip, in concept at least, represents a step in the right direction -- at least if Congress doesn't undercut the administration's efforts by, for example, drafting its own legislation on currency issues.
But China is just one of a host of current hotspots where Summers, Geithner, and the international economic team are playing a central role on national security issues.
For example, in Afghanistan, the story of the week turns on the amazingly brazen behavior of the Karzai gang in trying to pressure the United States into bailing out a clearly corrupt and mismanaged bank in which President Hamid Karzai's brother, Mahmood Karzai, is the third largest shareholder. Mahmood has publicly called for a bailout even though his affiliation with a bank through which U.S. funds flow to Afghan security forces compromises both him and the president. Both remain unabashed, however, behaving like the proverbial kids who murder their parents and seek the mercy of the court on the grounds that they are now orphans. So the United States is in a pickle: Step in and support the Afghan kleptocracy and its culture of corruption or stand on principle (and law), and run the risk that the bank falters. It's not a situation that General David Petraeus can handle, but how the economic team manages it will have direct ramifications for him.
In the same way, some of the most sensitive concerns regarding Pakistan turn on economic policy. Will the Zardari government pump too much cash into the economy to deal with the aftereffects of the devastating flooding, and risk a major inflationary episode? Or will it introduce price controls and a set of micro economic measures that, if mismanaged, could produce social tensions or even rioting? The wrong mix of policies could plunge the already fractured and battered country into political turmoil and perhaps the reintroduction of military rule.
In talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians, many of the core concerns will turn on how to improve the economic conditions for the Palestinian people. If they can get past initial hurdles, they will, of course, ultimately have to move to a state structure that will enable organic economic growth in a Palestinian state, actually fostering job and wealth creation for people who have lived in an economic no man's land for too long.
In North Korea, it is reported that the administration, conducting high level meetings on the subject this week, is seeking to explore "engagement." In the case of the economically isolated and struggling North, that inevitably will mean economic packages in exchange for gradual normalization of relations or reductions of threats. At the same time, this week, the administration widened sanctions intended to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
In Iran, the core initiative at the moment is making targeted economic sanctions work. In Iraq, the issue is fostering economic growth to help "purchase" social stability. The list goes on. It is clear that wherever the stakes are highest for the United States in the world, even as military and diplomatic initiatives garner most of the attention, behind the scenes much of the most critical work is being undertaken by international economic officials.
It is interesting to note in this respect that the responsibility for conceiving and coordinating most of these activities lies in the White House to a much greater degree than it does with military or diplomatic initiatives. The White House team on these issues is excellent. But in the end, these functions are so fundamental that the real leadership capabilities need to be cultivated elsewhere.
The economic team at the State Department could and should play a greater role in this respect; Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Robert Hormats is a talented and experienced official. As I have written before, State also could and should develop a dramatically enhanced capability when it comes to emergency economic intervention -- pre- or post-crisis. And all the other economic agencies need to be prepared to collaborate on this, not on an ad hoc basis but through a permanent program promoting cross-training and what the military might call inter-operability. Call it an economic rapid response capability -- or call them economic green berets.
We need people we can drop into critical situations and help manage them with an eye to our security and political needs rather than traditional purely economic metrics. That's a critical role for which development officials are ill-suited, and we still don't really have the fully developed institutional structure we need to support it.
Looking at the issues faced by the United States today, while one can't help but admire much of what is being done, the strategic side of the international economic agenda is such that it warrants some real thought about how and with whom we should be meeting such challenges in the future.
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Early signs suggest the U.N.'s Iran sanctions will ultimately prove so impotent that Ban Ki-Moon is a shoo-in to replace Jimmy Johnson as the next spokesperson for Cialis.
This should come as no surprise, of course, the U.N. being what it is and sanctions being what they are and comparatively weak sanctions with only half-hearted support from key players being what they inevitably are. I mean, we did watch as the Chinese and Russians deftly negotiated the terms so it would have as little effect as possible on their real trade with Iran. And we did watch as the sanctions process dragged on, thus buying the Iranians more and more of the one commodity more precious to their nuclear program than highly enriched uranium: time. But then, a few days back, with the sanctions regime fresh out of the Suzy Homemaker oven that produced the oddly small confection, the Chinese let it be known that sanctions or no they would be working to deepen their trade ties with Iran. Which more than trumps the even more recent announcement that the Brazilians will, reluctantly, go along with the sanctions program.
The Chinese mixed-message should send a strong signal about the future of the fledgling regime to even the most pro-sanctions advocates. In fact, it should send two.
The first is that we should wake up to the fact that this the first major Middle East scenario in which the Chinese are an absolutely central player and that going forward, diplomacy in the region on a wide variety of issues that does not successfully involve Beijing will not have a chance. Those issues include -- but are not limited to -- Iran, broader WMD proliferation issues, any sanctions policies, the future of Pakistan, and even perhaps key elements of the future of Afghanistan.
And the second is that it is time now to start thinking very seriously about Plan B.
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One of the greatest challenges America faces at the moment is our inability to tell the difference between what makes news and what really matters.
Not only is this week's "big story" in Washington -- the Rolling Stone-assisted career suicide of General Stanley McChrystal -- not actually an important story, it's not even the most important national security story of the week. It's not even the most important story about a key general quitting this administration at a vital moment in a badly bungled struggle.
In fact, in the botched coverage of the McChrystal hullaballoo I see not just one but six degrees of wrong.
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I've recently laid my hands on the Obama administration's super secret Iran plan. Because it is highly classified, I can't offer all the details here. (Also, because there are very few details to begin with.)
The plan begins with the sanctions program that was approved Wednesday by the U.N. Security Council. It should be noted however, that after the description of the sanctions are a few hand-written notations. The deadlines, for example, have been struck through ... repeatedly. In fact, there are almost more deleted deadlines than there are deleted proposed sanctions. Almost. But there are actually scores of proposed elements that were one after one cut out of the program ranging from "petroleum products" to "anything that might negatively impact trade or relationships with China or Russia." In fact, the only original item in the sanctions program that remains intact is prohibiting Iranian television from airing episodes of the first season of Glee until early next year.
