Thomas Straubhaar, a top economist from Germany, attacked U.S. credit agencies after they lowered Greece's credit rating to junk status, down there with the Pakistans of this world. In fact, in the spirit of Greek street protesters, Straubhaar called for the "violent overthrow" of the credit rating companies like Moody's or Standard & Poor's, arguing that these companies actually undermine stability in markets.
Come on, Thomas, don't shoot the messenger. The problem isn't the credit rating agencies -- although one does wonder if they don't have itchy trigger fingers after having been late with their warnings during the 2008-2009 phase of the current protracted economic crisis.
The problem isn't the Greek finance ministry. The problem isn't the Greek legislature. The problem isn't the Europeans who are being dragged kicking and screaming toward helping Greece. The problem isn't even Goldman Sachs and the other banks who lent Greece more money than they could afford and even helped them hide a bunch of the financings off the books.
Nope, the problem is Greek nuclear scientists and radical terror groups affiliated with the Greek intelligence services -- or rather, the lack thereof.
Because if Greece had nuclear weapons and crazed terrorists hiding in every luxury housing development, you can bet we wouldn't be going through this long drawn-out process of figuring out whether the country was going to default or not.
We know this because of Pakistan. Pakistan is an absolute financial basket case. It is in many respects in as bad a shape as Greece -- and in some it is even much worse off. But do you hear anyone talking about Pakistan's financial problems? Heck no.
Of course, talking about Pakistan's financial problems is like talking about whether Anthony Weiner's socks match. It's not exactly the first issue that comes to mind. Having said that, the reason we are not sweating the meltdown of Pakistan's financial markets is that there is no way the United States or the world would let it happen. Because a financial collapse could trigger the kind of unrest that would put Pakistani nukes at risk, and that's just not tolerable. So the United States pumps billions into Pakistan knowing full well that it is this aid that helps keep the ship of state afloat. (And, money being fungible, if it also pays for expanding Pakistan's nuclear arsenal … well, apparently we're willing to look the other way. Again.)
Once again, one of the main messages of modern international affairs comes through loud and clear: Nukes pay. From Pyongyang to Tehran, enterprising leaders know that the easiest way to boost your country's profile, gain political leverage, and win cash and prizes is to toss a little enriched uranium in the old Cuisinart, let the satellites take a few snaps, and start rattling your radioactive saber.
The problem with Greece is that if the economy collapsed, if the government collapsed, if the country descended into chaos, no one is worried that a nuclear catastrophe would follow. An ouzo-induced hangover maybe -- which can be a pretty horrific thing -- but it's the specter of a mushroom cloud that really is the attention grabber.
Admittedly, if Greece goes down and takes a few big French banks with it (as the ratings agencies warned this week) and markets get jittery and the firewall around Spain gives way and then a bunch more French and maybe German banks fail and a new global banking crisis and maybe a depression ensues -- well, that would be bad. And would produce instability in many corners of the world, including, possibly, in Pakistan. And if the downturn is bad enough it might force the U.S. and others to give less the next time Club Nuke comes to extort. So, well, yeah, that would be worse.
But, that's all speculation. What we know for sure is this: If there were a centrifuge or a hundred under the Parthenon, the Greek government would right now be sitting on piles of cash and not squirming, knowing that their fate depends on the famously warm hearts and generosity of the German people (among others).
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From its start, I have viewed the Iran sanctions regime the Obama administration has helped devise with great skepticism. However, if recent reports are to be believed, the sanctions may someday be seen in retrospect as a vital element of an effective strategy to curtail the Iranian nuclear program. In fact, the possibility is beginning to emerge that they could be seen as part of what may someday be seen as one of the signal triumphs of Obama-Clinton foreign policy.
My initial concerns about the sanctions program were several. First, it was my sense that such sanctions programs tend not to be terribly effective where authoritarian regimes are concerned. Next, sanctions tend not to be effective if they do not are not supported globally by all the economies interacting with the country facing sanctions. Third, in the case of these sanctions, the Russians and the Chinese carved out elements that protected important components of their own trade with Iran. Fourth, my sense is that the Iranians are engaged in a cat and mouse game with the international community in which they make a few seemingly constructive moves, even appear to make concessions, and then continue on with their nuclear development work behind the scenes.
My sense was also that international diplomatic and economic pressure would simply not be enough to really impede their program -- especially if the threat of the use of force to punish them if they did not back down was not credible. And the message from the administration was not tough enough on that last point.
However, when last week, the departing boss of Israel's intelligence service, Meir Dagan, stated that in his view the Iranian program had in fact been set back to the point that it would not be able to develop nuclear weapons until 2015 at the earliest, it suggested that whatever was being done was working. No one, for obvious reasons, takes the Iranian threat more seriously than the Israelis (although WikiLeaks confirmed for all how worried the Iranians make all their neighbors). If they who had been saying two years ago that the Iranian threat would reach a critical level within a matter of a year or so were now saying it has been pushed out several years, it was more than just an interesting sound bite.
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Bill Clinton once noted that nuclear weapons were North Korea's only cash crop. It was a wry and on-target observation that underscores a critical point. There is clearly a method to the madness of Kim Jong Il and the regime he leads.
After this week's revelations about North Korea's latest nuclear initiative followed by today's exchange of fire between North Korean and ROK troops, it would be easy to suggest that the country is once again going through one of its periodic bouts of irrationality. And by any traditional calculus of behavior, it is hard to deny that a small, impoverished nation frittering away scarce resources on a giant military despite the fact that there is zero chance they could ever defeat their principal adversary seems nuts.
But that would only be the case if the value of that military were measured in traditional, abstract terms. If this measurement is balanced in the context of the North Korean leadership's political needs, it makes more sense. Maintaining a confrontational stance with the South provides a rationale for an authoritarian state and a reason to have the forces in place to maintain that state. It also provides a useful distraction from the utter failure to create a healthy economy within the country.
Furthermore, every time North Korea flexes its muscles, threatens its neighbor, or violates international law it gains stature unavailable to it via any other means. Think about it: North Korea has a GDP smaller than Costa Rica, roughly the half the size of that of say, the Sudan.
Finally, every time the North does one of these things, the response of the rest of the world actually, brings about benefits. After the "official condemnations" die down and the sanctions are proved to be ineffective -- as they inevitably are when pitched against a country in which the will or discomfort of the people does not exactly drive the political system -- North Korea gets a reward of some sort, a deal, an aid package, energy supplies, food. Best of all, the rest of the world accepts its word on vital matters even though North Korea has never ever kept its promises.
As they say in my part of Pyongyang, "such a deal." Is it any wonder that Kim Jong Il continues to turn to his nuclear program to be his main cash crop, to make "lunacy" his country's principal export?
This is not to minimize the risk from the North. Actually, it underscores that it is likely to remain and fester for the foreseeable future. In fact, some observers see this week's events as an effort by Kim Jong Il to provide "victories" for his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-Eun. The fact that the unveiling of the sophisticated "astonishingly modern" (see today's FT story "Kim Jong Il Plays His Aces") uranium enrichment facilities are seen as yet both a coup for the North and a shocking intelligence failure for the United States and our allies already puts it in the win column. The fact that the exchange of gunfire today was met with communiqués and deep restraint (thus far) suggests it too may end up in the plus column for the dear leader and his clique.
These events may also ultimately be seen as wins for Kim on two other levels. First, the nuclear facility almost certainly required international collaboration. If it turns out that support came in part from, say, Pakistan, already suspected of helping the Koreans develop a nuclear ballistic missile capability, it would be deeply embarrassing and awkward for the United States. Next, the fact that the United States and South Korea are really hamstrung on this issue, almost entirely dependent on the Chinese to put real pressure on the Koreans, makes this issue yet another that underscores how the balance of power has shifted away from Washington -- even with almost 40,000 troops on the ground in South Korea and North Korea a top diplomatic priority for the administration.
In short, call Kim strange, joke about his quirks and collection of VHS tapes. I can't help doing so sometimes. But we ought to stop suggesting he is irrational or unpredictable. What he is doing, it's completely in character, following a clear pattern and may very well ... and yet again ... pay off, precisely as he intended it to.
It can be argued that one of the several ways in which most states have lost power during the past several decades is associated with the declining inclination and ability of most to go to war. Hard as this may be to accept in a world in which wars dominate the headlines, it is a fact and it has several origins.
