Monday, June 27, 2011

Israeli Hardliners Debate Strategy

If the distance from right to left in Israeli politics is a mile, then the hardliners currently holding the media spotlight for uncommon public remarks on Israeli strategy are close enough to touch each other. And yet, they are putting some critical issues--war against Iran, return to 1967 borders--on the table as now "politically corrrect" topics for discussion. Now, where are the liberals?

Former Mossad Chief Dagan continues to speak out publicly about key issues regarding Israeli national security, evidently believing that the free marketplace of ideas is the place to debate fundamental issues of national security. Given the record of national strategic decision-making in Israels smoke-filled rooms (e.g., the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that provoked the rise of Hezbollah, the 2006 invasion of Lebanon that gave Hezbollah a helping hand toward domination of the Lebanese government, the 2006 coup against a democratizing Hamas that drove it back into radical opposition), he has a point.

Former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, another hardliner, evidently prefers the smoke-filled rooms, noting recently:

I do not think one should voice a strong opinion on whether an attack on Iran is required now, or other options. There are arguments in both directions, obviously there are disagreements, but what is important is keeping them inside the room and not outside it.

Another hardliner, ex-IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, was quoted recently as observing cryptically:

Israel knows how to develop technological solutions and answers to threats and needs now to initiate diplomatic steps to its benefit.

While avoiding Dagans bluntness, he seems to have been suggesting a similar message the warmongering attitude of Netanyahu is unnecessary because Israel already has technological solutions (Stuxnet?) and could, if it would make the effort, develop diplomatic steps as well.

Given Israels propensity for unilateral and egregious violence, perhaps it should start its diplomatic steps in a modest way, e.g., by talking with the ominous writers and peace advocates and members of various European parliaments on the latest Gaza Flotilla instead of attacking them. That accomplished, Israel could listen to Turkish FM Davutoglus ideas about good neighborliness. Who knows where the new policy might lead! A creative regime in Tel Aviv might even figure out a logical, positive-sum approach to the upcoming U.N. debate about Palestinian statehood. {OK, OK! I am just musing theoretically here; I have absolutely no expectation whatsoever that Tel Aviv will actually break that far out of the box.}

With hardliners criticizing each other and key strategic assumptions in public, one wonders when we may hear an authoritative perspective from those not wedded to violence for the preservation of Israel. Such Israeli intellectuals are numerous and profound; it is Israels misfortune that none seems able to snatch the media spotlight from the hardliners who are now arguing about the amount and timing of violence in defense of Israeli superiority rather than focusing on fundamental questions such as how to move past violence to long-term safety and how to protect imperiled Israeli democracy.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Abetting Israeli Violence Harms U.S. and Israeli National Security

By excusing, if not encouraging, Israeli shooting of protesters in other countries and in international waters, Washington is undermining the rule of international law and thus harming US national security. It is also violating its solemn duty to protect the lives of US citizens. And by equating support for the most irresponsible and criminal policies of violence-prone Israeli politicians, Washington is making the US-Israeli alliance harmful to US national security.

From the perspective of US national security, Washington's support for extreme right-wing Israeli politicians who want to use violence against peace activists, even in international waters, is dangerously self-defeating. The US needs the international rule of law but, regarding Israel, is promoting piracy - there is no other word for military attacks on vessels in international waters.

U.N. Condemns Israeli Blockade of Gaza
Riyad Mansour, permanent observer of Palestine to the UN, said the flotilla "is necessitated by the blockade that Israel has imposed since Hamas took over the area in 2007," calling Israel's blockade "immoral" and "illegal." [Xinhua, 6/24/11.]

US official reaction to Israel's murder of Syrian protesters along the Golan border was another troubling example of Washington irresponsibly making exceptions for Israel, allowing it to get away with criminal behavior. Shooting unarmed demonstrators across international borders, like attacking ships in international waters, is criminal behavior that sets precedents that are sure one day to harm US interests.

Israel Attacks Freedom of the Press
Israel on Sunday threatened to ban international journalists for up to a decade if they join a flotilla planning to breach the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip....
The Foreign Press Association, which represents hundreds of journalists working for international news organizations in Israel and the Palestinian territories, condemned the Israeli decision and urged the government to cancel the order. [Forbes, 6/26/11.]

Washington's attitude toward the current flotilla, essentially encouraging Israel to attack and even murder US citizens, is despicable beyond belief, but it is also self-defeating. In a Mideast already plagued with violence that results in repeated harm to Israelis, why would Washington or a patriotic Israeli politician want to encourage further breakdown in the rule of international law? With Israel shooting demonstrators across international boundaries, violating international borders with its fighter/bomber jets, and attacking peaceful ships in international waters, Israel has lost all right to complain about violence used against it by its adversaries.

Author Alice Walker to Join Flotilla
If the Israeli military attacks us, it will be as if they attacked the mailman. This should go down hilariously in the annals of history. But if they insist on attacking us, wounding us, even murdering us, as they did some of the activists in the last flotilla, Freedom Flotilla I, what is to be done? [Alice Walker to CNN, as quoted by Haaretz, 6/24/11.]

If we say piracy by Israel is OK, then piracy will become standard behavior for all others who see an advantage in it. If we say that Israel can kill demonstrators who are in another country, then some adversary of the US will sooner or later follow that precedent.

International law starts with the willingness of the most powerful to follow rules even when those rules happen to be inconvenient.

Six U.S. Congressmen to Secretary of State Clinton
the measures used by Israel to protect its security "as in the case of any other nation, must conform to international humanitarian and human rights law" [Congress of the United States, 6/24/11.]

When Washington bows down to violence-prone right-wing elements in Israel, it makes the world a less civilized place, thus harming American security. This brings us back to the debate provoked last year by General Petraeus' questioning of the impact on US national security of its alliance with Israel. Support for the security of the Israeli people may well be consonant with US national interests; support for violence-prone Israeli politicians is not. When Washington equates support for the most outrageously violent policies of the Israeli right wing with showing American friendship for Israel, then Washington makes the US-Israeli alliance harmful to US national security.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Erdogan on Stage for the Palestine Play

With Washington decision-makers AWOL as the curtain rises, can Erdogan become the star of the Romance of Palestine?

Erdogan seems to be making U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood a Turkish foreign policy goal. He announced at a press conference on June 23:

Turkey is determined to support Palestine [in its bid] to become a member of the United Nations.

Erdogan has made clear he is referring to an independent and viable state, whose capital will be east Jerusalem.

To Tel Aviv, violence and diplomatic campaigns confirming that their minds remain firmly closed constitute the best thinking on how to deal with the problem. Israeli commentator Yoel Marcus warns:

It's crucial that Israel be removed from the discourse about Egypt's election battle. It's important for Israel to be in advanced negotiations for an agreement with the Palestinians at the time of the Egyptian elections, not in a state of stagnation.

Meanwhile, Washington, still in deep denial, is encouraging thuggish behavior on the part of Israel by threatening members of the latest Gaza freedom flotilla and fairly provoking Israel to commit piracy on the high seas. You see, these peace activists who dare to smuggle food and medicine to the people of Gaza are inciting the Israeli two-year-old to play with its matches, so one must punish them, since one surely cannot spank the two-year-old. In the words of Israeli commentator Natasha Mozgovaya:

The Obama administration is stepping up pressure on activists planning to challenge Israel's sea blockade of the Gaza Strip, warning that they will face action from Israeli authorities and that American participants may also be violating U.S. law.