However, the sanctions are followed by the following note: "It is very unlikely that the sanctions program will work even if it is not eviscerated by our "partners" in the diplomatic process." (Here there are just a bunch of exclamation marks and the letters "LOL" in the margin.) It goes on to say: "We know this because a.) Sanctions programs rarely work; b.) When they do work they never work quickly enough to actually achieve our prime purpose here which is stopping the Iranian nuclear program; and c.) Because this will be the fourth set of sanctions, weaker than prior sets and therefore will be seen as a nothing more than a "used handkerchief" by the Iranians. Or anyone else."
And from there it goes on to say: "Nonetheless, these are our damn sanctions and even if they are an empty sham we cannot allow them to be upstaged by even the naïve and equally unlikely to succeed programs of others. Because such programs will both marginalize us and at the same time underscore the pointlessness of our efforts. Thus, even if we don't take forceful action to stop the Iranian nuclear program we must take forceful action to stomp out other programs that might seek to stop the Iranian nuclear program."
Next something is written about the necessity of having a forceful and credible military response in the event the sanctions don't work but this too is scribbled out. In the margin: "If we're backing toward the exit in Iraq and Afghanistan, who's going to believe any of this mouthwash? Just parrot the old "reserve all our options" formulas and hope people are too busy following whatever Charlie Sheen's latest scandal may be to notice how transparently impotent this all is."
Next the main body of the memo consists of a number of possible steps listed under "Program of Escalation." These are only to be implemented if the sanctions fail to markedly slow down Iranian nuclear progress. They include: "U.S. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice pointedly eats at a different table from the Iranian delegation in the United Nations cafeteria," then "Rice starts eating with the Turks to demonstrate we have friends in the Islamic world" (this has however, been crossed out), then "Robert Gibbs to complain that cable media have empowered the Iranians and cancels appearance on Morning Joe," then "Criminalization of possession of Iranian pistachios and spontaneous display of pouring pistachio ice cream into the street in front of SEIU headquarters," then "Public display of affection with Bibi Netanyahu" (also crossed out), then "President Obama tells touching story about how Malia tugged on his PJs and asked whether he had stopped that nasty Mahmoud from getting the bomb," then finally "President Obama delivers very tough speech employing soaring rhetoric declaring the success of our engagement program, punctuated with threats about 'kicking ass' and announcing the appointment of a bipartisan committee to explore 'forceful next steps' -- end with tight shot of clenched jaw."
After these there is a concluding paragraph which reads: If none of the above initiatives work see next memo (NSC document code redacted) entitled "Learning to Live with a Nuclear Iran."
ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images
In yesterday's post, I noted some of the most relevant developments in the political world that've occurred recently. But we're hardly out of the neck of the woods. The summer of 2010 promises to be an ... interesting time.
As promised, here's an idea of the potential Black Swans to come:
1. Wars of Summer, Part I: The Koreas
As we've seen just in the past couple of days, "engagement" doesn't seem to be doing the trick with North Korea. When you have two countries that have been pointing guns at each other for half a century and one of them is run by the kind of guy who makes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad look like Albert Schweitzer trouble is always just a Dear Leader moodswing away. When one of those countries starts firing torpedoes at the other, that raises the temperature a bit ... and when that same country has a diplomatic tantrum because its neighbor actually doesn't like having its ships sunk, you get a sense of how off-balance and dangerous the whole thing is. (You also get dictionary editors everywhere rushing to insert North Korea's reaction into the official definition of chutzpah right where "burying your husband in a rented suit" used to be.) While most people assume this is just one of those periodic Korean peninsula hiccups, you never know.
2. Wars of Summer, Part II: Somalia, Yemen, etc.
These places are just two examples of plenty where conditions are chronically horrible and getting worse. If you're going to worry about the Koreas where the stakes are high and both sides would pay an unimaginable price for a conflict, don't rule out conflicts in places where everyone has a gun and life is cheap.
3. Wars of Summer, Part III: Israel, Syria, Lebanon
Speaking of places not to rule out, over the years few places have proven themselves more reliable breeding grounds for warfare than the borders of the state of Israel. And tensions are rising along the most northern of these as we speak. The Israelis are worried about growing stockpiles of missiles being deployed in Lebanon, new missile capabilities in Syria and Iranian mischief in both places. Of all the possibilities for tensions turning to a shooting war this summer, this one may top the list. And, what a great distraction it would make from Iran's nuclear issues (or what great cover for an Israeli strike against the Iranians who are paying for the missiles and underwriting Hezbollah trouble-makers in Lebanon and elsewhere).
4. The Other "Big Spill"
While Washington works itself up into a lather over the spill in the Gulf, it effectively ignores a much bigger catastrophe. A recent NPR report indicated that the amount of man made pollutants that have flowed into the Gulf during the current crisis flow into the air every 2 minutes or so. That's 30 crises like this an hour. 360 a day. Over 1,000 a month. That means this summer there will be 3000 crises like this offshore drilling calamity ... and throughout this period the likelihood that the U.S. government or the world move any closer to addressing this much larger, much less photogenic disaster is pretty close to zero.
5. The Financial Crisis They Call "The Big One"
Remember the financial crisis that took down Bear Sterns? Now we look at that as only prelude. Remember the one that took down Lehman, Merrill and AIG? Perhaps we'll look at that as just the appetizer. Because with the world economy now trembling at the thought of further deterioration in the Eurozone, it wouldn't take much to send us into territory that was unimaginable even two years ago. Likely? No. But possible? Well, let's see, Japan has a debt to GDP ratio that is worse than most of Europe's. What if the markets sour on lending them any more money? What if that takes down some of their banks and they start calling in IOUs and cut lending in places like China? Tim Geithner said this week that overall China's economy is not a bubble. Maybe so. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have some pretty big bubbles in it (see: real estate).