First, fewer than 20 countries really possess the power to project force beyond their borders in any meaningful way. Further, only about a dozen have nuclear capability, and fewer still have any long-distance missile capability. And only one really has the capability to wage global war from space, land, sea, and air. (And that one seems stretched waging two regional conflicts in the Middle East.)
Further the costs associated with modern warfare are too high. The 20th Century delivered this message in devastatingly clear human terms and the economic costs were also proven to be immense. War went from being an all too regularly used form of diplomacy by other means to being madness.
Major powers were forced not by goodness but by a rational calculus to find other ways to resolve disputes. Not always...but with greater regularity than in the past. To take just one example, Europe, once addicted to war, effectively swore off the continental conflicts that defined its history. For the most part, war became an affliction of failed or failing states or a very regionalized phenomenon. The big powers for the most part took on much weaker adversaries or engaged in proxy conflicts. And even those engagements have grown intolerably costly as advanced technologies were demonstrated to combine well with unconventional tactics on the part of weaker states engaging stronger ones.
While risks still abound, long term trends have been encouraging...Until now.
Take three news stories from the past week. The first is the piece in today's Times indicating that U.S. commanders are contemplating increasing drone attacks in Pakistan due to concerns about inaction by the Pakistani military. The second concerns reports of a computer worm targeting the Iranian nuclear program. And the last is associated with the statement by Hugo Chavez that Venezuela, though sitting on an ocean of oil, needed to seriously explore "peaceful" nuclear technologies.
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In a world in which Tony Blair could receive an award this week for his commitment to "conflict resolution," perhaps it is not a surprise that we are moving inexorably toward approving a massive $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Memories are short, and these events are just the latest evidence that we are moving out of what might be called the "post-9/11 era" and are moving into something new.
The Blair award is just one of those preposterous things that happen to leaders when they enter the eminence grise (which is to say the rubber chicken-lecture tour) phase of their lives. He's got a big book out and after all, he did make a real contribution to peace in Northern Ireland. That he was George W. Bush's most important international enabler in conducting the most notorious, least necessary major war of the past several decades is hardly a disqualifier for a "conflict resolution" award, apparently. We have started to hit the public opinion statute of limitations for such disastrous "War on Terror" era missteps.
The United States seems on the verge of okaying the biggest arms deal in American history to the country that provided 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, much of the critical funding for al Qaeda and was home to Osama bin Laden. This is a sign of something more than just the passage of time or our acceptance of the manifold official statements that there was no linkage between the terrorists and the Saudi government. (After all, such arguments hardly seem necessary as we know that the hijackers were backed both by elements of the Pakistani secret service and the Taliban and these days we seem willing enough to cut deals with them or, the case of "good" Taliban, at least contemplate it.)
No, the reason that the U.S. government -- that would not have done a deal like this in the years right after 9/11 -- is willing and even a little eager to move ahead with the deal now is that the War on Terror is being overtaken among top U.S. concerns by the advent of a nuclear Iran.
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Think tanks being what they are -- large meat lockers in which future government bureaucrats are stored until needed -- the reports they produce tend to be little more than exercises in reputation management. They state the obvious, then slather it in a bland, nutrient-free sauce of quasi-academic qualifications that seek to explain why they are really not saying anything new or practical. The best of them offer course corrections that are minuscule at best, and new ideas are as hard to find as honest politicians in the Karzai administration.
Which brings us to the latest such report to be issued, one that proves to be the exception to the rule. That report is "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan" from the New America Foundation. It is one of the very few such documents that I have recently read and found myself nodding at almost every turn of the page. It is so good that it almost restores my youthful belief in the potential benefits of putting smart people around a table and letting them cogitate and argue and bullshit and grapple with tough problems. Produced by a glittering group of wonks, it contains real thoughtful insights into America's situation in Afghanistan and comes to sound, generally implementable conclusions about what the United States should do to avoid making a very bad situation even worse.
The report is well summarized in an article by Steve Clemons, one of its architects, that appears in Politico. In short, it makes the case that spending $100 billion a year to fight a war we can't win in Afghanistan is just one of several reasons that America's policies are misguided and demand immediate correction. He writes, "Though Obama is more likeable, and often more inspiring, than the fictional captain in the Melville novel, Afghanistan has now become the Moby Dick to Obama's Ahab."
The report begins by revisiting the forgotten territory of America's initial reasons to be involved in the region in the first place. It correctly notes there are only two: preventing Afghanistan from being a staging ground for further terrorist attacks against the United States, and doing what we can to reduce the threat that Pakistani weapons of mass destruction might fall into the wrong hands. It argues correctly that if we focus on these two goals, then our mission, military and diplomatic presence in the region would and should look very different.
It makes five key recommendations. The first is promoting power sharing and political inclusion in a more decentralized Afghanistan: In other words, trying to work with rather than against the historical and cultural tides in the country. Second is downsizing and ending military operations in southern Afghanistan and reducing the military presence there. Third is focusing the military's attention on Al Qaeda, which is no longer really present in Afghanistan but remains an issue in Pakistan. (Notably, the New America group suggests using the cost-savings the drawdown would produce to bolster U.S. domestic security and contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction worldwide.) Fourth is encouraging the promotion of economic development, while emphasizing that this should be an internationally rather than U.S. led effort. (Hallelujah to that.) Finally, it recommends collaborating with influential states in the region to ensure Afghanistan is not dominated by "any single power or being permanently a failed state that exports instability." The report notes that those states -- Pakistan, India, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- aren't the best of pals, but suggests correctly that there are ways to work with each or even small clusters of them to promote these outcomes that are, for the most part, in their interests.
Point five is a bit of a stretch. Point four is more or less boilerplate, though worthy of emphasizing. The reality is that Afghanistan will become a strongman dominated quasi-failed state, but that as long as our core goals in the region -- the two mentioned above -- are met, then we should be less concerned with whatever structure produces an outcome supportive of them.
Personally, I think the international community needs to be involved actively in ensuring that whatever successor state emerges, the rights of all Afghans -- and notably women and tribal minorities -- are respected and protected. It is also true that Pakistan is the real problem and appropriate subject of U.S. attention in this region, and that this requires forthrightly addressing what diplomatic and force structure is required to promote stability and contain threats within that country.
But this report is clear-eyed, direct, well-argued and in its tone even more than its substance sends a message that the only door we should head for in that country is the one with the exit sign over it. In Clemons article he notes that the United States spends seven times Afghanistan's own GDP on our involvement there -- an amount equal to the cost of the recent U.S. health care legislation, and one that if saved could pay down the U.S. deficit in 14 years. The recklessness and irresponsibility of such a costly involvement, given America's other urgent priorities and the true nature of the threats within Afghanistan, makes the blood boil.
It does no dishonor to our military to wish their lives and services were available for other missions. Reports like this raise the hope that opinion is shifting in ways that may lead us to just such a desirable outcome.
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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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The word is that the decision to hammer Bibi Netanyahu on Friday for Israel’s settlements screwup last week came directly from President Obama.
He was apparently very upset at the seeming contempt the Israelis showed for the vice president and by extension for the president himself and his administration. In addition, Obama, like many of his top aides, felt that the Israeli action was undermining U.S. standing at a critical time in American efforts to both advance the "peace process" and to weave together tough, effective international sanctions on Iran.
Here's the problem: This is one of those diplomatic flareups that may trigger fire drills in the governments and polemic fireworks from pundits but which, upon analysis, is really much less than meets the eye. It's actually a fake crisis.
First, of all, on the face of it the Israeli action seems genuinely to have been much more of a screwup than a calculated affront. And if someone was trying to undercut the U.S.-Israel relationship, it seems certain they represented a fringe group and not the Netanyahu government. Subsequent statements of defiance by Netanyahu regarding building within Jerusalem were more in response to U.S. efforts to make additional political hay out of the dustup than they were related to the initial misstep.
Second, there is no real "or else" backing up U.S. demands for a reversal, an inquiry and the offering of a meaningful olive branch to the Palestinians. Obama, with few foreign-policy accomplishments to point to thus far in his young presidency, needs the peace process at least as much if not more than Netanyahu does. Time and leverage are, for the near term at least, on Netanyahu's side ... which is one reason why the U.S. government is opportunistically trying to use this crisis as a pretext to gain concessions out of the Israelis in advance of talks with the Palestinians.
