This should have been a good week for John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Few events have better illustrated their well-known assertions about the coordinated power of an Israel lobby in the United States than the effective pressure exerted on President Barack Obama that resulted in his opposition to Palestine's statehood bid in the United Nations.
Unfortunately, as in almost all matters that have to do with the Middle East, all the players -- even academic commentators chattering away at the margins -- end up being undermined by their prejudices, affiliations, old habits and darker impulses.
It happens all the time. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas undercut what should have been his most notable hour with comments to supporters that revealed his deep opposition to granting Israel the same rights and recognition he seeks for his own people. Prime Minister Netanyahu scored a diplomatic victory but at a moment that called for magnanimity he offered condescension and then a promise of new settlements.
Meanwhile, on the periphery of this enduring issue, there are those like Mearsheimer and Walt who perhaps with good, sound academic intentions seek to parse the politics of U.S. foreign policy but who regularly undercut their authority with their methods, tenor and alliances. Their book, "The Israel Lobby" is now a landmark, though arguably less one of scholarship than of opportunism. They seized a moment and capitalized on the existence of an audience that they must have known did not share their self-proclaimed objective, unbiased academic interest in the issue. I have written elsewhere about my views on the book and need not go into again here.
Now, during this week when some of the core ideas of their book were at least brought to life by events, they find themselves fending off a new wave of attacks that are linked to the less savory underbelly of their intellectual enterprise. The genesis of the problem has to do with a comment Mearsheimer provided for the cover a jacket of a book called "The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics."
The problem with the blurb was not its contents, but rather with the book and the author Mearsheimer was endorsing. It turns out that author, Gilad Atzmon, is according to Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, "a Hitler Apologist and a Holocaust Revisionist." Goldberg makes the assertions based on both the contents of the book that Atzmon wrote and that Mearsheimer alleges he read and on other writings by Atzmon. He has detailed these assertions in a series of his posts which themselves quote from other web commentators who substantiate his position including Walter Russell Mead, Jon Chait, Adam Holland, and a site called Harry's Place.
You can easily go to the links and see for yourself the facts. It's not a pretty picture. Atzmon has suggested that the Jews were collectively responsible for everything from the death of Jesus to the Holocaust and that today they again need to be saved from themselves by gentiles. He refers to Jews as a "sinister ideological collective." He offers up fictional Jews like Fagin and Shylock as part of an "endless hellish continuum" of Jewish abuse of other members of society. He blames recent financial crises on the Jews. In short, he is nothing more than an old school bigot.
And not only does Mearsheimer endorse his book, link himself to this author and thus give credence to all the critiques of "The Israel Lobby" that suggest that while some of its facts may be right, its authors' biases debase the enterprise and call into question its objectivity or value as anything more than a piece of propaganda. Like most propaganda there's truth in there somewhere-there is after all a pro-Israel lobby-but also like most propaganda it is twisted (other lobbies are downplayed, the influence of this lobby is overplayed, the Jewishness of the lobbying is misrepresented, etc.).
New York at U.N. General Assembly meeting time operates with the kind of fevered intensity of a B movie with just about as much artificial drama. Layers upon layers of security guards and police and blockades and magnetometers stir up congestion and resentment and tension even before you enter the rooms full of government officials and the coteries of aides who follow them around like the cloud of dust at Pigpen's feet.
This year, of course, the central drama centered on the Palestinian bid for statehood and how, if at all, it could be managed so it was not a huge setback to Israel and a huge embarrassment to the United States. In the hotel in which I am staying, some of the principals in this drama were camped out buzzing about the latest rumors and fretting that events were spinning out of their control.
Thus far the drama is unresolved. President Obama gave a speech that managed to thread the needle offering a string of formulations designed to resonate well in Israeli ears, Palestinian ears, and, most importantly, in the ears of those (comparatively few) American voters who really cared enough to be following this particular episode of the Real Diplomats of New York City. The Palestinians appeared unmoved. The Israelis seemed pleased. Obama went on to his next event, at the Clinton Global Initiative.
Yet for all the familiarity of the arguments that both separate and bind together the Israelis and the Palestinians, there was something different about the feel of this particular minuet.
The Palestinians had clearly taken the initiative and set the statehood vote drama in motion. The Israelis, knocked back on their heels at first by the Palestinian move, regrouped and launched a political offensive in the United States (as well as around the world) to seek support. As the New York Times reported yesterday in its on target story "Netanyahu's Ties to G.O.P. Grow Stronger", the Israelis deftly reached out to key U.S. Republicans to win support and succeeded in generating enough that the President felt the pressure. If he did not line up with Israel in the clearest possible way, he might well lose a key part of his base in swing states like New York or Florida. At the same time, Europeans and major emerging powers all staked out their positions, most in direct or indirect opposition to the United States and the Israelis.
America, once the orchestrator of Middle East peace talks, always until now a prime driver behind the scenes, had assumed a new, much more reactive role. While the Obama team worked furiously behind the scenes, at every turn, it was responding to someone else's moves. It's own initiatives largely seemed to fall flat or come a little late.
The Obama Administration has been dramatically more engaged in the peace process than was the first term Bush Administration. So this may be part of a longer term trend. But in any event, America now seems to be a less influential actor than it has been for most of the modern history of the Arab-Israeli relationship.
That doesn't mean President Obama's remarks struck a wrong note or that U.S. diplomats don't have an important role to play in this process as it moves forward. It is just that amid the frenzy of this U.N. General Assembly week, one gets the impression that much of the most important work is getting done in rooms where the Americans are not present.
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One of the best reasons to recognize Palestine as an independent state is that it is an independent state. It has an independent government, its own institutions, a flag, a diplomatic corps, a people that seek and deserve independence and its own borders. Some of those borders are disputed but that's the case with many other states around the world.
This could be the reason that 126 U.N. member states already grant formal diplomatic recognition to the Palestinian state. Or to put it another way, this could be why fully three-quarters of the world's countries, according to an analysis by the Britains's Guardian newspaper, have concluded that Palestine has enough of the attributes of a state to be treated like one.
It is certainly no small obstacle that the Palestinian's immediate neighbor with whom it shares most of those disputed borders, Israel, does not yet recognize it as a state. Having said that, Israel itself has managed to function pretty well for the past six or so decades and still today only 105 countries acknowledge its statehood.