6. The Dem Rebound
The big political story in the United States is supposed to be the losses Dems will suffer in mid-term elections in November. Big time members of the punditocracy are calling for a big swing to the right, a likely Republican take-over in the House and even the possibility of one in the Senate. But by the end of the summer, once campaigns have started in earnest, the loony, fringy, dysfunctionality of the "just say no" party will be revealed and the big surprise U.S. political story of the year will start to take shape. The Dems may have modest losses in November, but it won't be anything like the washout the chattering classes expect.
7. Argentina's Surprise Victory
Despite Lionel Messi's dominance on the soccer field, Argentina won't win the World Cup this year. That'll be Spain. But maybe as the summer ticks on a few more people will start to realize that having done everything wrong and utterly alienated the financial system by telling the big banks to take a hike a few years ago, Argentina is actually having something like a recovery worthy of a tango. Oh, all is not rosy to be sure, but take a look at its per capita GDP in purchasing power parity terms. It just passed Chile to be number one in Latin America (according to Latin Business Chronicle). Between this and the U.S. dollar strengthening despite the fact that the U.S. has also done practically everything wrong (and China's flourishing for years despite its penchant for, how shall we put it, well, communism) who knows... this could be the summer that moral hazard makes its long awaited big comeback.
8. Someone Writes the Truth About Financial Reform
This is the least likely black swan on this list. But it is possible that once financial reform passes later this summer and is signed into law that someone will note that "the most sweeping financial reforms since the Great Depression" actually don't amount to much when it comes to fixing the problems we face. Mortgage defaults, unregulated global derivatives markets, unintended consequences of interconnectivity of markets, lack of global regulatory mechanisms, failure to address the trading culture's perversion of finance, etc... this is like the health care bill and Beatlemania: not the real thing, just an incredible simulation.
9. The White House Gets Humble
Ok, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this is the most improbable of the Black Swans. But the folks in the White House are good people at heart and smart ones. Sooner or later they will realize that their mixed, incomplete record in office trumps the historic nature of their victory and that a little humility is in order ... if not because they feel that way then because by alienating even their most enthusiastic supporters they are doing themselves great political damage. As for the American people, they would do better with more realistic expectations. We all want Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt whenever we elect a president. But the vast majority of the time we get Chester A. Arthur. Bush was Chester A. Arthur. Clinton was Chester A. Arthur. And in all likelihood Obama will end up being Chester A. Arthur.
10. Iran Cooperates
Ok, never mind. This one is most likely. But the dangerous twist here is that cooperation from Iran is actually just them buying time to move toward their goal of possessing nuclear weapons technology. The only thing that will stop them from such a stalling course is if they are much further ahead of schedule than we think and that the big black swan of this summer will be the announcement that the world's largest state sponsor of terror will actually have gone nuclear.
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Although it's hard to believe, there have actually been developments this week that were more difficult to understand than the finale of Lost -- which is saying something since the show was roughly as incomprehensible as a boozy 3 a.m. chat with Lindsay Lohan.
If all that's confusing to you, brace yourself -- the summer ahead may prove to be a real head spinner. And more on that note in tomorrow's offering. Stay tuned...
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Whether the deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil with Iran ultimately actually defuses the stand-off between Tehran and the international community remains to be seen. And even if it does, it seems unlikely to actually stop Ahmadinejad & Co. from continuing surreptitious efforts to cultivate nuclear weapons capability -- especially given the Iranians' decision to simultaneously announce that they will continue their enrichment program in any event. Indeed, it, like the sanctions program the United States has been engineering, seems more likely to simply hit the "pause" rather than the "reset" button, thus buying the one commodity the Iranians want most: time.
That said the effort is significant on another level. It represents the return of Plan B both to Middle Eastern and global relations. During the Cold War, international actors typically had a binary choice. They could seek the favor and advocacy of the East or the West, the Soviets or the Americans. Then, almost twenty years ago that all ended. And for a while it appeared, the choice was America or an international community that couldn't get its act together terribly effectively.
But Turkey and Brazil working closely with Russia, India, and China, have effectively sent a message that Plan B has returned to the global equation. They have essentially said they didn't want to go along with the American approach to solving the problem (sanctions) and were vehemently against the Israeli approach (bombs away). The Turks in particular have been vocal with their BRIC partners in expressing their skepticism of the effectiveness of sanctions and their sense they would be very counterproductive.
The Iranians in turn seem to have recognized that the Brazil-Turkey deal is a win-win for them. It makes them look like they want to be constructive and thus takes the heat off of them and buys time. They get to tip the geopolitical scales in the direction of the relevance of emerging powers, tweak the U.S. efforts, and seemingly help usher in a new era in international diplomacy.
Something else vitally important to notice has happened here. This has become the first Middle Eastern stand-off in which the most important player from outside the region was China -- because China is the one country that had and has the power to determine whether or not a sanctions regime would work. The Chinese, while still internally debating just how much they want to lead on the international stage, have played this deftly so far. They have engaged in talks with the United States and with their BRIC plus one partners. They have evaluated. Behind the scenes they have been constructive and moderate with reports coming out of recent meetings among BRIC leaders that they have made the case for understanding the pressure that President Obama is under. And they have pressed the Iranians to make a deal while sharing like the others in the emerging power leadership a healthy skepticism of Iranian motives and likely compliance.
Thus this deal may seem smallish and technical from afar, but it could well signal a change in the way international diplomacy works. Certainly, it signals an intent on the part of a group of vitally important emerging powers not to be cowed by the "with us or against us" mindset that still permeates some in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
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When I was a kid, I had a dorky friend who had a macho cliché for every occasion. It didn't help his image a bit and it left me with a load of random phraseology floating around in my brain that, if uttered, is guaranteed to make you sound like an awkward, overweight thirteen year-old with your pants pulled up to your incipient man-boobs.