Further, the United States can't really turn its back on Israel and embrace the Palestinian side any more closely than it has because there is really no there there. And were the United States to ally itself more closely to the Palestinian position (as I believe some at high levels wish they could), the administration knows they would inevitably find the Palestinian authorities made gaffes of the magnitude of this most recent Israeli blunder on an uncomfortably frequent basis -- thanks to the fact that the Palestinian government is more defined by rifts than by meaningful accomplishments.
Finally, most importantly, the U.S. argument that the Israelis need to be seen to be more quietly cooperative with U.S. efforts or Obama won't be able to effectively stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program is undercut by the fact that the United States won't, in the end, actually stop the Iranian nuclear program. We just don't have the domestic will or the international support to do so. Just as each successive deadline for Iranian compliance with international cease and desist requirements has evaporated so too will the illusions that the U.S. can engineer anything like effective sanctions against the Iranians in an effort to penalize them for their noncompliance.
Containment is rapidly replacing engagement as the false hope on which the U.S.-Iranian relationship will be built. (Engagement was dependent on the other side wanting to engage back. Containment is dependent on the government or some other rational actor exercising effective control over all nuclear warheads. Neither precondition will, I'm afraid, prove to have been sufficiently certain to warrant betting our vital interests on it.) In any event, when the Iranians do ultimately go nuclear, the United States will want and need a strong relationship with Israel more not less.
This has created the current, almost bizarre, set of circumstances. Everyone, including the Israelis, agree Netanyahu's government made a big-league error last week. (In a way, it's a real breakthrough: finally something that everyone on all sides of the Israeli-Arab divide can agree on.) But the reaction of the United States, regardless of all the robust language and diplomatic dressing down of top Israeli officials, is indicative of weakness not of strength.
The bigger message that will be unintentionally have been delivered to the world at the end of all this is that the United States is willing to get fierce with its friend Israel over a perceived insult but that we are likely to remain ineffective in the face of self-declared Iranian enemies' efforts to destabilize the entire Middle East with nuclear weapons. This is not only a problem for the president because the outcome is so dangerous. It's also that "tough on your friends, weak with your enemies" is neither a common trait among great leaders nor is it a particularly good campaign bumper sticker.
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While Obama has undoubtedly made the biggest difference on the global stage this year, the most enduring image may be that of the tragic end of Neda. Iran could be the transcendental force in the Middle East, the country that could be the lynchpin to a new era of understanding and progress. No country in the region seems better suited to democracy or a role on the international stage. But it won't be until the voices of its people are heard.
Neda symbolized the promise of those people and revealed the Ahmadinejad regime and the ayatollahs who are the true puppet masters to be the blood-stained enemies of their own country they really are. History is not made by leaders ... as Gandhi knew ... but by the people they follow. Although she is gone, Neda bequeathed the world not only her life but an iconic image of struggle that has the power to inspire -- a power that no nuclear program, no army, no claimed relationship with the almighty can bring to thugs like Ahmadinejad and his fellow authoritarians and dictators worldwide.
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On the morning of September 11, 2001, the front page of the New York Times contained stories on school dress codes, violence between Israelis and Palestinians, the struggling U.S. economy, stem cells, nuclear smuggling, and morning television.
Which is to say history is what happens when you are looking in the other direction.
That's not to suggest that the lead story in the newspaper is never the most important story of the day. It is however to urge we approach "news" with considerable caution. What seems newsworthy (Woods-Uchitel) is (the Salahis) often (Going Rogue) just a reflection of conventional wisdom about what's important and ignores other minor factors like history or the fact that people tend to want to read about salacious crap or journalists like to write about things that are easy to caricature politically. As with food we tend to be drawn to the fast, easy or tasty without really much consideration of what we really need.
So it is with the Afghanistan story. Now, it's hard to dismiss any presidential decision that will put over 100,000 American troops at risk as being unnewsworthy. But it is undeniable that most of the coverage misses the bigger point: Afghanistan is a costly distraction for the president, the military, and reporters on the lookout for the big stories of our times. It just barely makes the list of our Top 10 Concerns in the Region and would be unlikely to make the list of our Top 20 or 25 National Concerns overall. At least that would certainly be the case had we not made the decision to put so many of our sons and daughters at risk over there.
President Obama's speech seems brilliantly conceived to mesmerize the punditsphere thanks to what will either be seen by supporters as its balance or by its detractors as its compromises. (It's the Certs approach to speech writing: it's both a breath mint and a candy mint -- both an escalation and an exit, an effort to be tough with and to support the Afghan government, to strengthen institutions but not to do "nation building", to make the war about Afghanistan and about Pakistan, to support the military and to support the critics of the war.) But what all that masks is that every minute further the president is focused on Afghanistan and every dollar further we spend there is withdrawn from some other account, some other higher priority.
Let's just take the Middle East to illustrate the point. We begin, of course, with the fact that Afghanistan is not even the biggest challenge we face in AfPak. (That would be Pak, in case you haven't had your coffee yet.)
In fact here's a handy list you can argue about around the water cooler, the biggest challenges America faces in the Middle East in terms of the broader consequences associated with the problem:
And the only reason the decline of the dollar and the fiscal burdens on the U.S. economy that will severely limit our ability to act in the region are not on the list is that they seem very domestic ... but they would rank near the top otherwise. And as I noted before they are linked to the host of other issues domestic and international which actually outrank the Middle East (hard though that may be to believe to all our friends from all those lobbies, think tanks, and government contractors out there.)
This misplaced focus is revealed especially effectively in the regional context thanks to the juxtaposition of the final stages of this "Afghan decision" (and don't delude yourself into believing this is the last such "decision" or that the new policies will go very far toward resolving the core issues associated with stabilizing that country or getting out) with the recent announcement by the Iranians to proceed with plans to build 10 nuclear enrichment facilities. Whether or not they are capable of doing this, by now it should be quite clear that Iran has adopted a stance that virtually every one of America's enemies in the world has adopted during the past year. They have challenged us to demonstrate that we will simply not confront them in any effective way.
Call it Iraq fatigue, blame it on the economic crisis at home, call it a propensity for dithering, call it a learning curve, the primary message the Obama Administration has sent to the world this year is an unintended variation on the one they intended to send: this administration really is different from that of George W. Bush. On international matters, Bush acted without thinking whereas until this week, it seemed, Obama thought without acting. Given the developments of the past few days, it seems the president has now become adept at thinking and then giving the illusion of action while actually compromising many of the benefits of decisiveness away. For example, while committing the troops must be seen as a kind of an action, it is presented as a double negative thanks to the escalation-exit strategy structure. It's what Groucho Marx might have called the "Hello, I must be going" approach.
And the Iran problem illustrates the consequences of focusing elsewhere (although it is just one such example.) Because thanks to Bush's erroneous decision to focus on Iraq and Obama's premature (last Spring) decision to move his chips to Afghanistan -- thanks to their political and economic costs -- the United States has found it ever more difficult to credibly suggest to Iran that there will be any kind of negative consequences to their move toward becoming a nuclear power. And giving the bomb to the world's largest state sponsor of terror is almost certainly a much greater threat than anything we might see in either Afghanistan or Iraq. (Admittedly, Pakistan poses a similar problem ... and for my money, Pakistan and Iran are the places we ought to be focusing the most of our energy and efforts.) In fact, I sometimes wonder who is pulling the strings for the Iranians in the U.S. government because almost every action we have taken in the past decade or so seems to have inadvertently benefitted them or at least made it harder for us to influence them.
In the end, I'm going to cling to optimism and hope that Obama's decision produces the best possible outcome, the one he and his team clearly are hoping for: a few strong blows against al Qaeda and the Taliban, some measurable stabilization and an exit. Because history is happening elsewhere and as long as we are distracted with wars like this, we raise the likelihood that it will be happening to us rather than that we will have a constructive role in shaping it.
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Secretary of State Clinton went to Russia to discuss the possibility of putting sanctions on Iran. The Russians pushed back hard and publicly. The State Department weakly responded that they hadn't come to Moscow looking for anything in the first place.
The Iranians taunt us with their open nuclear ambitions and we don't have much to credibly offer in the way of sanctions (see above) and so we find ourselves grasping at straws in terms of an international dialogue with them. We are forced to take proven liars at their word because there is no realistic Plan B.