This is not to minimize the very real and vitally important issues associated with reaching agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians to assure their successful co-existence. Direct negotiations are the only way to achieve this. It is however, to say that on the one hand, the Palestinian statehood debate in the United Nations is a superfluous sideshow and on the other that opposing statehood should not have been made such a big deal by the United States and Israel because they appear deeply out-of-touch with reality.
Wouldn't it have been much easier and smarter for the Israelis and the U.S. to embrace rather than fighting the obvious and to attempt to use that stance to advance negotiations rather than, as they have, take a strong stand against and indisputable reality and thus appear out of touch and on the wrong side of history while doing absolutely nothing to advance their own position or standing? Hasn't this been especially damaging for the Israelis since in so doing, they have given the Palestinians greater leverage in the equation?
For President Obama, the position with regard to Palestinian statehood also undercuts the efforts of his administration to date to move the United States away from the tired old formulations of the past that have clearly not worked. From his Cairo speech onward there was a sense he could find a different approach, reposition the United States in a way that was both still supportive of Israel and that recognized both the shifts on the ground in the Middle East and America's evolving interests in the region. But that sense is now gone or unrecognizably muddled by this stance on this fake issue.
Once again, the transformational Obama has been sold out by the political Obama. The fact that the President is unlikely to receive credit for his stance with Jewish voters might be seen as a bitter irony associated with the calculated shift. But it's not. It's a recognition that Jewish voters ... like healthcare reform advocates and those hoping for a break from Washington business as usual and those seeking true financial services reform and those seeking economic policies that can produce growth for all segments of American society ... are not suckers. They recognize when they are being played and pandered to and they distrust leaders whose most dependable trait is their willingness to shift their positions to suit their momentary political needs.
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As H.L. Mencken might have observed, no one ever went broke underestimating the abilities of the current Israeli or Palestinian leadership. But in the competition for the region's top cluelessness prize, one has to give Bibi Netanyahu the edge. After all, he has done the near impossible and edged out Mahmoud Abbas.
That's no small feat. Over the weekend a keen, very experienced observer of the region who has what would be generally viewed as a pronounced a pro-Palestinian tilt to his views called Abbas, "hopelessly incompetent, corrupt and obsessed primarily with where his next dollar is coming from." As I noted, this was a supporter. He was struggling with why Abbas might seek to take his statehood resolution to the U.N. Security Council where it will certainly be vetoed rather than bring it to the U.N. General Assembly where he is equal assured of a resounding victory when the votes are tallied. Yes, the latter path grants only observer status, but the former grants nothing at all except the chance to give a few more indignant speeches.
My friend speculated on a few reasons. Foolishness was one. A second, not much more charitable, was that he wanted center stage, a last hurrah, that might propel him into his post-political life well. If it did and that also helped the overall cause by getting some supporters on the record and highlighting divisions among the great powers, all the better. It also might be that he recognizes that actually winning in the General Assembly might then shift the focus to the hollowness of his victory if it comes, as it will, for a nation without borders its most nearest neighbor will agree upon?
Whatever the outcome and whatever Abbas' motives however, he has done one thing that his Israeli counterpart and the wise foreign policy heads within The Quartet have been unable to do. He has taken the initiative and redefined the debate. He has attempted to break out of the box of negotiations that have been going nowhere for years and in so doing he has, for the moment anyway, got everyone else scurrying around reactively to his gambit.
He has been able to do this because he has recognized that global sentiment is now so squarely behind the idea of Palestinian state and so deeply frustrated not only with the stasis in the "peace process" but with the inflammatory and counter-productive Israeli settlements policy that old rules of conduct no longer applied. In the worst case, he will cast a bright light on how many major and emerging powers support a Palestinian state, how deep the support is around the world and, by doing so in a way that flies in the face of the desires of the traditional maestros of the peace process, that registers growing global frustration with their ineffectiveness.
This is at least, partially attuned to reality.
The same cannot be said of the Israeli response or the policies that got them to that place. This fact has been driven home in the past couple days by several developments. First and least, has been the steady drumbeat of states that have said they would support the Palestinians.
More importantly, you have the evidence that the strategic ground is shifting under Israel's feet and not to that country's advantage. Some of it can be found coming from Washington. Oh sure, the Obama Administration is actively trying to forestall the U.N. vote and demonstrate its support for Israel -- although interestingly, as the recent NY Congressional election suggested, they may not get much credit for whatever they do from voters who don't believe that Obama is, in his heart, truly supportive of Israel. But the big signal this week that Netanyahu ought to take into account actually comes from an unlikely place. It comes from the President's budget deficit cutting plan announced today.
In the plan, Obama produces big "savings" by winding down the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Admittedly, to my view, this is a bit like one's spouse producing "savings" by agreeing not to buy a new Bentley, but that's a subject for another day. The salient point is that this announcement is the latest sign of the end of America's "war on terror" and a foreign policy built around containing Islamic extremism. It means that for the second time in two decades, the bogeyman that made Israel strategically important to America is being relegated to dramatically less significant status. It also means that America itself is planning on playing a role in the region that is dramatically reduced compared to that of recent years-one that is likely to be constrained further once deficit hawks have their way with aid budgets.
The impact of these shifts has been compounded by the corresponding rise of the promise of moderate, democratic, more secular states in the region. The recent statements by Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu concerning the desirability of developing a partnership between Turkey and Egypt should drive this message home to Israel and to all with interests in the region. While Davutoglu said "this will not be an axis against any other country", surely the Israelis were not comforted (nor, one hopes, were the Iranians). These two powers could, should such a relationship develop and their own internal evolution continue, become far more important to the U.S. in promoting its interests in the region than Israel ever could. That might well lead to some trade-offs and a shift in U.S. policies even were America not pulling back from the region (as it will, protests from the Administration and the Congress notwithstanding). But if we do pull back, these large regional powers will have more sway and suffice it to say, Israel's relationship with neither is improving.
So the situation on the ground includes the upheaval of the Arab Spring, the growing recognition that stability in the Middle East will turn more on the rise of moderates than it will on balance of power formulas of the past, the coming withdrawal and shifting priorities of the U.S., the rise of regional forces inclined to be more activist (like the Turks), the massive global support for the Palestinians...and Netanyahu and company are embracing policies as though it were June 1967.