One such phrase was invariably uttered whenever someone almost achieved something but fell a little short. He would say, ponderously, "'Almost' only counts in horse shoes, hand grenades, and atom bombs." It certainly didn't enhance the guy's popularity and I'm pretty sure he grew up to be the main character in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground; that or a leading figure in the tea party movement.
In any event, I was thinking about this phrase the other day in light of the on-going concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program. Because indeed, as President Obama acknowledged in a recent interview with the New York Times's David Sanger, were Iran to become "nuclear capable" it would effectively be the same as actually having produced a weapon. Capability is the line you don't want a proliferator to cross ... and were Iran to nudge across that line, it would likely set in motion a wide ranging chain of events that would almost certainly include: heavy incoming rhetorical fireworks, strategic backtracking by countries who resisted sanctions, tactical consternation from the Israelis as they recognize the world is going to do precious little to address what they see as a critical threat and a full scale diplomatic assault from the United States, designed to shape the alliances that will form the containment network/nuclear umbrella club that will be our post-nuclear Iran "strategy."
However, in recent conversations concerning this possible shift in the situation in the Middle East with diplomats from several countries in Asia, the greater Middle East, and Latin America, another perceived consequence emerged: There was a universal sense that Israel is becoming more isolated and the United States is becoming more dependent for its regional strategy on Arab states. Further, as a result of the likely demands those states will make for action by the United States to help move the Israelis along toward a resolution of their conflict with the Palestinians ... and the perception that Obama must make a move in the Muslim world to fulfill the now questioned promise of his Cairo speech ... and due to the view that Israel is more isolated than ever in terms of international support (or lack thereof) ... there was a sense that the evolving situation is having the added effect of emboldening the Palestinians.
The predicted result offered up in three separate conversations: that the Palestinians will declare independence unilaterally. (I'm not recommending this approach -- just reporting what they said.) And, in the words of one diplomat who is in regular contact with the Palestinians, "much sooner than you might think."
It seems plausible. They have been making noises in this vein for a couple years and the volume has been dialed up recently. And the theory among these close observers of the situation is that right now, perhaps more than at any time in recent history, the likelihood of much global pushback seems low.
And frankly, reason even some mainstream American foreign policy specialists with whom I discussed this, why not? Edging up to the point of doing this is very nearly the same as having done it -- waters have been tested, tides have shifted increasingly in their favor. (The Palestinians seem to be using the same technique White Houses use when they float the names of Supreme Court candidates for a few days to see if anyone attacks.)
If there is support and the likelihood of meaningful pushback from anyone other than the Israelis and the United States seems low, why not proceed? The reality is that the vast majority of the world sees this as the Palestinians' right and doesn't care much that the closest recent brushes with a deal on this front involved Israeli concessions and Palestinian intransigence. Some see such a move as a way to move beyond process and to compress and focus negotiations.
Might this just be one of those diplo-rumors du jour? Yes. If it's real could it backfire? Sure ... in fact, it could lead to a flare up with Israel at precisely the worst moment for U.S. and Israeli concerns about Iran. But one would have to believe that there were Palestinian connections to Iranians to see that as something more than a coincidence.
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What would the world do without Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? While it may be pleasing to contemplate, the reality is that Iran's leader has become the one nut job that many of the world's other leaders can't do without.
Consider for a moment the following cases:
While this list goes on, however, there is another dimension to the festering tensions with Iran over its nuclear program that may not, as of yet, be fully understood. This relates specifically to Netanyahu's framing of Iran as an existential threat. It may be just that, but not in the way he was envisioning.
Because over the past several years, growing concerns over Iran and its nuclear program have come to trump most others in the Middle East proper. They have transcended in terms of the security threat involved those associated with either the Israeli-Palestinian issue or those associated, at least for now, with al Qaeda (thanks in part to defeats for al Qaeda like today's killing of its leader in Iraq, and thanks in part to the fact that Iran seems to be, in the words of a former colleague of mine who was a career naval officer and Jack London fan, the wolf closest to the sled). Is a potentially nuclear Iran more dangerous than an unstable Pakistan? Probably not... but that's like saying you have two forms of cancer. You want to treat both, but the one that is most threatening at the moment will dominate your attention.
The Israeli government has played up this threat for completely legitimate and understandable reasons. Getting Iran's nuclear program just a little bit wrong might be minor for the world but a really big deal for Israel. However, having thus framed the issue, the Israelis have to live with the consequences... and the consequences are not what they intended.
Because if, as seems likely, the ultimate result of the Iranian nuclear program is (after "engagement" and sanctions ultimately prove ineffective, as seems likely) that we accept the idea of a nuclear Iran and revert to a strategy of containment, paradoxically Israel may move to be less central to U.S. interests in the region, trumped by the urgent need for a strong alliance with Arab states like Saudi, the UAE, Iraq, etc. designed to contain the new Iranian threat. Further, if we create a "nuclear umbrella" for the region, it is hard to imagine treaty or diplomatic language that did not, of necessity, promise to protect those states from all nuclear threats including those posed by Israel.
We're already seeing signs that the risks of having to live with a nuclear Iran are sufficiently real that relations with anti-Iranian Arab states are becoming more and more central -- and thus are likely to give those states an ever greater voice in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Hence all the buzz about seeking to set American terms for a peace, gain Arab support and then go to the Israelis and say, here's the deal: You want to contain Iran, you need to give this serious consideration.
Israel felt compelled to sell the Iranian threat. But their pitch really only would work if they persuaded the world to preempt that threat. If Iran got the bomb, then the geopolitics change, U.S. interests align more closely with those of some historic enemies of Israel, and a difficult relationship becomes even more complex. (And it's not so good now. My bet is that if the Palestinians unilaterally declared independence tomorrow there would be two kinds of reaction worldwide: celebration and, perhaps in a few cases, effective silence. Another point the Israelis need to consider: in the 21st Century emerging powers that are less sympathetic to their case are playing an increasingly important role in shaping multilateral outcomes.)