The North Koreans do as the Iranians do. They taunt knowing there will be no meaningful retaliation, especially if they dangle the possibility of progress with negotiations even as they flaunt the spirit of those negotiations.
Our ally in Afghanistan bald-facedly steals an election because he knows he has us over a barrel, believing we need him more than he needs us and that in any event, we won't punish him for his indiscretions. Our reaction is grumbling and strong language and planning for him to remain in his misappropriated office.
On Afghan policy there is an all-in, all-out debate and it increasingly looks like the president will split the difference between both sides. David Ignatius writes in today's Washington Post:
Obama's deliberative pace is either heartening or maddening, depending on your perspective. Personally, I think he's wise to take his time on an issue in which it's so hard to know the right answer. But I worry that the White House approach will soften the edges so much that the policy itself will be fuzzy and doomed to failure.
On the Hill, again the difference is split on health care and the Baucus plan backed by the administration doesn't meaningfully address the core concerns that triggered the debate about health care reform in the first place -- issues like universal coverage or the need to substantially reduce health care spending or the need to get the books to balance.
During the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, at a lunch as the meeting drew to a close, the Chinese walked in and demanded that a paragraph in the final statement on climate change be cut. Everyone in the room was gobsmacked and stopped eating while the Chinese representative blithely consumed his lunch. One of those present asked, "Where were the Americans? Why was there no pushback? The Europeans were furious."
Peter Feaver wrote for FP an article chiding Hillary Clinton for not having taken a bold stance, making an issue her own thus far. Quite apart from the fact that I think his analysis was faulty, the reality is that the tough stances come from above, the president is the one who draws the lines in the sand. As far as decisive administration's policies are concerned, the title of her book on the subject might read, It Takes a President.
Right now, even his strongest supporters -- and I count myself among them -- are worried that much as Abe Lincoln was the great rail splitter, Barack Obama may become known as the great difference splitter. A former senior official, active on the president's campaign sat in my office just yesterday worrying aloud about whether this is just learning curve behavior or whether we are drifting toward Jimmy II. There is a place for deliberation and compromise in the quivers of wise leaders, he argued, but there is also a need to be decisive and sometimes to push to fulfill a vision or defend an ideal or an interest.
There are real merits to being the no-drama Obama of campaign fame. But in a world in which the Chinese or the Iranians or the North Koreans or Republicans or wings of the Democratic Party are inclined to push as hard as they can until they meet real resistance, it's fast coming time for the president to show he is willing to lose some friends and even some battles to defend his principles or the national interest. It can be a fist of steel in a velvet glove, resolve born of reflection, but there are a lot of supporters of Obama worry that he is a man who sending a message that there are no consequences for crossing him. On Afghanistan, on health care reconciliation, on his upcoming trip to China, on climate, there are chances looming for him to show that he knows what he wants and that he is willing to fight for it. I'm hopeful this is the moment he really will start to come into his own as president.
It was recently reported that Obama's favorite phrase is "Let me be clear." I think the response to that of his concerned supporters would be, "Please do." It's the path that is most likely to have them once again singing, "Mild thing, I think I love you."
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The one blog I read every week is Peter King's "Monday Morning Quarterback" at Sports Illustrated. King aficionados might recognize my weak (if unattributed) shout-outs to him which come in the form of not really worrying so much about the length of any post, covering a variety of subjects, and liberally blending in the pop culture references. They will also recognize that I am not in his league and that the subject about which he writes, football, is significantly more interesting than most of the subjects about which I write.
One of the things he does frequently is offer lists of rapid fire opinions which often come under the rubric of "Ten Things I Think I Think." Consider the following yet another tribute to him ... because that is a much nicer way of thinking of it than concluding I simply stole his title and format.
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I think for a lot of Americans, particularly those of a more liberal inclination, like Michael Moore or my mother, there was a kind of flickering hope earlier in the week that America might be on the verge of exiting the Middle East once and for all.
The loud tick tick tick of the withdrawal timeline has been audible throughout Iraq for months. And with the debate triggered by the McChrystal Report and the pushback calls for more troops seemed to be generating from Vice President Biden and others within the administration, it seemed we might be moving toward a decision by the President that would have us narrowing the mission in Afghanistan. This argued many ... including conservatives like George Will, for that matter ... could only reasonably lead to our withdrawal from that misbegotten place.
And they may even hoped, the United States might finally be ready to pressure the Israelis into backing down on settlements as a way of getting to serious talks about a peace agreement with the Palestinians. No Jewish settlements equals lasting peace settlement, seems to be the calculus there.
Then, reality crept back into the picture. First, it was hinted at when Obama ... at least temporarily ... backed down on pressuring the Israelis on the settlements. But then it came roaring back into focus with a vengeance thanks to the "news" of Iran's second nuclear enrichment facility. Never mind that Obama was briefed on this facility before he became president, that allied intelligence services had known about it for years and that everyone knew Iran was lying about its existence all along. There comes a moment in these things when their lying and our willingness to lie to ourselves or at least to our publics slip out of whack. And that's when the truth creeps out and spoils the party.
And so as the week draws to a close, the picture now looks somewhat different. Iran is revealed again to be a liar and immediately responds by saying "we won't back down." America, Britain, and France make statements condemning Iran, but they range from bland and process oriented (Obama) to bold but toothless (Sarkozy and Brown). Meanwhile, Angela Merkel (who my sources tell me is not one of Obama's faves in Europe to begin with) and the Russians and the Chinese can't or won't make it to the "shocked, shocked" photo op.
Russia and China are the "or" and the "else" of any international threat to Iran. Absent them, countries like the United States and our European allies can only stomp their feet or introduce sanctions that will be largely ineffective. So this problem festers on and looks very likely to get much worse before it gets better.
Meanwhile, days after the Untied States votes to triple aid to Pakistan, the Washington Post runs a story today about the growing anti-Americanism in that country and how it threatens our goals there. Given that Pakistan is where our real enemies are, this reminds us that this is the AfPak War and regardless of what we want to do in Afghanistan, we will for many years be grappling with the much, much bigger problems associated with nuclear Pakistan.
And on top of it all, the Iran revelation makes Bibi Netanyahu (see today's other post) one of the big winners of this week, proving that while Ahmadinejad lies about the Holocaust and nukes, Netanyahu has been accurately characterizing the Iranian threat. Further, it is becoming clearer and clearer to the Obama team that however difficult the Israelis may be, they are matched step for step by the Palestinians.
In short, for those of you who thought we might have been on the verge of getting the heck out of Dodge, reconsider. We can draw down troops in Iraq, but there will be 50,000 there when Obama's successor arrives in office. We can narrow the focus in Afghanistan, but there will be U.S. military dealing with threats in AfPak when Obama's successor arrives in office. We can extend the "unclenched fist" to Iran, but they will spit in it and represent a deep and lasting threat to regional security for many years, certain well past whenever Obama's successor arrives in office. And Israel and Palestine may make peace ... although that seems a long way off...but the volatility in the region will ensure that sooner or later everyone will be clear that they are not the lynchpin of the region's stability issues. (Although they are certainly an important one.)
The decisions Obama makes about Afghanistan, about dealing with a difficult ally in Pakistan, about how to forge an effective international coalition to contain Iran (which will involve coming up with credible, meaningful consequences if they fail to fall into line), and about just how to get two difficult parties to accept the peace they both need and want, will play a large role in determining whether Obama is around for another 3 or another 7 years. But it seems clear that almost regardless of which path he chooses, his successor will face many of the same problems.
A week that began with murmurs of hope among those who would like to see America disengaged from the region -- a group with which I am very sympathetic not to mention one that includes plenty of my relatives -- is distressingly ending with a slightly different tone, better characterized by the shrieks of noted foreign policy observer Mathew Broderick at the climactic moment of "The Producers." "No way out!" he cries, "No way out!"
I'm not always a pessimist. But I am right now.
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Meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the face of engagement. Even during the presidential campaign, when talk of engagement arose, Iran was the poster child. If we could only hold our noses long enough to talk with them, America would gain an advantage. Engagement would elevate enmity into something more constructive, even if that was only debate.