Americans will of course be stunned when these chickens come home to roost.

Given such an attitude in Washington toward the flotilla members, it is pretty clear that the world cannot expect much constructive thinking to come from Washington on the real issue of Palestinian statehood. That, it would seem, clears the stage for Mr. Erdogan.

Differentiating Friends from Foes

To develop an effective Mideast policy, Washington and Americans generally must learn to distinguish between factions and individuals rather than labeling allies and adversaries by national or religious terms.
Like the Israeli and Saudi (and U.S. regimes), the Iranian regime is a coalition drawn from a wide range of political factions. Like the Israeli, Saudi, and U.S. political arenas, the Iranian political arena includes some folks who are nicer, nastier, more patriotic, less patriotic, more prejudiced, less prejudiced than others. A wise statesman tries to ascertain some appropriate distance from each political actor (not from the state as a whole; that would be a grossly short-sighted and irresponsibly self-defeating policy). At the moment, the "Dagan faction" in Israel, for example, is far closer to US national interests than the "Netanyahu faction."

Today, the US "distance" from the ruling clique in Tehran should probably be significantly less - sufficiently closer so that we can convince them that we are willing to accept Iran's natural role in regional affairs.This means recognizing Iran's right to inclusion in regional diplomacy and recognition that Iran has real and legitimate national security concerns that must be addressed in any international discussion of nuclear arms or freedom of the seas or any US discussion of where it would like to install overseas military bases.

Similarly, our "distance" from the current ruling elites in both Saudi Arabia and Israel should be greater. The Saudi ruling elite wants to use the US to push Iran away so the Saudis can lead global a radical, militant, sectarian, fundamentalist direction that harms US national security. The Israeli ruling elite wants to use the US to push Iran away so it can continue unopposed to colonize the West Bank, suppress Palestinians, and make the rules that its neighbors must follow, again policies that harm US national security.

But this is a discussion of the appropriate US attitude toward specific political factions. The issue of states or societies is quite different. It is quite reasonable for the US to aspire to support the security of the Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese, Saudi, or Iranian people as long as the support of A does not entail discrimination against B. Offering that support unconditionally or (offering hostility unconditionally) as a function of the faction or individual in control is simply unprofessional. It gives the initiative to the adversary. It empowers the adversary. It is a policy of weakness and blindness that teaches others that they are in control, and a professional policy-maker should not control to the leader of another country.

The issue of religion is also quite different. The Shi'i Shah was a close ally of Israel. The Shi'a of Bahrain engaged in a democratic protest. The Shi'a of Iraq are (depending on your perspective) either US allies or US proxies. The Shi'a of Lebanon actually welcomed the Israeli invasion in 1982...until the Israeli army started abusing them; then they rose up in revolt under the Hezbollah flag. The fact that someone is Shi'i or Sunni or Jewish is essentially irrelevant (but of course very useful as an excuse or cover for unrelated behavior).

One must of course start somewhere, but nationality and religion are not the places to start. Organizing friends and foes by religion or nationality is counterproductive. It confuses rather than clarifying.Instead, try  "level of deprivation." If you are deprived of food or security, you will be considering a militant stance. You deserve sympathy. If you are still militant when no longer deprived, then you deserve to be condemned. That is simple, just a starting place. But at least it is a logical, useful starting place.

Questions for Further Consideration:
  1. Can one differentiate among factions in the ruling coalition in terms relevant to U.S. national security?
  2. Can one differentiate among factions in the ruling elite in terms relevant to U.S. national security?
  3. Can one differentiate among the genres of political thinking by the thinking public in terms relevant to U.S. national security?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reforming U.S. Mideast Policy

Rethinking U.S. Mideast policy requires a divorce from Washington's mistresses in Riyadh and Tel Aviv. In both Saudi Arabia and Israel, not to mention the rest of the region, far better partners can be found.

The U.S. bases its Mideast policy on two pillars: the expansionist faction in Israel and the kleptocratic/fundamentalist faction in Saudi Arabia. Since Iran challenges the first by denying Israel’s right to regional military hegemony and the second by denying Saudi Arabia’s right to lead all the world’s Muslims, both so-called American allies are promoting U.S.-Iranian confrontation, the last problem the U.S. needs as it retreats from Iraq and Afghanistan in the midst of an historically nasty recession.

But even aside from the danger of being led by the nose to pick a fight with Iran, U.S. national interests conflict with the interests of the Saudi and Israeli ruling factions. The Saudi sheiks both promote Salafi extremism and sectarian conflict within Islam as well as stand in the path of long overdue Arab democratization, while the Israeli expansionists provoke widespread regional tension by refusing to live within Israel’s legally recognized borders.

Continued reliance on the advice of extremist factions in Saudi Arabia and Israel will lead to a future not unlike the dismal past:
  • endless threat of war with Iran, which only empowers the most extreme factions in that politically fractured and insecure country;
  • Muslim sectarian conflict like that seen in Lebanon and Algeria in the 1980s,  Afghanistan and Iraq and Palestine over the last decade;
  • thoughtless arming of regimes of questionable stability, who will then be tempted into militancy (e.g., Israel's attack on Lebanon in 2006, on Gaza in 2009; Saudi Arabia's intervention into Yemen in 2008, into Bahrain in 2011).
Those may be events that please certain U.S. empire-builders, but they are not in the interests of U.S. national security.

US-Saudi and US-Israeli cooperation are reasonable US foreign policy goals…but not with the political factions currently in charge. US long-term policy should be to minimize interactions with these factions whose policies are so damaging to US national interests and to encourage the rise to power of leaders with goals more in tune with US national interests.

Obama's rhetoric and even some of Washington's recent advice both suggest that Washington is, ever so gingerly, beginning to think politically incorrect thoughts about the traditional two-party worship of the dangerously short-sighted factions running Saudi Arabia and Israel. That is all to the good, but one might wonder how far conceptualization of a Mideast with different Saudi and Israeli rulers may have gone in the White House.  Indeed, has anyone in Washington thought through how beneficial for the U.S. more moderate and flexible leadership in those two states might be?

Actually, it turns out that some who once held policy-making power have had the courage to do so and the nation's conscience is stirring, but a fully thought out reform of U.S. Mideast policy remains a step for the future. In such a future, Israel would exist within its 1967 borders, while the new Palestinian state would be progressing economically and politically under the guidance and protection of some benign external entity, e.g., a Muslim coordinating body led by Turkey and perhaps Egypt. In such a future, the Saudi educational system would be under the control of a modernizing and democratizing government rather than fundamentalist religious leaders. In such a future, Washington would consult broadly and seriously with not just Israel and Saudi Arabia but also Turkey and Egypt and Iran, evaluating the perceptions, preferences, and rights of each before making major Mideast policy decisions. All that will be a long time coming, but the first step down the road to an effective and rational Mideast policy is imagining what it could be.