They have managed to alienate their friends and make their otherwise feckless enemies look stronger. When simply accepting the Palestinians right to statehood would have given them the high ground and a better position to demand clear recognition of their own right to exist as a Jewish state in return, they have opted for an intemperate, unconstructive, anachronistic approach that has placed their country at greater risk than it has been at any time in roughly four decades. Inadvertently, Netanyahu is doing all he can to turn Abbas' swan song into his own.
Of course, that may not be such a bad thing when what the world and both countries need is new leaders who are more in tune with the new reality in the region and who see that the issue is less political than economic -- who both recognize that there is a deal to be done in which the world helps fund the transformation of Palestine into the economically thriving partner that Israel needs and should want at her borders and who are competent to bringing that deal to fruition. That's why the votes that will really matter re: Israeli and Palestinian peace will come not at the UN but at the ballot boxes in both countries...and hopefully they will come soon.
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Enough is enough. After remaining divided on this issue for too long, it is time to take a stand regardless of the political consequences.
It is time to join with those who have already had the courage to weather the inevitable criticism from a biased, bought, and paid for press corps that is part of the greater problem we face.
It is time to end the double standard that for far too long has guided and distorted America's policies in the Middle East.
You all know the story: For decades, special interest-driven ties have enabled a small lobby in Washington to embrace policies that have cost America dearly and today, increasingly put our national security and national prestige at risk. We have for too long supported Middle Eastern political leaders who themselves represent comparatively small populations with dubious historical claims on the land they control and extreme religious agendas. These so-called allies have not only implemented unfair policies that have earned criticism around the world, they have actually implemented apartheid-like segregation of the people they govern. Minority interlopers have unjustly appropriated power, held it by force, and often brutally oppressed majorities that deserve better.
While this is our policy for a subset of the Middle East, for others in the region we are much less accommodating. We are constantly haranguing them, criticizing, demanding that they achieve an ever-higher standard of behavior … even though their historical claims on the region are every bit as great as those we coddle, even though in many ways they have served America more reliably than those we prop up with our military aid, even though they are in many ways the source of the region's vitality and have the clearest vision as to how it might break out of the economic and political crises that torment it.
The cost of this double standard is painfully apparent today. Just look at the headlines. In Syria, all America can do is make earnest but impotent shows of solidarity with opposition leaders and search for new adjectives to add to our denunciations of the illegitimate Assad regime. But because of our double standard, because of the fact that we dare not call out the Arab nations we have supported for so long at such a high cost, because we can't count on them as our allies to do the right thing and add pressure on Assad to go, we are forced to treat this grave humanitarian crisis as though it were happening on the moon, far from any real ability of us to influence it.
Yes, the Syria crisis does, as is often noted, illustrate the greatest of the many follies associated with the frustrating saga of Western intervention in Libya. That is, of course, that by intervening in Libya ineffectively, we have now made it impossible for anyone to believe we will intervene anywhere else, even when, as in Syria's case, more credible threats of punishing Assad would have been helpful arrows to have in our quiver.
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On Friday, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article in the Washington Post titled, "Why Europe No Longer Matters." Today, Monday, the headline in the Wall Street Journal was "Europe Wrangles Over Greece," the top two headlines in the Financial Times were "Medvedev rules out poll tussle with Putin" and "Greek PM's plea for unity to tackle crisis," the top headline in the Washington Post was a story about NATO entitled "Misfire in Libya kills civilians" and the lead story in the New York Times was entitled "Companies Push for a Tax Break on Foreign Cash" which dealt with a key challenge in the age of global companies.
Haass, one of the canniest and most thoughtful U.S. foreign policy analysts around, was responding to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates's valedictory jabs at Europe concerning pulling their weight within NATO. The point of the Haass article was that Gates's comments were not just a coda on his time in office, but the end of a "time-honored tradition" which involves Americans tweaking our allies for shirking their global responsibilities. The piece made all the usual points: Europe's influence beyond its borders will decline, Asia is rising, the threats NATO was established to address have vanished to be replaced by new ones it is not very well-suited to meeting, etc.
The problem with the piece is that while Haass is right in terms of each of these points, I think he comes to the wrong conclusion.
The headlines in this morning's papers attest to the fact that Europe still very much matters today. In a tightly integrated global economy, Europe's economic fate impacts ours dramatically. An economic meltdown there around Greece or Spain could easily create a global economic crisis and send the United States into a precipitous and uncomfortable double dip.
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A Pew Poll released this week shows that more than half of all Egyptians would like to see the peace treaty with Israel annulled. Almost two-thirds indicated that they thought that the country's laws should be based on the Koran and about half felt it was "very important" that religious parties be part of the next government. It is further evidence that Egypt's push for democracy has been fueled as much by its decades-long conservative shift as it has been by its decades long exploitation by the Mubarak regime. It is a reminder that small-"l" political liberalism does not always beget the big-"L" Liberalism that many in the west had been hoping for.
It is also a reminder that for all the constant attention that the wave of unrest has attracted in the Middle East, we know as little or less today about what will happen next in Egypt or in Libya or in Tunisia or Yemen or in Syria or anywhere else in the region as we did when all this started in January. That's almost true anyway. We know two things. One: This is a watershed in the history of the region. And two: while we can't say who is likely to prevail, we can say with a fairly high degree of certainty that the governments in each of the affected countries in the region will be considerably weaker going forward.
Governments that change will -- whether they embrace democracy or successor autocracies -- be weaker than the strongmen they succeeded. Governments that hang on will be battered and weakened and made permanently uneasy by the unrest.
This will make it harder to get things done in the region, to hammer out deals with the West except those that involve essentially one-way hand-outs. But tough as it may be for Western diplomats, it is going to be much tougher for the Israelis.
When I read the Washington Post's story "Palestinians Seek Recognition through South America" this morning, all I could think of was Sarah Palin. Now, some might think that is a kind of a disorder that calls for therapy more than it does another blog post. But I suspect you are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion about what I think about either issue.
In defense of my mental health (which needs all the defending it can get), one reason I thought of Palin was that as I was reading the article, she appeared on the television. She was being asked what she thought about birther claims that President Obama was not born in the United States. Without the hesitation or weasel words that have made recent statements on this subject by Michele Bachmann and John Boehner such indictments of their ability to lead, Palin said that it wasn't an issue for her and that we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy. In this instance, she got it precisely right.
But the Palin comment and the birther debate also resonated with the story of the eight Latin American governments that in December and January recognized Palestinian statehood. representatives of the Netanyahu government including the prime minister himself apparently vigorously tried to persuade the region's leaders not to join the almost 100 nations that have also acknowledged the legitimacy of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.