But of course, engagement has a downside, the power to drag us down as well as lift our relationships up. No one seems so eager to demonstrate this or test the tolerances of this new policy than Ahmadinejad. Whether it is crushing democracy in his country, actively seeking nuclear weapons, threatening to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, seeking to extend his influence to the Western Hemisphere through his alliance with Hugo Chavez, continuing to sponsor Hezbollah or, as he did again today, calling the Holocaust a lie, he has done everything possible not only to raise tension with the United States but to serve as an affront to the most basic values and interests of the international community at large.
As a consequence of his actions, Ahmadinejad actually has claimed a new title for himself: co-author of America's policy of engagement. Once, many years ago, thoughtful security analyst Ed Luttwak said to me, "the dirtiest fighter sets the rules of a conflict." The same holds true for a policy like engagement ... especially during its early, developmental days. Obama may be the driving force behind it, but the individual or country with whom we continue to engage who offers the most extreme threats to our interests or our values will be the one who defines the limits of the policy.
If we can engage with a man like Ahmadinejad and make progress, then the power of a very tolerant form of engagement will be proven. If we let him prove that engagement is blind to all behaviors and over time that it has no influence over those behaviors, then he will undercut the theory ... or at the very least not only define the extent of what is acceptable to us but also define the limits of where engagement ought to be applied or be effective.
It was inevitable that someone play this role. In retrospect, it was also probably inevitable that it would be the Iranian president.
What was not so predictable was the courage of the Iranian people who once again, at great personal risk, gathered again in the streets today to shout "death to the tyrant" and to call for the end to Ahmadinejad's stolen presidency. It adds a complication as it poses the question: Does engaging with the regime undercut the movement to oust it or would we help them more by actively seeking ways to isolate Ahmadinejad and deny him the legitimacy of a place in the international community.
While the Russias and Venezuelas of this world might support him, we might well be able to put together a pretty strong coalition of actors who would not. Clearly, by any reasonable standards, a man like Ahmadinejad has no place at a UN General Assembly meeting. Through his undermining of democracy or his support of terror he is probably a criminal in terms of the letter of the law of most legal systems. Through his pursuit of his country's nuclear weapons program, his denials of his true intention and his history of lying he is flaunting international law. Through his denial of the Holocaust, he offends the very spirit that led to the creation of the United Nations in the first place. Finally, if there are no penalties, there are no disincentives to bad behavior.
The point is that for engagement to be effective -- and I still believe it can be -- we must reclaim the initiative to ensure that in the long run it is us, and not guys like Ahmadinejad, who must be the ones defining its limits and the consequences for exceeding them. (In a hint that they understand this point, UN Ambassador Susan Rice indicated that Obama did not expect to meet with Ahmadinejad in New York next week.)
We owe it to ourselves and also to those who share our interests ... at least some of them ... like the courageous people in the streets of Tehran.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
One message that seems to have been sent by the Obama administration thus far: If you challenge us, we will reward you. If you abuse us, we will reward you a lot. But don't think we're going soft. Beware: If you are a friend or a needed ally, we will punish you. (Or is that three messages?)
It is of course, my hope that this is all inadvertent or better yet, part of some grand plan that can't be understood without the proper security clearances. Or maybe it is just "learning curve behavior." But in any case, the facts to date are unsettling.
Russia undercuts our efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear program. Our response: dismantle the missile shield we had contemplated for Eastern Europe.
Hamid Karzai diddles the elections, abuses his people, and is openly corrupt. Our response: let's discuss how many more troops we want to send in to Afghanistan to help strengthen his power base and while we're at it, let's spend billions on doing work building his nation.
Pakistan limits our ability to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda within their borders, limits our ability to gain credit for aid flows to the country while promoting the interests of radical muslim donors and we open the spigots wider.
North Korea pushes forward with weapons programs and rattles its saber regularly and we seek new channels to discuss ways we can deepen our relationship after each calculated taunt.
Myanmar extends the prison term of Aung San Suu Kyi on trumped up charges and we send a high level emissary.
Iran crushes legitimate opposition, the regime steals and election, it lies for decades about its nuclear program, it strengthens its military capability and calls for destruction of Israel and we announce further talks despite their insistence none of the issues most important for us to discuss are open to discussion. Push us harder through arms collaboration with Russia and we remove the threat of that missile defense.
Meanwhile, our one dependable ally in the Middle East, Israel, faces an unprecedented squeeze, our most dependable ally on Venezuela's border, Colombia, can't get even a modest trade deal finalized, the Poles and the Czechs get the rug pulled out from under them, and so on. We need China more than ever to help with Iran after Russia has gone on the record as seeking a divergent outcome ... not to mention needing movement from them on issues like climate and global economic cooperation ... and what do we do? Slap them with unnecessary, hard-to-defend duties on imported tires.
It's the same here at home. No one fears crossing the Obama administration because the two most likely outcomes are either no retaliation or rewards. (Ask Senator Grassley, who gets concessions by the boatload but still refuses to play along, to name just one.)
I'm just sayin'...
Engagement is a worthy goal. The missile shield was probably of dubious value at best (especially when we started to define it in terms of our own sham cover story that it was all about Iran and not about the real longer term threat, Russia). Defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda and seeking greater stability in Pakistan or Afghanistan ... or Israel and neighboring regions. Indeed, I am a pretty enthusiastic supporter of what I understand the outlines and objectives of the Obama administration's foreign policy to be.
But after a while, independent or uncoordinated actions become patterns and patterns send messages. Are we so isolated from Russia today that we have pushed from memory Pavlov and all that smart stuff he and his dog taught us about conditioned response? Even if that's the case, I thought this team was close to Oprah. Couldn't she or her house shrink Dr. Phil point out what happens when abusive behavior is rewarded?
I know it's still early in the administration. And I remain resolutely hopeful. But as a general rule, I take it as a warning sign when Dr. Phil is in any position to offer useful insights regarding U.S. foreign policy. Worse still, we know what happens to people who fail to heed his advice. They end up on the Maury show. That's no place for a U.S. foreign policy ... all toothless and disoriented, throwing chairs and being accused of fathering outcomes we don't want any part of.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
With the statement of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserting that his country would not support sanctions against Iran and his dismissal of U.S. calls for a negotiating timetable with that country, several important questions are raised. They are:
First, how do you like your Iranian nukes? Fried or over-easy?
In other words, without sanctions Iran's program progresses. That leaves two choices: Israel steps up and takes military action to set back the program or second, we simply roll-over and get used to the world's largest state-sponsor of terror producing the nuclear weapons the U.S. intel community now believes they are capable of making.
My sense is that the risk of Israeli military moves just went up dramatically ... and it was pretty high to begin with. But they will only set back the Iranian program briefly if they do intervene and the resulting turmoil on the international scene is likely to produce plenty of blowback for an Israel that is already more isolated than it has been in forty years.
But on the question at hand, let's be absolutely clear: Russia has just essentially unilaterally given the green light to Tehran to join the nuclear weapons club. Russia can block action in the Security Council and no effort to, for example, halt oil and gas flows to Iran could work without Russian cooperation. The last chance of stopping the Iranians over the long-term has probably therefore been undercut. As disturbingly, the Russian message is clearly that this is something they actually support. Otherwise, they could have kept their own counsel while negotiations continued. They didn't have to tip their hand now unless they wanted to scuttle the entire negotiation process. They are saying they believe their approach is the one most likely to work with Tehran. Tehran may even find ways to pretend it is working. But without any effective international levers against the Iranians, they have been given the go-ahead to pursue whatever agenda they choose.
Second, in a related vein, what was Bibi doing in Moscow?
If he was there, as current speculation suggests, to press the Russians to stop shipments of S300 missiles to Iran, that didn't turn out so well, with Russia standing by its right to engage in arms sales with the Iranians...and then adding a threat of severe consequences if Israel or another state used military measures to stop the Iranian nuclear program. At this point, with the Russians providing so much diplomatic, political and military cover for the Iranian efforts, it is almost tempting to start referring to Tehran's initiative as a joint Russian-Iranian nuclear program.
Third, will it be NPT 2.0, NPT 1.1 or N2PT?
Once it is recognized that Iran's entrance into the nuclear club proves (yet again) the impotence of the non-proliferation treaty do we go for an entirely new agreement, a variation on what we have now or just accept that what we have is really the N2PT, which is to say the non-nonproliferation treaty (this is one case where a double negative definitely does not equal a positive.) A completely new deal is, in reality, a non-starter because it would be impossible to get agreement from many nations to opt in. The U.S. view is to renovate the sagging framework of the existing agreement with a much more robust international mechanism for dealing with the creation and disposal of nuclear fuel. But the real question is whether or not there will ever be an enforcement mechanism strong enough to enable multilateral inspections and to ensure multilateral action in the face of proven violations. Actually, Russia has gone quite a long way toward answering that ... which in turn raises another question: Just what is the best way to safely dispose of spent nuclear agreements?