Turning Without Sliding Off the Road
Changing course on the political road is not easy; ice is everywhere. Jumping on the brakes or slamming the gas probably will not be a good idea. But that does not mean anything is impossible. Refusing to talk to other actors is surely the stupidest, most self-defeating possible policy: it just makes you the voluntary prisoner of your allies. Insisting on being in charge every minute is also pretty counter-productive. Sometimes another person can open doors where you would just stub your toe.

Everything in the Mideast is in flux. Everyone needs to be listened to. The Turks with their new centric policy of working with all sides and the incoming new faces in the Egyptian government are drop dead obvious interlocutors, but the principle extends both downward into the Muslim Brotherhood and outward to Iran. To meet with an adversary and say, "So, what do you make of this Arab Spring thing?" can only provide valuable information. The inexcusable sin would be to repeat the disastrous head-in-the-sand policy that left the U.S. out of the loop when the Shah was suddenly put on the defensive by an unknown expatriate mullah in Paris.

A few low-key power lunches in Washington, all expenses paid for participants, with, for example, Egyptian youth leaders, Hamas, a group of Iranian political science professors sent by their government, concerned Israeli academics would be worth their weight in gold for Washington types who don't get out (of official circles) much.
U.S. Overreliance on reactionary Saudi, right-wing Israeli pillars encourages both ruling elites to spurn compromise, risking sudden collapse as they become ever more out of touch with evolving reality -
  • encouraging Saudi reaction-->collapse of Saudi regime from internal contradictions
  • encouraging Israeli right-wing obstructionism-->collapse of Israel in civil war

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Saudi Threat to U.S. Interests in Syria

The danger to U.S. interests posed by the tight U.S. embrace of the Saudi sheiks is revealed by the case of a potential collapse of Syria.
U.S. national security is increasingly under threat by the failure of American policy-makers to keep pace with the evolution of the Mideast socio-political system. Irans rise as challenger to the U.S.-centric global system, Israels increasing intransigence, the short-sighted military response to al Quaidas cultural challenge, and the Arab Spring constitute major sources of this suddenly accelerating evolutionary process. The bottom line is that the strategic pillars of U.S. Mideast policy are eroding faster than U.S. policy-makers are constructing replacements. One of these eroding pillars stands in the myth that it is in the national security interest of the U.S. to maintain a fundamentalist Sunni kleptocracy in charge of Saudi Arabia.

The stunningly rapid collapse of the Shah, whose hoard of modern U.S. weapons proved useless in maintaining his dictatorship over an angry population, should have taught Washington that piling weapons designed for a world war against traditional Soviet-style forces into the lap of a pre-modern dictator just sets the U.S. up for future problems. A repressive kleptocracy that hands its educational system to violence-prone fundamentalists is a house of cards. Arming that house of cards both stimulates the weaknesses--the repression, the corruption, the cultivation of religious extremism, fanning the winds of change, and ensures that whatever replacement regime eventually arises will inherit awesome military power. Arming the house of cards is the first level on which U.S.-Saudi cooperation endangers U.S. interests.

The attitude that Saudi behavior is beyond criticism both abets and implicates the U.S. in the Saudi elite campaign not just to repress Shia but to promote a hard-line version of Sunni beliefs. One of the core pillars of Saudi foreign policy is the encouragement of a militant version of Islam that has already led directly to al Quaida and is provoking sectarian conflict in Bahrain by converting popular aspirations for democracy into repression of the majority not because it wants freedom but because it happens to be Shii. This policy only provokes Tehran sectarian hard-liners to take an even harder line and empowers them by demonstrating that they really are under attack. Provoking sectarian conflict in the Mideast is a great cover for Saudi kleptocracy (not to mention Israeli expansion), but it is not in the interests of a weakened U.S. that desperately needs a breathing space to escape from regional misadventures and get its own rotting house back in order. The second level of strategic clash of interests between Riyadh and Washington is Washingtons self-defeating acceptance of Saudi sectarianism.

The third level of strategic clash of interests between Riyadh and the U.S. is the counter-revolutionary policy of the Saudis, whose insistence on standing in the path of Arab socio-political history risks alienating the rising generation of leaders throughout the Arab world from a U.S. that claims to support democratization. From both Riyadhs vicious campaign against Bahraini democracy advocates [thanks to Augustus Norton for bring attention to the Saudi-Bahraini war against doctors] and the public terms of the deal it is advocating in Yemen, which would leave the structure of the Saleh dictatorship entirely intact, it seems clear that Riyadh is in fact utterly dedicated to preventing reform in Yemen, and that it wants stability only in the narrowest, most short-term (and short-sighted) sense of clamping the lid on as tight as possible. The socio-political fire, fed by Arab revolt, is roaring hot; fuel, delivered daily by Salehs murderous security goons, is plentiful. What happens to a pressure cooker with the heat on full, lots of fuel, and the lid screwed tight? Stability is not the word that comes to mind.

American pandering to the Saudi sheiks, as though no other Saudi regime would ever choose to sell its oil on the world market, thus imposes a high national security cost rather than constituting the presumed bargain. But this high-level critique is subject to critique as imprecise, theoretically plausible but not clearly grounded in specific real situations or possessing a specific time-frame. So let us take the case of Syria in its current crisis: is Riyadh a plus or a minus for U.S. efforts to resolve the current Syrian crisis?

The kleptocratic billionaire sheiks deal with their fundamentalist Sunni partners has three components that cause problems for the U.S. Allowing the fundamentalists to control Saudi education means that a steady stream of radicals are being produced, of which some portion will either fund those who choose violence or actually become violence-prone themselves. Second, the tendency of Riyadh to permit violence-prone radicals to operate freely outside Saudi Arabia in return for leaving the sheiks in control of domestic politics creates instability throughout the region. Third is the tendency of Riyadh to use the radicals as weapons in its drive for international influence throughout the Muslim world by encouraging sectarian conflict. Just as Saudi influence intensified violence in U.S.-occupied Iraq, helping to stimulate sectarian civil war on top of efforts to liberate Iraq from U.S. occupation, and as Saudi military intervention in Bahrain turned a modernizing and peaceful democratic protest into sectarian oppression of the majority Shii population, Saudi involvement in a collapsed Syria would promote both the rise of a new dictatorship to shut Syria off from the Arab Spring and the rise of sectarian conflict as extremist Salafi elements gained influence within the Sunni population. This in turn would be seen as a direct challenge in Tehran, thus risking a further intensification and militarization of the broadening Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional influence.

The spread of sectarian warfare or even Iranian-Saudi proxy war might seem attractive to those American politicians under the sway of Israeli expansionists looking to set their various Muslim adversaries at each others throats. Military-industrial complex types will also salivate over opportunities for profitable arms sales. Nevertheless, over the long run sectarian chaos in the Mideast is a great threat to U.S. national security. The wasted American blood and treasure during the years of chaos in Iraq and the years of terror during the Lebanese civil war & war of resistance against Israel (recall the 200 Marines killed in their barracks in Beirut) are enough evidence that the U.S. should work to avoid sectarianism and warfare in the Mideast.

Sectarian warfare is not the only possible outcome of Saudi influence in Syria. Another possibility is simply a Saudi victory, which would install an oppressive dictatorship enforcing fundamentalist Sunni rules on a relatively moderate, secular population. Riyadh would clearly be delighted to thus screw tight the lid on the Arab Spring pressure cooker, but it may be too late to turn down the heat, and the next explosion of political demands might be a lot more violent than the current one if Arabs are taught the lesson that peaceful protest only gets you killed.