Ahmadinejad may be the region's indispensable lunatic, but if things keep trending in the current direction, he may ultimately be one that the Israelis could well have done without.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
One way to look at the first year and a quarter of the Obama administration is as a time when Obama was tested by foreign leaders who pushed and pushed to determine the limits of this administration. In most cases -- from North Korea to Iran, from Pakistan to China, from Moscow to Jerusalem -- the result was they found an administration unwilling to push back hard. Oh, there was plenty of rhetoric from the administration in each instance -- or at least in most instances. But hard actions were few and far between.
The consensus among foreign leaders and domestic critics of the president was that he was long on talk and short on action. Whether that was due to lack of domestic political will, dwindling resources, an ideological bent or sheer inexperience was open to debate although all these theories have been advanced.
But I wonder if another way to look at this period was as one in which Obama and his team was taking the measure of the world. Knowing who would push and how was key to them moving from a reactive foreign policy, managing what they inherited, to one in which they could devise their own strategies. Whether this was a plan or not, it seems likely that it will be a consequence of the events of the past year and an Obama policy process that is nothing if not carefully analytical of the world.
When National Security Advisor Jim Jones meets tomorrow in an outreach session with most of his predecessors in the post, it is quite likely that the discussion they have will turn on the lessons learned from the past year. And the resulting drift may be surprising to some who have seen the Obama administration's last year as one that was fairly "soft" in the face of challenges.
Take the current contretemps with Israel. It is now clear to many around Obama that the Netanyahu administration -- which not only allowed Vice President Biden to be embarrassed on his recent visit with the unexpected announcement of additional construction in a disputed area of Jerusalem but has progressively made matters worse with tough talks on settlements ever since -- is not going to make it easy for the U.S. to help revitalize the peace process. The Israelis are negotiating with cranes and concrete in a way that makes other sorts of constructive talks less likely. So where does that lead?
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The word is that the decision to hammer Bibi Netanyahu on Friday for Israel’s settlements screwup last week came directly from President Obama.
He was apparently very upset at the seeming contempt the Israelis showed for the vice president and by extension for the president himself and his administration. In addition, Obama, like many of his top aides, felt that the Israeli action was undermining U.S. standing at a critical time in American efforts to both advance the "peace process" and to weave together tough, effective international sanctions on Iran.
Here's the problem: This is one of those diplomatic flareups that may trigger fire drills in the governments and polemic fireworks from pundits but which, upon analysis, is really much less than meets the eye. It's actually a fake crisis.
First, of all, on the face of it the Israeli action seems genuinely to have been much more of a screwup than a calculated affront. And if someone was trying to undercut the U.S.-Israel relationship, it seems certain they represented a fringe group and not the Netanyahu government. Subsequent statements of defiance by Netanyahu regarding building within Jerusalem were more in response to U.S. efforts to make additional political hay out of the dustup than they were related to the initial misstep.
Second, there is no real "or else" backing up U.S. demands for a reversal, an inquiry and the offering of a meaningful olive branch to the Palestinians. Obama, with few foreign-policy accomplishments to point to thus far in his young presidency, needs the peace process at least as much if not more than Netanyahu does. Time and leverage are, for the near term at least, on Netanyahu's side ... which is one reason why the U.S. government is opportunistically trying to use this crisis as a pretext to gain concessions out of the Israelis in advance of talks with the Palestinians.
Further, the United States can't really turn its back on Israel and embrace the Palestinian side any more closely than it has because there is really no there there. And were the United States to ally itself more closely to the Palestinian position (as I believe some at high levels wish they could), the administration knows they would inevitably find the Palestinian authorities made gaffes of the magnitude of this most recent Israeli blunder on an uncomfortably frequent basis -- thanks to the fact that the Palestinian government is more defined by rifts than by meaningful accomplishments.
Finally, most importantly, the U.S. argument that the Israelis need to be seen to be more quietly cooperative with U.S. efforts or Obama won't be able to effectively stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program is undercut by the fact that the United States won't, in the end, actually stop the Iranian nuclear program. We just don't have the domestic will or the international support to do so. Just as each successive deadline for Iranian compliance with international cease and desist requirements has evaporated so too will the illusions that the U.S. can engineer anything like effective sanctions against the Iranians in an effort to penalize them for their noncompliance.
Containment is rapidly replacing engagement as the false hope on which the U.S.-Iranian relationship will be built. (Engagement was dependent on the other side wanting to engage back. Containment is dependent on the government or some other rational actor exercising effective control over all nuclear warheads. Neither precondition will, I'm afraid, prove to have been sufficiently certain to warrant betting our vital interests on it.) In any event, when the Iranians do ultimately go nuclear, the United States will want and need a strong relationship with Israel more not less.
This has created the current, almost bizarre, set of circumstances. Everyone, including the Israelis, agree Netanyahu's government made a big-league error last week. (In a way, it's a real breakthrough: finally something that everyone on all sides of the Israeli-Arab divide can agree on.) But the reaction of the United States, regardless of all the robust language and diplomatic dressing down of top Israeli officials, is indicative of weakness not of strength.
The bigger message that will be unintentionally have been delivered to the world at the end of all this is that the United States is willing to get fierce with its friend Israel over a perceived insult but that we are likely to remain ineffective in the face of self-declared Iranian enemies' efforts to destabilize the entire Middle East with nuclear weapons. This is not only a problem for the president because the outcome is so dangerous. It's also that "tough on your friends, weak with your enemies" is neither a common trait among great leaders nor is it a particularly good campaign bumper sticker.
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While Obama has undoubtedly made the biggest difference on the global stage this year, the most enduring image may be that of the tragic end of Neda. Iran could be the transcendental force in the Middle East, the country that could be the lynchpin to a new era of understanding and progress. No country in the region seems better suited to democracy or a role on the international stage. But it won't be until the voices of its people are heard.