Finally, just how much does Russia have to do before they go from being a contentious partner to actually once again being an enemy?
Ok, this is rhetorical. Given that this week Russia became the world's largest petroleum exporter, we're not going to be outright enemies with them. After all, we've long proven that if you give us a nice meal and pump enough oil into us, we're easy ... or at least flexible. Still, after a rough visit to Moscow by Obama, differences on missile defense, Russia's calls for a new global currency, Russian efforts to place itself at the center of every emerging global alliance to counterbalance the United States, provocative weapons deals with among others Tehran and Caracas, possible missile shipments on board ships that disappear and reappear, aggression in the near-abroad and torpedoing our efforts to stop Iran short of gaining nuclear weapons, you've got to start wondering when we're going to get the message. They'll take whatever we have to give but their agenda diverges from ours on a wide array of critical issues and on some, they conflict with us directly and, one might almost say, exultantly.
Oh, we'll try to put a good face on it. But note: they have given us every incentive to start working hard on our new BIC strategy ... which is to say trying to isolate Russia among the leaders of the emerging world by forging stronger ties with China, India and Brazil (among others). This in turn raises the final question in this litany: which is how much do you think we can get on eBay for one virtually new, unused reset button? Perhaps there is a museum somewhere that would like to put it in a display alongside Neville Chamberlain's umbrella.
Kudos to Secretary Clinton who, having returned to the spotlight with a vengeance (she is finally getting an hour on "Meet the Press" this Sunday all to herself), has also restored some life to the war of words between the United States and North Korea. After all, if one is going to have a war of words, by all means use sharp, colorful words and, if possible, demeaning imagery. Muss up the other guy's hair (although admittedly when dealing with Kim Jong Il that's almost impossible to do). Make him feel small (which, in contrast, is fairly easy to do with Kim). Make it interesting to read about in the press. Avoid the constant quest for convoluted blandness that makes U.N. broadsides at North Korea so much more effective than serotonin as a sleep aid.
America's feisty secretary of state launched the current battle when she suggested that her experience as a mother had prepared her to deal with the likes of the North Koreans, recommending that they be ignored like "small children or unruly teenagers." While you've got to wonder how Chelsea felt, being compared to the deranged nuke-wielding ruler of a nation of zombie-slaves, her comments obviously struck a nerve with the Dear Leader.
No doubt drawing on his extensive training in rhetoric and stand-up comedy at the University of Malta (training ground for all of Malta's best comics), Kim fired back with the tell-tale wit that once had him referred to as "the anti-factionalist Oscar Wilde of Baekdu Mountain" until someone discovered who Oscar Wilde was and the guy who invented the nickname was dropped out of a Russian helicopter into the Amnok River. (Wilde, meanwhile, might have called North Korean official efforts at humor "the unspeakable in pursuit of the unattainable.")
The North Korean riposte to Clinton's barb was "We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community. Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping." This is certainly one of the best nasty communiqués in recent history and may, quite possibly be the apotheosis of North Korean literature. The "funny lady" insult shows boldness and a real understanding of what ultimately ruined Barbra Streisand's career. (Funny Girl good, Funny Lady not so much.) But the "primary schoolgirl"--"pensioner going shopping" thing was so evocative. Yikes. "Primary schoolgirl" is practically a compliment (at least it probably is in the mind of yet another Clinton) but "pensioner going shopping?!" It's so catty that Kim Jong Il should immediately be made the star of "The Real Housewives of Pyongyang" or at least be forced to add the full archive of past episodes of "The View" to his extensive video collection.
From what deep void within does such vitriol flow? Well, it is hinted at in the only major movie to effectively depict the real Kim Jong Il, a movie so accurate when it comes to his character that it would easily have won the Academy Award for Best Documentary were it not for the fact that all the major characters in the movie were, in fact, played by puppets. That movie, now shown as a training film at the East Asian Bureau in the State Department, is of course, Team America: World Police. In it, this is how Kim unburdens himself, describing the emptiness that ultimately had him lashing out at Hillary as though he were Maureen Dowd back in the days when the mere mention of a Clinton would have her howling at the moon.
I'm so Ronery / So ronery / So ronery and sadry arone / There's no one / Just me onry / Sitting on my rittle throne / I work rearry hard and make up get prans / but, nobody listens, no one understands / Seems rike no one takes me serirousry / And so, I'm ronery / A rittle ronery / Poor rittle me / There's no one I can rerate to / Feewr rike a biwd in a cage / It's kinda siwry / but, not reawry / because, it's fiwring my body with rage / I'm the smartest, most crever, most physicawry fit / but, nobody erse seems to rearrize it / When I can the worrd maybe they'rr notice me / And untiwr then, I'wr be ronery / Yeaaaaah, a rittle ronery / Poor rittle me...
And then, of course, at a different point in a movie full of high points, he reveals the source of his frustration, in words that speak to everyone, especially most of the bloggers I know...
Kim Jong Ill:
Why is everyone so fucking stupid? Why can't more people be interrigent, like me?
INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images
Today Hillary Clinton made a statement in Thailand that the United States would work to create a defensive shield to help protect Gulf allies from a potential Iranian nuclear threat. Her point is that Iran should not think creating nukes will give them a strategic advantage because we will work relentlessly to blunt any edge nukes might provide.
Seems reasonable enough. Not surprisingly though, Clinton's comments landed in Jerusalem like a dud scud. According to Agence France Presse, Israel's Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor responded:
I heard without enthusiasm the American declarations according to which the United States will defend their allies in the event that Iran uses nuclear weapons, as if they were already resigned to such a possibility. This is a mistake. We cannot act now by assuming that Iran will be able to arm itself with a nuclear weapon, but to prevent such a possibility."
I also agree with this view. That's what I like about the Middle East. It's rife with complexities and no issue has fewer than three sides. What I don't like much about the Middle East is when it becomes, as it often does, that magical fantasy land where passions can be applied to fantasies to produce facts ... or where the insupportable is often the unshakable foundation of absolute certitude. (Which explains a number of religious developments in the region ... but I will gingerly sidestep that discussion for now.)
My recent post on shifting attitudes in Israel and the United States regarding the relationship between the two countries produced among those commenting on it a host of really interesting comments from all over the spectrum ... and some of the nasty/loony stuff we could all do without.
Of course, item number one in this latter category is racism or prejudice of any sort against any group. Examples of this were visible in a number of the comments, sometimes boldly, sometimes insidiously. The big winner in the makes-ya-wanna-barf contest came from a guy named "briand" who, in reference to a rather overheated pro-Israeli post by AllanGreen, wrote, "If this is parody, kudos! I think the thing I'll miss the most about you Jews is your sense of humor. Not so much the apartheid/lebensraum mentality though." Scroll on through the comments ... there's lots of hatred there, in and among some fairly thoughtful arguments for one side or another.
Another commenting technique that drives me up a wall is imputing views to me (for whatever reason) that I don't actually hold. For example: I'm no fan of the settlements, think they ought to be dismantled, am not a Zionist, don't support the views of the Likud, and based on his track record to date am no Bibi fan. I also don't think that taking a tough stand against the Iranian nuclear program implies the need to attack and lay waste to Iran. Rather, we need an international program of inspections and enforcement that explicitly asserts the right to use force to compel compliance and offers a multilateral guarantee of providing that force. (Not just in the case of Iran, by the way, but in the case of all future signatories of the new NPT we will start negotiating next year ... an NPT that should offer the framework within which the deal with Iran ought to be included.)
Another aggravating approach which often undercuts otherwise reasonable arguments is making insupportable assertions. For example, one reader argued that Israel had Iran and Ahmadinejad all wrong, that the Iranian president's comments about destroying Israel were really a deliberate, unfair misquoting of him and that by extension; Israel had nothing to fear from Tehran. Really? Aren't we forgetting 30 years of official pronouncements or the guy who chants "death to Israel" at afternoon prayers? I think it was the same reader who argued another reason to chill out about any potential Iranian threat was that Iran has not attacked anyone in 250 years. This overlooked, as another reader pointed out, the fact that the country has for decades been the world's leading state sponsor of terror...which ought to count for something.