No doubt room for cooperation with Saudi Arabia to put a collapsed Syria back on its feet would exist. Managed to support the emergence of a modernizing middle class rather than to develop a playground for the rich through corrupt land deals, Saudi development funds could be useful, for example. But in general the interests of the Saudi billionaires in Syria conflict profoundly with those of the U.S. Allowing Saudi Arabia to transform Syria into a bulwark to defend the current repressive regime in Saudi Arabia will set the Mideast up for disastrous future blowback that will cost the U.S. dearly.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Syria's 'Mideast Transformation Scenario'

Could the international community act with vision and pull off a Mideast Transformation Scenario that would end the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute, redirect Iran toward economic cooperation, and redirect Israel away from expansion and militarism?

With Syria convulsed, Iran is off-balance, watching its only state ally (Iraq, still occupied, is not quite a state and is in any case not quite an Iranian ally, either) destroy itself. For an Israel led by sincere peacemakers rather than Greater Israel expansionists, the Syrian implosion would constitute a rare opportunity to cut a legitimate deal with the Palestinians while Iranian influence is minimized. A Palestinian-Israeli settlement would pull the Levantine rug out from under Tehran, removing its free lunch in the struggle for regional influence. Note that the term settlement means just that: not a Palestinian Bantustan but a united, defensible, independent state with a sufficiently inclusive political system to tempt Hamas to work within the system. Israel would have no more right to attack this state than China has to attack the U.S.

Future Scenarios For Syria
  1. The Turkish Tolerance & Greater Israel Scenarios in Can Erdogan Save Syria?
  2. The Spanish Civil War Scenario in  How Dangerous Is Syria?

If Tel Aviv had such far-sightedness, it could perhaps pull off a coup that would leave Israel in better shape both locally and vis-à-vis Iran. Iran would find itself without talking points on the Arab street, and a careful calculus of its national interest would be likely to rate economic development relatively higher on the scale of national goals than fomenting anti-Israeli sentiment. That would in turn constitute an Iran that Washington, as reality punctures hubris, might well be able to live with.

The Mideast Transformation Scenario

Imagine a scenario in which regional actors work for stability. First, Tel Aviv accepts the principle of return to the 1967 borders, opening the door to serious Israeli-Palestinian talks. Given Israeli acceptance of the principles that Israeli and Palestinians each deserve states, that Israel should return to 1967 borders, that Palestinians have a theoretical right to return to their homeland in return for Palestinian acceptance of Israels right to exist, then talks can begin on borders and compensation for Palestinians agreed not to return or for Israelis being allowed to remain in the West Bank. Then, Turkish forces establish a potent humanitarian presence inside the Syrian border, providing not just food and local protection but sufficient weapons to enable dissidents to resist regime brutality but holds back on offensive military action (Libya-light) and keeps the door open to talks with all players. As in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, everyone recalculates their self-interest, and some regime supporters join the dissidents. Iran tries to figure out how to resist Turkeys initiative, but Iran has good relations with Turkey, while Turkey has power on the ground Iran probably has no hopes of matching, and the Levant is in any case looking less and less attractive for national liberation movements since Palestine is suddenly moving toward liberation even without Iranian participation. As Tehran ponders its limited options, a neutral Syrian regime offers Turkish-style friendship to everyone. Israel congratulates the new regime, returns the Golan, and decides that a neutral but independent Syria is a big step forward. Meanwhile, seeing itself with reduced access to military support even as it is consolidating control of the Beirut regime, Hezbollah suddenly receives an Israeli offer of a return of the Sheeba Farms. Resistance is simultaneously more costly, less attractive, and rather an irritant to its new domestic strategy. One more Iranian corridor to the Levant bites the dust. Now comes the time for Washingtons move, touting a new regional nuclear security regime based on the principle of nuclear transparency for all and supporting Iranian economic integration with the region and beyond. Iran simultaneous sees its traditional anti-American and anti-Israeli stance as more difficult, less justifiable, and rather an irritant to its new international economic and security options. Tehran might well see the attractiveness of restructuring its foreign policy to replace risky nuclear braggadocio and leadership of the anti-Israeli front with the two secure pillars of building a political alliance with Shii Iraq and building a hydrocarbon alliance with moderate Muslim Turkey.

Probably no one would consider this scenario likely, but the best way to ensure it will never happen is to fail to imagine it. Anyone can point out endless potential obstacles to the moderate, good-neighbor outcome of the Mideast Transformation Scenario. Al Quaida would do its best to upset the apple cart, Alawite-Sunni discord could provoke sectarian warfare reminiscent of post-invasion Iraq, the IRGC might well go off the reservation and try to provoke a collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks to shore up its domestic political influence, and a real threat of Israeli terrorism from radical settlers unwilling to return West Bank land stolen from Palestians would exist. Nevertheless, an Israeli decision to negotiate sincerely with Palestine, a rapid Turkish initiative vis-à-vis Syria, and the willingness of Washington to offer Iran a good deal might just transform the Mideast and turn Israel back into a society that shares American values.
Subsequent Events -

June 22 - Syrian troops mass on border with Turkey
After provoking a refugee flow into Turkey and evidently doing nothing to make amends to its erstwhile ally, Syria has now thrown sand in Erdogan's eye by threatening refugees, provoking more, and implicitly warning Turkey that Syria is ready to fight a war. Since Syria was Turkey's main practical example of its new moderate foreign policy, that policy now seems to be in tatters. Ankara will not be pleased.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

How Dangerous Is Syria?

As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, as the Syrian regime appears to be steadily losing the ability to govern in a rational manner, and as the pressure on Turkey to intervene continues to rise, consideration of the implications of a true disaster scenario becomes increasingly important.

Full-scale civil war in Syria seems unlikely on the surface simply because the protesters have no arms, but an endless stream of refugees will eventually prompt Turkey to do something, and whatever Turkey does will raise the likelihood of significant arms flowing into the arms of dissidents, increasing willingness of dissidents to fight back with force, and Syrian regime resistance with force. Once civil war occurs with Turkish forces inside Syria, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia will start recalculating their options with increasing urgency.

From this point to a Spanish Civil War scenario, in which the powers exploit chaos in Syria to fight their broader fights, could be a short step. So the question becomes:

How likely is the Spanish Civil War Scenario in Syria, and what are the key decision points impacting the likelihood of such a scenario?

Turkey may well be able to intervene without greatly alarming any other actor. If either Iran or Israel were to insert significant military force, in contrast, that would immediately alarm the other, for good reason. The strategic difference between Syria as an Iranian ally and Syria as an Israel ally is substantial. How desperate to shore up their access to regional influence might Iran become?
How desperate to end Iranian influence over Syria might Israel become?

Calculating national interest concerning Syria is not simple. One could argue that, as status quo powers, the U.S., Israel, and Turkey would all benefit from a joint operation to eliminate the Assad regime. But if this operation left Israel effectively doing to Syria what it did in the 1980's to Lebanon, that would have an enormously destabilizing impact, greatly facilitating an Israeli attack on Iran and thus probably provoking risky Iranian countermeasures. Such destabilization is unlikely to be viewed with equanimity in Ankara. The case has already been made that the U.S. and Israel are trying to overthrow Assad. Whether or not literally true today, the temptation to pursue this old dream is clear...and rising. Will Ankara see this line of reasoning as evidence for a rapid unilateral intervention?