Once again, the issue seems like a distraction to me. The response of Israel ought to be like the response of Palin, "Of course, the Palestinian people have a right to a state." In fact, it's only a bit of an over-simplification to say, the right response ought to be literally what Palin's was: That it's not an issue for them and we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy -- that is we ought to be focused on how you go from the indisputable right of the Palestinians to have their own state to working together to create one that is self-sustaining and can do a better job creating opportunities for the Palestinian people than neighboring states (other than Israel) have done for their citizens. That's the critical challenge for both Israelis and Palestinians together.
That of course, also requires that the Palestinian leadership actually get serious about both negotiating a deal and providing fundamental services to the Palestinian people. An honest debate about this subject, stripped of the distractions upon which both sides have depended on as cover for so long, would turn more to such practical issues.
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While it is too early to assess the long-term outcomes of the uprising in Egypt, there are nonetheless a number of important conclusions to which we can reasonably come.
First, something profound has changed. It did not change because of the uprising in Tahrir Square. It changed and the uprising was the result; the power has shifted in the region. We have passed a generational and technological tipping point. While the dinosaurs cling to the levers of power in virtually every country in the greater Middle East, the under 30 majority is now the great force to be reckoned with. While the establishment has done almost everything conceivable to keep them down from denying them education to curtailing the spread of information technologies to gutting the economies, nonetheless, new information sources and technologies and ways of connecting and collaborating seeped in to these societies through every one of the cracks spreading across the Ozymandian edifices of the elite.
These changes are irreversible. They are seen in the cell phones that even the poorest carry with them, in the broadcasts of Al Jazeera, in the burgeoning Twitter feeds, the apps young Arabs create to provide work-arounds every time a government tries to curtail Internet access, and even in the technological use of some of the region's worst players.
These changes have remade the social and political fabric of the region. What they have yet to do is what they have done everywhere else in the world and that is to fuel economic change.
That is the second inescapable conclusion we need to consider. The great challenges before this under-30 majority are economic, they are about opportunity. They are not about Israel or battles between Shiites and Sunnis or tribal divisions. Those problems still fester, but the unifying challenge for this generation is even more basic: They need jobs. They crave opportunity. And the failure of their leaders to provide them with these basic sources of sustenance and dignity is what has fueled the revolutions of 2011.
A corollary to this conclusion is that we in the United States have been sending the wrong people with the wrong approaches to solve the wrong problems in this region for decades. The problems of this region will not be solved by negotiators or generals. They require investors and entrepreneurs and educators. To the extent that we can contribute, we must do so by supporting the creation of economic opportunity. It is a massive undertaking but it is the only true peacemaker.
A third conclusion is related to the second, however. The role for the U.S. government in all this is very, very limited. We would do well to redirect what aid we provide to address this core challenge of creating jobs for the under-30s. We would do well to put our best economic minds in charge, perhaps even appointing a special economic envoy of real stature. But the only people who can ultimately solve this problem are in the Middle East. In fact, in the hierarchy of those who can help, if the people of the Middle East are first and by far foremost, it is the people of Europe, not the United States who must be second. They are the natural economic neighbors of the region and they must answer the question whether they want those under-30s employed in the Middle East or seeking employment in Europe. After the Europeans, it may even be the Chinese or Indians and others dependent on oil in the region and closer to its problems who should take more prominent roles in helping to solve the problem than the United States, which is a lightening rod and has problems of our own at home.
A fourth conclusion is that the hardest part is clearly still ahead of us. Egypt must make the transition to democracy and that means the military must really step aside after six months. Friends of mine who have met with them believe they understand the implications of the political earthquake that has taken place during the past month and that they will do so. But there are dinosaurs among their leaders so it is by no means a sure thing. Even beyond establishing a democracy is actually keeping one, and beyond that is addressing successfully the economic challenges alluded to above. Further, there are the problems of all the other countries of the region. They will be difficult to handle but we in the United States need to be confident enough in our core beliefs to let them work them out among themselves. There will be fights and setbacks and people we don't like will periodically gain the upper hand. But give me a duel between two guys armed with the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter feeds and let one offer the people the 11th Century and another offer the 21th and I know who I will bet on.
Finally, my fifth conclusion is that of all the big challenges ahead for U.S. foreign policy associated with this period of upheaval, the greatest by far lies with Israel and the Palestinians. Personally, I am not sure why the Palestinians have not yet unilaterally declared independence. The world would surely support them. But imagine what would happen if, perhaps on the road to such a declaration perhaps following it, a hundred thousand Palestinians took to the streets peacefully demanding real self-determination. With memories of Tahrir Square fresh in the minds of the world, how could the Israelis respond as they might have in the past? On what side of history would they appear to be as President Obama might put it? And in that vein, on what side of that history would President Obama and the United States want to be?
Until now, the fact that Israel was the region's only democracy was its "get out of jail free" card. It was used to excuse ... or attempt to excuse ... a multitude of sins. For this reason, no Arab military offensive could be as effective in undermining Israel's strategic advantages as real democracy taking root elsewhere in the region. The Netanyahu administration would be flummoxed if people power came to the West Bank and Gaza. They would be cast involuntarily with the dinosaurs. They would have no pages in their playbook indicating how to handle this. They would have very few good choices.
Actually, they would have only one. They would have to get out of the way. They would have to do what Mubarak did. They would have to step within the 1967 borders and let the Palestinians begin the job of building Palestine. And they would have to hope that the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world helped the Palestinians do it because once that happens, it will be of the utmost importance for Israel that its new neighbor produce real opportunity for its people ... because we have seen the alternative and it, for this generation who have both nothing and nothing to lose will not be contained by the tactics or the rhetoric of the past.
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While it is often ruefully noted that you can't pick your relatives, there is an expectation in life that you can pick your partners. Barack Obama is discovering that when you are president of the United States, that's just not the case.
In fact, if there is one theme that runs through every corner of the Obama presidency it is that he has been forced into partnerships that are so complex, difficult, and undependable that it must leave him yearning for the relative simplicity of good old fashioned enmities. This was illustrated yesterday as the president made the short walk across Lafayette Park to visit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, symbolic headquarters of the U.S. business community, a group with which the president has come to realize he must work more closely going forward.
But in and amid all those complicated relationships, which are the most difficult? Naturally, there are many ways to measure this but we'll stick with one: Which among the most difficult are most likely to blow up in his face during the next two years?