In this vein, one of the most popular insupportable assertions is that somehow solving the settlements problem or even the larger Israel-Palestinian problem will in turn solve or contribute greatly to solutions for all our other problems in the Middle East -- this despite the fact that many of the biggest problems in the region antedate the founding of Israel by a number of centuries.
In the interest of dispelling this misconception, here, off the top of my head, are 15 major problems in the Middle East that would not be solved by solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute:
This doesn't include related issues like the tensions between extremist or tribal Islamic groups with roots in the region and Russia, China, and other bordering countries. Perhaps you have others, feel free to add. (Just try to restrain yourself if you feel the impulse to make a comment that uses as its primary source The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)
Dismantle the settlements. Create two states. Create an internationally monitored buffer between those states. Let billions in aid flow in to help relieve the plight of the Palestinians. Please, do all these things. They are all long overdue. But know this: They may remove an irritant, they may remove an argument from extremists, they may put U.S. relations on a more even footing with other countries in the region. But they won't make the Middle East appreciably less dangerous or difficult and I guarantee you, they won't stop efforts by the countries of the region to continue to scapegoat, confront and battle Israel on countless other pretexts.
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Millions of you turn to this blog site every day because you feel I will offer you insights that will help you make sense of the world. I know this. It's a humbling responsibility. And frankly, the enormity of it forces me to offer a confession. Today I reviewed the morning papers as I usually do (online, sans paper) and watched the early broadcasts of TV news organizations and I have got to admit it, I find everything pretty confusing.
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At the very least, Iran's election results are under a cloud. But evidence certainly seems to be mounting that there was considerable intimidation, systematic efforts to quash the ability of the opposition campaign to spread its message in the days prior to the election, and likely voter fraud. Further, President Ahmadinejad certainly didn't do anything to help his already shredded credibility with his nonsensical Sunday news conference in which among other things he asserted Iranians weren't divided by the election while violent clashes took place in the streets.
These circumstances raise an important question. Given the apparent disregard for the rights of its own citizens exhibited by the Iranian regime, will the Obama administration rethink its stance vis á vis the Iranians?
The prevailing U.S. view, articulated by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry last week, is that the Iranians have a "right" to uranium enrichment. Will we continue to honor such a supposed right now? The hopes of many reasonable Americans has long been that it would be possible to establish a dialogue with Iran given the country's diversity of opinions and its cosmopolitan traditions. But when democracy is seemingly crushed or at the very least undermined, the government defines itself by the degree to which it does not reflect the views of its citizens. Since governments rather than general populations control nuclear programs, shouldn't the recent events give us reason to reconsider our recent drift toward acceptance of Iran's nuclear aspirations?
That's a rhetorical question. Of course it should. We should not acknowledge international "rights" of countries that deny fundamental rights to their people. I would think that would be at the core of any Obama foreign policy (in fact, it seems to be with regard to Cuba, for example). Nor, as a practical matter, should the U.S. base critical proliferation decisions on the promises of countries that so callously break their fundamental promises to their citizens and then lie about it to the world. In fact, how about amending the Non-Proliferation Treaty to limit the right to the pursuit of peaceful nuclear programs only to democracies?
This election should lead us to meet with our allies and reconsider our approach to the Iranian nuclear question -- especially because through a major multilateral rebuff of the regime we might further weaken them in their own country, a place where the opposition seems so vital and poised to make such a promising change.
Photo: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
I'm one of those guys that the conspiracy theorists love to hate.
I not only believe that we need stronger global governance mechanisms, I believe that the reinvention of our global governance system is one of the great shared missions of the world for the century ahead. Whether it is strengthening institutions that regulate trade or climate, finance or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or whether it is creating multilateral enforcement mechanisms with real teeth, the international system of nation states and very weak multilateral mechanisms we currently have is showing its age and is simply not up to satisfying the obligations of the social contract in the global era. In the eyes of the conspiracy maniacs ... weakened by too much time staring at anti-Bilderberg, anti-Davos, anti-World Jewish Conspiracy Web sites ... this makes me a world government guy and a threat to the natural order. (Which apparently is manifested in a libertarian fantasy land of white guys living in shacks and RVs far from the influence of any cultural tradition but their own. The notion of one nation under Toby Keith seems a little dubious to me, but then again, most of these guys think people like me would best serve as hood ornaments.)
Having said that, watching the UN continue its kabuki theater concerning North Korea makes me want to shut the place down, convert it to condos and remit the funds to the former member states. Even in a down New York real estate market it is almost certain to be a better return on investment for the dollars poured into that white elephant on the East River than "outcomes" like the proposed sanctions on Pyongyang. This is particularly tragic since containing and ultimately eliminating the threats posed by states like North Korea and other proliferators seems to me a vital role for the UN or at least for some international mechanism. But you can't stand up to the bad guy without a spine and the UN has been an invertebrate by design since it first crawled out of San Francisco Bay in April 1945. No one wanted anything like a strong world governance structure back then and so they built a talking shop that makes most freshman philosophy seminars look like decisive drivers of global change. Basically the organization was designed along the lines of the conflict resolution sessions my daughters' elementary school used to use when students got into a fight. The combatants would be sat down in a room, asked to explain the problem, and then told to apologize and make up or else. Of course the "or else" was the equivalent of the great parental technique of counting to three, you didn't know what might happen once you got to the point of no return but you were sure it was bad.
To my eldest daughter's credit at one point she got into a fight with a budding bitchlet from the grade ahead of her and when asked to say they were friends, she refused. She sensed that there would be no repercussions. Who knew that my adorable little cupcake and Kim Jong-Il would have that much in common.
He must be sitting there with his 26 year-old son, Kim Jong-Un, his recently anointed successor, in their badly paneled rumpus room full of tapes of old American movies playing their favorite video game (Grand Theft Plutonium) and cackling at the wimps on Manhattan Upper East Side. Seriously, I can hardly understand how in a city in which every cab driver is prepared to get all up in your grille about the most casual comment, these UN folks can manage to negotiate the basics of daily life. It takes more gumption than they have ever displayed to get a waiter to bring you a menu at most Manhattan coffee shops. (I've seen "Gossip Girl." I know how that part of town works. Blair Waldorf would have Ban Ki Moon braiding her hair and carrying her books to school within seconds of their first meeting.)
In essence, the new tough stand of the UN, orchestrated by the United States, has two parts. In the first, we essentially reiterate what we've said in the past about interdicting shipments of weapons materials. But this time, folks, we say it with feeling. There is no commitment by anyone to actually stop or inspect North Korean ships and there is no UN mechanism obligating or even sanctioning the use of force. We also plan to cut off financing options for the starving country ... except those that pertain to humanitarian or development needs. Of course, money is fungible and the government has shown a real willingness to spend on arms in the past while letting its people eat grass, so why we think this tactic won't just produce more humanitarian and development needs ... which in turn will be met ... is beyond me.
In all the articles on these developments, the usual suspects at think tanks and in the diplomatic community say all this matters because this time the Russians and the Chinese are really pissed off. Yes, maybe. But apparently not pissed off enough to actually collaborate in the production of anything that might actually change North Korean behavior. (Their approach, written on the package every North Korean bomb comes seems to have been lifted from a shampoo bottle: Threaten...negotiate/buy time for program development...win aid packages...repeat as necessary.) How was it all described by that UN expert from Stratford-on-Avon? "A lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (They didn't call it the Globe Theater for nothing.)
Oh yeah, by the way, I'm still in India. I'm writing this while periodically looking up to watch the small fishing boats come into the Back Bay from the Arabian Sea. Great people, great meetings, great food and yes, if you must ask, I do keep my mouth closed in the shower to avoid becoming the host to any local bacteria (with whom I have had bad experiences in the past.)
Also, for the record, on the broader point of this blog, despite my being a very big fan of this wonderful country and a big supporter of it having a much bigger role on the international stage and in America's foreign policy priorities, I don't like the nuke deal we cut with them either. I've said it before and I will say it again, the world's complacency on proliferation will produce one or more of the great tragedies of the century ahead. (As in the North Korea case, the international community has developed and seems to be sticking to a three-speed plan on proliferation these days: cooperate with proliferators, cut them a lot slack or cut them a little slack. Just in case you wanted to know what was responsible for that ticking sound you hear...)