While even senior Israeli officials are sufficiently concerned about a miscalculation in Tel Aviv to express their fears publicly, it seems somewhat alarmist to anticipate Israeli aggression against Iran the minute they get the ability to base planes in Syria. In fact, any major military initiative designed to transform Syria into a proxy state by any outside player seems alarmist at the moment. The more likely route to a Spanish Civil War Scenario for Syria is a long series of short, seemingly harmless little steps in a complex dance in which no outside player actually wants to invade but in which each player feels compelled to match all the others. Politics being politics, the end result will no doubt be that most of the steps will more than match the opponent, like a group of waltzing couples on a slanted dance floor, each of whom is simply trying to keep up with some other couple perceived to be dancing faster; the faster they dance, the harder it is to stay in place, so imperceptibly the whole group moves closer and closer to the edge.

Given Israel's proclivity for overreaction, any step by Iran in the direction of stimulating a Syrian Hezbollah in the context of a collapsing Assad regime would make it very difficult for Tel Aviv to resist military intervention. A second way disaster could occur would be the rise of a serious Saudi-financed Salafi move to transform Syria into the center of Sunni activism in the region. This would strengthen Saudi claims to Muslim world leadership, constitute a direct defeat of Iran, and serve the Saudi campaign to pull Iraq away from Iran, while pushing the ambitious Turks back to the regional periphery. Once again, Israel would no doubt view this with alarm, though how it would balance off a check on Iran vs. an improvement in jihadi prospects is unclear since jihadis have not focused on targetting Israel. In any case, it is not hard to imagine a Spanish Civil War scenario leading quickly to a Greater Israel Scenario.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Posing Existential Threats

The evidence only weakly supports the contention that Iran has aggressive intent, while strongly supporting the contention that Iran wants to be, and be treated as, a regional power. Posing an existential threat to Iran could make it learn some very unfortunate and unnecesary lessons about the type of foreign policy behavior that will pay off.

In certain circles, it has become fashionable to toss around the accusation that an adversary is posing an existential threat. Primitive, distant, non-nuclear Iran is treated by some American politicians as though it poses an existential threat to the U.S., and Israels official policy under Netanyahu, who may (perhaps like Ahmadinejad) believe that sounding like a lunatic is the most risk-averse approach possible, seems to be that Iran is an existential threat to it. Protestations that Iran has done nothing to suggest that it would sacrifice itself to thermonuclear obliteration by an Israel that appears all too eager to oblige in order to drop one primitive nuke (whenever it may figure out how to make one, if it is even trying) are pushed aside as though they were details too trivial to deserve serious consideration.

Ironically, these circles who like so much the word existential never stop to ask about the existential threat that Israel poses to Iran. With the weapons, the means of delivery, the superpower protection, the loudly proclaimed political will, and the historical record of aggression [against Egypt (Suez), Lebanon (1982-2001, 2006), Iraq (Osirak), and Syria], Israel poses a threat to Iran sufficiently serious so that it must be considered a key factor influencing Iranian foreign policy calculus and behavior.

Whatever the true motivations of Irans various leaders may have been, Iranian behavior (provision of low power military arms, financial aid, and apparent terrorist attacks on Israeli targets supplemented by endless free rhetoric) certainly suggests hostility but hardly supports the hypothesis that Iran is preparing to attack Israel. Quite the contrary. Irans minor (in a strategic sense) irritation of Israel combined with trumpeting of its hostility alerts (in fact, grossly over-sensitizes) Israel without posing any serious strategic threat. By alerting Israel and giving Israel a huge free card to play in Congress, it facilitates the rapid growth in the military power of the Israeli garrison state. Iran is responsible for enormously increasing the Israeli military dominance over the Mideast and Israels huge military superiority over Iran. This is the game of someone with a very different goal.

What goal might require loud-mouthed hostility not backed up by any serious strategic preparations for war? The answer is obvious. Iran surely dislikes Israels regional shadow and even more surely dislikes its own marginalization. Under the Shah, Iran heedlessly pursued an arms build-up that had no obvious military purpose whatsoever but had a very clear political purpose: to make Iran a regional power. Erected on a socio-political house of cards, the Shahs high-tech toys availed him nothing when everyone decided they had had enough of his dictatorship.

Under Khomenei, Iran launched a campaign to lead the worlds Shia that sputtered and died like a match in a downpour except in Lebanon, where Israels 1982 invasion provoked a nationalist liberation movement that gave Iran an opening to gain influence. Irans attention was soon fixated on Saddam Hussein, whose existential threat provoked a decade-long Iranian effort to survive and then to punish Saddam (no doubt with dreams of reviving its failed Shia crusade). As with the Shah, Khomeneis goal, except when pushed into an existential corner, was to make Iran a regional power.

Today, Irans noisy interference in the affairs of the whole Mideast region combined with the absence of most of the serious military development moves (the main exception being its offensive missile program) is strong corroborative evidence that once more, Irans goal is to transform itself into a regional power. It calmly cooperated with the U.S. to get rid of its Taliban enemy after 9/11. It calmly stood aside and watched the U.S. invade Iraq to get rid of its Iraqi enemy in 2003. It let its Hezbollah ally do all the fighting to stop the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, fighting Hezbollah did with relatively low-power Iranian weapons, vastly inferior to the arms provided to Israel by the U.S.

Nothing Iran has been doing disproves the hypothesis that Iran harbors aggressive intent. It would be hard to identify any country that does things that disprove aggressive intent. Countries normally strengthen themselves. But countries that do not harbor aggressive intent normally do not go out of their way to make themselves look aggressive.

Touting the ability to refine uranium to medical grade constitutes enough bragging to scare Israelis into highly threatening action without actually doing much of military significance. It does have other purposes, however. First, it helps the Iranian regime look good domestically. Second, it gives the impression that Iran is an up-and-coming country that needs to be taken seriously.

In this context, Irans policy toward the Levant looks all too familiar: lots of smoke but just enough fire to be minimally persuasive without costing too much. Israels addiction to beating up Lebanon combined with its utter refusal to negotiate a reasonable, balanced accommodation with Palestinians has awarded Iran a free pass to the Mediterranean, and that free pass is essential if Iran is to be taken seriously as a Mideast power.

Maybe Iran has a hundred-year plan to conquer the Mideast, but by the sharp test of Occams Razor, a much simpler and more persuasive explanation is that Iran wants to stride the regional stage. Iran can do this by playing the neighborhood bad boy, and today it is being taught the very clear lesson that this is its only way forward. However, Iran could also be encouraged to join the crowd by being accepted and offered inducements for playing nice. This, of course, is Ankaras strategy, and the very attractive prize Ankara is offering is Iranian access to the European hydrocarbon market. The route Iran ends up taking will have significant impact on the goals that Iran ultimately strives to reach.
Further Considerations
How many Iranian policies?
Does Tehran (i.e., the regime) have a consensus main foreign policy goal? To what degree to Khamenei, the IRGC, Ahmadinejad, the national security elite have contradictory goals or differing priorities? What evidence would, if it were found, distinguish the goal of destroying Israel from the goal of inclusion as a member of the Mideast Club?