Here's the verdict:
This, the most important international bilateral relationship, is both difficult and likely to be relatively stable because it is so complex. There is so much economic co-dependency here that the political issues are likely to work themselves out. Over the next two years trade and currency tensions may grow, but it is unlikely that either side will flirt with a big blow up prior to the 2012 leadership change in China or the presidential elections that same year in the U.S.
China is likely to be the U.S. most important international counterpart in the decade ahead but Russia remains the wildcard among the major powers. Stephen Cohen summed it up well on "Morning Joe" this morning: Russia's the biggest country in landmass, the leader in energy output and it has all those nuclear weapons. It also has a massive Muslim population, related challenges in its near abroad, memories of empire and what might politely be called a mischievous streak when it comes to international challenges. Oh, and it is undergoing a demographic meltdown and it is suffering from a divided less-than-dependably friendly political leadership. It's at the bottom of this list primarily because of the "next two years" focus of our metric.
Israel is the United States' most dependable friend in the Middle East and a vital ally. That said it is also facing massively unsettling changes from within and without that are creating enormous pressures on its political leaders. The Bibi-Barack marriage was never exactly made in Heaven but as the Israelis face demographic pressures at home, the Hezbollah take-over of Lebanon, instability in Jordan and Egypt, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, growing international pressure to cut a deal with the Palestinians and seeming growing inability of the Palestinians to cut a deal due to their own internal divisions ... what was difficult is going to get any easier. While many expect Netanyahu to offer his own concessions and a roadmap to progress sometime soon, there is real concern even among his supporters whether he can go far enough to break the logjam in the peace process. If he can't, pressure will build in this already fraught partnership.
Egypt nudges out Israel only because it is so volatile right now and we don't know where the current unrest now heading into its third week is likely to head. One thing we do know, there are almost no circumstances in which the relationship will be easier for the United States. If there are massive reforms, a more pluralistic Egypt will be harder to deal with than an autocracy with a fairly dependable ally at the helm. If the current regime holds, they will never trust the U.S. in the same way as they did prior to this crisis.
6. Democrats in the Congress
Will Rogers said, "I'm not a member of any organized party, I'm a Democrat!" And as far as we know he never sat at a cocktail party between bickering leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer or Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer. (Although, Pelosi clearly had a little celebratory sip of champagne last night to celebrate the departure of Jane Harmon, a longtime thorn in her side.) Pick an issue from fighting the deficit to rationalizing our regulatory framework to investing in energy infrastructure, you'll find both Obama's biggest supporters and some of his most difficult opponents in his own party.
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While the political earthquake rumbling through the Middle East began in Tunisia, when the people took to the streets in Egypt, unrest became a trend rather than an isolated event. In addition, Egypt's unique role among states in the region -- historically and due to the size of its population -- amplified the importance of the demonstrations that have filled the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and the rest of the country for this past week.
Even before President Mubarak's decision to end his 30-year rule, Egypt's crisis had earned the undivided attention of leaders across the Middle East. King Abdullah of Jordan's sacking of his cabinet and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's announcement that he too was not going to seek to extend his three-decade-long tenure in office indicated that both men recognized the fuse that was lit in North Africa was connected to stacks of dynamite on which they were sitting.
But it could well be that the forces unleashed by these unlikely people-power revolutions are just starting to be felt. Countries and leaders around the world are wondering aloud what this means for them. Some more than others. Here are the 10 people (outside Egypt and Tunisia) most unsettled by the past week's developments.
10. Xi Jinping
China's vice president and the anointed successor to China's president, Hu Jintao, is a princeling, a son of the country's revolutionary leadership who has worked himself up through Fujian, Zheijang, and Shanghai provinces to be on the verge of taking over a rising superpower. Looking to Egypt he must wonder, however, whether that will be a blessing or a curse. Will he lead the next chapter of China's emergence, or will he be faced by popular resistance to a political structure that is incompatible with the openness and freedoms required of a burgeoning modern economy? Street demonstrations are nothing new to China … the question is whether street demonstrations plus new communications technologies plus growing aspirations are a formula for unrest in the world's most populous nation. ...
For the rest of: The Really Bad Week: Egypt Edition
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There is an old joke that states a genius is an average student with a Jewish mother. And that may explain in part why Sarah Palin has just announced she is planning to visit Israel. Perhaps just what the average student turned presidential candidate needs is the love and protection of a bunch of Jewish Mama Grizzlies.
Of course, Palin's announcement … and the similar announcement by Mike Huckabee … is evidence of something else. It is a clear sign that the Republican right thinks Barack Obama is vulnerable on Israel policy. In the same way that you already see potential Republican presidential candidates combing over the wreckage of Obama's past bastion of support on Wall Street, this gravitation to the Holy Land is less spiritual and more calculatedly opportunistic.
Not only have the administration's efforts to restart the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians been fitful and recently, embarrassingly confused, but behind the scenes Israelis are yearning for the good old days of Bush and the neocons. Or of Clinton and Rabin. Or of Bush, Reagan, Carter, Nixon, or, in fact, virtually anyone else. The reasons for these feelings are manifold. But even those who wanted to give Obama the benefit of the doubt are themselves now doubters.
There is an irony in this, of course. Because any clear-eyed assessment of what has gone wrong on the Israeli-Palestinian front demands the conclusion that Obama is not the problem and that changing U.S. leaders is hardly the answer. The needed political changes are not only much closer to home for the Israelis (and the Palestinians) but they are less changes about people and more about attitudes and circumstances.
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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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With the expiration of the settlement freeze in Israel, the Netanyahu administration faces one of the greatest challenges of its tenure in office. That it is a challenge that comes primarily from within Israel reflects the fact that -- as has been the case for some time now -- the most acute struggles associated with achieving a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinian people are the internal battles within each group.
Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off is one of those instances in which the outcome is much better known than the path which will get us there. Sooner or later -- hopefully sooner -- there will be an independent Palestinian state. We even more or less know its borders and what must be done to secure them.
For the Palestinians, the question will be can the current government negotiate effectively on behalf of all the Palestinian people? Will the more militant elements of Hamas support the outcomes negotiated on their behalf or will any agreement or near approach to any agreement produce greater division at just the moment where greater unity would provide the Palestinian people with the state and the security and the dignity to which they have long been entitled?