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
By David Rothkopf
On Monday, North Korea's rogue regime detonated a nuclear weapon that they asserted packed the punch of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Immediately afterward the United Nations Security Council leapt into action, convening to determine whether or not the world should either a.) Send the country to bed without its supper or b.) Give it a time out. Analysts consider this a major escalation in UN efforts to get North Korea to quit its nukes. Earlier this year, for example, following North Korea's test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Security Council only just dared to assert that they were "disappointed" in Kim Jong Il, following up the statement with a long withering glance in the direction of the Korean Peninsula.
While it must be acknowledged that due to North Korea's history of famine, isolation, and decades of suffering that even these stern measures from the Security Council are unlikely to be very effective, they themselves represent a major step forward from other recent responses by the international community to the threat posed by the rapid proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. (Based on the tough tactics involved, not unlike those involved in disciplining an unruly child, reality television watchers have come to the conclusion that the UN's non-proliferation efforts are now being overseen by none other than Jo Frost, better known as television's Super Nanny. Although others speculate that given the UN's purposeful but comparatively gentle approach, their approach owes more to certain prominent animal discipline experts than to Nanny Frost. This in turn has led to calling the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon "the Nuke Whisperer.")
Still, the world is getting tougher. For example, prior to this new steely-spined initiative from the UN, the response of the world's leading powers to proliferation threats have been even less confrontational -- hard as that may be to imagine. Pakistan's development of nuclear capabilities was, in fact, followed by the embrace of the United States, more Chinese missile technology, and billions in international aid. India got its own special nuclear deal from the United States and the response to Iran's nuclear aspirations has been a global effort to make their efforts as stress-free as possible. Most recently, this has meant responding to every belligerent Iranian step with new efforts to give them more time for the developing their weapons (while cautioning Israel not to bother them.) Indeed, the primary United States response to recent, escalating Iranian threats has actually been to seek a thaw in the relationship.
In fact, a cynical observer (or anyone with a brain) might conclude that nothing enhances a country's international standing like the acquisition or threatened acquisition of nuclear weapons. At least, that is, until the stirring actions of the past day at the UN. In fact, U.S. UN Ambassador Susan Rice and her colleagues at the Security Council have vowed to follow up their expressions of disappointment on Monday with the drafting a new resolution to replace the one violated by North Korea Monday. (Silly me. When I was a boy, I thought you needed a deeply buried concreted bunker lined with lead to protect against a nuclear attack. Who knew press releases were enough?)
President Obama himself stepped to the microphones Monday to lend the force of his words to the onslaught of wind being directed at North Korea. This was particularly timely given that only two weeks ago, the U.S. special envoy for disarmament talks with North Korea was quoted as saying "everyone is feeling relatively relaxed about where we are at this point in the process." Obama condemned North Korea's actions, saying that they were not the way for the country to achieve either "security or respect." (Sounds like Jo Frost wrote his remarks, too.)
Even as North Korea was dominating the headlines Monday, the Associated Press reported that a secret Israeli analysis asserts that Iran is being supplied with uranium for its nuclear program by Venezuela and Bolivia. While it might be supposed that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales are cannily trying to ride Iran's coat-tails to international political relevance, this story does suggest that perhaps...just maybe...the current outbreak of indignation among the world's great powers might have to be prelude to something all of them have been reluctant to consider thus far: meaningful action.
If the Israeli report is substantiated, can the United States continue to trade with Venezuela and Bolivia? Can we let their companies have access to our markets? Shouldn't they be penalized in a meaningful way...in fact, in every way that the Iranians or other proliferators are...or ought to be?
Rueful joking aside... and truly, nothing is less funny than this failure of the international community to confront and contain the greatest threat the world faces...when you look at what is happening in North Korea, Pakistan, Iran and the other countries involved in the rapid expansion of the world's trade in nuclear technologies, components and fuel, it may just be that the single greatest test the Obama administration faces is finding a successor policy to the current and recent posture on WMD proliferation...which can only be described as supine. Thus far, all that has been produced is a thin gruel of empty words. But gradually and unmistakably, the president is being tested...prodded...poked at...by enemies who would like to see what it will take to provoke action and whether the United States can manage to lead other countries in a unified effort or whether multilateralism under Obama will continue to be a euphemism for impotent posturing.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
The New York Times's Roger Cohen and his soul mate Steve Walt have both written recently about U.S. policy toward Iran, embracing a new direction that Walt characterizes as realism. Hailing President Obama's recent speech to the Iranian people as framing this approach, Cohen described what Obama did:
He abandoned regime change as an American goal. He shelved the so-called military option. He buried a carrot-and-sticks approach viewed with contempt by Iranians as fit only for donkeys. And he placed Iran's nuclear program within "the full range of issues before us."
Walt has a post up called "a realistic approach to Iran's nuclear program." In it he makes his case that we should focus on getting Iran to stop short of developing nuclear weapons, offering the example of Japan which is nuclear weapons capable as being one that should be good for the Iranians and good for us. Via this approach we would allow Iran to build a nuclear infrastructure but leave it poised just perhaps months way from enriching uranium and making weapons. This approach makes perfect sense unless: a.) We think Iran might at some point want to take it further, b.) We think Iran might prepare to do so quickly and secretly, c.) We had a really bad track record of identifying such shifts in capability as they happened, d.) Iran was the world's leading state sponsor of terror and thus posed a unique risk regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons technologies or related materials should they get them, and e.) Iran had expressed the desire to eliminate an enemy state in its neighborhood.
The problem of course, is that all these things are true.
Further, Cohen and Walt's initial "realist" position is that we can best achieve our goals by taking "the threat of military force and regime change off the table." Since when is it realistic by beginning a negotiation with a potentially dangerous adversary by us unilaterally giving up one of the options we may later need? The fundamentally unrealistic nature of this position is revealed later when Walt...after making an argument that our approach should essentially be all carrots and no sticks...observes that we need to let Iran know that if they did have nuclear weapons and a terrorist group used such a weapon we might suspect they were of Iranian origin and retaliate. Seems to me that's the stick he and Cohen both think should not be discussed. As to C & W's apparently preferred notion of going into a negotiation with all carrots and no sticks that's not realism, that is dewy-eyed romanticism that relies on the fundamental goodness of our negotiating partner. Which happens to be the world's leading state-sponsor of terror, run by extremists whose world view includes elimination of the region's only democracy, enmity with the United States, and throwing Holocaust-denial parties.
One important measure of the quality of any policy is what happens if it goes wrong? What happens when, as is often the case, that which we can't control goes in a way we don't want or expect it to? In this case of course, the primary casualty of such an error in judgment is likely to be Israel. It is one of the countries with the most to lose from a nuclear Iran and one can't help but think that Walt and Cohen are being a little cavalier about its future. Or is it that they actually so seek the weakening of U.S. support for Israel (Cohen salutes it as an inevitable and positive consequence of this policy) that they'll take short term gains on that front even if the long-term risks to U.S. interests and the region as a whole are much greater. Because, of course, Israel is not the only one threatened by a nuclear Iran, the Saudis and others would be too which is why many regional experts, including Amir Taheri writing in today's Wall Street Journal, fear that the most worrisome negative consequence of even a nuclear capable Iran would be a rush among other powers in the region to achieve the same or greater capacity thus taking the most dangerous region in the world and making it dramatically more dangerous.
I personally think Obama's overture was a good one and that we need to open up a dialogue with Iran. I think negotiation is possible and that there is a sufficient moderate population in Iran that will such initiatives offer some promise. I also, for the record, do not advocate blind support for Israel and think they too would benefit from an easing of tensions between the United States and Iran. I just think that we are more likely to have a constructive argument if all sides know what is unacceptable -- which includes an Iran with real or virtual nuclear capability and a nuclear arms race in the region -- and that we would use all available means to prevent either. Imagine if Kissinger had tried détente while also calling off deterrence with the Soviets. Would be he be the hero of realists he is today? And while we're at it, let's ask which of the two policies was more important ultimately to ending the Soviet threat? (You can say both were important...but the sine qua non of our Cold War success was deterrence.) Dennis Ross is right. More carrots, by all means, but don't prematurely (and naively) set aside the sticks.
VAHIDREZA ALAI/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.