Neda symbolized the promise of those people and revealed the Ahmadinejad regime and the ayatollahs who are the true puppet masters to be the blood-stained enemies of their own country they really are. History is not made by leaders ... as Gandhi knew ... but by the people they follow. Although she is gone, Neda bequeathed the world not only her life but an iconic image of struggle that has the power to inspire -- a power that no nuclear program, no army, no claimed relationship with the almighty can bring to thugs like Ahmadinejad and his fellow authoritarians and dictators worldwide.
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On the morning of September 11, 2001, the front page of the New York Times contained stories on school dress codes, violence between Israelis and Palestinians, the struggling U.S. economy, stem cells, nuclear smuggling, and morning television.
Which is to say history is what happens when you are looking in the other direction.
That's not to suggest that the lead story in the newspaper is never the most important story of the day. It is however to urge we approach "news" with considerable caution. What seems newsworthy (Woods-Uchitel) is (the Salahis) often (Going Rogue) just a reflection of conventional wisdom about what's important and ignores other minor factors like history or the fact that people tend to want to read about salacious crap or journalists like to write about things that are easy to caricature politically. As with food we tend to be drawn to the fast, easy or tasty without really much consideration of what we really need.
So it is with the Afghanistan story. Now, it's hard to dismiss any presidential decision that will put over 100,000 American troops at risk as being unnewsworthy. But it is undeniable that most of the coverage misses the bigger point: Afghanistan is a costly distraction for the president, the military, and reporters on the lookout for the big stories of our times. It just barely makes the list of our Top 10 Concerns in the Region and would be unlikely to make the list of our Top 20 or 25 National Concerns overall. At least that would certainly be the case had we not made the decision to put so many of our sons and daughters at risk over there.
President Obama's speech seems brilliantly conceived to mesmerize the punditsphere thanks to what will either be seen by supporters as its balance or by its detractors as its compromises. (It's the Certs approach to speech writing: it's both a breath mint and a candy mint -- both an escalation and an exit, an effort to be tough with and to support the Afghan government, to strengthen institutions but not to do "nation building", to make the war about Afghanistan and about Pakistan, to support the military and to support the critics of the war.) But what all that masks is that every minute further the president is focused on Afghanistan and every dollar further we spend there is withdrawn from some other account, some other higher priority.
Let's just take the Middle East to illustrate the point. We begin, of course, with the fact that Afghanistan is not even the biggest challenge we face in AfPak. (That would be Pak, in case you haven't had your coffee yet.)
In fact here's a handy list you can argue about around the water cooler, the biggest challenges America faces in the Middle East in terms of the broader consequences associated with the problem:
And the only reason the decline of the dollar and the fiscal burdens on the U.S. economy that will severely limit our ability to act in the region are not on the list is that they seem very domestic ... but they would rank near the top otherwise. And as I noted before they are linked to the host of other issues domestic and international which actually outrank the Middle East (hard though that may be to believe to all our friends from all those lobbies, think tanks, and government contractors out there.)
This misplaced focus is revealed especially effectively in the regional context thanks to the juxtaposition of the final stages of this "Afghan decision" (and don't delude yourself into believing this is the last such "decision" or that the new policies will go very far toward resolving the core issues associated with stabilizing that country or getting out) with the recent announcement by the Iranians to proceed with plans to build 10 nuclear enrichment facilities. Whether or not they are capable of doing this, by now it should be quite clear that Iran has adopted a stance that virtually every one of America's enemies in the world has adopted during the past year. They have challenged us to demonstrate that we will simply not confront them in any effective way.
Call it Iraq fatigue, blame it on the economic crisis at home, call it a propensity for dithering, call it a learning curve, the primary message the Obama Administration has sent to the world this year is an unintended variation on the one they intended to send: this administration really is different from that of George W. Bush. On international matters, Bush acted without thinking whereas until this week, it seemed, Obama thought without acting. Given the developments of the past few days, it seems the president has now become adept at thinking and then giving the illusion of action while actually compromising many of the benefits of decisiveness away. For example, while committing the troops must be seen as a kind of an action, it is presented as a double negative thanks to the escalation-exit strategy structure. It's what Groucho Marx might have called the "Hello, I must be going" approach.
And the Iran problem illustrates the consequences of focusing elsewhere (although it is just one such example.) Because thanks to Bush's erroneous decision to focus on Iraq and Obama's premature (last Spring) decision to move his chips to Afghanistan -- thanks to their political and economic costs -- the United States has found it ever more difficult to credibly suggest to Iran that there will be any kind of negative consequences to their move toward becoming a nuclear power. And giving the bomb to the world's largest state sponsor of terror is almost certainly a much greater threat than anything we might see in either Afghanistan or Iraq. (Admittedly, Pakistan poses a similar problem ... and for my money, Pakistan and Iran are the places we ought to be focusing the most of our energy and efforts.) In fact, I sometimes wonder who is pulling the strings for the Iranians in the U.S. government because almost every action we have taken in the past decade or so seems to have inadvertently benefitted them or at least made it harder for us to influence them.
In the end, I'm going to cling to optimism and hope that Obama's decision produces the best possible outcome, the one he and his team clearly are hoping for: a few strong blows against al Qaeda and the Taliban, some measurable stabilization and an exit. Because history is happening elsewhere and as long as we are distracted with wars like this, we raise the likelihood that it will be happening to us rather than that we will have a constructive role in shaping it.
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Secretary of State Clinton went to Russia to discuss the possibility of putting sanctions on Iran. The Russians pushed back hard and publicly. The State Department weakly responded that they hadn't come to Moscow looking for anything in the first place.
The Iranians taunt us with their open nuclear ambitions and we don't have much to credibly offer in the way of sanctions (see above) and so we find ourselves grasping at straws in terms of an international dialogue with them. We are forced to take proven liars at their word because there is no realistic Plan B.
The North Koreans do as the Iranians do. They taunt knowing there will be no meaningful retaliation, especially if they dangle the possibility of progress with negotiations even as they flaunt the spirit of those negotiations.