On the Israeli side, there are several ways to look at the settlements question. On the one hand, there is the formal debate around it that pits Zionist zealots who seek to expand or more deeply entrench the Israeli state in disputed lands versus the very substantial portions of the Israeli populace who see the settlements as an unnecessary impediment to a peace process they would like to see progress.
Another way to view it is through the eyes of negotiators for whom succumbing to the pressure from the settlement advocates creates a new set of negotiating chips and a political screen behind which to maneuver.
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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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Today, President Sarah Palin convened a meeting of Middle East leaders to resume the search for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. "It has been President Palin's knowledge of the players, the issues and her exceptional diplomatic skill that has made this event possible," said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
There is a reason you will never see the preceding paragraph written in a news report. Hint: It has nothing to do with Palin's commitment to seeking peace.
It is precisely because it is unimaginable that Sarah Palin could play the role of honest broker on the international stage on an issue such as Middle East peace that she will never be president. For better or for worse, being president of the United States requires individuals who can assume such a role. Indeed, the success or failure of many American presidents has turned on whether or not they have risen to the challenges of international statesmanship. The American people recognize this fact and with very few exceptions look for character traits in winning candidates that translate into presidents who can hold their own with top leaders on vital issues (although sadly, international experience is not one of them).
This week, with the renewal of direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, President Obama's test in this defining crucible will begin. There have been hints of his aptitude for such challenges before -- in the late night session at the global climate talks in Copenhagen, for example, during which he showed skill and drive. But there have also been warning signs, such as his comparatively weak showing when confronted with tough Chinese leaders in Beijing. Nothing he has yet done, however, will be as important as his role in these upcoming talks in revealing to observers around the globe whether he is the real thing or a pretender when it comes to being in the first ranks of world leaders for any reason other than the title he holds.
While the odds are against a breakthrough in these talks, any hope of progress is likely to be directly linked to whether President Obama becomes directly engaged, places his political capital on the line, and is willing to work the issues and the other leaders participating in the talks.
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News from around the world this weekend:
In Israel, during a sermon, 89 year-old Rabbi Ovadia Yousef, spiritual leader of Israel's ultra-orthodox Shas political party, attacked the Palestinian people and their President Mahmoud Abbas, calling them "enemies and haters." Then, he went on to call for their deaths, saying, "May they vanish from the world, may God smite them with the plague, them and the Palestinians, evil-doers and Israelhaters." The Israeli government soon after issued a statement asserting that "These words do not reflect the approach of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor the position of the government of Israel." This distancing from a key player in a party that is an important part of the current coalition government, holding four seats in the Israeli cabinet, seems pallid in the face of such repugnant remarks that were clearly designed to cast a shadow over the imminent resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As one Israeli Knesset member argued, "If God forbid a Muslim religious leader would express similar sentiments toward Jews, he would immediately be arrested."
In Afghanistan, five campaign workers supporting the efforts of a female candidate for the country's parliament, were gunned down. The murders, in Andraskan district of Herat province, followed the kidnapping of the five men on Thursday.
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Today is yet another primary day in America. Some of the biggest decisions the country faces will be left to the tiny handful of voters who show up to vote. And once again the results will remind us of one of the enduring truths of democracy: The majority is often wrong.
This fact is as true today on global issues as it is on domestic ones. Blame it on ignorance. Blame it on the distorting lens of the media. Blame it on the spinmeisters and snake oil salesmen. But the reality is that more often than we care to admit, the people are dopes.
I know this will outrage some. But they are among the dopes. And as usual, a careful analysis of the facts undercuts their position. (But facts are to these people as my advice is to my cats -- just ambient noise that they ignore on their way to a sunny spot on which they can curl up and sleep. Which is why, as Soren Kierkegaard put it, the "public is everything and nothing...the most dangerous of all powers and the most insignificant.")
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that contrary to the populist liturgy the world would be an even bigger mess than it is if public opinion guided every major decision. And that's saying something.
For example, in July 1941, polls indicated only 17 percent of Americans supported the idea of intervening in the war in Europe. Or consider that 68 percent of Americans believe that "angels and demons are active in the world." (If you are one of them, please stop reading this. We could get to some big words later and the rest of this is just going to make your head hurt.) Or that George W. Bush was elected not once but twice to be president of the United States.
Now, we shouldn't be surprised. The reality is that the majority of the people haven't the slightest idea as to what they are taking about most of the time. In a 2007 poll it was found that more than two-thirds of Americans couldn't name the president of Russia and eight out of ten couldn't name the Secretary of Defense (while almost two thirds could identify Beyonce Knowles). In 2006 only just over a third of Americans between 18 and 24 could find Iraq on a map and fewer than three in 10 thought it was important to know the location of countries in the news.
Everybody is entitled to their opinion. But not everyone deserves to have their opinion garner the same amount of respect. If you don't know anything about a subject, why should your viewpoint matter? It's why the founders of the republic opted for representative democracy -- the people should have a voice ... which would allow them to pick professionals who would study the issues to make their decisions for them. It's a better idea than the alternatives but you have to admit, even it hasn't worked out so well if our elected officials are the metric we're going to use to judge.
There are plenty of issues in the news right now where it is absolutely clear the public and the truth are on different sides of the argument. Take just these five:
The list goes on and on, a poll this month showed that only 37 percent of Americans favor more government regulation of the financial system despite all obvious evidence to the contrary. And a poll last month showed that 53 percent of Americans believe same sex marriages should not be recognized.
Why raise this? Because people too often confuse majority opinions with what is right and too often suggest that it is the responsibilities of leaders to heed the majority. It clearly is not. In fact, often what has distinguished great leaders is their ability to actually lead people away from the problems to which they, left to their own devices, might have been heading.
Finally, is this an argument for elites? Heck, no. (Unless you mean should people with the education and experience to make decisions actually be listened to more carefully than say, I don't know, radio talk show hosts or movie directors who don't know the slightest thing about geology?) Elites get it wrong as often as the majorities do. For years they thought Pluto was a planet. Few predicted the fall of the USSR. Few predicted the market collapse of a couple years ago. Heck financial markets assume that half the elite will be on the opposite side of any deal from the other half. No, this is just an argument for giving the facts and the experts a bit of a listen when it comes to really important decisions because believe what you may about angels, it is generally not a good idea to make plans based on their intervention.