Key factors:
Who benefits? To what degree might integration into the global hydrocarbon trade stimulate an economic bureaucracy in Iran sufficiently powerful to make Iranian foreign policy less risk-taking? To what extent might a U.S. offer of security for Iran undermine its desire to challenge U.S. leadership?

Is Israel the object at all or just a proxy for becoming the leader of a new world order not centered on the U.S.?
What impact would a post-Imperial U.S. foreign policy in general and/or a new U.S. policy, for the first time since the fall of the Shah, of genuine, balanced accommodation with Iran have on Iran's long-term goals? What evidence would distinguish between a rise in Iranian hubris and determination to overthrow the U.S. on the one hand and an Iranian turn toward cooperation?

Would an Israeli-Palestinian settlement end the Iranian-Israeli hostility?
One can easily hypothesize that an Israeli return to its 1967 borders and the emergence of a secure and independent Palestinian state would pull the Levantine rug out from under Iran and end Iran's apparent obsession with Israel. But what would it take to end Israel's obsession with Iran? Would a post-settlement Iran turn to economic cooperation with Turkey? Will Iran continue to tout its nuclear prowess as part of its competition with Saudi Arabia? Would a post-settlement Israel give up regional hegemonic aspirations and focus on restoring the health of its democracy or would an influx of bitter settlers from the West Bank radicalize Israel even more?

Key factors:
  • whether Egypt slips deeper into military dictatorship or manages to build a popular government;
  • the relative influence of Turkey and Israel in post-revolt Syria;
  • whether the Israeli government whips up settler resentment or promotes their smooth reintegration into Israel;
  • whether or not Arab Spring revolts bring Iran head-to-head with Saudi Arabia

Would the U.S., after an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, become freed from its obsession with Israel?
An Israeli-Palestinian settlement would facilitate a U.S.-Iranian detente, which would have multiple benefits for both sides. Would the U.S. seize this opportunity? Would Iran? Would the U.S. then restructure its overall posture toward the Mideast away from the Israeli/Saudi pillars toward a more balanced and flexible interaction with Turkey, Egypt...and Iran?

Key factors:
  • Whether or not Syria collapses and becomes the battleground for outside forces;
  • Ability of Israel to adapt to Smaller Israel status;
  • Ability of Palestinians to develop effective governance, in turn greatly dependent on willingness of world to support and protect them

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Can Erdogan Save Syria?

As Syria collapses, the likelihood of intervention rises. The nature of that intervention is key to the future of the Mideast.

As Syria morphs into Libya, two very different scenarios are beginning to appear on the distant horizon, with profoundly distinct implications for Mideast stability. One scenariothe Israeli Expansion Scenario--is that of a U.S.-Israeli intervention in the name of humanity that would invade, eliminate the barbaric Assad regime, and effectively colonize Syria in the interests of Israel. The otherthe Turkish Tolerance Scenario--is a Turkish initiative, also to eliminate the barbaric Assad regime in the name of humanity, conceivably diplomatic but more likely also a military invasion, that would oversee the creation of a moderate Syrian popular regime.

The Israeli Expansion Scenario would antagonize the whole region, threaten to stop the Arab Spring in its tracks, infuriate hardliners in Tehran, embolden hard-liners in Tel Aviv, excite hardliners in Riyadh.  The Turkish Tolerance Scenario would offer Syrians neutral ground for working out a national consensus, catch both Iran and Israel off-guard but simultaneously mitigate the fears and ambitions of each, slam the door in the face of Salafi jihadists looking for their next opportunity, and turbo-charge the Arab Spring with a breathtaking victory for moderate, democratizing modernization with a Muslim flavor.

Israeli Tanks [Amir Farshad Ebrahimi]
Almost no one would like an effective Israeli takeover of Syria under a 1970s Lebanon-style proxy regime. A frontal invasion by the IDF is perhaps the least likely way such a scenario would develop, but a more subtle Israeli role would cause nearly as much damage as long as Israel were perceived regionally as expanding its area of influence at Syrian expense. Iranians would rightly fear the construction of offensive Israeli air bases near Iranian territory, committing the normally cautious Iranian national security elite to emergency countermeasures. Muslim hardliners from the IRGC to al Quaida would have a field day with easily justified campaigns against Zionism that would exponentially magnify their regional popularity. Israeli hardliners would see the takeover of Syria as a brilliant coup giving them a fast-closing window to take out Iran as a regional competitor. Even if no country actually decided to start a war, the rising tensions and rapid pace of developments would dramatically raise the danger of war through miscalculation or a third-party provocation.
Turkish P.M. Erdogan [Copyright by World Economic Forum by Andy Mettler]
The impact of a solution to the Syrian mess dominated by Ankara would be far less dangerous to regional stability. Regardless of who liked or did not like a moderate Turkish leadership role in forming a new Syria, such an arrangement would be sufficiently non-threatening and offer sufficient potential benefits to make everyone else take a deep breath before using violence to oppose it. Washington could calculate that a democratic Syria under Turkish guidance would no longer be a regional irritant. Tehran could calculate that its expanding economic ties with Turkey are, in the end, worth far more than its alliance with a discredited Assad. Even if it did not, what could Tehran do once Turkish ground forces were inside Syria? Tel Aviv would lose a military opponent, potentially gain a neutral Syrian state, and might think it could talk Ankara into forgetting about the Golan Heights. Riyadh could figure that it could always work with Sunni Turkey and slowly gain influence in Syria through its financial clout. And Erdogan, now solidly in control with his impressive 2:1 electoral victory over his nearest competitor and justified by the growing urgency of addressing the Syrian refugee flood, might just be able to pull this off. At the end of the day, Turkey has a unique regional combination of low fear-factor and high power.

But Erdogans moment to act is now. The world will not be able to ignore the unfolding horror in Syria forever. Sooner or later, if it continues to worsen, Washington will intervene militarily. If that happens, we will see Iraq all over again, but with Israel even more deeply involved and, this time, Iran and Saudi Arabia both spring-loaded to protect their perceived interests. Lacking popular support, the time that was available to Bush for his anti-Iraq war preparations, the strong economy inherited from Clinton, and military force (given current commitments in Afghanistan), Obama will intervene with insufficient power, opening the door to both Israeli and Saudi influence. Each of the latter will move to radicalize the situation for their own short-term interests. Syrian popular interests will be ignored, and extremists will have their day, once more. Iraq 2005 and Lebanon late-1980s come to mind. Every regional action hero will move to Syria for every imaginable purpose except helping Syrians.