Our ally in Afghanistan bald-facedly steals an election because he knows he has us over a barrel, believing we need him more than he needs us and that in any event, we won't punish him for his indiscretions. Our reaction is grumbling and strong language and planning for him to remain in his misappropriated office.
On Afghan policy there is an all-in, all-out debate and it increasingly looks like the president will split the difference between both sides. David Ignatius writes in today's Washington Post:
Obama's deliberative pace is either heartening or maddening, depending on your perspective. Personally, I think he's wise to take his time on an issue in which it's so hard to know the right answer. But I worry that the White House approach will soften the edges so much that the policy itself will be fuzzy and doomed to failure.
On the Hill, again the difference is split on health care and the Baucus plan backed by the administration doesn't meaningfully address the core concerns that triggered the debate about health care reform in the first place -- issues like universal coverage or the need to substantially reduce health care spending or the need to get the books to balance.
During the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, at a lunch as the meeting drew to a close, the Chinese walked in and demanded that a paragraph in the final statement on climate change be cut. Everyone in the room was gobsmacked and stopped eating while the Chinese representative blithely consumed his lunch. One of those present asked, "Where were the Americans? Why was there no pushback? The Europeans were furious."
Peter Feaver wrote for FP an article chiding Hillary Clinton for not having taken a bold stance, making an issue her own thus far. Quite apart from the fact that I think his analysis was faulty, the reality is that the tough stances come from above, the president is the one who draws the lines in the sand. As far as decisive administration's policies are concerned, the title of her book on the subject might read, It Takes a President.
Right now, even his strongest supporters -- and I count myself among them -- are worried that much as Abe Lincoln was the great rail splitter, Barack Obama may become known as the great difference splitter. A former senior official, active on the president's campaign sat in my office just yesterday worrying aloud about whether this is just learning curve behavior or whether we are drifting toward Jimmy II. There is a place for deliberation and compromise in the quivers of wise leaders, he argued, but there is also a need to be decisive and sometimes to push to fulfill a vision or defend an ideal or an interest.
There are real merits to being the no-drama Obama of campaign fame. But in a world in which the Chinese or the Iranians or the North Koreans or Republicans or wings of the Democratic Party are inclined to push as hard as they can until they meet real resistance, it's fast coming time for the president to show he is willing to lose some friends and even some battles to defend his principles or the national interest. It can be a fist of steel in a velvet glove, resolve born of reflection, but there are a lot of supporters of Obama worry that he is a man who sending a message that there are no consequences for crossing him. On Afghanistan, on health care reconciliation, on his upcoming trip to China, on climate, there are chances looming for him to show that he knows what he wants and that he is willing to fight for it. I'm hopeful this is the moment he really will start to come into his own as president.
It was recently reported that Obama's favorite phrase is "Let me be clear." I think the response to that of his concerned supporters would be, "Please do." It's the path that is most likely to have them once again singing, "Mild thing, I think I love you."
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Today, it's all good news in the world...
Remember back a couple weeks ago when the G-20 leaders agreed to get rid of subsidies on fossil fuels? Well, guess what? So far not much has happened here on that front ... not surprising perhaps since the "commitment" by the G-20 leaders did not include a timeline. But one bold, shining light has emerged that is leading the way for us all. Who should Barack Obama and his fellow statesmen call for advice? Why their old pal Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Because just this past Sunday the Iranians moved to cut back on their subsidies for fuel (and food) in the interest of trying to trim their budget. Admittedly, the money they save will be used to attempt to make a big hole in the ground where Israel is, but since this is Good News Tuesday, let's focus on the upside. Today, Tehran is our good governance pick of the week.
Have you seen those promos for the latest movie by catastrophe specialist Roland Emmerich, 2012? They'd be pretty horrifying even if they did not, as pointed out in Entertainment Weekly, use collapsing twin towers as one of their money effects. But fortunately, it turns out that we don't have to go see the movie in order to help prepare for the doomsday it suggests was predicted by ancient Mayan calendars. According to an AP story yesterday, the Mayans that are still with us say this end of days frenzy is just an over-wrought misinterpretation of the calendars which do note that late in 2012 some unusual astronomical developments will take place. This may, they imply, be worth a visit to the backyard with a telescope but it doesn't warrant hiding in the basement with a year's supply of franks and beans. Or going to see 2012, which according to early reviews is itself such a disaster, it'll have audiences wishing for the real thing before they've finished their popcorn.
What's better than good governance in Iran and the fact that the world's not going to end in three years? How about something that seemed impossible just a few months back: economic recovery? Yup, according to Larry Summers, the president's top economic advisor, in a letter to Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner, happy days are near again. Consumer confidence is coming back and the housing market is stabilizing. But, for most Americans, an even more credible source than a senior government official who happens to be one of the world's leading economists has emerged: TV ads. Yep. According to a front-page story in today's New York Times, "While economists and investors study housing starts and gross domestic product predictions to measure economic vibrancy, General Electric, Bank of America and other companies are using commercials to proclaim America's future is bright." And if they say it in a TV ad, you know it's true. Otherwise how do you explain all the ShamWows and that Popeil Pocket Fisherman in your basement?
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has reported following talks with Secretary of State Clinton that there is a "good chance" of cutting a deal with Iran on its nukes. He also called the threat of sanctions "counterproductive," revealing a resolute and moving faith in the fundamental decency of mankind ... and especially in the Iranians despite a track record that would and has made lesser nations doubters. State Department spokespeople said that they didn't seek anything from the Russians during the trip, which provides us with more good news since nothing is precisely what they got.
In today's Washington Post, Anne Applebaum, almost certainly their best regular commentator, finally digs deep enough to find the positive spin on our favorite prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. This is important because without Berlusconi, newspapers would be dull grey things ... er, even duller, greyer things. We need a buffo world leader and I suspect we can all agree he's the perfect guy in the perfect place given his special breed of apparently corrupt ludicrousness and the not unimportant fact that Italy is probably the largest country we could trust to such a clown without really dire consequences to the planet. Writes Applebaum, seeking to explain his popularity, "Besides, with Berlusconi as your prime minister, you don't have to take yourself too seriously. You don't have to trouble yourself with geopolitics or the state of the planet, or poverty and failed states. You can stay at home, remain unserious and argue about the latest legal scandal. And maybe that too, is part of the prime minister's appeal."