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Let's start at the beginning: Not only is Israel well within its rights to seal off Gaza, it has done so in a way that has, over the years, despite global opprobrium to the contrary, shown considerable restraint. The Hamas regime in Gaza has systematically threatened and attacked Israel and has abominably failed its own people. It's Hamas, not Israel, not the Palestinian government on the West Bank, who pose the biggest obstacle to progress on the peace talks -- and that's saying something.
In addition, given the above, Israel's intervention to board the aid flotilla bound for Gaza was a reasonable tactic with regard to the enforcement of its Gaza policy. The flotilla itself -- whatever its humanitarian merits may have been -- was also clearly a calculated provocation. The tragic outcome of the Israeli intervention was one of the well-understood risks deliberately undertaken by the organizers of the flotilla and, I believe, one that they foresaw as a potential victory.
That said, the flotilla must also be seen as an almost inevitable response to a policy that is just as unsustainable as it is justifiable. Isolating Gaza may provide some security benefits to Israel but in the end, as this incident demonstrates, it has created even greater risks. Not only does it give the Hamas regime an excuse for its manifold failures, it fuels Gazan and global furor toward Israel and strengthens a leadership faction that when studied up close is as callous and incompetent as any in the world. The policy also clearly exacerbates appalling conditions within Gaza. It is therefore not only a policy that invited precisely this kind of multi-purpose aid initiative... ultimately it is a policy whose days are numbered for the very same reason.
As for the flotilla itself, every single outcome was good for the organizers and bad for Israel. Delivering aid, being stopped, attempting to deliver aid but being delayed and even a conflict on the high seas all were outcomes that would advance the interests of the organizers and the Hamas regime in Gaza. Some among the organizers were certainly sincere in their desire also to help the people of the enclave-people who certainly deserve urgent relief from their intolerable circumstances. But some on board the flotilla were clearly less interested in that. They are part of an ongoing and currently escalating effort to derail peace talks, distract from problems elsewhere in the region and to take advantage of what is seen as a watershed moment -- a moment in which there is a sense the Unitd States is uncomfortable with its historic policies and, despite its muted response to the weekend's events, a sense that Washington may be willing to distance itself from the Israelis to a degree to which the U.S. has been disinclined to do for half a century.
In short, the Israelis were set up.
That said, their actions fall into the category of a self-inflicted wound from a country that seems in recently to be mimicking the old image of a guy holding a gun to his own head and saying "stop or I'll shoot."
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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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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?
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
The overblown non-crisis between the United States and Israel is, of course, settling down ... with both sides recognizing that the problem with rifts between vital allies is that both suffer from them. Israel screwed up ... and America almost made things worse by over-escalating. As it is, all sides are now heavily invested in showing they can move things forward at the negotiating table and, I predict, will do just that. Slowly. Frustratingly. But if I had to bet, I'd suspect we'll see more progress in this area in the next couple years than we have since the Clinton years.
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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.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. health care reform passes the Congress and is signed into law
anytime soon, the bickering and hullabaloo over the process by which
the bill was hammered out will be as relevant as Einstein's mother's
morning sickness in light of her son's reimagining of the universe.
Ok, perhaps that overstates it. But the inside-the-beltway food fight of the past few months will likely fade quickly from memory as Americans start to "own" the provisions of the bill. (If not, all of Washington is going to soon have to see what provisions the new law will make for people with cable news-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.)
And if it passes -- which, flawed as it is would be a landmark and long overdue revision to America's social contract -- White House health care czar Nancy DeParle's reputation would be made because she would be seen as a key player in advancing a long-elusive goal of progressives from coast to coast. Whatever missteps the White House may have made along the way, she will be among those redeemed by finally snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. (Of course, if the bill fritters out at the last minute, her career prospects will follow a different trajectory.)
This fact raises in turn another question. Just how are the rest of President Obama's Romanov dynasty full of 30-odd czars doing?
The answer is hard to tell judging from the newspapers.
This is true in part because newspapers have devoted most of their
coverage recently to Eric Massa's permanent tainting of the once
wholesome sport of snorkeling. It's also true because there were so
many darned czars created that it's hard to keep track of them all. But
mostly it's true because the president's decision to appoint so many
"czars" was a classic rookie mistake that has not really worked out
very well for anyone.
Certainly, it did not work out well for the czars who came and went like "Green Jobs Czar" Van Jones who was Glenn-Becked into oblivion or "Car Czar" Steve Rattner who is now trying to work a deal to avoid further legal headaches associated with his allegedly unsavory practices in winning business from the New York State pension fund back in his hedge fund days.
But most of the czars who were originally appointed are still in place. It's just that in most cases the only people who know it are their families or the bureaucrats they scuffle with every day. You see one of the big problems with the whole idea of "czars" is that on the day after their investiture each of them discovered that the government is full of other people who thought they had the same responsibilities.
Just ask AfPak Czar Richard Holbrooke who has been largely overshadowed by the military's big man in the region, General Stanley McChrystal, and the State Department's other man in Kabul, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Some of this may be, according to reports, Holbrooke's own doing, due to rough patches in his relationships with the Afghans, the Pakistanis and some of his colleagues in Washington. (It was probably a miscalculation to try to apply strong-arm tactics with Hamid Karzai that were reminiscent of his very successful tough-guy confrontations with Slobodan Milosevic years ago. The problem being that whereas Milosevic was a bad guy who was going down, an enemy being defeated, Karzai was a bad guy who was our alleged ally, one who strongly believed we needed him more than he needed us.) Holbrooke has also, according to White House sources, not been a great favorite of Obama's. This is particularly bad in an administration in which seeking the favor of the president has taken on an importance that is in fact, much more reminiscent of the historical czars than is the role being played by anyone with this now devalued moniker.
This is a key point. Not only have the czars seen their role diluted by bureaucratic competition but they were never really given the authority their informal titles implied. This is a classic failure of government and business managers everywhere -- giving people responsibility for an issue without truly giving them the authority to manage or lead it.
Does anyone for a moment think George Mitchell is really in charge of America's role in the Mideast Peace Process? Does anyone even really know what Mitchell is doing? In the State Department there is constant buzz that Mitchell is an inscrutable "black box"... and that people like Under Secretary Bill Burns, people in the regional bureau and, of course, Secretary Clinton can and should be playing a more central role in shaping strategy than Mitchell. Mitchell's team hasn't helped his standing with the White House much by going around taking shots at White House Middle East expert Dennis Ross in private meetings with Middle Eastern governments. Which has led the White House ... both within the NSC and the Vice President's office to get more involved, etc. The point is ... there are lots of players and Mitchell is no more a czar than was Ingrid Berman playing Anastasia.