The danger of the Israeli Expansion Scenario lies in the number of conflicting and interacting military and sectarian dynamics it would provoke. This set of dynamics will contain more exponential shifts of influence, more tipping points, more tricky delayed reactions, more oscillations derived from negative feedback loops than anyone will be able to understand in time to react. It will be plagued by fixes that fail including expensive examples of the subset, Shooting Yourself in the Foot, e.g., applying military force to prevent terrorism and thus provoking terrorism; shifting the burden, e.g., forgetting social collapse while fighting political enemies; and the needless creation of accidental adversaries, thereby spoiling some beautiful relationships. The overwhelming complexity of the situation will stimulate a degree of self-organization that may give rise to the emergence of some unsettling new political phenomena.  Recent examples of self-organization include Aum Shinrikyu, al Quaida, the Iraqi insurgency against U.S. occupation, illegal Israeli settler terrorism, and Tahrir Square. Attempts by the status quo forces artificially to constrain disconcerting but stabilizing change will pave the road to more black swans (see Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth, The Black Swan of Cairo, Foreign Affairs May-June 2011: 90:3, 33-39), further stunning and roiling the world. All involved actors, guilty of the action bias (Taleb, 39) that so plagues U.S. foreign policy-making, will end up making incomprehensible circumstances worse by following the honored dictum, when in doubt, just do something. Syria is moving toward chaos, but that in no way proves that more energy (money, weapons, feverishly busy actors) inserted into the system will not just push it faster in the same direction.

Moreover, as former Israeli officials themselves have warned, Israel today may either be plotting war against Iran or stumbling into it. Both dangers will only be increased by an Israeli Lebanonization of Syria.

Syria is weak but strategically located. As a stable, rationally governed state, Syria acts as a buffer, keeping the regional tigersIran, Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabiafrom scratching each others eyes out. But as a failed state, Syria is transformed from buffer into battleground. To get at each other, Israel and Iran must cross Syria. Weak Lebanon in its turn becomes further exposed to outside influences if no strong state presence is guarding its Syrian border. Syria as a power vacuum is a threat to the region that will demand action.

These are just scenarios; neither is a prediction, nor are they by any means mutually exclusive or logically exhaustive. The two could even combine into one marvelous dream world of Turkish leadership putting a Muslim face on an international effort backed quietly by American power. But that too requires quick initiative by an Erdogan whose  time may just have come. In a word, the region now needs Erdogan to put his money where his mouth is.
My thanks to Media With Conscience for first publishing this article.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Creating Common Interests With Iran

Conducting rational (thoughtful, calculating) foreign policy toward Iran would open doors to a fundamentally new Mideast, a prospect extremists everywhere view with alarm.
The U.S. mainstream media is a very easy target to criticize, and from Solzhenitsyn at Harvard to my posts, a deluge of criticism has been aimed at it for its superficiality and pro-Washington, pro-Zionist bias. But credit where credit is due: today the New York Times got it right on an issue of fundamental significance to everyone: Iranian nukes. This, you need to read if you care about peace on earth and milk without radioactivity:

New York Times

The Opinion Pages

Iran Without Nukes

Published: June 13, 2011
Cohen makes too many good points to summarize, but for those with only a casual interest in thermonuclear war or U.S. national security, Cohens terse history of Israels propaganda campaign to push the U.S. into disaster should be glanced at:

one might recall a forecast of a bomb by 1999 (Shimon Peres) or 2004 (Ehud Barak), or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus talk of a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs, or my friend Jeffrey Goldbergs allusion in The Atlantic last year to a consensus that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July. That would be next month.

The U.S. has paid a high price for allowing itself to be distracted from the business of taking care of its national interest by the self-serving rhetoric of Israeli right-wing expansionists. As Cohen says, in his bottom line:

The nuclear bogeyman obsession has been a distraction from the need to try to tease out a relationship with Tehran, see Iran as it is. Only the most flimsy efforts have been made, insufficient to test the waters.

Teasing out a relationship is a nice phrase for figuring out where U.S. and Iranian national interests and regime goals happen to overlap. Many areas exist, amid all the obvious disagreements, and the areas of agreement are of course amenable to expansion by skilled execution of rational foreign policy. Indeed, it is areas where common interests could be created that offer the real payoff. A few examples include:

  • joint action to combat illegal narcotics, which flow from Central Asia and imperil Iranian society as much as Western ones;
  • working out an arrangement on Iraq, where the U.S. star is fading, rather than just leaving it to a looming Iranian-Saudi knock-down, drag-out battle that will inflame extremists on both sides and leave only al Quaida a winner;
  • promoting a stabilizing regional hydrocarbon concord with U.S. participation, since it will emerge through Iranian-Turkish cooperation in any case;
  • finally clarifying U.S. willingness to see a peaceful Iran take its logical place as a regional power paid by the two-sided coin that offers to judge Iran by the same standards others are judged and in return grants Iran the same degree of national security.
 The amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19).
(U.S. Navy photo, by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class
Jason R. Zalasky/Released) 100226-N-1082Z-016
The last point is key. Imagine a Mideast in which U.S. military power were employed to guarantee the inviolability of all borders, in which the U.S. 5th Fleet was empowered to destroy any air force offensive action over the Persian Gulf, in which any regional state that did not conform to U.N./IAEA requirements on nuclear transparency was punished, in which all regional states were consulted about the status of U.S. military bases in the region, in which no regional state was allowed to occupy territory outside its legally recognized borders,  in which no regional state was allowed to sail nuclear-capable submarines along the coastlines of other states.

That would really take the wind out of the sails of extremists everywhere. No wonder those extremists are desperate to inflame tensions.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

More Israeli Warnings About Netanhayu's Incompetence

Israeli military-intelligence officials are lining up to make public warnings against the Risk-Seeking Faction of Netanyahu that appears to want both a war with Iran and the destruction of the Palestinians. Only Obama has the power to stop the war.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Reality-Based Policy-Making: The Case of Israeli Hardliners

The U.S. position in the world is declining with shocking rapidity, this dangerously destabilizing decline only poorly concealed by the roar of American jet fighters crossing global skies. The decline is self-induced and will be stopped only by reforming U.S. foreign policy decision-making so as to re-establish it on a foundation of reality, rather than wishful thinking, prejudices, and unfounded assumptions. Even as I was writing a theoretical introduction to this "reality-based policy-making," the Israeli ruling elite was offering a textbook example.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Israeli Hawks Debate Utility of A Second Hiroshima

Israeli hawks fighting to preserve Israeli security are in open warfare against the militant political core of the War Party. Those who want to avoid a second Hiroshima should take advantage of this opportunity to work with the most rational individuals among the hawks to prevent the disaster toward which short-sighted War Party politicians are headed.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Is Israel Plotting...or Stumbling toward...Mideast War?

The Arab Spring is heating up, Egypt is gingerly opening the Rafah Gate, Syria is in crisis, the Palestinians are gearing up for a fall U.N. victory. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv, in deep denial, is murdering civilian demonstrators in neighboring countries for approaching its borders, refusing to negotiate sincerely even with its West Bank clients, and searching for a way to continue its campaign of expansion and ethnic cleansing. Are the extremist leaders of Israel crazy enough to launch a regional war, using the specter of an eventual Iranian nuclear bomb as the excuse? Perhaps irrational, perhaps just coldly calculating their own personal, short-term interest.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reality-Based Policy-making

How should the U.S. differentiate among the wide array of Mideast states? With whom is alliance warranted? Should any state be contained or marginalized? Is there any regime that should never be talked to or should be changed?

Regimes are coalitions of factions and individuals working together for an ever-changing combination of personal and ideological reasons. Even if a regime, a faction, or a politician is determined to be completely uncooperative, he may change his mind in five minutes. At the peak of state power, something unexpected that may change your attitude is always happening. If human society is a complex-adaptive system in which the components are all constantly adjusting in reaction to each other, so is a political faction, and so is the regime that is constituted from the lucky political factions that are part of the winning coalition.