And in other good news: The five short-range missiles tested by North Korea yesterday were only short-range missiles, while the recent spate of bombings in Pakistan have been tragic they do serve as a useful reminder that our real problems in that neck of the world are not in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the Baucus health-care bill doesn't actually fix a single one of the problems it sets out to address according to members of the House of Representatives it may actually get a helpful makeover in conference, Nicolas Sarkozy loves his 23-year-old son enough to advance him for a job running a good chunk of Paris's financial district, and perhaps most upliftingly the founder of Cirque du Soleil returned safely from a trip to outer space today thus guaranteeing the world more of his trailblazing work creating the theatrical equivalent of Muzak. Next up: why not an evening of bad jokes, young scantily clad women, acrobats, plastic surgeons and opera music called "Berlusconi!"
OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images
The one blog I read every week is Peter King's "Monday Morning Quarterback" at Sports Illustrated. King aficionados might recognize my weak (if unattributed) shout-outs to him which come in the form of not really worrying so much about the length of any post, covering a variety of subjects, and liberally blending in the pop culture references. They will also recognize that I am not in his league and that the subject about which he writes, football, is significantly more interesting than most of the subjects about which I write.
One of the things he does frequently is offer lists of rapid fire opinions which often come under the rubric of "Ten Things I Think I Think." Consider the following yet another tribute to him ... because that is a much nicer way of thinking of it than concluding I simply stole his title and format.
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I think for a lot of Americans, particularly those of a more liberal inclination, like Michael Moore or my mother, there was a kind of flickering hope earlier in the week that America might be on the verge of exiting the Middle East once and for all.
The loud tick tick tick of the withdrawal timeline has been audible throughout Iraq for months. And with the debate triggered by the McChrystal Report and the pushback calls for more troops seemed to be generating from Vice President Biden and others within the administration, it seemed we might be moving toward a decision by the President that would have us narrowing the mission in Afghanistan. This argued many ... including conservatives like George Will, for that matter ... could only reasonably lead to our withdrawal from that misbegotten place.
And they may even hoped, the United States might finally be ready to pressure the Israelis into backing down on settlements as a way of getting to serious talks about a peace agreement with the Palestinians. No Jewish settlements equals lasting peace settlement, seems to be the calculus there.
Then, reality crept back into the picture. First, it was hinted at when Obama ... at least temporarily ... backed down on pressuring the Israelis on the settlements. But then it came roaring back into focus with a vengeance thanks to the "news" of Iran's second nuclear enrichment facility. Never mind that Obama was briefed on this facility before he became president, that allied intelligence services had known about it for years and that everyone knew Iran was lying about its existence all along. There comes a moment in these things when their lying and our willingness to lie to ourselves or at least to our publics slip out of whack. And that's when the truth creeps out and spoils the party.
And so as the week draws to a close, the picture now looks somewhat different. Iran is revealed again to be a liar and immediately responds by saying "we won't back down." America, Britain, and France make statements condemning Iran, but they range from bland and process oriented (Obama) to bold but toothless (Sarkozy and Brown). Meanwhile, Angela Merkel (who my sources tell me is not one of Obama's faves in Europe to begin with) and the Russians and the Chinese can't or won't make it to the "shocked, shocked" photo op.
Russia and China are the "or" and the "else" of any international threat to Iran. Absent them, countries like the United States and our European allies can only stomp their feet or introduce sanctions that will be largely ineffective. So this problem festers on and looks very likely to get much worse before it gets better.
Meanwhile, days after the Untied States votes to triple aid to Pakistan, the Washington Post runs a story today about the growing anti-Americanism in that country and how it threatens our goals there. Given that Pakistan is where our real enemies are, this reminds us that this is the AfPak War and regardless of what we want to do in Afghanistan, we will for many years be grappling with the much, much bigger problems associated with nuclear Pakistan.
And on top of it all, the Iran revelation makes Bibi Netanyahu (see today's other post) one of the big winners of this week, proving that while Ahmadinejad lies about the Holocaust and nukes, Netanyahu has been accurately characterizing the Iranian threat. Further, it is becoming clearer and clearer to the Obama team that however difficult the Israelis may be, they are matched step for step by the Palestinians.
In short, for those of you who thought we might have been on the verge of getting the heck out of Dodge, reconsider. We can draw down troops in Iraq, but there will be 50,000 there when Obama's successor arrives in office. We can narrow the focus in Afghanistan, but there will be U.S. military dealing with threats in AfPak when Obama's successor arrives in office. We can extend the "unclenched fist" to Iran, but they will spit in it and represent a deep and lasting threat to regional security for many years, certain well past whenever Obama's successor arrives in office. And Israel and Palestine may make peace ... although that seems a long way off...but the volatility in the region will ensure that sooner or later everyone will be clear that they are not the lynchpin of the region's stability issues. (Although they are certainly an important one.)
The decisions Obama makes about Afghanistan, about dealing with a difficult ally in Pakistan, about how to forge an effective international coalition to contain Iran (which will involve coming up with credible, meaningful consequences if they fail to fall into line), and about just how to get two difficult parties to accept the peace they both need and want, will play a large role in determining whether Obama is around for another 3 or another 7 years. But it seems clear that almost regardless of which path he chooses, his successor will face many of the same problems.
A week that began with murmurs of hope among those who would like to see America disengaged from the region -- a group with which I am very sympathetic not to mention one that includes plenty of my relatives -- is distressingly ending with a slightly different tone, better characterized by the shrieks of noted foreign policy observer Mathew Broderick at the climactic moment of "The Producers." "No way out!" he cries, "No way out!"
I'm not always a pessimist. But I am right now.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
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.
ATTA KENARE/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.