Paul Volcker was a "czar" with responsibility for advising the president on financial reform. But for most of his term he has been ignored, being rolled out periodically for photo ops to show him as a validating grey head. His Volcker Rule gained traction when it was clear many other reforms were faltering. But the reality is Volcker, like the others is more a prop than a czar. It's not that he or they are unwilling to work or even that they don't have a huge amount to contribute. (I suspect we'd all be better off if AfPak were really quarterbacked by Holbrooke or financial reform were led by Volcker. These guys are among the very best the Dems have and the way they are being treated is like turning Albert Pujols or Kobe Bryant into reserves, playing them off the bench.)
I suspect Holbrooke at the moment has to be wondering whether he actually had more influence ... or a higher profile ... as a private citizen who deservedly was seen as a Democratic Secretary of State in waiting. Volcker, I am told, knew what to expect and took on the job because he knew it would periodically afford him influence, that sooner or later he would be needed or heeded.
"Green Czar" Carol Browner must feel the same way. Not only have her priorities faltered but she has been overtaken in traction by other members of the "Green Cabinet" and compromised by the fumbling on the Hill. On international matters, the State Department's climate negotiator had the clear lead although his efforts have encountered stiff headwinds, on other issues Science Czar John Holdren has won more traction, on others Steven Chu's team at Energy have. And while all this would be denied by the players in question if asked about it in public, you have to ask yourself why the experienced and respected Browner, in the middle of an issue the president has set as one of his priorities, would be on everyone's short list to be among those making an early departure from the administration?
Other czars have simply faced the bandwidth problem ... their issues have not risen to prominence in the midst of an agenda set largely by an economic crisis and a desire to move on a couple key issues such as health care and managing the revolving door that is our Middle East troop deployment strategy. Or alternatively, they just haven't been able to make much progress or have faced unforeseen setbacks. Our Auto Industry Recovery czar, Ed Montgomery, and our manufacturing czar Ron Bloom, have seen their efforts remain hostage to the sluggish economy ... and it doesn't look like our bailout of Chrysler is, in the end, going to do much good. Our Guantanamo czar has found getting out of Guantanamo is tougher than expected. Our Wall Street Pay Czar has had influence over only a few companies and while he has tried to manage that the rest of the financial community has been thumbing their noses at any idea of bonus restraint. Dennis Ross who was designated as the "Central Region" (Iran) Czar has worked hard -- and he like Holbrooke is one of the very, very best out there -- but ultimately U.S. policy will cede nuclear weapons status to Iran and our earnest but likely-to-be ineffective sanctions efforts will be seen as futile.
And so on. Admittedly our "Great Lakes Czar" can report that Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior are all roughly where we were when Obama came into office and Joshua DuBois our Faith-based Czar certainly has not seen a major fall in America's collective need or hope for some higher power to make sense of things. Because, as is almost always, the higher powers we create -- even when they are given grandiose titles like czars -- almost always disappoint for one reason or another. Hopefully, soon Obama will recognize this and make a long over-due return to the kind of simpler org chart that is almost always more effective.
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Admittedly, it's only March and early March at that. Still the year has been full of surprises so far on the Washington politics and international policy beats. So, it's only fair that the surprise winners get the credit they so richly deserve. Here are ten of them, in no special order:
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
So, here we are at last, the big ones, my choices for winners and losers of the decade on the global stage.
While these selections are slightly less subjective than, say, the Golden Globe nominations (which are, I believe, selected by three drunken expat Latvian critics in a bar in West Hollywood), they do represent just the views of one man. If you agree with those views, please post your congratulations below ... or go ahead and add a few other names. If you disagree, just remember, there will be other lists -- only I decide whether to include you among the global losers of tomorrow (alongside, say, the Tiger Woods of 10 years from now when he is running Tiger's "Just Do It" Mini-Golf Course in Melanoma City, Florida) or the global winners of the future (alongside, say, President Timberlake in 2030 or so).
The People of Iraq: George W. Bush was our Washington loser of the decade, but all he lost was his reputation such as it was. He's still rich and will probably never pay for a round of golf again. But somewhere between 100,000 and 800,000 Iraqis are dead as a consequence of the war, the country is shattered, its government held together with chewing gum and bailing wire and the random killing continues. Oh, and there was absolutely no justification for going in and breaking up the place from the get-go. This isn't a tragedy ... it's a crime, as I suspect international courts will conclude in the years to come.
The People of Afghanistan and Pakistan: These countries are no playgrounds, they are home to plenty of bad actors and, as Barack Obama has demonstrated, no U.S. president, regardless of party, could stay disengaged from the festering political sore on the planet that is AfPak. But while the pursuit of al Qaeda and the Taliban is justified, the wars that continue to percolate here will kill countless thousands, impoverish hundreds of thousands more and at the same time, support for terrorists and other enemies of civilization will grow. That there are no good choices here is a cliché ... that there are going to be no winners is a related tragic reality.
The British Government (Lifetime Achievement Award): Well, let's book at the worst problems the world has faced during the past decade -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine...what do these diverse countries have in common? They were all cooked up or stirred up by those fertile minds at the British Foreign Office and their colleagues elsewhere up and down Whitehall, either as they were dismantling their empire or fiddling with the region after one war or another. Thanks guys for your creativity...and for the foresight you showed by actually bequeathing your handwork to yet another remnant of your empire as you shuffled off the world stage so you could focus on counterbalancing your past contributions to global culture by producing Simon Cowell and the likes of Susan Boyle.
The U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Dollar, and American Capitalism: It was a tough decade for the pillars of U.S. society. We should have seen it coming when the decade began with the Supreme Court fiddling with an election and when a central theme of the Bush years became undercutting the Constitution. Thanks to the U.S. government's similar callous disregard for the laws of economics and fiscal responsibility the dollar began a downward spiral that many experts see as a semi-permanent feature of our future.
Democracy: Oh, yes, we know that Churchill called it the "worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried"... but as my grandma would have said, "there's democracy and then there's democracy." In other words, some forms of democracy are worse than others, and among those that that have flourished during the past decade are Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Zimbabwe, and, yes folks, Honduras -- where leaders took advantage of the common misperception that voting equals democracy.
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)
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.
SAUL LOEB/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.