Biasesideological, cultural, personalmay give one regime a long-term tendency that distinguishes it from another, and each state operates under a unique set of constraints. Nevertheless, nothing is fixed in concrete.

A good leader will be surveying the political landscape for opportunities and dangers as steadily as a leopard surveys the savannah for antelopes and hyena packs. The way forward always zigzags, and there is always the risk that one has zigged so much one cannot zag back. The hikers dilemma of crossing to the wrong side of a small stream to head uphill on the side that has fewer obstacles without knowing when the gorge may deepen and prevent his return provides only a weak analogy: in politics, when one player feints to the side, the others all react and may do so on longer time scales or with a time delay or with an over-reaction. They may box themselves in via public statements or the signing of agreements or the alienation of a potential ally so that they cannot go back even if they realize they should. They may talk themselves into believing their error was the correct move.

Therefore, a skilled leader makes no assumptions about the nature of the adversaries but instead constantly searches for opportunities to pursue and dangers to avoid in every direction. By that standard, few if any skilled state leaders exist. The excuse, and it is a valid excuse up to a point, is that life is too complicated: there simply is no time to reevaluate every other actor. So one assumes that allies are friends, that foreign leaders one has pleasant lunches with can be trusted, that public insults from an adversary demonstrate hostile intent, that everyone can see our own arms are only for defense, thatindeedthere is a difference between allies and adversaries and that the difference is enduring. A leopard with such a naïve attitude will have his lunch stolen by hyenas every time.

So how is the earnest leader supposed to make sense of a Mideast political environment that is not only changing but actually changing so fast that even the blindest can see the shifts occurring before his eyes? Somehow, an earnest leader must step back from labels (good, evil, friend, foe, sharing our values, hating our way of life), free his mind from the biases those labels impose, and apply some set of independent standards. He must constantly evaluate behavior in terms of that set of standards, modifying his own tactics accordingly. Perhaps intelligence submitted to leaders should delete all identifying labels, so the leader would read only: Country X sent nuclear-capable submarines to the littoral of Country Y; Defense Minister A walked out of the ruling coalition in protest and joined the opposition faction that is campaigning for compromise with the adversary. Without standards, we cannot overcome cognitive biases. Without overcoming cognitive biases, we cannot see reality; without seeing reality, we cannot protect ourselves. If achieving this goal is impossible, moving toward it, given the enormity of cognitive bias in the mind of every human, is easy: cognitive bias is a very big target.

To make sense of the Mideast, then, requires seeing it as it really is. Clear vision requires removing the blinders of cognitive bias. Whenever you assume anything, you put the blinders back on. Minimize assumptions; maximize questioning.
  • Are those military maneuvers just for training?
  • Does that insulting speech by the leader of State X indicate hostile intentor fearor his need to buttress domestic political support? Was it correctly translated? Was it designed to shock you into viewing him with respect and negotiating sincerely?
  • When has a traditional ally evolved to the point that the alliance transforms into a trap?
  • If a relationship is both alliance and trap, how do you know the ratio between the two?

Yemen has just evolved from a Saddam-style dictatorship that exploited the fear of al Quaida to get weapons from the U.S. into a highly unstable bimodal coalition between a weakened regime still in power without the old leader and a bizarre coalition of traditional tribal forces plus modernist activists. Is the new Yemen a better or worse potential ally?

Iran is constantly threatened both verbally and via the maneuvers of hostile military forces with attack for pursuing nuclear technology but responds by trumpeting its incredibly slow progress toward acquiring the ability to build even one undeliverable bomb. Like fusion power, the Iranian nuclear bomb is always just over the horizon. If Iran has hostile intent, why does it make itself a bigger target by making its nuclear progress sound greater than it is?

The regime in Israel remains under Netanyahu, leader of those calling Iran an existential threat, but has lost its three top intelligence officers Dagan, Diskin, and Yadlin, who have jointly advocated caution. Does this massive personnel change at the top suffice to make Israel more liability than ally, a country whose propensity to violence may now constitute a clear threat to U.S. national security?

Saudi Arabia has committed itself to resist the Arab Spring, using military force against Bahraini democracy advocates, employing its wealth to slow the pace of change in Egypt, and trying to maintain Saleh in office. At what point might Saudi Arabias domestic cooperation with Salafi fundamentalists, its kleptocratic approach to governance, and its regional backing for hated dictatorships constitute more of a danger to U.S. national security than its willingness to sell oil? Could it conceivably afford to stop selling its oil?

Egypt has responded to popular protests by eliminating a dictator, establishing a transitional military dictatorship, and setting a date for a democratic election. Turkey is making its mark on regional affairs by establishing itself as leader of moderates willing to work with everyone. At what point might the new Egypt and the new Turkey constitute better pillars for U.S. Mideast policy than the two traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel?

The answers to these questions are unclear, but the U.S. is not even remotely prepared to get the answers. No set of standards is being used to measure the behavior of Mideast actors and identify actors whose behavior enhances U.S. national security so they can be encouraged or those whose behavior is harmful, so they can be enticed to modify that behavior.

A simple set of standards for behavior advantageous to the U.S. might include behavior conducive to a stable oil price, avoidance of sectarian conflict, growth of democratic liberties, maintenance of long-term political stability, and economic development. Define your own standards, but once you have them, apply them fairly. Cheating only blinds you to reality.

Does collective punishment of a colonized ethnic group minimize sectarian conflict? Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia can all be accused of this, with the caveat that Turkey is trying to change. Does the use of military force against domestic political opponents enhance democratic liberties, economic development, or political stability? Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt stand out as rare regional examples of states today trying to avoid such behavior.

One could take the further step of enumerating actions deemed helpful or prejudicial to the calm, moderate development of the Mideast. Helpful steps might include efforts to combat the drug trade (Iran would score a plus here), promotion of common standards for nuclear behavior (Turkey would score a plus), army refusal to fire on demonstrators (Egypt would score a plus, and Israel a huge minus). Prejudicial steps might include baiting other countries by threatening them with the deployment of major weapons systems along their borders (Israel would score a minus here), stationing troops outside ones legal borders (Israel and Saudi Arabia would score minuses), engaging in rhetorical warfare (Israel and Iran would score big minuses), using security forces to kill peaceful demonstrators (minuses to every country except, perhaps, Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia), using military force across international borders without the permission of the states affected (unique in the region, Israel would score a minus).

Just as a coach takes cold players out of the action and focuses on using hot players, on the basis of the above analysis, policy-makers could adjust relations with other countries, cooperating more with those that engage in better behavior. The benefits of such an approach would be numerous:
  • the ability of allies to take the U.S. "captive" and manipulate it would be minimized;
  • all would see the cost of defying and the benefit of cooperating with the U.S.;
  • the existence of common standards instead of preferential treatment would make it easier for others to cooperate, minimizing hostility from adversaries who feel themselves to be the victims of discriminatory U.S. behavior.

If any such set of standards is in use in Washington, its existence is a carefully guarded secret. On any given day, in Washington, it is more than likely that no one of policy-making significance is even asking such questions. Blinders are in place; assumptions are unquestioned. Reality is carefully concealednot from you and me, but from the decision-makers themselves.